Minneapolis about to sell historic Hollywood Theater for $1

Sawdust Media
Step inside and the interior — with a fountain in the lobby, terrazzo tile floors and stadium seating for nearly 1,000 — is pure Art Deco.

The last picture show at the Hollywood Theater in northeast Minneapolis took place 27 years ago. The building has been empty, but not forgotten, since then.

“I was there at one of the last shows, I saw ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ ” said Andrew Volna. “My friends and I were the only ones there.”

On Tuesday, a City Council committee is expected to approve selling Volna the Hollywood for $1. That’s a prelude to May 9, when the full council is expected to vote.

The theater was built in 1934 by Charles Rubenstein as a wedding present for his daughter. It opened at 2815 Johnson St. NE on Oct. 26, 1935, and operated as a movie theater for the next 52 years.

The exterior is Streamline Moderne Design, which evolved from Art Deco, and is crafted in Kasota limestone. Step inside and the interior — with a fountain in the lobby, terrazzo tile floors and stadium seating for nearly 1,000 — is pure Art Deco.

“When I was a kid, I used to see movies there,” said Volna, who remembers being unaware of his surroundings and heading straight for the candy counter. “The detail was lost on me [then].”

Rubenstein hired architects Jack Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan to design his theater. Both were trained at the University of Minnesota and gained acclaim for designing an estimated 200 theaters scattered across the Midwest prairie.

They designed the Uptown Theater, also clad in Kasota limestone; the Edina Cinema; and the Suburban World. They also designed the Adath Jeshurun synagogue, which served the first Orthodox congregation in Minneapolis. That building, at 3400 Dupont Ave. S., is currently home to the First Universalist Church.

When the doors closed behind the last of the Hollywood’s movie crowds in 1987, the building sat empty until the city acquired it in 1993. It was described at the time as “rapidly falling into disrepair.”

At some point, the sump pump had failed. Water and ice had taken a toll on the interior. The electrical system was unsafe. The heating system, air conditioning and plumbing all needed to be replaced.

“I saw ‘Raging Bull’ there, I saw the ‘Blues Brothers’ there,” Volna said. “It’s been on my radar since then.”

The building sat empty for another decade before the city put on a new roof, installed a new sump pump, removed asbestos, pulled out the lead and turned on the heat.

Six years ago, Minneapolis put the theater on the market with an asking price of $275,000 for all 10,700 square feet “as is.” There was a “For Sale” sign on the building, there were open houses, and it was marketed as commercial space.

Somebody talked about converting the interior into apartments, but nobody actually came forward with an offer. It was considered a historic resource, but not on the “A” list, the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s always sad to see neglect,” Volna said, “It’s immediately obvious when you look at the potential, you can see what it could be.”

The Hollywood Theater lobby fountain
Sawdust Media
The Hollywood Theater lobby fountain

What the building “could be” inspired Volna to get involved. In 2012, he was granted exclusive development rights, estimating renovation costs at $1.9 million. He sees it as a commercial space for a business that values creativity. This February, he succeeded in getting the building listed on the national register.

“It will have a lot of ‘wow’ factor,” Volna said. “It’s an Art Deco wonderland.”

The city of Minneapolis and Volna are about to become partners. Under the agreement, Volna deposit $10,000 beyond the $1 purchase price. As owner, he will then complete minimum exterior and basement improvements, rehabilitate the outer lobby, reconstruct the ticket booth, and preserve historic relics.

Volna pays for these improvements, and has 22 months to complete them. The parcel includes the theater and a small city-owned vacant lot next door. Volna also has the right to acquire parking in another city-owned vacant lot across the street.

The goal is to find a “user” for the building. Volna has done this before. He restored a classic Rayvic garage at 1501 E. Hennepin Ave. into what is now work space for tech provider Clockwork.

Said Volna of his newest venture, “Everyone recognizes now that the building needs to find a practical solution, or continue to deteriorate. I think people want to see the lights on and action there.” 

