Photo taken December 1993 at a sellout midnight showing of Wayne's World 2.

Empire Theatre
Grand Forks, North Dakota

Text and Photos By Christopher P. Jacobs (Copyright © 1998 by Christopher P. Jacobs)
(Excerpted from a forthcoming history of movie theatres in Grand Forks)
Last updated July 7, 2008

It was a time of new technology, new ideas, and new opportunities. Life in general was becoming more exciting and more complicated. Early November, 1919—daylight savings time, which had been put into effect during World War I, had just been abolished. The Great War had been over for about a year, as had the deadly influenza epidemic. Governor Lynn J. Frazier was ready to take over operation of North Dakota’s coal mines to settle a strike. Editorials and letters to the editor warned about Reds, anarchists, and the Non-partisan League. Count Ilya Tolstoy was scheduled to speak in Grand Forks on "The Truth About Russia." The Dakota Playmakers from the University were preparing for a two-day Ibsen festival which they would get to perform in the opulent Metropolitan Theatre downtown. Construction was being completed on the New Grand, the largest theatre in town ever built for the purpose of showing only moving pictures.

This new theatre would operate for a longer period of time than any other theatre ever built in Grand Forks, changing its name twice after extensive remodeling projects. Shortly after sound films were introduced the New Grand became the Paramount for about 25 years, and after it modernized again and converted to CinemaScope it was renamed the Empire, the name it has held for the longest time.

The old Grand—which, coincidentally, had originally been called the Empire—had been severely damaged by fire a year earlier. When it reopened with mainly vaudeville it was called the Orpheum (and would later become the Dakota until demolished in 1971 for a parking lot, currently the site of a brownstone apartment/townhouse complex). Meanwhile the Grand’s former proprietor, A. J. Kavanagh, had decided to build an all-new theatre for showing movies. Of the six other theatres then in Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, the two largest (the Met and the Orpheum) had originally been built for live theatre and vaudeville, respectively, but now presented movies as well. The other movie houses—the Foto Play, the Strand, the Royal and the Reel (which was just across the bridge in East Grand Forks)—were much smaller, smaller even than many modern multiplex theatre auditoriums.

Minneapolis architects Buechner and Orth, who had just recently designed the new Grand Forks County Courthouse, planned a modern and impressive 948-seat movie palace for the city. It was to be up to high standards for safety, fire-resistance, and health. Special basement tunnels were designed to insure that patrons would not get a chill from a concrete floor built against the ground.

On November 9, as local residents read Sunday newspaper articles and advertisements touting the Monday night grand opening of Grand Forks’ latest attraction, winter moved into the Red River Valley. By 7:00 the next morning over three inches of snow had fallen and the wind was picking up. Taxis stopped running by 2:30 in the afternoon and UND cancelled the rest of the day’s classes. By 7 p.m. there was almost a foot of snow on the ground as a result of the season’s first blizzard. Nevertheless, despite the weather, the New Grand Theatre was filled almost to capacity on opening night. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. First-nighters who braved the snow beheld a structure designed for "comfort" and "simple beauty."

They walked up a sloping entryway to one of six French doors to the lobby, which was done in marble with rose linen rugs. The manager’s office and ticket booth were at the right. To the left of the lobby was a soft drink and confectionery parlor. Another set of six French doors led into the spacious auditorium. The well-equipped and attractive lavatories and retiring rooms were in the basement, with stairs descending on each side of the building under the stairways that ascended to the gallery. The small but guaranteed fireproof projection booth was in the center of the balcony, jutting from the back wall. There were nearly 900 seats on the main floor, set 32 inches apart from back to back. The walls were ivory gray with blue and gold stripes. Hand-painted roses and foliage added a decorative look. A classical appearance was achieved from a row of pilasters jutting from each side wall and flanking the screen, each topped with a plaster cast lion's head capital. Chandeliers designed in a more modern deco style hung from beams built into the ceiling, running the length of the auditorium several feet from the left and right walls. The stage was only about seven feet deep, just big enough for a singer, speaker or entertainer. A few roll drops provided scenery changes when necessary. The new Grand had no need for a large stage or flyloft, since it was designed to be a motion picture theatre. Earlier, never-realized plans, however, called for a 30-foot deep stage in a three-story structure with 575 seats on the main floor and offices on upper floors. Managers Kavanagh and M. C. "Mike" Cooper, had run the old Grand Theatre before it changed owners and became the Orpheum earlier that year. The old Grand had shown movies, but was noted as a vaudeville house. Kavanagh’s new Grand had an exclusive contract with Paramount Artcraft for first-run movies that would be shown in Grand Forks at the same time that they were in Minneapolis. Artcraft was the "class" subsidiary of Paramount, with higher rental rates than standard Paramount pictures. The Grand’s contract stipulated that no vaudeville could be presented in the theatre, although it did not specifically prohibit individual entertainers.

