Like many people of a certain age, I remember when downtown Minneapolis was filled with movie theaters ranging from lavish palaces like Radio City (originally Minnesota) to a string of smaller theaters like Lyric and Gopher.
Perhaps the smallest theater of all was the World at 16 N. 7th St., just north of Hennepin Avenue. Originally seating fewer than 400 people (compared to 4,000 in Radio City), The World is little remembered today, but it had an interesting history that reflected the ups and downs of the theater business in 20th-century Minneapolis .
It was also, as far as I know, the only movie theater in the Twin Cities that changed its address from one street to the other without its auditorium moving an inch. (More on that later.)
What eventually became the world opened in 1915 as the New Garden Theater at Hennepin Av. 622 opened. I only found a rather blurry exterior photo of the New Garden, which was a medium sized theater with around 600 seats. Theater operations were difficult then, as they are now, and the New Garden was closed in 1927.
A religious group used the theater for a time, but it remained mostly empty until William “Al” Steffes, a prominent Minneapolis theater operator, took it over in 1932. After extensive remodeling and downsizing, the theater reopened that year as The World, complete with a new address. This feat was accomplished by bisecting the New Garden’s auditorium and then cutting a new entrance lobby through an existing building on 7th Street. In the meantime, the old part of the theater at Hennepin, including the amputated part of the auditorium, has been converted into shops.
The new entrance to The World was adjacent to the Shubert (later Alvin and then Academy) Theater at 22 N. 7th St., a side-by-side arrangement long familiar to Minneapolis moviegoers.
Seating only about 350, The World was designed as an arts house specializing in foreign films that might otherwise not have found an audience in Minneapolis. Although its opening didn’t garner much attention from the Minneapolis newspapers, both the Star and Tribune newspapers briefly noted the theater’s unique design and unusual offerings.
“Its interior design and decorations are new to Minneapolis, with a number of boxes installed for those who wish to smoke during performances,” the star reported. Tobacco lovers paid extra for these seats, but passive smoking was free for everyone else in the theater.
The Tribune wrote that The World was “modeled somewhat along the lines of intimate New York cinema” and said “it should attract a discerning patronage from theatergoers interested in the many excellent films now being produced in Europe but had little chance to see her.” I love that description, if only because in my 30 years as a newspaper reporter I’ve almost certainly never managed to sneak the word “so far” into a story.
The official world premiere on September 20, 1932 included speeches by Governor Floyd B. Olson and the usual gathering of local dignitaries. According to Star, the opening feature was a German-produced “Viennese musical romance” entitled “Zwei Herzen im Walzerrhythm”.
Although foreign films were its initial specialty, by the late 1940s The World was also showing Hollywood productions, including many popular MGM musicals. Due to its limited seating, The World often booked films for longer runs than larger cinemas. At least one film – The Graduate – ran for more than a year beginning in 1967 at The World.
Mid mod rework
Cinemas tend to undergo frequent remodeling and The World was no exception. A balcony was added in 1949 to increase the seating capacity to 461, but a larger refurbishment occurred in 1955 after exhibitor Ted Mann acquired the theater.
Mann hired Liebenberg and Kaplan, the same Minneapolis architectural firm that had done work on the theater in 1932 and 1949, to update its appearance.
Designer Jack Liebenberg transformed The World into a colorful example of Mid-Century Modernism, dominated by a wall of vertical louvers over the upper storey of the facade. The theater’s lobby and auditorium were also remodeled in the prevailing mid-century style. The ground floor contained rental space that has been used by the popular Venice Café for many years.
The World closed permanently in 1983, as did the adjacent Academy, part of a trend that left Minneapolis with a dwindling number of downtown movie theaters.
Both old theaters were located in what was known as Block E, which along Hennepin included a number of shops dedicated to vice in its many varieties. Moby Dick’s bar, adult movie theaters, adult bookstores, and other businesses deemed unsavory by the city’s better folk gave the neighborhood a notorious reputation.
In 1988, the city began clearing the entire block for redevelopment, and at about that time, The World was demolished along with all of the obscene businesses along Hennepin.
The Academy, a much larger and grander theater than the world, turned out to be the sole survivor of the block. It was moved at great expense to 528 Hennepin in 1999, where it now serves in a renovated form as the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.
A massive new hotel, office and entertainment complex opened on Block E in 2003 and has not received praise from any well-known architectural critic. It later received a much-needed makeover to become Mayo Clinic Square, offering the healing arts in place of the block’s old offering of not-always-healthy entertainment.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.