The unusual public/private partnership that created the Sheldon began at the start of the twentieth century when Theodore B. Sheldon, a successful businessman and Red Wing City Council member, bestowed $83,000 in trust to the City of Red Wing. Along with the funds, he stipulated that the money was to be used to develop a public institution for “some public benefit but nonsectarian purpose…”
The trust directors, including Sheldon’s second wife Annie, decided upon a theater — the first municipally owned theater in the United States. In 1904, four years after Sheldon’s passing, construction was complete on the T. B. Sheldon Memorial Auditorium. When the theatre first opened, the interior was such a celebration of arches, delicate plaster sculpture, decorative painting and many other rich detail elements that it caused The Sheldon to be described as a “jewel box.” This grand venue played host to large traveling shows, prevalent in those days. But the 1929 stock market crash and the advent of films led to the decline of such entertainment. In 1936, the theater underwent a major renovation to make it an appropriate venue for moviegoers. The interior layout was redone and seating was increased. As time progressed, additional alterations were made, including the addition of a snack bar in the foyer. Unfortunately, little thought was given to preserving the fine architectural details of the original theatre.
In the 1970s, as competition from multi-screen movie houses and television increased and the Sheldon’s operating revenues decreased, the city began to consider alternative uses for the theatre. In 1984, a special task force began to pursue the idea of restoring the theatre to its original elegance and using it as a home for live performing arts. In 1986, the citizens of Red Wing passed, by an 85% majority, a $1.5 million bond issue to help fund restoration. An additional $2 million was raised through private contributions. In 1988, the totally-restored Sheldon Theatre again opened its doors to the public as a showcase for the best local, regional and national arts and entertainment.