Glass slide promoting the Paramount-Drew Comedy HAROLD, THE LAST OF THE SAXONS by Florence Ryerson, produced by V.B.K. Film CorporationAt 7:30 that first night, audience members settled into their cozy gray, leather-upholstered seats and eagerly watched the gold-trimmed blue velvet velour drapes open for the first part of the evening’s program. Geraci, a renowned accordionist, pleased everyone with a mixture of classical and popular numbers. After the applause died down, the backdrop rolled up, projectionist Julius Storheim struck the carbons in the arc lamps of one of the two Simplex projectors, and the Kinogram news weekly hit the screen. The relatively small screen was 12 feet high by 16 feet wide, painted right on the back wall of the building between the two gilded pilasters. Besides the newsreel of "the latest world events in pictures," the crowd was treated to the Paramount two-reel comedy short Harold, the Last of the Saxons, one of the last films made by the popular and prolific team of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew before Sidney Drew's untimely death earlier that year.

Warner Oland menaces Elsie Ferguson in The Witness For the DefenseThe main feature for the evening was the recent (September 14) Paramount-Artcraft release, The Witness for the Defense, starring the famous stage actress Elsie Ferguson with Warner Oland, who many years later would be Charlie Chan. Musical accompaniment by the Grand’s own five-piece orchestra accentuated the drama on the screen. A small orchestra pit stretched across the front of the stage below the screen, one step down from the auditorium floor. The theatre’s Baldwin piano had been purchased from the Poppler Piano Company in town, who also supplied the sheet music for the films. A pipe organ had been ordered but strikes delayed its shipment in time for the opening. After a three-day run, The Witness for the Defense was replaced by The Valley of the Giants, starring the popular Wallace Reid, for the remaining three days of the week, a little over two months past its August 31 national release.

Daily 3 p.m. matinees were the Grand’s general policy. The special children’s afternoon price of 10 cents doubtless lured many a schoolboy and girl into the show after classes, although the Grand specialized in more adult dramas. Along with the Met and Orpheum, the Grand showed the major Hollywood releases. Westerns, serials and slapstick comedies usually played at the smaller movie houses in town. Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Kinogram newsreel preceded the feature at the Grand. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays there was a short comedy film.

The movies usually changed twice a week, although the live entertainers before the show were booked for two weeks at a time. They would then change their program to suit whatever film was being shown. Local lyric tenor Clarence O’Connor was a regular attraction. Later, three movies would often be shown in a week, titles changing every two days. Certain special films would run longer. Paramount’s big special of 1919, The Miracle Man, starring Lon Chaney, ran for a full week, but this was extremely rare. A few films would run for four days, notably Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female, starring Gloria Swanson.

