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.

It's a straight view from the projection booth to the stage, but hell of a walk. At a fast pace, I think it would take 10 minutes to walk from this spot to the chair. Behind the curtains is a big white screen, so the theatre could be used for either stagework or moving pictures. The two projectors are set up for 3D movies right now--hence the little switch below the window--a Polaroid 3D synchronizer. Cool, huh?

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.

Some of the curtains are counterweighted with sand bags. Moving backdrops are tied-off on the left, near the film speakers.

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.

St. Francis Hotel Postcard

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.

Photo Comparison

Construction announcement, Sep. 16, 1916 (Source: Moving Picture World)

Waiting outside the Palace while it was called the RKO Orpheum, 1952 (Source: Pioneer Press, MR2.9 SP3.1P p46, MNHS.org)

House, 1943 (Source: Kenneth M. Wright Studios, MR2.9 SP3.1P, MNHS.org)

House, 2012 (25.0 sec at f - 6.3 ISO 100)

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.

From the back of the house, looking at a lone chair on stage. From these seats it's amazing to me that such a giant theater existed out of sight in the middle of downtown.

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.

Redevelopment No-Brainer

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.

One of two projectors, still set to run old 3D flicks.

Every vaudeville show would use different curtains, and of course there had to be a white screen for the films themselves. Lit with four big construction lights.


The Shots

References »

  • Crosby, Jackie. "Palace might rule in St. Paul again, study finds ." Star Tribune [Minneapolis] Mar 2006, n. pag. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. .
  • Ingrassia, Robert. "Palace Theatre's future may be as storied as its past.." Pioneer Press [St. Paul] 26 Jan 2005, n. pag. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. .
  • Kenney, Dave. Twin Cities Picture Show: A Century of Moviegoing. St. Paul: MNHS, 2007. 47. Print.
  • Millett, Larry. Aia Guide to Downtown St.paul. AIA, 2010. 48. Web. .
  • --------. Twin Cities Then and Now. St. Paul: MNHS, 1996. 106. Print.
  • "New Palace Theater Nearly Done." Moving Picture World. 29. (1916): n. page. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. .
  • Shepard, Robin. Minnesotas Best Breweries Brewpubs: Searching for the Perfect Pint. St. Paul: MNHS, 2011. 54. Web. .
    • The Docs

      Looking out from the proscenium, 1943 (Source: Kenneth M. Wright Studios, MR2.9 SP3.1P, MNHS.org) Waiting outside the Palace while it was called the RKO Orpheum, 1952 (Source: Pioneer Press, MR2.9 SP3.1P p46, MNHS.org) St. Francis Hotel Postcard Construction announcement, Sep. 16, 1916 (Source: Moving Picture World) House, 2012 25.0 sec at f - 6.3 ISO 100 An old steam tunnel is now a piperun for the building above. On top of the pile of letter is the 'K' from the old RKO sign (compare above). Between backstage and the dressing rooms.
    • Pat

      Yaaay I am so glad they’re finally going to do something to wake downtown St. Paul. This will be very welcome. What a beautiful theater. So glad they’re not tearing it down. Now if they would not charge for parking and get some decent stores down there, maybe people would go to St. Paul more.

      • danglass

        St. Paul has made a lot of good changes in the way of food, but it needs to cultivate a personality. I am not sure if shopping is the answer, but agree that parking/transportation has to be.

    • Ann

      Awesome. I remember it as the Orpheum as a little girl. So glad its history is still alive.

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