A history of theater in Minnesota

Brainerd Opera House 1888
Sleeper Opera House, Brainerd Art Collection, Engraving 1888 Location no. MC10.9 BR3.1 p6 Negative no. 10808
Photo Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Tyrone Guthrie made Minnesota a regional theater destination when he moved here in 1963. But historian Annette Atkins says the state had a thriving tradition in the thespian arts long before Guthrie arrived.

In 19th century Minnesota, going to a Shakespeare play wasn't just for the upper classes.

"Now we think of it as a refined and rarefied thing to do," Atkins said, but thousands of Minnesotans would flock to the opera houses that were the centerpiece of many downtowns.

The traveling theater troupe of the mid to late 1800's also has a place in Minnesota theater history. One of the largest to come through the state was run by Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth. Edwin Booth was a dramatic character himself. He wore a cape and traveled in a personal railroad car.

In the 1930's and 1940's the Works Progress Administration funded theater across the country. But Atkins says the project did not last long in Minnesota, in part because one of the actresses hired was exposed by the local newspaper to be a stripper, or fan dancer.

The Minneapolis Journal newspaper railed against the federal program for allowing the woman to entertain the Civilian Conservation Corps, and in the end Minnesota withdrew from the WPA theater program altogether.

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