By the fall season of 1920, two-day runs were the rule and it seems that local theatre rivalries were becoming heated. Less than a year after the Grand’s opening, the little Strand on South 3rd Street outbid the Grand or otherwise managed to obtain exclusive rights to first-run Paramount films. The Grand responded by running an apologetic ad touting its good will and attempts to obtain the best possible films, regardless of studio. Most of these came from Goldwyn, Universal, and various independent studios. The Grand also was able to hold off playing one of the Paramount pictures to which it had the rights until its first anniversary week—Cecil B. DeMille’s saucy sex comedy, Why Change Your Wife?, was scheduled for November 8 and 9, 1920, and was held over for a third day, causing the next film to play only one day. On Sunday, January 9, 1921, the theatre hosted a concert by Allen McQuhae, a lyric tenor from Ireland. The event was advertised weeks in advance, sponsored by the Pro-Cathedral club as a benefit for St. Michael’s School. Movies were not permitted on Sundays by state law at this time, but concerts, particularly for a religious organization, were all right.

Click for an image gallery of other early movie advertising art for titles that played at the New Grand the first couple of years it was openFor some reason in February of 1921, no advertisements, articles, or even mention of the Grand appeared in the daily newspaper for two weeks. Then on February 28, with great fanfare and local attention, Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid, opened for a three-day run. It quickly extended to four days, canceling the second of the three films scheduled to play that week. There was even a local review the next day instead of just the typical studio pressbook reprint (which usually appeared the Sunday before any film opened), and a local clothing store tied in with the movie in its own ads.

A little bit of Hollywood came to Grand Forks in the Spring of 1927, while the Grand was part of the Finkelstein and Ruben theatre chain. The Grand Forks Herald, Finkelstein and Ruben, and the Berkova Motion Picture Company of Hollywood held a movie contest. Herald readers were invited to enter a story idea or script for a two-reel (about 20-minute) picture set in Grand Forks. Some scenes had to include the Grand Forks Herald building, with interiors to be shot on the stage of the Grand Theatre. The winner would receive a prize of $20 plus the hopes of fame and fortune in a new movie career. The leading players were people nominated by ballots which the Herald printed in every issue, and which patrons could drop at the theatre. Other actors were chosen from the people who showed up on the day of shooting. The contest got underway in mid-April and Mary Lou, the winning story, was filmed the weekend of May 13-14. The screenplay was by Ruth Ashley and Dorothy Elton, who shared the Herald’s prize money. The comedy-drama’s title role was played by Sylvia Steel, by popular acclaim. Starring opposite her as a Herald reporter who saves the day was UND student Richard Sturtevant, from the Sigma Nu fraternity. The finished movie was ready about six weeks later and was shown June 29-30 as the short subject preceding the regular feature.

When Warner Brothers’ film The Jazz Singer became a huge hit with the amazing synchronized singing of Al Jolson, theatres across the country rushed to install the new Vitaphone sound system. That was late in 1927. Vitaphone films had sound on separate disks which played on a turntable driven by the same motor as the projector. By early 1928 the talkies had arrived in North Dakota when the Fargo Theatre played The Jazz Singer and even advertised in Grand Forks. Quickly responding to the supposed fad, in May and June of 1928 the Grand Theatre started inserting the phrases "watch for Vitaphone" and "Vitaphone is coming" in their advertisements. On June 17, 1928 they introduced their new sound system with great fanfare and raised prices. Even though they received top billing, the first Vitaphone films shown to Grand Forks audiences were nothing more than short films of vaudeville acts and musical performances, shown only on weekends, with a regular silent feature making up the bulk of the program. That first Friday-Saturday show featured the appropriately-titled silent feature, The Big Noise, preceded by the New York Philharmonic performing Wagner’s "Tannhauser" overture on film, and filmed vaudeville acts by George Jessel and Fred Ardath. The first Vitaphone feature at the Grand, like just about everywhere else, was The Jazz Singer, which ran for four days in July 1928. This was nine months after its New York premiere started the worldwide craze for films with recorded sound. Full-length synchronized sound features appeared sporadically for a while. These, like The Jazz Singer, were actually just silent films with recorded musical scores, some sound effects, plus possibly one or two songs and/or talking sequences.

