Keep theaters locally owned

Twin Cities-based management will likely feature more diverse entertainment.

The State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters – the so-called Hennepin Avenue Theater District – are locally popular for hosting all types of theatrical performances, from giant Broadway musicals and David Copperfield’s magic to lesser-known comedians and local plays.

But that artistic diversity is threatened by the possibility of a change in management of the theater group. Currently managed by the nonprofit Hennepin Theatre Trust and for-profit Historic Theatre Group, the theaters generate revenue for the city – but have also racked up a $22 million debt while developing. The Minneapolis City Council therefore debated adding players to the management table, and the emerging entity was none other than media giant Clear Channel.

Clear Channel entered the Twin Cities market in 1999, when it acquired seven radio stations. Since then, its local empire has extended to providing much of the entertainment for The Quest, the Fine Line Music Cafe, the Target Center and Hennepin Avenue venues, and it owns 80 percent of St. Paul’s billboards. Venues that don’t deal with Clear Channel – notably First Avenue – have paid the price.

While Clear Channel’s offer includes backing the bond on the $22 million, the agreement would make the company a full-fledged management partner with the other groups. The problem is that Clear Channel’s history suggests its hold on who can and cannot appear at its venues is strong and ruthless; the historic theaters stand to become just a few more outlets for Clear Channel to monopolize the industry and shut out up-and-coming, non-Clear Channel acts.

Local management of the theaters promotes a sense of community in the Hennepin Avenue area. The acts and shows appearing are unique, diverse and not dictated by a national media conglomerate unconcerned with what local residents like and want. Local management, established during decades, can reflect the area’s values better than Clear Channel ever could.

Jobs are also at stake. When Clear Channel took over the radio stations in the area, many radio personnel were lost to “consolidation” measures. The city and theater management do need to solve the venues’ debt problem. But selling out to a nonlocal corporate giant is not the answer; Clear Channel has too extensive a hold on Twin Cities culture as it is.