In early november 1919…
construction was being completed on the New Grand, the largest theater in town ever built for the purpose of showing only moving pictures. Minneapolis architects Beuchner 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. Special basement tunnels were designed to insure that patrons would not get a chill from a concrete floor built against the ground.
On November 10, opening night, a foot of snow due to the season's first blizzard did not stop residents from filling the New Grand theatre. Admission prices were 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson was the first Vitaphone feature at the Grand in 1927. The first "100 percent talking picture" was the first all-talking film made, The Lights of New York, opening at the Grand the fall of 1928. In 1930 the Grand closed for extensive remodeling and reopened with an all new 3000 bulb marquee, a new box office on the sidewalk line, and a new screen, sound system, and projectors.
Moviegoers again lined up around the block to be treated to a new Italian Renaissance decor, acoustic treatments, and the first North Dakota theater with washed air cooling. Now a part of the Paramount-Publix chain, the theatre was rechristened "The Paramount." The theater again saw a gradual facelift and modernization in the early fifties, capped off with the addition of Cinemascope in 1954 and an impressive new marquee vertically spelling the new name E-M-P-I-R-E in brilliant flashing lights. Cliff Knoll, then general manager of the Paramount, said the company renamed the theater to express the recent changes in North Dakota. With the development of a new empire of oil, land development, and industry, the Empire became symbolic of the area's progressive forward movement.
For years the Empire remained the prestige theater in downtown Grand Forks. A quarter century later, plagued by poor attendance, the Empire closed on January 8, 1987, and reopened on as a 99-cent theater on July 17th. As attendance improved and planning for the multiplex construction project across town dragged out over another six years, the Empire was changed back into a first-run movie house in the summer of 1993. 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.
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.
Renovation of the theater and an adjacent storefront building into a multipurpose arts facility began in November 1995. Renovations were hit with a major setback when a flood caused $100,000-200,000 damage to the facility in April 1997. Despite heavy personal losses by nearly all its members, the board of directors voted unanimously to continue the project. It would be a vote of confidence in Grand Forks. The Empire reopened on March 27, 1998, with a reception for major donors and a performance by classical guitarist Berta Rojas. Separating from the North Valley Arts Council, the Empire became a stand alone 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in July, 2002, and continues to host a variety of theater productions, performing arts, films, concerts, speakers, community events, and meetings throughout the year.
Text adapted from Christopher P. Jacobs's "Empire Theater: From Movie House to Arts Center"