The first "100 per cent talking picture" at the Grand was also the first all-talking feature film made, The Lights of New York. This gangster melodrama showed in Grand Forks September 24-27, 1928, just two months after its national release. By the end of the year all films at the Grand had synchronized music and sound effects or actual dialogue. Many were re-issues of famous silent pictures with soundtracks added by the studios in hopes of making more money from them. Talking pictures were now the rage, however. Almost everyone had radio or a phonograph at home, and had become accustomed to the sound of music and voices from a loudspeaker or acoustic horn. The "hi-tech" amplified sound in a movie theatre seemed to be high fidelity by comparison. All the other movie houses in town eventually added sound or closed or both, for the Great Depression was starting.

In June of 1930, the Grand closed for ten days while extensive remodeling was done inside. "Practically everything will be new," said manager Mike Cooper. When it reopened Wednesday, June 18, it was again a major event in the local entertainment business. Now a part of the Paramount-Publix theatre chain (Finkelstein and Ruben had sold all their theatres to Paramount Pictures) it was rechristened "The Paramount," with a brand-new marquee patterned after the Chicago Paramount. With over 3000 light bulbs, it was the largest movie marquee in the state On the technical side, the Paramount now had the latest type of Western Electric sound system, and two new, larger Simplex projectors which could now play sound on film instead of just sound on separate disks. (The disk equipment was removed entirely the following summer, according to the theatre’s service records.) The projection booth was about three times larger than it had been before, dividing the balcony in two and cutting down on seating. There was also a new, much larger, hanging screen that gave a crisper, more brilliant picture than the white-painted plaster that had been used until then. The walls were covered with acoustic material to reduce the reverberation which had enhanced musical accompaniment but distorted the now-critical dialogue. That June afternoon Grand Forks moviegoers found the boxoffice moved down to the sidewalk line, resulting in a larger lobby and foyer. The new decor was done in an Italian renaissance style with a tapestry effect on the walls, which had been made to look like replicas of old Italian villas. The floor coverings were now in a period design. For the first time the aisles were carpeted. Florentine chandeliers in the foyer, beamed ceilings, and the iron grillwork on the stairs to the balcony added to the effect. Blue silk curtains replaced the previous velvet look. Perhaps the greatest attraction on hot summer days, however, was the fact that the Paramount was the first North Dakota theatre with washed-air cooling. The temperature inside remained a comfortable 70 degrees despite the beating sun outdoors. Patrons relaxed at the Paramount’s first matinee and watched Charles "Buddy" Rogers in Safety in Numbers, featuring North Dakota’s own Virginia Bruce. Matinee admission prices at this time were 10 cents for children and 35 cents for adults. Regular evening prices were 15 cents and 50 cents.

By the early 1950’s television was starting to cut into regular movie attendance. To entice viewers back into the theatres Hollywood came out with more technical improvements. The CinemaScope process made the picture nearly twice as wide as before, more closely approaching the normal field of human vision. It also introduced the public to the wonders of stereophonic sound, with three speakers behind the screen. Now sounds and voices could seem to emanate from where they appeared to be in the scene. A fourth soundtrack could make music and special effects fill the entire theatre with surround sound. As usual, the Paramount was the first Grand Forks theatre to convert to the latest cinematic advances. Again it added CinemaScope about a year after its national debut, obtaining the necessary screen and equipment in May of 1954. Daily matinees were suspended for four days to allow for the installation. Finally, at 6:30 Thursday evening, May 6, KNOX’s Jack French and KILO’s Dick Burkingham were on hand for a live radio broadcast from the theatre, featuring the UND Pep Band and various local celebrities. The biblical epic, The Robe, then began its one-week run on "the largest screen in the Red River Valley," complete with state of the art four-track magnetic stereo sound.

Except for a second, more streamlined Paramount marquee in the 1940’s, it had been nearly a quarter of a century since a major remodeling had been done. The theatre chain decided it was time to modernize the whole Paramount building and a gradual facelift was undertaken over several months, designed by Minneapolis architects Liebenberg and Kaplan. The boxoffice was moved again, to its present position, making the inside lobby twice as wide as before. New carpeting was installed and a new front of polished granite siding covered up the decorative brown brick on the ground level. The screen drapes now had a muted copper and gold color. The most impressive change made was the huge new marquee, which was the last addition. On Saturday, January 8, 1955, the theatre had a new name and a giant new vertical sign spelling out E-M-P-I-R-E in hundreds of little lights connected to a "chaser" circuit. Cliff Knoll, manager of the Paramount, said that the company renamed the theatre to express the recent changes in North Dakota. The state was developing a new empire of oil, land development and industry. The Empire was representative of the area’s progressive, forward movement.

