Frogtown’s Victoria Theater purchased and poised to become community arts center
[Saint Paul, MN] Saint Paul’s historic, but long-vacant, Victoria Theater is back in the spotlight. On January 16, the Twin Cities Community Land Bank will purchase the Theater on behalf of the Victoria Theater Arts Initiative (VTAI). VTAI intends to revitalize the building, transforming it into a community-owned and managed center for arts engagement, education and performance, rooted in and inspired by the Frogtown neighborhood.
A press conference, including a tour of the building and followed by a kick-off celebration, will be held at 2:30 P. M. on January 16 at the Victoria itself (825 University Avenue). Elected officials, community leaders and artists will all be in attendance, as well as noted film historian Bob DeFlores. (The press conference is at 2:30, building tours will start at approximately 2:50, and the kick-off celebration will start at 3:00.)
“I just can’t believe it” says Denise Mwasyeba, a 22-year Frogtown resident who is involved in the campaign to reclaim the vacant theater and transform it into a vital community asset. “I think of what the neighborhood looked like 20 years ago, when we were fighting to close crack houses, deteriorating housing stock, quality of life issues and crime- but we knew Frogtown had potential, so we kept fighting”.” she said.
It’s that potential that has spurred a flurry of development in Frogtown, by local and outside investors alike. And it’s that potential which inspired a group of organizers, historians, artists, and community members to aggressively pursue the purchase and reactivation of the long-dormant Victoria.
Built in 1915, the Victoria has always been a center of activity in Frogtown, serving as a silent movie house, nightclub, cabaret, cafe, and lamp store before becoming vacant. Yet, even in vacancy, it remained active, narrowly escaping demolition, being the object of speculation from outside investors, becoming designated as a heritage preservation site by the City of Saint Paul in 2011, housing artistic projects, and inspiring dreams and visions of a new kind of arts space for Saint Paul. For the last year a small group of volunteers has worked to make those dreams a reality.
The Victoria Theater Arts Initiative is a consortium of Saint Paul based organizations including the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, Historic Saint Paul, Dangerous Productions, and the New Victoria Theater Project. It has also received support and encouragement from the Twin Cities Community Land Bank, Irrigate, Springboard for the Arts, and the City of Saint Paul .VTAI will eventually own the building, and will work in the coming months on programming, organization, and fundraising to open the facility as a community arts center.
As one of Saint Paul’s oldest neighborhood theaters, the Victoria, nestled between an Ethiopian restaurant and a planned, large commercial/residential redevelopment project, is destined to become not only a cultural destination but a nucleus of artistic and community growth, all driven and informed by the spirit of Frogtown.
“The Victoria Theater isn’t just going to be a place to come and see a show” says Caty Royce, Executive Director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association “It’s going to be a place where everyone feels welcome to come and interact and be a part of Saint Paul’s most diverse community, and be surprised by what they find.”
Originally built as a silent movie house, the Victoria was converted in 1924 into the Victoria Café—a Prohibition-era nightclub with dancing, cabaret-style floor shows, and Chinese food. The Victoria is historically significant both for representing an aspect of Saint Paul’s culture during Prohibition and for being the site of a now-famous 1927 recording of Moonshiners Dance. The song 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.