Return of a Downtown Cinema

Left, the Orpheum and Paramount theaters, ca. 1950. At right, the same view today.

Downtown Saint Paul, like a lot of urban areas, used to host a bevy of one-screen cinemas. They’re almost all gone now. The rise of the suburbs led to the hollowing-out of the cities; the changing economics of film exhibition led to twinning of many operating one-screens and the abandonment of the rest. The final nail in the coffin of urban cinemas was their all-too-frequent re-purposing as porno houses, an indignity which sped their final demise, as cities bought the undesirable businesses and quickly demolished the buildings that housed them.

Only a handful of these cinemas survived. One of them was the old RKO Orpheum, on what is now a pedestrian walkway called 7th Place. The Orpheum closed its doors in 1977, and with the exception of a couple of special events, has stood empty ever since.

A little more than a decade ago the city committed to rehabbing the Orpheum. They paid for an expensive vertical sign to go up outside the theater (now branded as the Palace, the name it originally sported as a vaudeville house).  A stage play (called “Minnesota: It’s Not Just For Lutherans Anymore”) ran for nearly a year in the theater’s lobby (which gives you an idea of how big a space it is). But the main project — rehabilitating the theater itself as a live venue — took much longer than anyone anticipated.

It took a lot more money than anticipated, too.  Today the theater held an open house for the public to show off its $15.6 million renovation as a live music venue.

I have to say, it looks pretty great.


Now the main floor is open for standing room, with seats on the balcony level.  A huge live bar will serve drinks and the whole place retains a shabby-chic vibe which makes it perfect for live music events. I’m happy that the old Orpheum will host crowds again and I’m looking forward to visiting when Regina Spektor takes the stage in March.

I spotted this poster for THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS during the Palace theater open house. It was lying on its side off the main floor. I suspect it’s being repurposed as part of a permanent display. Or at least, I hope it is.

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