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/29/2014 - 10:24 am.

    Good Luck

    You know, they could actually use a nice old theater like the “Hights” up in Nord East. Digital Projection is making movies more economical.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/29/2014 - 11:20 am.

    Those of us in the Como neighborhood of Southeast Minneapolis are familiar with Andrew Volna’s great work on the former Rayvik’s station and in running another small-business incubator nearby. He’s got lots of energy and ideas, and this Hollywood plan should pan out. We all wish him good luck.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/29/2014 - 11:58 am.

    Good Luck II

    Digital projection does make theatrical showings more economical, but it doesn’t make ’em free, and while I’ve been to “The Heights” several times, I suspect a small, independent theater has a tough time actually making any money in an era when lots of people think the only place to see a movie is in front of their flat screen TV.

    Still, since I go past that building all the time, it’s been on my own radar, even without knowing any of the architectural history. I’d just like to see it used, and if not for an actual theater, then something creative would still be pretty high on the list.

  4. Submitted by Terry Houle on 04/29/2014 - 11:59 am.

    Memories

    Oh my goodness. I attended many movies there as a kid. Remember the candy counter and sitting way in back and shooting things at the screen. Might of been hairpins but don’t recall.
    Sad.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/29/2014 - 12:00 pm.

    Good Luck II

    Digital projection does make theatrical showings more economical, but it doesn’t make ’em free, and while I’ve been to “The Heights” several times, I suspect a small, independent theater has a tough time actually making any money in an era when lots of people think the only place to see a movie is in front of their flat screen TV.

    Still, since I go past that building all the time, it’s been on my own radar, even without knowing any of the architectural history. I’d just like to see it used, and if not for an actual theater, then something creative would still be pretty high on the list.

  6. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 04/29/2014 - 12:33 pm.

    Hope

    I hope something happens with that property. I live 3 blocks north on Johnson and the empty Hollywood has been a drag on a vibrant small business community for decades. Let’s hope his plans come to fruition.

  7. Submitted by Mark Fox on 04/29/2014 - 01:03 pm.

    City Lowered Development Requirements

    All the previous development proposals were required to include a viable tenant to get the building occupied and in use. Now the city has dropped that requirement. Why?

  8. Submitted by Judy Cooper Lyle on 04/29/2014 - 03:33 pm.

    The Hollywood Theater

    I hope the city is more supportive of him than they were with me. I received a city grant via Cental Neighborhood Ass’n back in 1999; $25,000—and I got a small business loan for $10,000; in addition to private funders for a lighting & sound system—in the building on 4th Av. and Lake Street. I turned it into a wonderful little 75-seat theatre, and I upheld my promise to offer accessible, community theatre, a venue for emerging artists and small performing companies, and held classes for youth in the summer. The space was busy all the time. I was working with a developer (Steve Parliament) who, unbeknownst to me, was not paying his property taxes on the building. Even though I had a lease, which was transferred to the City of Minneapolis when they assumed the building, I lost my space when they sold it to Basim Sabri, shyster developer and slumlord, who, by the way, went to federal prison (!), and he quadrupled my rent, making it impossible for me to stay. Ultimately, the city invested $25,000 in something they refused to support (no thanks to Sharon Sayles Belton), the area lost a wonderful performing space, and I lost a lot of money.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Siler on 04/30/2014 - 11:46 pm.

    sell it ALL to Hollywood, for a movie.

    Someday maybe some Hollywood producer (Frankie Coppola?) will see my idea, posted regularly all over social media: To buy up downtown Mpls. “Block E”, restore it to it’s original Moby Dick’s era setting, make an oscar winning 70’s period movie, and then just leave it up, and the city will allow independent owners take it over and keep it running. . .problem solved.

  10. Submitted by Andie Olthoff on 04/28/2015 - 12:07 pm.

    “The goal is to find a “user” for the building”

    Any idea how to get in touch with Volna?

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