St. Paul leaders are hitching the future of their downtown cultural scene on a former vaudeville theater and movie house that has been closed for 30 years — and has the peeling paint and water damage to prove it.
Long the subject of renovation proposals, the 97-year-old Palace Theater is now the target of a $12 million project to become a 3,000-capacity concert venue with support from state taxpayers and two big names in the Twin Cities music business, First Avenue nightclub and Jam Productions.
Concert professionals, musicians and legislators joined Mayor Chris Coleman on Monday for a tour of the theater, near Rice Park and Landmark Center on West 7th Place.
Coleman spearheaded a bonding bill headed to the legislature Tuesday that asks the state to back $6 million of the renovation costs. The other $6 million will be funded with about $1 million in arts grants and the rest through loans to be repaid from revenue once the theater reopens.
“This is the moment that we have to seize,” said Coleman, who has eyed the Palace since taking office in 2005 but admitted “it has been hard to get all the pieces in place.”
Still palatial despite its time-roughened edges, the Palace hosted the likes of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers in its vaudeville days before being converted to the RKO Orpheum movie theater in 1947.
After the movies stopped in 1982, it was used as a temporary home for “A Prairie Home Companion” through 1984 but has sat dormant since, aside from Brave New Workshop supper-club shows housed in the theater lobby.
The costliest expense would be a new heating and air-conditioning system. Repairs and paint for the walls are also needed, and all the seats on the floor and some in the balcony would be removed to make way for standing room and bar areas.
“If we [wait] any further, it’s going to be that much harder for us to reopen this joint,” the mayor said. “These historic buildings are not easy to get back online. But you have to do it [or else] let it sit and deteriorate more.”
If all goes well, the Palace could reopen in time to mark its 100th anniversary in 2016.
Asked to assess the bonding bill’s prospects, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said, “It’s a good sign that St. Paul has this near the top of its list.”
The city is also asking for $14 million in state bonding to double the size of the Minnesota Children’s Museum, another downtown attraction.
Just one block from the Palace is the recently closed Macy’s department store. A few blocks in the opposite direction is Ordway Center, where construction is underway for a new 1,100-capacity theater, set to open in 2015.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, sees a figurative relationship between the old and new spaces.
“[People] used to go to the big urban city to shop, but they now go to be entertained,” said Hausman, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee and will introduce the bonding bill to the legislature. “There’s a statewide interest in this as well.”
Signaling the concert industry’s interest, representatives from Jam and First Avenue discussed how the Palace might fill a void among music venues.
Its size would put it about halfway between First Ave’s main room (which holds 1,600 people) and Roy Wilkins Auditorium (5,000) among general-admission venues. Myth nightclub in Maplewood and the newly revived Skyway Theatre in downtown Minneapolis fill a similar niche.