It turns out there’s a koi pond on the second floor of the Avalon Theatre, the space that In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) has operated out of since 1987.
The art deco building was built in 1937 by architect Perry E. Crosier, replacing a different cinema that had been demolished in 1936. Crosier built a number of theaters locally, and two theaters he designed in North Dakota have been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, including the Strand Theatre in Grafton, and the Walla Theater in Walhalla.
The Avalon’s signature curved towers with neon light boxes that make up its facade have made the venue a landmark of Lake Street, where HOBT has been based for over 35 years.
Now the interior of the building is getting spiffed up as part of a new strategic plan for the organization. Rather than sell the building, which HOBT announced it would do in 2021, they’re renovating it, highlighting its Streamline Moderne features.
Popular in the 1930s, Streamline Moderne was an art deco style that emphasized curves, long horizontal forms and nautical elements. For instance, HOBT has re-painted the lobby with two different colors, separated with a tape line. Now prominently displayed are ship window-like light fixtures found in the tunnels underneath the theater.
Located on the second floor, the koi pond was part of the original design, but has been covered up for most of HOBT’s history in the space. There are crying rooms as well, that originally looked out onto the theater through glass. Those had been converted into office space. Now, HOBT has removed plywood and re-installed glass, so you can see the theater from the two rooms. The upstairs will feature a new lounge space and conference rooms — a potential revenue stream for the theater.
Why the decision not to sell? Part of that is financial. According to Interim Executive Director Michelle Pett, the organization consulted with various real estate and development professionals and learned they’d likely only get around $600,000 for the 10,000 square foot building.
“We never actually put it on the market,” said Pett, who took over her position six weeks after HOBT made its announcement to sell. “We got the sense from the property development folks that Lake Street was so damaged by the uprising that it was kind of not attractive.” Tabling the decision to sell, the board knuckled down into a strategic planning process where they re-evaluated everything.
Through that process, the board made the decision to release its annual MayDay Parade and Festival to the community. The festival was started in 1973 and continued every year until 2020. In 2022, HOBT partnered with other organizations to host MayDay at venues outside of Powderhorn Park. Beginning this year, HOBT won’t be involved in the festival at all.
Instead, they are investing in the Avalon as an important asset — not just for In the Heart of the Beast, but for the community as a whole.
Part of that asset is the space itself, and using it as a rental venue. Investing in that revenue stream meant giving the building some love and care. “It’s 86 years old,” Pett says, “It has had deferred maintenance, with things like the roof. It’s a 10,000 square foot space, with a barrel roof that’s concrete. That’s a pretty significant expense to tackle, and the organization just had never done that.” Addressing big projects like the roof will come part and parcel with making the venue more attractive for people that might want to rent. “The business model is that the space itself needs to be part of generating the earned revenue that’s required for the organization to be sustainable over time,” Pett says.
Before the pandemic, HOBT had 15 or 16 employees, and now have five employees, with one full-time staff member. This week, it is hosting a fundraiser with a goal of raising $10,000, which will get boosted by a $5,000 challenge from board members past and present. That money will go toward a bridge fund to raise $300,000 for general operations. HOBT has hired a consultant to conduct a nationwide search for a new producing artistic director. “The goal is to have an artistic leader that reflects the community that we serve, and the community that we serve, is primarily BIPOC, and queer,” Pett says.
According to Pett, she’s working toward a budget of $600,000, a drop from over a million before the pandemic. “It’s hard for me to say what we would be looking at, let’s say, two years from now, or three years from now, whether or not we will kind of get to a place where we can solidly hold that million bucks within that timeframe,” Pett says. “I would venture to say that I’m not sure how well we were holding to that million before the pandemic. There would be years where there was just abundance and then years were if there was scarcity. It was very kind of rollercoaster. What we’re trying to engineer is something that is more of a smooth ride.”
Meanwhile, HOBT plans to start its new puppet library. Anyone from the community will be able to visit the puppets, and also check them out. It’s free, with the exception of certain puppets that require professional puppeteers, a service that costs $75/hour in addition to transportation costs. The library opens April 29, and will be open every first and third Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The puppet library replaces a warehouse space that formerly housed HOBT’s archive of puppets, but not all of the puppets that were in that warehouse will be in the puppet library.
Former artistic director Sandra Spieler was installing a collection of puppets from HOBT at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (the M) in the summer of 2021 when she heard the news that HOBT was letting go of its warehouse space.
“While I was there installing it, I get the call that the theater is going to close the warehouse,” Spieler recalls. “I thought, where are these puppets going to go?” Staff at the M offered to house puppets at that space temporarily, as the museum wasn’t open to the public at that time.
“For years and years, that warehouse was a treasure trove,” Spieler says. “We were able to do so much work because of that. We would get calls for puppets for this and that, and we were able to go into the warehouse and get things. It stored some of the shows that we did every year. It’s stored the things that we used every year at MayDay. And it had like thousands and thousands of puppets.”
At the time HOBT announced it would close its warehouse space, it invited artists to come and take the puppets they had created. Meanwhile, Laura Wilhelm, HOBT’s board chair at the time, began contacting museums in town and around the country to find places for the puppets to go. Some of the puppets found permanent homes at institutions— including the Hennepin History Museum, which is planning a retrospective exhibit— while other were sold at auction.
Meanwhile, Spieler is building a new storage space in her backyard.
“People started giving me money,” Spieler recalls. “Someone handed me $1,000 And someone else handed me $1,000 without me saying anything or asking. Because of that, I thought, OK, maybe we can raise some funds.”
Spieler’s “Puppet Nest” hasn’t been completed yet— in the meantime, the puppets that will go there are being stored by various supporters and friends. Included in that stock of puppets are a few that have been rented out by other organizations. For example, St. Joan of Arc rents a specific group of puppets for its annual Easter celebration. Those were formerly housed at HOBT’s warehouse, and are now owned by Spieler when HOBT transferred ownership to her. In another example, the Minnesota Orchestra rented Mary, Joseph and donkey puppets for an event at Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the past, they had rented those from HOBT, but since HOBT transferred ownership to Spieler, the orchestra rented from HOBT, which in turn rented the puppets from Spieler, who was also hired as a puppeteer for the event.
Going forward, HOBT plans to offer allow communities to borrow for free the puppets that are in its possession (they also plan to build new puppets to add to the library). For puppets that have transferred ownership to Spieler, they’ll continue to charge a rental fee, and pay Spieler for the rental of those puppets.
In the meantime, the puppets that had been used for the MayDay Parade— including the tree of life puppet— will be housed at the Puppet Nest.
Spieler has information about her forthcoming Puppet Nest here. For information about HOBT’s Puppet Library, see here.
Meanwhile, you can visit the Avalon for the Puppet Fashion show this weekend. It runs Thursday, April 13 through Sunday, April 16, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ($25 to $45). There’s an additional pre-show fundraiser gala on Thursday, April 13 at 6:30 p.m. ($100). More information here.