The Victoria Theater
The Victoria Theater Building: Bright Lights and Moonshine in Frogtown
by Kurt Gegenhuber
In early 2006, I began researching an old record called "Moonshiner's Dance." Although widely known for over 50 years, it had never been studied before. All that was known was that it was recorded in 1927 in Saint Paul by something called the "Victoria Cafe Orchestra."
Since 2006, I’ve come to know the Victoria Theater Building, near the corner of Victoria Street and University Avenue in Frogtown, Saint Paul. Often mistaken for an ordinary (if a bit curious and stately) vacant building, I've found that a lot of important and surprising stories flow through it, and they speak vividly of significant forces and events in American culture and Saint Paul's history.
Silent Movie Theater
The Victoria Theater Building was built for its first owner, Henry J. Breilein, a former plumber from New Richland, MN. It was one of three theaters Breilein owned along University Avenue, the major corridor connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
Next door to the Victoria was another player in Saint Paul's early film industry – Ray-Bell Films, an industrial-film production company – and today, the two buildings still evoke lively street life in the 1910's along University Avenue.
Construction started on the Victoria in late 1915. Its architect was Franklin Ellerbe, founder of the prominent firm Ellerbe Architects (today, Ellerbe Becket). Today, several of his buildings are National Historic Landmarks or are on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Not long after the Victoria opened, the Twin Cities theater firm Finkelstein & Rueben was aggressively buying up low-ticket-priced neighborhood theaters, often closing them to control competition. The Victoria was bought by F&R around 1920, and closed as a movie theater perhaps as early as 1922.
On Christmas night, 1924, the Victoria re-opened as a cabaret-style nightclub, The Victoria Cafe. Moe Thompson, known around the Twin Cities as a comedian and pop-song writer, was the Cafe's manager and star.
The Victoria Cafe offered the sort of amusements that defined the Roaring Twenties, with bright lights, glitzy female singers, the Seven Victorians dance orchestra, various supporting acts, and dancing chorus girls. Ads promised Chinese and American cuisine by a New York chef.
As Prohibition continued, the Cafe mirrored the national trend of increasingly exciting, jazzy, and defiant nightlife. Moe Thompson moved to New York, leaving a jazz piano player named Frank E. Cloutier to lead The Victorians.
Moonshiner's Dance and Music History
In 1927, Indiana’s Gennett Records came to Saint Paul, where its temporary studios made the Upper Midwest's first label recordings. The company made hundreds of Saint Paul recordings, although many were never issued and are now lost.
The recording by the Victoria's house band, "Moonshiner's Dance” did survive, and has enjoyed a long and astonishing life. An odd but compelling record, it offers a rare view of a Twin Cities cabaret stage during Prohibition.
In 1952, New York's Folkways records reissued the A-side of "Moonshiner's Dance" on its Anthology of American Folk Music. An eccentric, hypnotic collection of pre-War recordings focused on the music of Southern states, the Anthology included "Moonshiner's Dance" as its only unambiguously Northern selection.
Nonetheless, when the Smithsonian reissued The Anthology on CD in 1997, it had no research on "Moonshiner's Dance" to draw from, and could only report that the Victoria Café Orchestra “is assumed to have been from the Minnesota area."
The Anthology has strongly influenced American music for over 60 years. Today, it continues to be the subject of new articles, books, exhibitions, documentaries, festivals, tribute concerts, reissues, songs and albums, and works of art.
And now, the significance and circumstances of Saint Paul's unique contribution has only begun to be reevaluated.
As prominent as "Moonshiner's Dance" is, it turns out to be only one way the Victoria figured prominently in the history of Prohibition in Minnesota’s capital city.
During 1926 and 1927, the United States Supreme Court allowed the closing of "places where people carrying liquor congregate." Businesses could now be padlocked for selling soft drinks to the wrong customer. Shortly after the "Moonshiner's Dance" recording session, Federal agents went under cover at the Victoria, ordering ginger ale and spiking it from their own hip flasks.
In December 1927, the Prohibition Bureau sought the padlocking of the Victoria and 3 other Twin Cities venues. The tactic made the front pages, with officials calling it "the most drastic action ever attempted in enforcing the dry law in the Northwest." Editorials ridiculed it, with one calling it “banning the chaser.” Nonetheless, the Victoria was padlocked for 6 months.
Not long after it reopened, Federal agents swarmed the crowed Victoria Cafe and, according to witnesses, randomly frisked customers without identifying themselves as officers. One such customer was a former assistant Ramsey County Attorney, who exchanged blows with several agents – and telegrammed the district's Congressman, Melvin Maas, the next morning.
The Victoria Cafe hit the front pages again. Congressman Maas demanded investigations and resignations, and the highest officials of the Prohibition Bureau engaged in a heated public argument with Maas over the tactics used at the Victoria Cafe.
More than any other venue in Saint Paul, the Victoria illustrates the way more aggressive tactics were met by bolder resistance by higher-status citizens as Prohibition wore on. Such incidents played an important role in ending America's great experiment in alcohol prohibition. But the pressures of Prohibition brought the final closing of the original Victoria Cafe in late 1929 or early 1930.
In 1933, only three days after Minnesota ratified the amendment to repeal Prohibition, a building permit shows the venue being prepared for a bar and restaurant called La Casa Grande. The following year, La Casa Grande was renamed The Victoria Cafe. By 1936, the venue was vacant again.
In mid-1937, Joseph Muska renovated the Victoria for his Edison Lighting shop. The store remained in the Victoria building for about sixty years. In the late 1990's, the building became vacant. It was purchased as an investment during the real estate boom of the mid-2000s.
Today, with a real estate downturn, and with the coming of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line, the Frogtown neighborhood has rallied to ensure that the vacant Victoria Building is not demolished for new construction or parking. In 2009, the community launched a multi-pronged effort to preserve the building as a cultural resource for future generations.