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The Theater’s The Thing
Planning an event that’s GOT to be special? These spots have the answers.


By Chuck Nowlen
Published Spring, 2006
Copyright 2006, Minnesota Meetings & Events magazine/Tiger Oak Publications



Moses Dennis, communications manager for The Minnesota Telecom Alliance, had a problem that all good meetings and events planners face sooner or later.


He’d already tried the gamut of traditional, one-size-fits-all venues, but now he needed something truly special.


“Our theme for the year was ‘Think Big,’ so we were trying to come up with ideas for our annual convention that would help our members really think outside the box themselves — something to really get them energized, something that would really stick with them afterwards,” says Dennis, whose company is made up of small, medium and large sized rural Minnesota telephone companies.


Sound familiar? Luckily, the distinctly theater-town Twin Cities area is loaded with unique performance and movie venues that can bring your event to life — from a high-tech 3D IMAX theater to historic, specialty art houses and everything in-between. Here is just a sampling:


Maximum IMAX
Dennis built Minnesota Telecom’s 2005 annual convention around something that might at first seem a little incongruous: A NASCAR racing movie at the Twin Cities’ only 3D IMAX, the Great Clips IMAX Theatre at the Minnesota Zoo. And, if you’ve ever experienced Great Clips’ six-story screen, its thundering sound system and its incredible 3D effects, you probably have an idea why. You don’t just watch a 3D IMAX movie, you FEEL it.


“There was one point in the movie where a wheel comes off one of the cars, and it just flies out at you in the audience,” Dennis recalls. “We had more than 500 people ducking at the same time!”


The Great Clips IMAX Theatre, in the southeast-suburb Apple Valley, features current IMAX titles like “Roving Mars” and “Deep Sea 3D,” as well as the latest Harry Potter extravaganzas and a few other digitally remastered mass-audience releases. But it also boasts a library of movies that can help you match the experience to whatever business theme you have in mind.


Dennis purposely picked the NASCAR feature, for example, to challenge Minnesota Telecom’s members to compare their business to another industry that was typically far off their radar.


“At the same time, NASCAR involves a lot of research and development, a lot of safety issues, and a lot of time and effort marketing and branding itself — and our member telephone companies are interested in all of that too,” Dennis explains.


“We also had a presentation moderator who had actually driven a NASCAR car, and he explained how things like safety and attention to detail could apply to our members — like how NASCAR engineers have to focus on the tiniest aspects of everything they do. It was just an excellent, well-integrated experience. It really changed everybody’s view of what an event could be.”


As you might expect, Great Clips IMAX events can also be coordinated with the zoo itself. (Is there a better competitive-business metaphor than the wild outdoors?)


“PowerPoint, wireless microphones, attached mics at podiums — we can pretty much do anything,” adds Kathy O’Connell, the theatre’s sales manager. “A mattress company filled our entire lobby area with beds for their presentation, then watched a movie. For one client, we even included a tape at the bottom of the screen that asked his fiancée if she would marry him.”


Heights of Fancy
Heights Theater, in the northeast Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights, was built in 1926, and owners Tom Letness and Dave Holmgren have gone to great lengths to bring the onetime vaudeville and movie house back to its majestic beaux arts glory.


Still boasting a lush-curtained, 16-by-26-foot stage proscenium, meticulously restored antique chandeliers and even a mighty Wurlitzer theater organ, the 400-seat theater also has a new movie screen and state-of-the-art sound, projectors, lighting, public address system, intercom and wireless microphones.


“What we offer that a lot of other places can’t is atmosphere,” Letness says. “It’s an historic space, and it’s a very unique space — and I think that makes the whole experience more human. That alone lends itself to companies with creative vision.”


The theater’s lobby is ideal for buffet-style catering, and parking is no problem. In fact, the theater’s parking lot alone has inspired creativity: When the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans group held a benefit show at the Heights in 2004, they brought in a vintage combat helicopter and set it up for mini-tours next to the theater.


Diversity and More
Sometimes, there’s no substitute for a live-performance venue and, here, Minneapolis’ trailblazing Mixed Blood Theater is among the area’s most celebrated. Founder and executive director Jack Reuler, who opened Mixed Blood 30 years ago in a charming 1887 brick fire station on the city’s famed West Bank, was once named by Esquire magazine as one of the top “people under 40 who are changing America.”


