Riviera Theatre

449 Wabasha Street N.,
St. Paul, MN 55102

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Finkelstein & Ruben

Architects: Charles Buechner, Thomas Farr Ellerbe, Henry Orth

Firms: Buechner & Orth, Ellerbe & Company

Styles: East Indian, Moorish, Oriental

Previous Names: Astor Theatre

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Riviera in the 1920s

Opened May 15 1920 as the Astor Theatre, by Finkelstein & Ruben, the theatre was said to have cost close to $100,000 to construct. It was designed by architects Buechner & Orth and originally seated 1,100, and presented both live stage shows and motion pictures. It also had its own house orchestra. However, just seven years later, F & R had the theatre shuttered in August 1927.

It was entirely rebuilt, by architect Thomas Farr Ellerbee Snr., and renamed the Riviera Theatre. It was opened November 10, 1928, done in a Moorish-Oriental style, with live palm trees in the lobby, ultra-plush women’s lounges and Middle Eastern decor in the auditorium. The opening movie was “State Street Sadie” starring Conrad Nagel & Myna Loy.

Its vertical marquee, which soared above Wabasha Street N., was the first neon-lit sign in the Northwest.

The Governor of Minnesota as well as over 3,000 visitors attended the opening-night festivities which included fireworks and a parade.

By the end of the 1930’s, the Riviera Theatre had began a program of double features, but by the mid-1940’s, it had returned to first-run films. In 1945, Minnesota Amusement Company, which ran the theatre from the early-1930’s onwards, gave the Riviera Theatre a complete remodeling, which, despite the chain’s best-intentions, removed a great deal of its exotic original decor. The 1928 marquees were taken down and replaced with a far more simpler one.

Starting in the early-1950’s, the Riviera Theatre became known as the place to see event films. Even as late as the early-1970’s, films like “Patton” and “Papillon” drew large crowds, the latter film being the Riviera Theatre’s highest-grossing presentation in its history.

However, the theatre was showing its age, and as in so many other big-city downtowns, the Riviera Theatre began to play to smaller and smaller audiences. On November 25, 1976, the theatre was closed, despite promises that it would reopen after a remodeling–which never came. Not long afterward, it was torn down.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 4 comments)

Broan on May 29, 2006 at 5:45 pm

The original architects were Buechner & Orth

kencmcintyre on August 26, 2006 at 4:58 pm

Here is a photo, sans marquee, from 1920, as well as two 1968 photos:

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 22, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Dave Kenney’s Twin Cities Picture Show gives three additional aka’s for the Riviera Theatre (from 1911 to 1916 it was listed the Gaiety Theatre; in 1916 and 1917 it was the Cort Theatre; in 1918 and 1919 it was the OK Theatre. The Gaiety was open in 1910, though, and might have opened in late 1909.)

While there was a theater at this address for a decade before the Astor opened, I don’t know if any of the original building was incorporated into the Astor. Records from a 1913 court case reveal that the Gaiety Theatre had 700 seats, so it was only half the size of the Astor.

The contract for remodeling the store building at 447-9 Wabasha Street for the Gaiety Theatre Co. had recently been awarded to Fred Stanley, according to the November 20, 1909, issue of Construction and Contract News. The project involved complete interior remodeling and a new front with a marquee, at a cost of $4,009 and with a target date of December 6 for completion. Plans for the conversion had been drawn by architect A. C. Pear.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 22, 2014 at 1:24 pm

A 1919 photo of the New Astor Theatre from the archives of the American Terra Cotta Company can be seen on this web page. The text identifies Buechner & Orth as the architects.

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