History of the Hollywood Part 4: Classic Movies on Johnson Street?

Juxtaposed 1935 and 1994 photographs of the Hollywood Theater's auditorium. Source: Northeaster, May 18, 1994.

Juxtaposed 1935 and 1994 photographs of the Hollywood Theater's auditorium. Source: Northeaster, May 18, 1994.

Preservation Design Works has recently been working with a prospective developer interested in the Hollywood Theater*, located at 2815 Johnson St. NE in Minneapolis. Several attempts to redevelop the building have been made in the past 25 years; thus far all have been unsuccessful. To help learn where things have gone wrong in the past, and to avoid problems encountered by previous redevelopment efforts, I have been researching the history of the theater and of the redevelopment efforts. This post is the fourth of a multi-part series about the history of the Hollywood Theater and efforts to re-open its doors. My first post in this series covered the history of the theater from its grand opening to the closing of its doors in 1987. My second post covered an effort to convert the theater into fourteen apartment units, which drummed up strong opposition and ultimately fell through after the exterior and interior of the building were designated as historic. My third post outlined redevelopment efforts following the historic designation, up to the acquisition of the building by the City of Minneapolis in 1993. In my previous post, I turned my attention away from the Hollywood Theater to shine a light on Liebenberg and Kaplan, the architectural firm that designed the Hollywood. This post outlines the rise and fall of a group’s proposal to rehabilitate the building for reuse as a movie theater.

In August 1993, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA, which later became the department of Community Planning and Economic Development, or CPED), directed the City of Minneapolis to purchase the Hollywood Theater and the site of a former gas station across the street from the theater. In 1994, the MCDA issued a request for proposals (RFP) for redevelopment of the Hollywood. Two responses were received, one from a group named “Hollywood Theatre Preservation,” and the other from an individual named Jim Unden, who withdrew his offer soon after submitting it.

Hollywood Theatre Preservation (HTP), “a group of concerned citizens committed to the purchase of the building and its restoration to an operational movie theater in its original elegance,” had begun fundraising efforts before the acquisition of the theater by the City. The group held a fundraiser in February 1993, where rare tap dance films from the early 20th century were screened at the nearby Northeast Middle School auditorium. With endorsement from the Audubon Neighborhood Association, the MCDA granted HTP exclusive development rights in September 1994. Although the group faced an uphill battle with fundraising, many had high hopes for them. Jane Lerdall, MCDA project coordinator noted “When the Audubon Task Force made its recommendation, they felt strongly that the Hollywood Theatre Preservation people were making a sincere effort, even though they didn’t have money. They said the group had the chutzpah to put it together.” The group had applied for 501(c)(3) non-profit designation, and had a long-range plan to restore the theater. Rather than competing with the nearby Heights Theater and other discount second-run theaters, their plan was to show classic movies from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and also screen theme shows and hold film festivals. The group initially estimated renovation costs at approximately $1 million. They sought funding from a variety of sources, including private money, corporate contributions, foundations, business, and individual supporting memberships. Additionally, they were also seeking a $1 purchase price of the building from the city.

In April 1995, HTP’s planning efforts to restore the Hollywood continued to move forward. The group’s board of directors picked Vetter-Johnson, a Golden Valley, MN-based architectural firm to create plans and costs estimates for the rehabilitation of the theater. The firm had previously worked on the restoration of the Fargo Theatre in Fargo, ND, and the Orpheum Theatre in Fergus Falls, MN (both designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan, the designers of the Hollywood Theater). Elaborating on their plans for the Hollywood theater, HTP cited the Oak Street Cinema near the University of Minnesota (formerly the Campus Theater, demolished in 2011), which re-opened in March 1995, as an example of another theater showing classic films that partially relied on nonprofit status to raise funds beyond ticket sales alone. It was thought that if the Oak Street could succeed, perhaps the model proposed by HTP could as well.

1935 and 1994 photographs of the Hollywood Theater's foyer. Source: Northeaster, May 18, 1994.

1935 and 1994 photographs of the Hollywood Theater's foyer. Source: Northeaster, May 18, 1994.

