The Great Hennepin Avenue Theatre Brawl

Flying pretty much under the local media’s radar this week (the Star Tribune, where Rochelle Olson has been doing a bang-up job, excepted) is a major backstage battle over who will run the three anchoring theatres on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis for the next 30 years. The State, Orpheum, and Pantages Theatres have been overseen by the Historic Theatre Group, which is attempting to retain control of the strip with help from corporate behemoth Clear Channel. But the Minneapolis City Council has control over the decision, and may be about to delay their final vote until just before Christmas, due to serious questions concerning whether a Clear Channel-backed theatre district is good for the city.

The alternative is an interesting one: the folks behind St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts would like to take over the three Minneapolis venues, and run them, along with Ordway, as a huge local theatre conglomerate focusing on touring shows. As I see it, this poses a difficult problem for the Minneapolis pols – I’m assuming that no one on the city council really wants Clear Channel, which already controls most of our local radio stations and is dedicated to the premise that bland = profit, booking our theatres, but at the same time, the Ordway is in direct competition with the Hennepin venues for touring shows, and there’s at least a chance that an Ordway-based board would choose to put all the top-drawing shows in its flagship theatre, leaving Hennepin Avenue as something of a B-grade theatre ghetto.

The Ordway is stressing that its proposal would provide true local management of the Twin Cities’ most prominent theatres, which has got to be attractive to the left-leaning Minneapolis council. On the other hand, the Historic Theatre Trust has been downplaying Clear Channel’s role in their organization, and rightly stressing that it is the HTT which has been so crucial in the revival of a stretch of downtown that was a decided embarrassment only a decade ago. On a practical level, a Clear Channel-backed HTT would clearly not ever be in danger of defaulting on lease payments to the city (while the Ordway has frequently run in the red since its inception), and though it’s true that corporate consolidation of the Clear Channel variety has been systematically turning theatre to crap over the last few years, it’s also a fact that the company happens to have control of many top touring acts and shows, which might become unavailable to a venue which deliberately snubbed the corporate parent.

I’m not saying that the city council ought to knuckle under to such implied blackmail, you understand. To be honest, I have no idea which way I’d swing if I had a vote in the process. My heart says that Ordway would likely be a better protector of our local interests, but my head says that this probably isn’t the right time and place to be taking a stand on principle with a newly rejuvenated theatre district hanging in the balance. In any case, our councilmembers ought to get a chance to hear from the public on this issue – click here to give ’em a piece of your mind.

LATE UPDATE, 11/20/04: Apparently, city council decided they didn’t need more time to think about it after all. Voting over the objection of Council President Paul Ostrow, the council voted 7-4 on Friday to continue negotiations on the theatre leases exclusively with the HTT/Clear Channel group, effectively ending the Ordway’s takeover bid. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad decision, since the Ordway’s pitch may have involved a fairly large civic leap of faith, but I’m fairly certain that letting Clear Channel run the show won’t mean good things for fans of serious theatre in the Twin Cities.

1 Comment so far

  1. Nate (unregistered) on November 23rd, 2004 @ 5:32 pm

    I have to say that I have been following this since this summer when I first heard about it. First of all, HTT didn’t want to take care of it back then. They didn’t decide to get back in the game until Clear Channel backed them. Also, a few big names from around the country like Chicago and N.Y. pulled out when Clear CHannel stepped in. They knew they would loose to a corporation of that size.

    Clear Channel is in control of a bunch of CRAP shows. They really stress bring through inexpensive C-Cast shows and charging full price ticketing on them. I am NOT a happy camper about this. They have a lot of work to do to bring up my trust level…

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