Like a lot of people of a certain age, I remember when downtown Minneapolis was chockablock with movie theaters, ranging from lavish palaces such as the Radio City (originally the Minnesota) to an array of smaller theaters such as the Lyric and Gopher.
Perhaps the smallest theater of all was the World, located at 16 N. 7th St., just north of Hennepin Avenue. The World, which originally seated fewer than 400 people (compared with 4,000 for the Radio City), isn't much 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 another without its auditorium moving so much as an inch. (More on that later.)
What eventually became the World opened in 1915 as the New Garden Theater at 622 Hennepin Av. I've found only one rather blurry exterior photo of the New Garden, which was a medium-sized theater, about 600 seats. The theater business then, as now, was a tough proposition, and the New Garden closed in 1927.
A religious group used the theater for a time, but it remained mostly vacant until William "Al" Steffes, a well-known Minneapolis theater operator, took it over in 1932. After significant remodeling and downsizing, the theater reopened that year as the World, complete with a new address. This feat was achieved by cutting the New Garden's auditorium in half and then carving out a new entrance lobby through an existing building on 7th Street. Meanwhile, the old portion of the theater on Hennepin, including the amputated section of the auditorium, was converted to shops.
The World's new entrance put it next door to the Shubert (later Alvin and then Academy) Theater at 22 N. 7th St., a side-by-side arrangement long familiar to Minneapolis moviegoers.
With only about 350 seats, the World was conceived as an art house specializing in foreign films that otherwise might not have found an audience in Minneapolis. Although its opening didn't garner a great deal of ink in the Minneapolis newspapers, both the Star and Tribune newspapers took brief note of the theater's unique design and unusual offerings.
"Its interior arrangement and decorations are of a sort new to Minneapolis, a series of loges having been installed for the convenience of those who wish to smoke during performances," reported the Star. Tobacco lovers paid extra for these seats, but the secondhand smoke was free for everyone else in the theater.
The Tribune wrote that the World had been "designed somewhat along the lines of New York's intimate cinema" and said "it should draw a discriminating patronage of theatergoers who are interested in the many excellent films now being produced in Europe but who have had small opportunity hitherto of seeing them." I love this description, if only because in my 30 years as a newspaper reporter, I'm pretty sure I've never managed to sneak the word "hitherto" into a story.
The World's formal premiere on Sept. 20, 1932, featured speeches by Gov. Floyd B. Olson and the usual collection of local dignitaries. The opening feature, according to the Star, was a German-made "Viennese musical romance" called "Two Hearts in Waltz Time."
Although foreign films were its initial specialty, the World also showed Hollywood productions, including many popular MGM musicals beginning in the late 1940s. Because of its limited seating, the World often booked movies for longer runs than was true of larger theaters. At least one film — "The Graduate" — played at the World for more than a year beginning in 1967.
Movie theaters tend to undergo frequent remodeling, and the World was no exception. A balcony was added in 1949 to increase seating capacity to 461, but a bigger re-do came in 1955 after exhibitor Ted Mann acquired the theater.
Mann hired Liebenberg and Kaplan, the same Minneapolis architectural firm that had done the 1932 and 1949 work on the theater, to update its appearance.
Designer Jack Liebenberg turned the World into a colorful example of Midcentury Modernism dominated by a wall of vertical fins across the upper floor of the facade. The theater's lobby and auditorium were also remodeled in the prevailing midcentury style. The ground floor included rental space occupied for many years by the popular Venice Café.
The World closed for good in 1983, as did the neighboring Academy, part of a trend that left Minneapolis with an ever-dwindling number of downtown movie theaters.
Both old theaters were located on so-called Block E, which included a row of businesses along Hennepin devoted to vice in its many varieties. Moby Dick's bar, porn theaters, adult bookstores and other enterprises deemed unsavory by the better elements of the city gave the block a notorious reputation.
In 1988 the city began clearing the entire block for redevelopment, and it was probably about then that the World was demolished along with all of the offending businesses along Hennepin.
The Academy, a far larger and grander theater than the World, turned out to be the block's only survivor. It was moved at great expense in 1999 to 528 Hennepin, where it now serves in renovated form as the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.
A huge new hotel, office and entertainment complex opened on Block E in 2003 to the acclaim of no known architecture critic. It later received a much-needed makeover to become Mayo Clinic Square, offering the healing arts in lieu of the block's old array of not-always-wholesome entertainment.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.