THE VICTORIA THEATER & ITS HISTORY
The Victoria Theater at 825 University Avenue West, Saint Paul, was built in 1915 as a silent movie house. It was converted in 1924 into the Victoria Cafe—a Prohibition-era nightclub with dancing, cabaret-style floor shows, and Chinese food. In the 1930s it became a lighting store, a use that lasted nearly 60 years. The Victoria has been vacant for approximately the last 14 years and has been a Category 2 registered vacant building with the city since April, 2009.
The Victoria Theater building is historically significant for the following reasons:
It has historical significant as Saint Paul’s earliest, substantially intact neighborhood theater and is a good example of the many small neighborhood silent movie theaters that once dotted Saint Paul. The Victoria is one of four remaining early neighborhood theaters in the city but is unique in that much of its exterior and interior are intact.
The 1915 structure, with its brick and terra cotta Beaux Arts style façade, is architecturally significant for its design and as a rare St. Paul example of the work of prominent St. Paul architect Franklin Ellerbe.
The Victoria, as a Prohibition-era nightclub, is important for its association with the social and political history of Prohibition in St. Paul. As a representation of Saint Paul’s culture during Prohibition, it has social and political significance. The Victoria was the site of several high-profile federal actions and vividly exemplifies developments in the heritage and culture of St. Paul.
It has cultural significance, regionally and perhaps even nationally, as the site of a 1927 recording which appeared on an important record in American musical history. The 1927 recording at the Victoria of the song Moonshiner’s Dance Part I, performed by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, was eventually included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-album compilation issued in 1952 that was a touchstone for the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s. The Anthology has had a significant influence in American popular music. Moonshiner’s Dance was the only song in the Anthology recorded in the Upper Midwest. Of the 84 songs, all were recorded in the South with the exception of Moonshiner’s Dance and two from Chicago. The 1927 recording at the Victoria was part of the first commercial label recording sessions held in the Upper Midwest. Moonshiner’s Dance is about Saint Paul and Frogtown and represents an aspect of Minnesota culture during Prohibition. The song represents Minnesota’s role in America’s sense of its past and cultural identity.
“The Anthology of American Folk Music is arguably the most important document in the history of American popular music. After this compilation of late 1920s and early 1930s 78 rpm recordings was first released in LP form in 1952, it gave birth to a renaissance of folk music in Minnesota . . . and throughout the country and indeed the world, and that renaissance rippled outward to fundamentally shape so much of American popular music more generally. Countless musicians on local and national stages have commented that they learned every song on the Anthology, as they explored America’s roots music and brought it back to life again in their own recordings and performances. Its legacy lives on in contemporary American music, partly because Smithsonian’s Folkways Records re-released it as a six-CD box set in 1997. The Anthology has also been written about extensively in scholarly and popular literature . . . .”
From 5.25.2010 letter to Saint Paul HPC supporting historic designation of the Victoria Theater from Gloria Goodwin Raheja, University of Minnesota Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies “who teaches and writes about the significance of American vernacular music to the understanding of this country’s history and culture”
The Victoria Theater building is “important for its role in aspects of Saint Paul’s social history. Immediately adjacent to the Victoria Theatre is the former Ray-Bell Films studio [at 823 University Av. W.], an NRHP-eligible [National Register of Historic Places] building associated with a small film production company of the 1920s. Together, the two buildings represent a cutting-edge industry of their era and speak to the nature of street life along University Avenue in the early 20th century. The Victoria’s later operation as the Victoria Cafe, a cabaret-style night club, achieved a level of regional and even national prominence for the venue as a result of high profile Federal Prohibition enforcement actions, and later, with the inclusion of a recording made in 1927 by the Cafe’s house band on the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, a popular and influential collection of recording that have had a significant and ongoing impact on American music.”
From 11.4.2010 email to Saint Paul City Council supporting historic designation of the Victoria Theater from Carol Carey, Executive Director of Historic Saint Paul
The Victoria was threatened with demolition in 2009 to make way for a parking lot. An outpouring of community concern and opposition resulted in cancellation of the purchase agreement and an ongoing grassroots community effort since then to acquire the building to preserve and reuse it as a community arts asset. In December 2009, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) voted to support designation and approved Frogtown District Council’s request for a designation study. The HPC formally recommended designation at the end of 2010 and the City Council in April, 2011 approved the designation of the Victoria Theater as an individual heritage preservation site.
In 2006, Kurt Gegenhuber had made the important connection between Moonshiner’s Dance and the Victoria Theater building. He “was reading liner notes of Anthology of American Folk Music. “The anthology, which helped spark the 1950s folk revival, compiled folk, blues, jazz, gospel, and country songs recorded from 1927 to 1932. A new generation of musicians, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, treated the anthology like a folk music Bible, bringing songs from the hollers of Appalachia into Greenwich Village cafes. The Smithsonian Institution reissued the six-disc compilation with expanded liner notes in 1997. Gegenhuber paused at the description of a song called "Moonshiner's Dance Part One," by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.” (MPR 11.17.2009)
In 2009, with the threat of demolition of the building, Keith Johnson created the New Victoria Theater Project, hoping to purchase the building and convert it into a nonprofit performing arts center. The group held a number of community meetings to strategize about how to save the theater. According to a 11.17.2009 MPR story:
More than 300 people joined a “Save the Victoria Theatre” Facebook group created by Hai Troung, owner of Ngon Vietnamese Bistro at 799 University—a half-block away. [The group now has more than 600 members.]
"It's so much more beneficial for this neighborhood to have an arts area, versus a parking lot," Troung said.
The District 7 Planning Council [aka Frogtown Neighborhood Association] has voiced its support for the preservation effort. "We need this area to be a destination place," said Tait Danielson Castillo, the council's executive director. "And we need to ask what the community values."
