Gopher Theatre

619 Hennepin Avenue,
Minneapolis, MN 55403

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Finkelstein & Ruben, Paramount-Publix

Architects: Jack J. Liebenberg

Firms: Liebenberg and Kaplan

Styles: Streamline Moderne

Previous Names: New Grand Theatre, Grand Theatre

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News About This Theater

Gopher Theatre

When it opened in 1911, the Grand Theatre, or New Grand Theatre as it was briefly called, was a vaudeville house, but by the 1920’s, was showing movies only. It was part of the F & R circuit. In 1928 the Grand Theatre was taken over by Paramount-Publix and was wired for sound, but by 1936 had closed.

Two years later, it was completely remodeled by architect Jack J. Liebenberg in an Art Moderne style, seating around 1,000, and opening as the Gopher Theatre on October 29, 1938. The name was chosen by a contest, and comes from the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers football team.

Unlike its Neo-Classical predecessor, the Gopher Theatre was then-very modern looking. It featured the colors of the University of Minnesota, maroon and gold on its Vitrolite exterior and tall tower-style marquee. The interior was done in shades of white and pink.

Though it was a downtown movie house, it originally never played the big hits, though it did host a 1941 live appearance by Gene Autry which drew a large crowd.

In 1950, the Gopher Theatre was taken over by a new owner, Ted Karatz and his partner Ben Berger, who began a policy of screening first-run films, which continued into the 1970’s.

By the late-1970’s, however, the Gopher Theatre was a porno house, and was closed in 1979. It was torn down soon afterwards.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 26 comments)

chappo52 on June 12, 2013 at 4:45 pm

All of the Sean Connery-era Bond films played at the Orpheum on their first run. The Gopher may have become a porn theater but it was the first run theater for Jaws in ‘75. As I recall, Jaws played their exclusively from June to late fall or early winter of 75.

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on February 24, 2014 at 8:41 am

As The Grand Theatre, the hall had a small Wurlitzer pipe organ installed in 1926. Wurlitzer’s opus 1374 was a style B special with 2 manuals and 5 ranks of pipes. The top of the console is visible in the photo link posted by Lost Memory.

Supr8 on June 16, 2015 at 3:39 pm

The “Gopher” visible on the postcard on display at the time of this comment is not the theater, it’s a similarly and unrelated café. The theater is technically – but not practically – visible on the card. Both establishments were on the east side of Hennepin; the theater was between 6th and 7th Streets while the café was between 8th and 9th. This card is looking north from 10th.

Supr8 on July 4, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Here is a proper photo of the Gopher. From 1938:

rivest266 on January 15, 2017 at 6:25 am

October 29th, 1938 grand opening ad as Gopher in the photo section.

CJ1949 on June 15, 2019 at 9:25 pm

Some clarity provided here to previous postings. Porno X-rated films were played only for a little more than a year in the waning days of the Gopher Theatre. The last advertising in the Minneapolis papers was in mid-August 1979 and the theatre was demolished in September. The block became “City Center”, one of several retail-office complexes built in downtown Minneapolis which bombed.

F & R (Finkelstein and Ruben) did not have the theatre as late as 1949. F & R sold out to Paramount-Publix in 1928 after enjoying a partnership deal with Paramount. Noted Minneapolis theatre architects Liebenberg and Kaplan were hired to remodel this and several Paramount-owned theatres in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the 1930s to the ‘50s. They did the 1938 streamline-style remodeling whereupon the name was changed from Grand to Gopher.

Paramount (subsidiary name Minnesota Amusement Company) ran the Gopher until 1950 as a moveover house, first-run B pictures, or the occasional A picture when the other Paramount theatres were tied up. Paramount’s #1 and #2 houses in downtown Minneapolis were the State and Minnesota (name changed to Radio City in 1944). #3 was the Century and #4 the Lyric. (Paramount also had an interest in the RKO Orpheum in a pooling arrangement but that was dissolved in the early 1940s). Minnesota Amusement also ran the Aster Theatre which was on the same block as the Gopher, and ran first-run B double bills.

The Gopher and Aster were among a few theatres that Paramount was forced to dispose of in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area after the decree. In 1950, Ted Karatz took over the theatres with partner Ben Berger, who was the owner of the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team. Berger had several theatres and was a leader of the North Central wing of the Allied States Association, a theatre operators organization. Berger was instrumental in fighting against film distributors’ block booking, bidding and clearance practices. Berger initiated several lawsuits and testified on behalf of others. He also wrote an autobiography, “Thank You America.”

Berger’s operation of the Gopher immediately sent downtown Minneapolis into bidding wars and made first-run bookings even more competitive. In the 1950’s Berger had the best luck with MGM and Universal, playing several of their films as first-runs that decade.

Late-run double features continued at the Aster Theatre until 1965, when Berger changed the format to 60’s-style porn. The Aster remained a porn theatre until its closing in 1979.

“Jaws” did play 6 months at the Gopher, up through Christmas Eve. Then it was replaced by “The Hindenburg” (also Universal) which played two months.

(Another long run for the Gopher was “The Exorcist”, which played 6 months beginning Dec. 26, 1973. The first 2 months of the run were as a Twin Cities exclusive – the film did not even open in St. Paul until March 1, 1974).

Berger sold both theatres in June 1977 to Ferris Alexander, a porno kingpin. “The Deep” was already booked and the engagement went ahead (it played two months). In the fall of 1977 to early 1978, second run Hollywood features at a $1 or $2 admission were played, and a few higher-grade X-rated films included. In April 1978 the Gopher had a first run (but not exclusive) of “F.I.S.T.” Lower-grade X-rated films however became the sole fare from June 1978 to its closing in August 1979.

To add to the historical confusion, Alexander briefly ran a two-screen X-rated storefront theatre on the opposite side of Hennepin Avenue, called “Gopher 1 & 2” around 1979-1980. Strangely, for a short time in 1980 this twin played some late-run Hollywood pictures at $1 admission.

Trolleyguy on September 15, 2019 at 8:11 pm

Posted a 1944 nighttime picture of the Gopher with the Lyric, Pix and State up the street.

Trolleyguy on January 18, 2020 at 2:14 pm

Posted a 1951 picture in photos

Trolleyguy on February 20, 2020 at 11:36 am

Posted a 1954 picture in photos.

MSC77 on December 26, 2023 at 8:36 am

Fifty years ago today THE EXORCIST opened here. Gopher was among only two-dozen cinemas in twenty-one North American markets to play the film at release launch.

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