Island amphitheater shouldn’t sit unused


Shakespeare was wrong: All the world’s not a stage.

That’s why, here in Minneapolis, we go to such efforts to build and maintain the special places that are our stages. We see theater far more than do people in other American cities; we crave outdoor music during our abbreviated summers. Stages are precious community gathering spots.

Rome has its Coliseum, but in Minneapolis a more newly minted ruin, the Washburn-Crosby mill, has become a stage, where the Mill City Museum’s summer music series, “Mill City Live,” is now in its third season.

Just next door, the Guthrie Theater has just opened its new three-stage building. Something seemed odd about adding to an already sprawling sculpture garden at the expense of a great performance space, but director Joe Dowling says he backs the Walker Art Center’s decision to demolish the old Guthrie on Vineland Place. The Guthrie’s new thrust stage appears to be a reasonable facsimile of the old.

Dowling calls the new site the best place in the city for a theater (though the building seems to want to be about 50 feet closer to the river). He’s not the first to like his drama close to the river: for 35 seasons the University of Minnesota staged plays on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat when it was anchored at East River Flats Park. But it deteriorated and finally was moved to St. Paul, where it burned during renovation, and has been replaced.

Some losses have proven difficult to recover from. The West Bank and the wider community suffered mightily when Dania Hall on Cedar Avenue was lost to fire during its renovation. Its upper floors held a storied performance space.

Bandshells at Lake Harriet go back a century or more; one burned, another blew down, and still we rebuilt and more recently renovated the current bandshell. A huge, eight-hour birthday bash marked the 20th anniversary of the current Bandshell.

With $11 million in new funding from the state Legislature, the Shubert Theater on Hennepin Avenue is two-thirds of the way to reopening. It could be the Eighth Wonder of the World: at 5.8 million pounds it is the heaviest building ever moved on rubber tires.

When a stage is lost to fire, it’s a tragedy; to neglect, it’s a shame; to redevelopment, it’s a crime or a trade-off, depending. But when a stage the community has enjoyed for decades is suddenly and without explanation abandoned, it’s simply sad—and puzzling. And despite a string of saves, that’s what has happened at one of the city’s best public stages. The Ninth Wonder of the World is why the Nicollet Island amphitheater isn’t used anymore.

Civic celebrations and music performances at Nicollet Island, particularly at the Fourth of July, date back 150 years to the city’s first decade. In 1976, Bicentennial Park was founded at the south tip of Nicollet Island, the first part of what has become Minneapolis’ Central Riverfront Regional Park. The centerpiece of Bicentennial Park was its amphitheater, where for more than two decades the park board sponsored summer concerts, as it continues to do at Lake Harriet and Minnehaha Park.

Garrison Keillor brought his then-local Prairie Home Companion radio show to the amphitheater during its first season and again for one of its first national broadcasts.

A sample season was 1993, when the amphitheater hosted 74 performances from June to early September, including three Shakespeare performances and lots of music—Shirley Witherspoon, Savage Aural Hotbed, Mark Stillman and Pat Donahue, to name a few.
By 2003 the Nicollet Island Amphitheater summer concert series was attracting more than 10,000 people—second only to Lake Harriet, according to the park board’s count, more than twice as many as Minnehaha, and more than all other park board summer entertainment combined.

But that was when the music died. After 2003 the tradition of summer concerts at the Nicollet Island Amphitheater was over. The park board handed over operation of the adjacent park pavilion building to a private operator, promising to resume public events at the amphitheater after renovations to the public parking lot between the amphitheater and the pavilion were done.

That promise has not been kept, and even the annual Fourth of July Shakespeare in the Parks performances have come to an end. Just as thousands of new residents moved to downtown and the riverfront, the park board quietly killed off all public uses of the Nicollet Island Amphitheater.

The Roman poet Martial commended Emperor Vespasian for building the Coliseum on the site of Nero’s private estate: “This area is now the delight of the people, which had been the private pleasure of the tyrant.” But at the Nicollet Island amphitheater, the reverse has happened: privatization of a neighboring public building has brought an end to free, public performances, the delight of the people.

While the revival of one historic gathering spot on Lake Harriet is feted, another even more historic venue is apparently finished—a victim of park privatization. A tradition for the million people who visit Central Riverfront Regional Park annually has been lost, right where the park was founded to mark the country’s Bicentennial, 30 years ago.

As we mark Lake Harriet’s Bandshell’s 20th anniversary, let us also reverse the loss of the Nicollet Island Amphitheater.