But after another quarter-century, poor attendance plagued the Empire. For years it had remained the prestige theatre in downtown Grand Forks. Then, in the 1970’s businesses had started to move out to the malls. New, smaller but more modern multiplex theatres opened, and appeared to have a glossier, up-to-date image. With no parking lot of its own and only one screen to attract patrons, its problems were compounded by the fact that its sound and projection equipment had been allowed to deteriorate over the years, and the last remodeling projects were showing signs of wear. A new projector and sound system had just recently been installed, but the crowds were too small to notice. Then Midco Theatres bought out the Grand Forks theatres of the rival Plitt chain. The ten local screens at the time seemed like plenty for one company, and the Empire was closed on January 8, 1987.

Meanwhile, a developer was interested in turning the building which contained the "buck house" Center Cinema in East Grand Forks into a night club. By summer it looked like a certainty and the building was sold. Midco then moved out its theatre furnishings and reopened the Empire as a 99-cent theatre on July 17, right after the Center closed. Plans were to close the Empire within a year or two when Midco was to open a large six to eight-screen complex, consolidating its operations. The situation changed, however, as movie attendance improved and planning for the multiplex construction project dragged out over another six years. So many new movies were now being released that in the summer of 1993 the Empire was changed back into a first-run movie house, with no bargain theatre in town. This policy remained in effect until it finally ceased operation as a commercial movie theatre on April 7, 1994, four weeks before the new multiplex (by this time with ten screens) finally opened. At that time the Empire was in its 75th continuous year of showing films. Ironically, only weeks before the closing date, the aging boiler broke down, requiring temporary electric furnaces to be installed.

For the rest of the year the building sat dark, serving as a convenient storage space for Midco while behind the scenes the works were in gear for the next major step in its existence. Then, on December 22, 1994, officials from the Midcontinent Corporation traveled to Grand Forks to make a formal donation of the historic structure to the North Valley Arts Council. It would have a new life as a multi-purpose downtown arts center. Throughout the winter a large red bow with a giant name tag and a holiday greeting adorned the marquee. NOVAC moved its office into the lobby as the weather started to warm up, and its first event in the location was the evening of May 6, 1995. At 6:30 p.m. the doors opened to the public again for the opening of a month-long art exhibit (hung on the auditorium walls), and around 9 p.m. a Minneapolis cabaret singer, Leslie Ball, gave a performance on stage.

On the 4th of July that year, NOVAC’s second big event was a silent movie festival with live organ accompaniment. It featured short comedies all afternoon, and an evening showing of Buster Keaton’s classic, The General (which had previously played in the theatre back in 1927) following a concert by the Dick King Classic Swing Band. That same fall NOVAC held its first annual Halloween night. There was a costume contest on stage followed by a screening of the original Lon Chaney silent classic The Phantom of the Opera with a live musical accompaniment. Ongoing art exhibits and other occasional concerts were held over the following year, with NOVAC’s second annual Halloween costume contest and silent film showing—this time Lon Chaney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. By that time plans were well underway for its renovation into a multi-purpose arts center. One final event, a wine-tasting/fundraising, was held in the theatre in mid-November, and construction began by the end of the month.

Little by little the theatre’s new image began to take shape. It was coming along well on schedule in April of 1997 with a planned opening for September, when the disasterous flood hit on April 19th. About four feet of muddy water covered the main floor and stage, causing between $100,000 and $200,000 in damage. In addition it drastically affected the ability of local arts patrons to meet their funding pledges due to their own extensive cleanup and repair expenses. It was a bitter setback but NOVAC was determined to survive. Despite heavy personal losses by nearly all its members, the board of directers voted unanimously to continue the project. It would be a vote of confidence in Grand Forks. By the end of the summer the theatre building cleanup was completed and construction was resumed. The upstairs had not been touched by the waters, and the new NOVAC office was ready for occupancy by November. However, funding was still a difficulty and the new opening date was revised to the end of March, 1998.

