Thinking outside the box

Music Box Theatre explores creative uses for Nicollet venue

For 12 years, the Music Box Theatre has been synonymous with Triple Espresso, a three-man variety show.

Now that Triple Espresso is only performing at 1407 Nicollet Ave. S. over the holidays, the owner and manager are going back to the drawing board and trying to reinvent the venue.

They installed an espresso machine in the lobby. They hosted a Patsy Cline tribute as a fundraiser for Simpson Housing Services. A church called Spirit Garage holds services at the theater every Sunday.

“There are no limits to what we’re exploring,” said theater manager Pete Christensen.

The 440-seat theater might host CD release parties, art shows in the lobby, corporate events tied to the convention center, and an open-stage night for local bands. The owners might add a screen and projection equipment to the balcony to show B-run movies and classic and independent films. Christensen has talked to Jim Walsh, a local writer and musician, about hosting a music night similar to Walsh’s Hootenanny at the Beat Coffeehouse.

“This is one of the most dense areas in town as far as population,” Christensen said. “There should be a theater here, and we really want to make it work.”

Theater management is currently working to get a beer and wine license to provide them with an extra economic boost — Christensen said basic utility bills and other expenses rack up to $15,000 per month.

A subcommittee of Citizens for a Loring Park Community recommended city approval of the license last week, although one committee member worried about people creating disturbances outside the theater. Another member countered that the theater going dark would be worse for the neighborhood than people smoking on the sidewalk.

Welsh Companies is currently listing the theater for sale with an asking price of $1.95 million.

Although the owners would like to bring in more bands, they’re not planning to create a dance floor or rip out any seating.

The Music Box Theatre, originally called The Loring Theater, was built in 1920 as a silent film theater and vaudeville house. In 1930, as movies were converted into “talkies,” alterations and Art Deco details were added to the theater.

Loring was one of the few local theaters that survived the Depression, but it could not withstand the rising popularity of television and shut down in 1955.

It was later sold and converted into a Pentecostal church by the Evangelical Association. Evangelist Jim Bakker preached his first sermon at the Music Box. The theater still holds a meditation room left over from those days.

Triple Espresso’s first show at the theater came in 1996, and Producer Dennis Babcock said he’s amazed at its success. More than 2 million people have seen the show in six countries and 44 U.S. cities, and the production has been translated into two foreign languages.

“We were hoping to get through the first eight weeks,” Babcock said.

Even though Triple Espresso isn’t packing the auditorium anymore, locals will notice the marquee lights continue to light up. Christensen decided to light the marquee when 3,000 runners traveled down Nicollet as part of the TC 1 Mile, and now he’s flipping the switch even when events aren’t underway.

“I want this area of Nicollet to be lit up,” he said. “It’s all about making it a fun place for people to come out of their apartments and walk over and see what’s going on.”

Reach Michelle Bruch at 436-4372 or [email protected]