With its Actors Equity performing company spanning everything from intimate chamber theater to “technical extravaganzas,” Mixed Blood emphasizes “cultural pluralism, individual equality and artistic excellence,” while also using the space as “a vehicle for education and social change,” according to the theater’s mission statement.


On-site meetings and events can be coordinated with the performance schedule or organized separately. Seating ranges from 200 to 300, depending on whether the full stage is used. Hotels, parking and mass transit are all nearby.


Mixed Blood can provide lights, sound systems, video projection and other meeting technology, as well as logistical and artistic talent to help you customize your event. If you need it, Mixed Blood will even bring its magic to your front door.


“We will do different types of marketplace events for businesses that want some kind of theatrical entertainment,” Reuler notes. “In fact, we’re taking a show to Puerto Rico soon.”


That wasn’t necessary for Global Deaf Connection CEO Kevin Long, who just wanted a cozy, evocative, socially conscious space for his nonprofit organization’s top two fundraisers last year. For one, Long rented the entire theater for the play “Sweet Nothings in My Ear,” a regular-schedule production about the day-to-day issues faced by a deaf wife, her hearing husband and their deaf child. For the other, Long’s group hired a deaf actor for his own one-person performance.


“Number one, it’s a small theater, so you’ll always be able to sell it out,” Long says. “But that also gives us a unique, intimate way to connect with our donors. Everyone loved it. They can’t wait for us to do it again.”


Old Log, New Tricks
The venerable Old Log Theater, a rustic, 45-year-old space on the shores of Lake Minnetonka in the southwest suburb of Excelsior, offers similar meeting and event options, but with a few artistic, logistical and aesthetic twists of its own.


An idyllic lakeside counterpoint to Mixed Blood’s more historic-urban stylings, the Old Log specializes in contemporary comedies and farces at its 655-seat auditorium, surrounded by 10 acres of tall pines, perennial gardens and natural wetlands. A 400-seat restaurant is adjacent to the performance space, complemented by a stone fireplace and veranda — the perfect setting for post-meeting, pre-performance cocktail parties and receptions.


“For the last eight or nine years, we’ve given free tickets to our agents to give to some of their clients and potential clients — we pretty much take over the place for two nights,” chuckles Jill Loomis, office administrator at Coldwell Banker-Burnett realtors. “Everybody sees a play, and there’s a social hour and dinner. It’s just a great way to touch your clients.”


Founder Don Stolz notes that lighting, sound and PowerPoint are all available here, too. And old-pro Stolz, described by some as “a master of the comedic farce,” can also craft a script for you himself, maybe to introduce new products, missions and policies to your company’s troops.


“You can say things in a script about a company that a speaker wouldn’t dare say,” says Stolz, whose performers also are Actors Equity. “After all these years, I’ve discovered that the best audience in the world is the business audience. We’re a for-profit, professional organization, too, so they know that we know what they’re talking about.”


New Moon Rising
Would a no-compromises, high-art theater give your event just the one-of-a-kind energy it needs? If so, Theater de la Jeune Lune, in Minneapolis’s historic downtown warehouse district, might be the answer.


Jeune Lune (French for “young,” or new, moon) is a Bohemian architectural masterpiece — a stark, cavernous splash of New York City, with an almost palpable, street-oriented artistic heartbeat.


Events tied to performances — blocks of employee tickets, for example — are a key part of Jeune Lune’s business offerings. But one of its mantras is production flexibility. The stage and seats can be juggled around to accommodate both performances and unique business events, and the lobby can be transformed for a memorable reception/banquet.


A few years ago, an Outward Bound fundraiser included kids rappelling down the walls from the towering ceilings. Another nonprofit group’s members bungee-jumped from the catwalks to impress potential donors.


“This space demands a certain amount of imagination, but rentals could be different every time,” says producing director Steve Richardson, estimating Jeune Lune’s seating capacity at 250 to 500.


“We’re mainly about our theatrical productions, so we rent space when we can, and we would rather that people bring in their own technology. But we love sharing this space with people who have imagination. We’ll work with anybody who really wants to do something unique.”


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