The theatre seats, luckily had already been removed and sent away to be refinished and reupholstered before the flood hit. They returned looking brand new during the last week of February, 1998 and their installation was finished the first week of March. The old movie screen had been taken down and rolled up to be reused, but was destroyed by the flood. A new screen, motorized so as to permit use of the stage, was ordered and arrived March 4th. Its 16 by 36 foot picture area makes it once more the largest indoor movie screen in the state. Audiences who have not seen the Empire’s interior since it closed may be surprised at the transformation. The 1930s wall murals have been kept but repainted in the building’s new color scheme. Architectural details that were difficult to notice with the bland 1950s monochromatic paint job on the ceilings and pillars are now highlighted in a style consistent with the original 1919 period. The vintage Empire Theatre has a new life, and holds the potential for an even greater future.

A wide variety of concerts, art exhibits, and theatrical performances (including a world premiere of an off-Broadway-bound play) drew audiences to the Empire throughout the remainder of 1998. Movies returned to the big screen with a Christmas film festival December 11-12. Although still not equipped for 35mm film, 16mm prints of A Miracle on 34th Street and It's A Wonderful Life played to appreciative patrons. A month later, January 8-9, 1999, the Empire scheduled an Elvis Presley double feature to celebrate the late singer's birthday, showing Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, as well as a festival of three Alfred Hitchcock films, Rope, Vertigo, and The 39 Steps, later in January. An Irish film festival followed in March, with sporadic movie showings thereafter, including special premiere showings of movies by area filmmakers using the large-screen video projector. In 2002, the Empire founded the annual Forx Film Fest now held every November, dedicated to showcasing regionally made student and independent movies. A grant helped the Empire rent 16mm prints for a monthly foreign film series in 2002 and 2003. An annual Halloween screening of the cult comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show was established by local comedy troupe "Nine and Numb," and soon became a popular audience participation event for the region. Several locally made movies have even used the Empire for locations, including an award-winning backstage musical comedy co-produced by the Empire in 2005-06, Music to My Ears.

Stage performances remain the normal fare at the rejuvenated showhouse, however. In 2002 the Empire separated itself from NOVAC and currently operates as an independent entity, although still as a nonprofit corporation. It has worked on broadening the use of its facilities throughout the year by local organizations and schools. The Greater Grand Forks Symphony, the North Dakota Ballet, and local theatre groups like the Firehall Theatre and the Crimson Creek Collegiate Players, among others, often perform at the Empire. Touring guest artists like Leon Redbone and former Grand Forks resident Tom Brosseau (who brought violinist friend Hilary Hahn to perform with him) have sold out the auditorium. For the annual "First Night" New Year's Eve celebration downtown the Empire presented a live concert of a Spanish guitarist in 1998, had an entire evening of musical and comedy performers on stage in 1999, and is now a prime venue for a variety of stage acts during the event. For a couple of years the auditorium was also the location for Sunday services of a church in the community that had outgrown its building. By 2008, ten years after its renovation, downtown activity had increased dramatically and even saw the opening of a new first-run moviehouse -- the River Cinema 12, located several blocks down the street and across the bridge in East Grand Forks. With its reopening the final weekend of March 1998, the Empire Theatre quickly established itself as a regional Performing Arts Center and has become one of Grand Forks’ greatest assets.

Only days before the Grand Re-Opening workers were installing the poster cases and repairing, rewiring, and re-bulbing the 43-year-old marquee to make it look and work like new. At the same time, neighboring flood-damaged buildings were being demolished for a new office complex.

Gallery of early movie advertising from the theatre's first few years (as the New Grand)

Pictures of the Empire's renovation process

Pictures of the 1997 flood damage

Pictures of the Grand Reopening reception

Personal Reflections on the Empire