Meanwhile, the MCDA worked on cleaning up the former gas station site across the street from the Hollywood. After the station was torn down following its acquisition by the city in March 1994, more petroleum contamination than expected was found. According to an August 21, 1995 Northeaster article, the previous owner, Hiawatha Marketing, did not remove some tanks and piping that they had agreed upon. According to Larry Heinz, MCDA engineer coordinator, the contamination “really isn’t a potential threat unless you start eating the dirt,” but it could cause problems with new construction on the site due to fumes. The MCDA ultimately cleaned up the contamination from the site to increase the viability of its reuse.

In September 1995, Hollywood Theatre Preservation’s exclusive development rights were extended for another year by the city. These rights were extended again for two additional months in September 1996, and then rescinded in December 1996. The group was facing many unforeseen challenges, most of which came down to excessive costs and a lack of money. According to a January 27, 1997 Northeaster article, cost estimates for rehabilitating the theater were coming in much higher than initially expected, which was creating problems with sourcing adequate funds to finance the project. The group had raised slightly over $20,000 to pay for the planning of the rehabilitation. Making the plan work required convincing city officials and several neighborhood groups to contribute a lot to the effort, including land donations, pollution cleanup, and money. Cost estimates for restoring the building for operation as a theater were closer to $2 million, twice as much as was initially estimated. Among other potential funding sources, HTP’s plans for raising the money relied on $500,000 from three neighborhood groups using funds from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). For the group’s financial plans to work, they were also requesting to purchase the theater building and its land, as well as the land on the gas station site across the street for $1 each. In addition, they were asking the MCDA to perform pollution cleanup and abatement at both sites (efforts to clean up the gas station site were already underway). The MCDA was not convinced that HTP’s plan would work. An MCDA staff report that recommended rescinding the exclusive development rights expressed that the “project as proposed is not viable.” The report raised concerns that the $2 million renovation estimate might be 30 percent too low, and expressed doubts that the group could raise the money it needed and that enough people would visit the theater. Despite the rescinding of their exclusive development rights, Doug Rosenburg, president of HTP, stated “Our efforts will continue as long as that window of opportunity is open.” In November 1997, Rosenburg remained hopeful: “The dream is still alive. We’ve got a three-year budget, a restoration plan and an operating plan. We have the feeling that the HTP is the best chance the Hollywood has.” Despite this, Sharrin Miller-Bassi, MCDA project manager, said that it was unlikely that the city would give the project another chance unless they could raise more money: “Our biggest concern is that they hadn’t raised any money and hadn’t approached anyone either. They planned to rely heavily on volunteers, not just now but forever.”

Unfortunately for the members of Hollywood Theatre Preservation, the MCDA began courting new offers to redevelop the theater shortly after rescinding their exclusive development rights. In my next post, I will conclude this series by bringing the chronology of events up to the present.

*Note regarding nomenclature: I have encountered “Hollywood Theater” and “Hollywood Theatre” used interchangeably in reference to the building. The original drawings and advertisements for the building called it the “Hollywood Theatre,” however the majority of the material I have found about the building called it the “Hollywood Theater.” For the sake of simplicity, and in accordance with the most conventional American English spelling, I will refer to the building as the “Hollywood Theater.” If an organization uses an alternative spelling, I’ve maintained their usage (such as “Hollywood Theatre Preservation”).

Sources:

Hollywood Theater files, Department of City Planning and Economic Development, Minneapolis.

Gail Filmore, “Hollywood Preservation group submits only Theatre proposal,” Northeaster, August 17, 1994.

Tony Kenedy, “Group gets theater development rights,” Star Tribune,  September 21, 1994.

Mike Anderson, “Efforts underway to preserve classic theaters,” Northeaster,  April 17, 1995.

Alicia Scott, “MPCA to decide clean-up plan for contamination at Hollywood lot,” Northeaster, August 21, 1995.

Mike Anderson, “Hollywood has a plan, but needs a lot of money and city help,” Northeaster,  January 27, 1997.

Gail Olson, “Preservation group still has hopes for Hollywood,” Northeaster,  November 3, 1997.