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By Emily Weiss
Despite the much-buzzed-about Great Recession, a surprising number of new music venues have been popping up around Minneapolis. The 501 Club on Washington opened earlier this year, and this month will see kickoff shows from Sauce on Lake and Lyndale and the Music Box on 14th and Nicollet. All three venues seem oriented toward promoting local music and are located in areas that otherwise lack live-music haunts. Whether the scene is busy enough to support these new ventures is yet to be determined, but it's exciting to have three very different and attractive music venues spring up in a couple of months.
Of the three, the Music Box is by far the most intriguing. The history of the building alone is enough to demand attention: What began in the 1920s as a venue for vaudeville and cabaret-style shows (then called the Loring Theatre) transformed in the 1950s to a church run by Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim—the pair were even married inside the theater. Many of the rooms used by the Bakkers still maintain their decor from that time, and a walk through the deepest corridors of the basement reveals dark, cavernous spaces painted with depictions of Jerusalem and Jesus.
Most Minneapolitans will recognize the theater as the 13-year home for the local comedy show Triple Espresso, which was the venue's most recent tenant. The theater troupe ended its epic run in April of last year, and the Music Box has sat vacant ever since, save for the occasional rented-out show.
Enter Pete Christensen, a local music lover and businessman, who has breathed new life into the old theater.
"I want to turn Eat Street into Beat Street," Christensen says with a mischievous grin, referring to the rows of restaurants surrounding his venue. Christensen has been working around the clock preparing the space for shows and booking acts, he says. "But it's all joy. Even when I am working 80 hours a week, it's 80 hours of pure joy."
The Music Box is home to an impressive high-fidelity sound system, and the 400-capacity space feels incredibly intimate. The quality of its concerts could be high enough to give the Cedar a run for its money (perhaps the space could take over booking eclectic folk and world-music shows during the Cedar's off-season), and Christensen has big ideas for shows. Local acts like Black Blondie have already booked gigs in the space, and highly respected engineer Tom Herbers (of Third Ear Studios) is one of several who have volunteered to take turns behind the sound board. Christensen is asking local artists and photographers to display their work in the lobby and the creepy basement catacombs, and the entire effort has a palpably grassroots, organic feel.
"I want people to leave here feeling better than they did when they walked in the door," Christensen says, grinning as he plugs my iPod into the immense sound system, and a chill runs up my spine.
The first official set of concerts at the Music Box will take place on Friday evenings, featuring Christensen's longtime friend Jim Walsh. Walsh says he is enamored with the community-oriented aspect of the new venue and has decided to move his weekly Mad Ripple Hootenanny across town to the theater.
"I love it," Walsh says. "I love its roots. Its character. Its neighborhood. Its marquee, which is lit up beacon-like most nights, unlike the pussy Grain Belt Beer sign. Its quiet. Its posters. Its basement-slash-place-for-Satan-worship catacombs. Its sound system. Its energy.
"It's proof positive that something good is happening right now."
THE MAD RIPPLE HOOTENANNY will take place at 6:30 p.m. every Friday at the MUSIC BOX; 612.871.1414