North Garden Theater opens in St. Paul's expanding West Seventh neighborhood

Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler

St. Paul's North Garden Theater just celebrated its permanent marquee-lighting on Wednesday, but the renovated venue has already been busy.

"It's this amazing melting pot of events," says co-owner Tina North about things that have already happened, or are booked to happen, in the space. "The Mexican Consulate was in here. We have an Irish dance company who's going to be in here."

"We've had a fundraiser for a grade school," adds her husband, Ryan North. "We've had a memorial service."

"Skylark Opera Company is going to be performing," continues Tina. "Theater Mu is doing a thing in December. Saint Paul Conservatory for the Arts is going to have the space for three weeks in January. We've got weddings, we've got a bar mitzvah."

The success is gratifying for the Norths, longtime local theater artists and entrepreneurs who took the plunge and bought the West Seventh Street building in late 2015. The reopening has been a long process. The Norths took possession of a century-old movie house that was neglected for decades and came to the verge of being demolished.

"We have a theater! What?" exclaims Tina, standing near the venue's tidy bar on Wednesday evening after a small group of family and friends gathered to watch the marquee glow to life. The marquee lighting marked a culmination of sorts, but there's always more to do.

Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler

"The big one is the floor in here," says Tina. "This is the concrete slab that was down when this place was put in, so the plan is to grind it down. The cool thing is, because it's such an old floor, they used a bigger stone when they put concrete down. When you grind it down, it looks like terrazzo."

The couple credit City Council member Rebecca Noecker with helping assuage the concerns of a couple of skeptical neighbors — the liquor license was inevitably controversial, and there were parking questions — but as Tina notes, the North Garden opening is part of a much larger transformation in the neighborhood. The Schmidt Brewery, now converted into artist lofts, is right across the street.

"That huge development is going to be multiple restaurants, with liquor licenses," says Tina. "It's going to be food stalls and all of that. Then you've got the beer hall — that information was just released, that that's happening. I think this is going to be a much busier area coming up."

Singer and actor Thomasina Petrus was on hand for Wednesday's modest ceremony, just two days after co-hosting the Ivey Awards. Unlike the Ivey crowd, though, the North Garden audience got to hear Petrus perform a capella. She encouraged her listeners to snap their fingers in languid time as she sang "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "Summertime."

The vocal performance augured well for the North Garden's acoustics, with Petrus' voice sounding clear and resonant under the high roof's exposed beams. The Norths are conscious of the 1916 theater's history, and aware that's a selling point for renters who seek a space with character.

"You can get a hotel ballroom pretty easily," says Ryan. "They're okay, but being in a 100-year-old building with big black metal trusses and a high ceiling... there's some character and special-ness to this space."

The marquee incorporates a lotus-flower motif that's visible in early photos of the exterior, a motif also seen on a row of seats the Norths believe to be holdovers from the Garden's movie-house days. A neighboring barber who'd been keeping the seats was glad to see them return to their original home, where they now sit in the dressing room.

Lettering on the marquee is currently advertising the venue's availability for holiday parties, and Petrus hinted that she's throwing one of her own: a performance with T. Mychael Rambo. She already seemed at home in the theater, waving to her small but appreciative audience as she hopped into a vehicle advertising Thomasina's Cashew Brittle ("all it's cracked up to be") and drove off down West Seventh.

Ryan says Noecker was sorry she couldn't be on hand for the ceremony, but duty called. "She said she's in a deep conversation about menthol."