Saving the Victoria Theatre: St. Paul neighborhood organizes together


One of the first silent movie houses in St. Paul, the Victoria Theatre’s glory days were long ago. Today the elegant building stands empty with vacancy signs tacked to the front door. The building is for sale, and the community is organizing to save it, with growing support in the Thomas-Dale (Frogtown) and Summit-University communities to restore it to become the new Victoria Theatre. The non-profit New Victoria Theatre Project Trust  was formed to revive the old theater and create a place for the arts.

UPDATE December 25, 2009 – The St. Paul Heritage Commission has agreed to consider designation of the Victoria Theater (825 University Avenue, St. Paul) as a historic preservation site. (MPR)

In recent weeks Model Cities, a non-profit social service agency put down earnest money to purchase the building. While Model Cities employee Brenda Bailey told a community visioning group in October that Model Cities has no firm plans for the building or the site, talk around the neighborhood centers on the possibility that the building would be demolished to put in a parking lot.

Undaunted, the community group is seeking historic designation for the building. They are submitting an application to the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission on Tuesday, November 17, 2009, at 4:30 p.m. at the Ngon Vietnamese Bistro , 799 University Avenue. [] The public is invited to join supporters of the project who will gather beginning at 3:30 p.m. to celebrate the submission.

For earlier coverage, see Saving the Victoria Theater and getting on board LRT in St. Paul

The building next store already has historic designation. It was once the Ray Bell building and housed a movie production company that worked with the old Victoria Theater. Ala Francaise Bakery now occupies that building.

The Victoria has been overlooked twice for historic designation. The first time was in the early 1980s when professional historians evaluated properties along University Avenue prior to the widening of the street. In 2000 properties were again evaluated for the Central Corridor Project.

Gangsters, Glamor and the Moonshiners Dance

Henry Breilein opened the Victoria Theater in 1915 at 825 University Avenue in St. Paul, along what is now the proposed Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (LRT) line. Breilein owned several theaters, including the Victoria, the Verdi, and the Faust. All were neighborhood family theaters in his day. The Faust, located at University and Dale Street (now the site of the Rondo Community Outreach Library), in later years featured adult entertainment, and was eventually purchased by the city of St. Paul and demolished.

In the 1920s, the theater closed and reopened as the Victoria Café, which mostly served the Jewish community. It developed a colorful reputation as a glamorous place where gangsters gathered during Prohibition. After several violent raids by federal agents, the Café was closed around the time of the 1929 stock market crash.  

Several key players have carried the project this far, each of them with their own mission in mind  Some would say it is serendipity that has brought them together to develop the dream they envision for the theater building. Now others have joined the effort and are working together to make it happen.

Kurt Gegenhuber has long had an interest in American Roots Music. His love for Bob Dylan led him to discover The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of LP records going back to 1952. Of the 84 records in the collection, 83 are from the south, and only one from the north. That one – Moonshiners Dance – was recorded in 1927 by the Victoria Café Orchestra in St. Paul, directed by Frank Cloutier.

“That got me started,” said Gegenhuber. “I realized there was a deep mystery here. One song is from the north and nobody ever bothered to look it up .It was clear to me that there was a profound story to tell.”

Theater/Theatre: Two ways to get involved: November 17, 18

Tuesday, November 17, 3:30 -4:30 p.m.
Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, 799 University Avenue
The original building was called the Victoria Theater. Now supporters call it the Victoria Theatre. Whatever the spelling, they will gather at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro at 3:30, Tuesday, November 17, both to celebrate and to submit application for historic designation for the Victoria building. The public is invited, and a representative of the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission will be on hand at 4:30 to accept the application.

Community Planning and Vision for Our Future Meeting
Wednesday November 18, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Model Cities Building, 839 University Avenue
This is a neighborhood driven effort to set plans in motion to strengthen our community. We will discuss and create ideas for both sides of University from Victoria Street to Grotto Street.

Business owners and residents are welcome to meet one another to work towards a mutually beneficial vision.