The two-story, 5,500 square-foot building has an elegantly detailed, Beaux-Arts style façade of brick and terra-cotta that may have been applied during the Roaring Twenties when the building was converted to a nightclub in 1924. The patterned brick and beaded terra-cotta are arranged in broad, rectangular, decorative patterns surrounding a square arch, or portal, 1.5 stories high. Portions of the 1915 and 1924 interiors remain intact. The building occupies the entire parcel.
The Victoria closed as a movie theater perhaps as early as 1922. It reopened on Christmas night, 1924 as the Victoria Café. The pressures of Prohibition led to the closure of the popular Roaring Twenties speakeasy and dancehall in late 1929 or early 1930. In 1933, only three days after Minnesota ratified the amendment to repeal Prohibition, a building permit shows the venue being prepared for a bar and restaurant called La Casa Grande. The following year, La Casa Grande was renamed The Victoria Cafe. The venue was vacant again by 1936. In mid-1937, Joseph Muska remodeled the Victoria to accommodate his Edison Lighting Studio, which remained here into the 1980s.
The Victoria was the subject of at least two Prohibition-era Federal actions that made front-page headlines across the region and were the subject of editorials in major newspapers. These Federal actions, including a high-profile raid, placed the Victoria at the center of tensions between local opinion and the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Victoria was therefore the site of interesting historical events in both the cultural development of the United States and the political history of the alcoholic beverage industry in St. Paul.
“Federal agents in 1927 issued a temporary injunction to prevent the Victoria Cafe and other nightclubs from selling non-alcoholic "set-ups" to customers who would then add their own alcohol. The injunction was announced two days before New Year's Eve and made the front page of the Saint Paul Dispatch. ‘Prohibition officers believe that if the sale of 'set-ups' can be halted, it will curb drinking in public places and remove much of the usual downtown hilarity resulting from illegal moisture,’ a reporter wrote.” (MPR 11.17.2009)
The Victoria Theater is significant due to its unique and prominent role in the Anthology of American Folk Music, an important recording in American musical history. In 1927, as part of the first commercial label recording sessions held in the Upper Midwest, the house orchestra of the Victoria Café recorded Moonshiner’s Dance for Gennett Records. This dance record was included on a 1952 collection of reissued commercial recordings, the Anthology of American Folk Music, which became an influential document in the development of post-WWII ideas and institutions of American folk arts. The Victoria recording is unique among the Anthology’s 84 selections in that it is the only selection unambiguously from outside the American South and is the only cut featuring either jazz instrumentation or immigrant ethnic musical forms.
Moonshiner’s Dance is a jazz-inflected polka instrumental with vocal interjections. Made several days after the close of the 1927 Minnesota State Fair, it suggests motifs of urban/rural encounter in the Upper Midwest, and of overt defiance of the 18th Amendment. Moonshiner’s Dance is therefore of interest as a representation of St. Paul’s civic identity in a regional context. It is also unusual for its various suggestions of unseen stage activity such as storytelling by the company’s dancers and choreography performed by the band, and is a rare and vivid window on the offerings of a St. Paul nightclub stage during Prohibition.
The building is also significant as one of only three other St. Paul theater buildings of this early date, of which the Victoria is unique in that much of its exterior and interior are intact, including its original screen and projection booth. The façade of the theatre is done in the Beaux Arts style, a style which was already popular for burlesque halls, operas, and other theaters, and which often incorporated great arches (or portals) dominating the façade. This grand portal concept derived from exposition buildings such as that of the Paris Exposition of 1889, the Petit Palais of 1900 (Paris), and the Festival Hall at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The portal of the Victoria Theater is edged with a custom-fabricated, terra-cotta band, each piece of which is a remarkable expression of the esthetic of the turn of the century. An interior mural wrapping around the second floor depicts northern Minnesota forests.
The Victoria is one of the few surviving works by architect Franklin Ellerbe in his hometown. He founded Ellerbe & Co. in Saint Paul in 1909. The architecture firm merged in 1987 to become Ellerbe Beckett and merged again in 2009 with AECOM and eventually took that name.
Moonshiner’s Dance Part 1 was performed by the esteemed Rose Ensemble in the fall of 2011 as part its concert called Songs of Temperance and Temptation: 100 Years of Restraint and Revelry in Minnesota. The song will also be part of the Rose Ensemble’s semi-staged and fully costumed concert, A Toast to Prohibition: Songs of Temperance and Temptation, presented January 21-27, 2014 at the Minnesota History Center in conjunction with its exhibition American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Moonshiner’s Dance Part 1 will also be featured on the ensemble’s very-soon-to-be-released CD A Toast to Prohibition.
There are many smaller, historic theaters in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota that have been successfully repurposed and contribute to the historic character and the social, cultural, and economic well-being of their communities. These include the:
Mounds Theater and Cinema Ballroom in Saint Paul, as well as planned renovation of the larger New Palace Theatre;
Ritz, Nokomis (Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center, also 1915 by Ellerbe & Co.), Capri, In the Heart of the Beast/Avalon, Southern, Bedlam, Varsity, and Loring/Music Box theaters in Minneapolis, as well as the Cedar Cultural Center and Franklin Art Works, Pillsbury House Theater and the Arts on Chicago initiative, and the planned renovation of the Hollywood; and
Fairmont Opera House in Fairmont, the Paramount Theater/Visual Arts Center/Gallery in Saint Cloud, the Fergus Theatre/A Center for the Arts in Fergus Falls, the NorShore Theatre in Duluth, and the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing
Information written and compiled 1.16.2014 by Aaron Rubenstein, using various sources including materials created or provided by Kurt Gegenhuber and Thomas Blanck.