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New film remembers University Avenue's glory days -- and looks to its future

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University Avenue streetcar
Passengers wait to board a streetcar on University Avenue in the early 1950s. The Prom Ballroom is visible on the far right.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Transportation Museum

The Twin Cities' University Avenue would never win a beauty pageant. The commercial street connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis is like your favorite bawdy relative: quirky, over-sized, and rough around the edges.

But that's only half the story. A new documentary suggests the avenue's glorious early days could provide some clues as to what its future might be.

"University Avenue: One Street, a Thousand Dreams," like former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, doesn't gloss over the avenue's flaws.

"When I visited University Avenue for the first time, I thought it might compete for the ugliest avenue in America," Latimer says in the film's opening line.

Filmmaker Peter Myers concedes there's no need to sugarcoat the avenue.

"It's always been eclectic, gritty, noisy, and a bit unruly," he said.

Prom Ballroom
The Prom Ballroom was a popular destination from 1941 until it is closing in 1987.
Photo courtesy of the Prom Management Group

But it's also clear Myers, who is a former Twin Cities Public Television executive, has a deep appreciation for this urban, working corridor.

"Every grand plan proposed by city planners and other officials over the last century and a half to somehow remake University Avenue has failed," Myers said. "Everything that has succeeded on University Avenue has been the result of individual enterprise."

The 59-year-old St. Paulite grew up frequenting the street for Montgomery Ward, new car dealerships, and the Porky's drive-in. All of those institutions have since vanished, but Myers notes that the avenue is constantly changing. 

The film captures the avenue's industrial and manufacturing prowess as well as its role as an entertainment destination. Baseball, vaudeville, traveling circuses, and jazz were among the avenue's offerings. The most famous haunt of all was the Prom Ballroom, which opened in 1941. 

MORE MPR COVERAGE:
• Central Corridor: A slow train coming 
• University Avenue: A work in progress

"Close to 6,000 people were packed inside on opening night, and another 3,000 had to be turned away," the film's narrator Lou Bellamy says, describing the venue's big debut.

"Many, many nights ... they had to send out extra cars to pick up the people to take 'em downtown to transfer onto cars that go near their houses," said Merle Seils, a former streetcar motorman Myers interviewed before he died this past June. 

Myers also spoke to people who remembered the building of Interstate 94, just south of University. The freeway wiped out Rondo, the heart of St. Paul's African-American community. 

I-94 also spread development into the suburbs, and a provided a way for people to avoid University Avenue altogether. Myers said over time, the street saw its fortunes reverse.

Faust Theatre
The Faust Theatre, left, located at the southwest corner of University and Dale, was a popular family destination for more than 60 years until it began showing x-rated films.
Photo courtesy of the Ramsey County Historical Society

"It was a place where people meant to go. Once we hit the 1970s, it became more of a place to avoid," Myers said.

That period of decline included the festering of adult theaters and porn shops. In the late 1980s, the community rose up and pressured the city to shut down a notorious X-rated theater, the Faust, by paying the business $1.8 million.

Today, on the site of the old Faust is the bustling Rondo Community Outreach Library — a sign of how far the intersection has come.

  Myers said he was inspired to tell the story of University Avenue after he watched the rebirth of the eastern end of the street, largely due to immigrant-owned businesses starting in the 1980s. And soon, the new Central Corridor light-rail transit line will open — nearly 60 years after the last streetcar came to a stop.

Owens Motor Sales
Owens Motor Sales opened in 1918, making it one of the first new-car dealers on University Avenue. Lifetrack Resources occupies the building today.
Photo courtesy of Rihm Kenworth

"I started to think, 'Boy, this street is probably going to change.' How much, or in what ways, nobody really knows," he said. "But this is a pivotal moment in time to both look ahead but also capture the stories of these immigrant business owners and some of the history from generations ago of this interesting street."

The story of University Avenue remains unfinished. Myers said how light rail shapes this gritty, unruly, noisy street might be the subject of a future documentary.

WATCH: There will be community screenings of the film on 10 a.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Monday at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul; and 7 p.m. on Nov. 27 at the John B. Davis Lecture Hall at Macalester College. 

The film will air at 8 p.m. Dec. 18 and again at Dec. 28 on TPT 2.

• Follow Laura Yuen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laura_yuen