If you have questions please contact Tait at 651-789-7480.

He pored through phone books, census records, and city directories at the Minnesota Historical Society library to come up with a comprehensive history of the Victoria. His blog details the results of his research to date.

Gegenhuber describes Moonshiners’s Dance as “a jazzed up, big city African American inflected polka.” He said he believes that the Victoria Café orchestra was advertising through the record that their clientele were gangsters and that the café was glamorous.

“There’s nothing else like Moonshiners Dance,” said Gegenhuber. “It is certainly unique to the neighborhood.” He said it tells the cultural history of the Twin Cities and American Roots music as they were at that time.

Gegenhuber wrote in his blog, “Sadly, the 1927 recording from the Victoria – “Moonshiner’s Dance” – isn’t legally available online, so far as I know. As I keep repeating, the Anthology of American Folk Music is the best investment a music lover can make, and it’s the reason ‘Moonshiner’ is historically important.”

Looking for space for a performing arts theater.

Keith Johnson manages MTS Business Solutions at University and Prior and is on the board of the University Avenue Business Association. He is also a performing musician and has been interested in purchasing a building that could become a performing arts center. He heard from an associate that there was an old theater building along University Avenue.

When Johnson sent an e-mail to owner Bee Vue in October 2008, Vue said that he was not sure if he wanted to sell the building. Still, he gave Johnson access to the building. “Bee was flexible and was willing to let me do some homework on what it would take to bring it back,” said Johnson, adding that the building is structurally sound with potential to be restored. He has consulted with an architectural firm that has provided a bid for the early stages of its design. He has also received a formal bid from a construction company for rehabilitation of the property.  

Johnson went before the District 7 Thomas Dale Planning Council in June, and received full support for the project at the Community Concerns meeting.

A letter of intent has been signed by Bee Vue and the Victoria Theatre Project. Johnson said that renovation of the theater would “likely be a phased project.”

The New Victoria Theatre Project is planning some fund raising events that will be sponsored by the Ramsey County Historical Society,  including one that will take place at the Fitzgerald Theater.

UPDATE November 17 – The time on letter of intent has expired, and the future of fundraising plans is unclear

Facebook Friends Work to Save the Victoria

Born in Vietnam, Hai Truong came to the United States with his family when he was five years old. He grew up in Frogtown and said that he sees the neighborhood from many different aspects. His father ran the Caravelle Restaurant. Now Hai and his wife Jessica Ainsworth-Truong own Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, which they opened in 2007 at the same location. The couple is community-minded and bought their home in the neighborhood, so they could stay there.

Tait Danielson-Castillo is Executive Director of the District 7 Thomas Dale Planning Council. When he heard of Model Cities’ interest in purchasing the property and the possibility that the building might be torn down he informed theatre supporters. Truong said he went home and started the “Save the Victoria” Facebook page the same day.

Facebook followers have grown from five fans the first day, to 70 the next day, and now more than 300 followers are involved in the effort to save the Victoria.

“The way I approach it, it is good for the community,” said Truong. “We need…arts on the street.

“The main thing is to preserve the history, to preserve the architectural standpoints. A lot of this neighborhood’s history has been pushed aside. It started with the freeway. [Interstate 94 was built in the 1960s, cutting through the heart of the Rondo neighborhood] This is a good chance to put a sense of history, a sense of pride back into the neighborhood.”

Neighborhood support

Denise Harris has lived in Frogtown since 1989, and has been a homeowner there since 1992. She has a strong sense of what she wants and doesn’t want for the neighborhood. She has been involved in a number of community projects, including the widening of Dale Street, the development of the Great Northern Business Center, and the closing of two adult entertainment places – the Faust Theater and the Belmont Club.

Harris, on the board of the New Victoria Theatre Project Trust, said: “What I would like to see is for all the players in the community… business, non-profit and for-profit , and residents…and particularly Model Cities, which has been a terrific contributor to our community… I’d like everyone to come together not only for the Victoria Theatre , but for University Avenue all the way to the Capitol.

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