An apparently modest, somewhat nondescript building on Selby Avenue was the site that launched an empire of movie theaters and the career of a famous Twin Cities entrepreneur. Located at 989 Selby, it has a red door flanked by glass block windows, and two second-story windows covered with arched red awnings, but aside from those features it blends in with its surroundings.
Now the Natural Sound Studio, this building is over a century old and has housed several activities, including a church and Salon X, but for most of its life was a theater. Built in 1911, it was named the Selby Theater until 1936, when a young man named Ted Mann leased it for $100 a month and showed films there. Mann changed the name to Oxford Theater (it is near the intersection of Selby Avenue and Oxford Street).
With 250 seats, the theater was on a busy streetcar line, yet was struggling financially when Mann took over. Dave Kenney says in “Twin Cities Picture Show” that one neighborhood newspaper described the theater as “a graveyard of ambitions and fortunes.” At his beginning on Selby Avenue, Mann did everything himself, running it “as a one-man operation, renting the films, selling tickets, running the projector and chatting with customers,” says his obituary in the Los Angeles Times. According to Kenney, a combination of frugality and determination enabled Mann to build his empire. He loaded coal in the back of his car rather than pay to have it delivered to the theater.
Within a few years, Mann was overseeing a chain of 25 theaters and drive-ins in Minnesota. From his minor profits from the Oxford, Mann purchased two more theaters, the Gem on West Seventh in St. Paul and the Metro in South Minneapolis. After World War II ended, he added the Bluebird on Rice Street in St. Paul, then formed a partnership with Don Guttman which ran eight theaters in the Twin Cities. Later Mann’s chain grew even more to include major downtown theaters.
Shirley Meyers Eggers, who with her son Paul Manly operated Northwest Architectural Salvage in the building adjacent to the former theater, grew up in St. Paul and remembered going to the Oxford Theater as a young girl. You could get in for 12¢ if you were 12 years old or younger, she recalled; she looked older and had trouble getting in sometimes.
Eggers, now deceased, recalled various forms of film entertainment in those days. “Sometimes there was a double feature and a midnight show,” she said. “You could go in at 7 p.m. and not come out until one in the morning, all for the cost of one ticket.”
“It was very elegant inside,” Eggers said. “All the old theaters were.” Indeed, one of the things Mann was known for was his elaborately decorated theaters.
Eggers recalled seeing Roy Rogers films and the film “Margie” starring Jean Crain. “The March of Time” was the name of newsreels, which often told of events going on in World War II. There were travelogues about places like Paris and Rome, shorts including “Pete Smith Specialties,” and serials with Batman and Superman and other comic book characters. The serials were often scary, too, with Dracula and similar characters. Of course, Eggers recalled, the serials ended on a cliffhanger so you’d come back the next week to see what happened.
As Eggers’ memories suggest, Ted Mann apparently knew what the public wanted. According to his Los Angeles Times obituary, “Within the motion picture industry, Mann was considered a shrewd visionary who in tough times not only helped save the theater business but also made it flourish, building multiscreen complexes and finding material that would attract increasingly young audiences.”
Mann was born in Wisheck, North Dakota, to immigrant homesteader parents, moved as a child to Minnesota and worked his way through the University of Minnesota, his obituary says.
Mann left Minnesota in 1970 to be a producer in Hollywood, selling his theater chain to General Cinemas for $67.5 million. His Hollywood productions included “Brubaker” with Robert Redford. But by 1973 he was back into the theater business. He bought the 276-screen National General Theater chain, which included Grauman’s Chinese Theater, famous for its forecourt featuring handprints and footprints of renowned actors. Under Mann’s guidance, the chain grew to 360 screens, the largest independent chain in the country. He sold it to Gulf & Western in 1986 but remained chairman until 1991 (nytimes.com).
Of all his accomplishments, Mann is perhaps best known for changing the name of the famous Grauman’s to Mann’s Chinese Theater, an act which created an uproar of protest among movie lovers. He’s also remembered as the husband of actress Rhonda Fleming, whom he married in 1977.
Less known is the philanthropy he engaged in, often in partnership with Fleming. Together they established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer at UCLA, “so that no woman would have to face cancer alone.” The Ted Mann Foundation was set up in 1984. Mann also was the founder and president of the Boy’s Club of Minneapolis.
Mann’s brother Marvin and, later, his nephew Steve joined him in his Minnesota enterprises.
At the unassuming Natural Sound Studio in the building where Ted Mann’s theater career began, Steve Janega runs the studio with a little of Mann’s entrepreneurial spirit and offerings of multiple services. The studio does recording—even karaoke sometimes—voiceovers, books on CD, bands and individual artists of all genres and “whatever you want to do,” Janega said. Besides recording, the studio serves as rehearsal space. Janega has a band that practices there every Tuesday night. “I have bands come in who have an upcoming show and want to work on their music,” he added. Janega himself has done sound and production for Free Fallin’, a Tom Petty tribute band, Emily Marrs band, Imaginary Numbers and Rhythm Pups. He met Amy Lang, the manager and marketing guru of the studio, while working sound and production for a band. “One of the reasons I did this,” he said, “I always take odd jobs. If you have something peculiar, I’ll take it.”
Janega said he and Lang want a place for talented people to go and not be overwhelmed by the recording process. Amy makes customers feel comfortable in what might otherwise be an intimidating scenario, he added.
Shirley Eggers recalled with glee not just the many film offerings, but the concession stand with seemingly vast offerings of candy as well as popcorn: “Oh my god, I just stood there because I couldn’t make up my mind.” Yes, Ted Mann knew what the public wanted, and this humble spot on Selby is where he first started making his magic.
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Note: there’s considerable confusion about the theater’s history in the sources. Kirk Besse in “Showhouses: Twin Cities Style” lists the Oxford Theater as razed in 1946 and the Selby Theater as razed in 1919, both at the 989 Selby Avenue address. Another Oxford Theater was at 1053 Grand Avenue 1922-1928 and was then renamed the Uptown, which was in fact razed and may contribute to the confusion. Cinematreasures.org says the Oxford was built in 1912 and was renamed the Selby, and a commenter on that site says a Barton theater organ was installed in the Oxford Theater in 1921. Kenney lists the Selby from 1913-1936 and the Oxford 1937-1951, both at 989 Selby, which coincides most closely with the sources on Ted Mann’s life. Robert E. Hoag, in his 1975 compilation “St. Paul’s theaters, halls, etc.” lists the Selby Theater as existing 1913-1922, renamed the New Selby in 1936 and the New Oxford in 1937-1939, then finally the Oxford 1940-1951. Because of the detail and his closeness to the actual events (since he created his list in 1975), Hoag would seem to be the most credible source. Cinematreasures.com seems to be off base, having the names Selby and Oxford reversed.
February 2014, revised August and October 2018