Built in 1910, the Fitzgerald Theater is
Saint Paul's oldest surviving theater space. Originally called the Sam S. Shubert Theater, it was one of four special memorial
theaters erected by entertainment-industry magnates Lee and J. J. Shubert after the death of their brother Sam, this was to be
a particularly elegant building, patterned after the renowned Maxine Elliot Theater in New York.
The theater was built on the heels of the Industrial Revolution and in the early stages of the Progressive Era. At the time, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Minnesota’s James J. Hill were some of the most powerful businessmen in the country. When the Shubert Theater was built in 1910, Hill was 72 years old, worth $53 million and living in his mansion on Summit Avenue, a street lined with other Victorian and Georgian Revival-style mansions.
It was a time when industry was expanding and there was an increasingly edgy examination of American society. The Minnesota State Fair hosted the National Conservation Congress where President Taft spoke to thousands of people who gathered to discuss their concern that the country was wasting its natural resources. In addition to conservation, several other social issues dominated public conversation. The middle-class wanted social justice, political reform and better working conditions, and journalists worked to expose corruption.
So, it’s no surprise that the first production staged at the Sam S. Shubert Theater in St. Paul was “The Fourth Estate,” a Joseph
Medill Patterson and Harriet Ford play about a reporter working for a major metropolitan newspaper who found himself in court
fighting the influence of powerful advertisers.
Full page spreads in St. Paul’s major publications, “The Daily News” and the “St. Paul Pioneer Press,” eagerly anticipated the theater’s opening night on Monday, August 29th, 1910. The articles lauded the theater’s lush and sophisticated design. The Shubert Theater was striving to be “the handsomest, the most safe, the most hygienic and most comfortable in the Northwest.” One reporter wrote that it “succeeded beyond a shadow of a doubt.” It was constructed of concrete and steel with a sandstone facade, complete with 16 dressing rooms, a stage that could be raised or lowered by two feet, a built in vacuum-cleaning system and nearly 2,000 electric lights.
The theater’s dramatic architecture
was ideal for vaudeville productions, the most popular form of entertainment in the country.
Vaudeville made a commitment to polite entertainment that didn’t offend women and children; comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats,
ventriloquists and others captivated audiences with pure showmanship. Theatergoers could pay between a quarter and $1.50 for a
seat to see famous stars like Maxine Elliott, E.H. Southern and Julia Marlowe.
While urban areas were booming, out-state areas were struggling. 1910 was a particularly dry year; in Minnesota, a fire destroyed the cities of Baudette, Spooner, Graceton, Pitt, Cedar Spur and Williams, killing 29 people and burning nearly 300,000 acres of land. Across the country, one of the largest fires in recorded U.S. history burned for 2 days across Idaho and Montana, charring more than 3 million acres of land.
T.S. Eliot, author of “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had just graduated from Harvard, and the soon-to-be renowned modernist poet e.e. cummings was busy studying the classics before entering Harvard the following year. Notable authors Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy died in 1910, as did psychologist and philosopher William James.
While The Sam S. Shubert Theater was getting ready for its opening night, author F. Scott Fitzgerald was living on 514 Holly Street in St. Paul and was a month away from his 14th birthday. 15 years later, Fitzgerald would write what would become known as the great American novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
The Shubert Theater has undergone quite a bit of transformation since its opening night in August of 1910. It became a movie
house and in 1933 was renamed The World Theater. In 1981, Garrison Keillor brought his radio program, “A Prairie Home Companion,”
to the World. A best-selling American author, Keillor led the charge to rename the theater in honor of St. Paul native and beloved
American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Keillor also lured high-caliber Hollywood stars like Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin to the
Fitzgerald when he teamed with director Robert Altman to make the 2006 film “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Nearly a century after its opening night, the Fitzgerald Theater continues to evolve while maintaining its commitment to compelling performances with shows like Talking Volumes and other live programming. Minnesota Public Radio is currently exploring opportunities to build partnerships in recognizing the theater’s centennial and would like to extend an invitation for ideas on marking the Fitzgerald’s 100 years of contributions to the cultural and literary community.
Click on F. Scott for more information on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 100 birthday celebration back in September of 1996.