Early in 2012 I was allowed to photograph inside the long-disused Palace Theater in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. Thank you to those that made it possible.
My favorite room is the letter room…
…and my favorite letter in the letter room was the ‘G’. Piles of metal (and some plastic, sure) letters and punctuation marks that used to slide into the marquees out front.
You can find it past the dressing rooms. Some of them still have mirrors and bits of wallpaper, but there is no trace of the skimpily-clad ‘water nymphs’ that used to dress up—and, later, dry off—in these little nooks between acts.
At the bottom of the backstage stairs is an army-green water fountain with a well-used handle. I wonder how many of ‘the greats’ drank here after shouting out their laugh lines to the audience of thousands upstairs.
Going up the steps, two things stand out as the house emerges from beyond the proscenium. First, that its inside is bigger than its outside, and second, that it has not changed quite a lot from its original design.
It has all the charm of a 1920s movie house, but on a scale fit for a capital city.
A City’s Palace
In 1916, the Palace was nearly complete. It would be the biggest theater in downtown St. Paul, and bring other venues with it. Now, almost a century later, it stands empty.
The architects Henry Orth and Charles Buechner ensured its 2,300 seats would be unobstructed by any columns or rails, so when Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Geroge Burns, Milton Berle or Gracie Allen performed, the audience got what they paid for.
From the beginning there were films shown here too; in the far back stage, behind the theatrical flats, a silver screen still hangs. Looking over patron’s shoulders in the back row, a projection booth. Inside, a pair of Ashcrofts are set up to run 3D flicks, a sign that the there has not been a new movie running here in a long while.
The Palace was built congruent with the Francis Hotel, which became a local gangster hotspot soon after opening.
Now the hotel is all apartments, except for the street level shops and bars.
Silver Screen and Comedy Teams
The Palace was renamed the Palace-Orpheum in 1923 when it became more of a vaudeville hotspot for the town—the ‘Palace’ part of the name was dropped later, making it simply the Orpheum beginning in 1928. In the 1930s it hosted movies, big band shows, and vaudeville, but the film age was slowly conquering the stage.
After a major remodel in 1946 the theater mainly showed films. Because of suburban competition in the mid-1970s, it stopped showing first runs of movies, and closed altogether in 1978. In 1981 it opened again as a discount film theater, but shut its doors after a year due to high operating costs.
The last life the stage saw was in 1984 when ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ borrowed the theater while their home stage was remodeled. Since then a local live theater troupe built a 125 seat dinner theater into the lobby, but never used the 2,300 seat house.
Outside the marquee reads ‘St. Paul’s Palace Theater’ in bright metallic red paint, a circa-2000 installation to revitalize the pedestrian-only bar block. Sadly, many of the restaurants have closed, even since the work was done to renew the area finished.
St. Paul’s downtown is still dying, maybe because its transportation routes to the west are convoluted, or because its goes to sleep at 9:00pm. At 9:01, you are downtown you are probably sitting at home or at a bar; I can think of few other options. The first problem may be unraveled by the reopening of the historic Union Depot.
The second, well, I can think of a big unused historic and centrally-located venue that needs another chance…
Update: October 28, 2013
Good news! The St. Paul City council announced it would fund the renovation and reopening of The Palace today, and hope for the project to be complete by 2016, the theater’s centennial. I will update this article as major developments unfold.