I had always suspected that I would like the Twin Cities, specifically Minneapolis, and in the short list of top places where I think I could live, for some reason Minneapolis has always been near the top. We are currently playing St. Paul, Minneapolis’s twin city – they are about ten miles apart. When we first got here last Monday, my first impressions weren’t much. Downtown St. Paul is fairly desolate, sadly like so many of the downtowns that we have visited across the country. There are a couple of strips of restaurants and bars, so I wouldn’t categorize it as one of the worst, like say Rochester or Tulsa, but there’s definitely not a whole lot going on in the general vicinity of the theater.
The thing about St. Paul, though, is that at first meeting it seems like another throw-away city, but then you start making daily discoveries of little gems.
I’m staying in a corporate apartment building about seven blocks from the theater with Ken, my boss. The first St. Paul gem is the balcony that my bedroom opens up onto. Surprisingly, none of the hotels I have stayed at so far on this tour have had balconies – thinking back to family vacations when I was growing up and the hotels, and even motels, that we stayed at – most of them had balconies. These days this is a rarity. I have an amazing view of the St. Paul skyline and am loving the ability to have fresh air in my room so much that I am sleeping with the sliding glass door open. Tallulah is loving the space of the apartment, the large window ledges, and another human whom she can beg attention from.
Load-in and opening were easy. The Ordway Center is big and beautiful, the woodwork and glass of the lobbies and the exterior of the building remind me of Fort Lauderdale, while the tiered music hall seating looks much like the Academy of Music in Philly. The crew are smart, quick and can hear. A big plus over the Des Moines crew. We had an opening night party in the lobby at the Ordway and a group of us discovered an outdoor patio where we spent much of the night, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, laughing, and making fun of Patrick (our Lancelot)who could not keep a drink in his hand to save his life – multiple spills, multiple spills. We also were regaled by he and Nigel’s stories of picking up women in the various cities (lovely, I know). In St. Paul they had met twins. “Twins in the Twin Cities!” was their motto.
The town is embracing the show, that’s for sure. The local brewery, the Great Rivers Brewing Company, has a whole Spam menu and they have cans of Spam on all the tables, Spam napkins, and the servers are wearing Spam t-shirts. I went out for sushi the other day and even the sushi restaurant had a can of Spam displayed behind the counter!
Wednesday night was Brian O’Brien’s debut in Kevin Crewell’s ensemble track. He did great and it is so nice to have another tall boy in our ensemble! He is also very athletic so the Nun and Monk pas de deux is nothing to him, nor is the oft-whined about “bullet cross” in “Run Away”.
St. Paul gem #2 was the discovery of another great mom-and-pop cafe/wine bar a couple of blocks from my apartment, called Black Dog Coffee Bar and Cafe. I don’t know why finding these kind of spots makes me so happy, but they really do. I am sitting in Black Dog right now, as a matter of fact, enjoying a salad and an iced coffee. These funky cafes just give a city some personality and provide a little comfortable haven to hang out in and relax.
On Friday I wandered over to the state capitol to take some photos. It is another very impressive building, like many of the state capitols that I have been lucky enough to see along the way on this tour.
Saturday night, Ryan’s good friends Neil and Tara came to see the show. We had a nice dinner with them at a woodfire grill restaurant near the theater and then some drinks at the brewing company afterwards. It was great to meet some of Ryan’s friends from home.
This past Monday I rented a car and drove to Mankato, Minnesota, which is a town that I have wanted to visit for years. What is in Mankato, you ask? Mankato is the birthplace of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books which are a series of books that I loved growing up. These books are about two best friends, Betsy and Tacy, who grew up in Deep Valley, Minnesota, around the turn of the century. They start with the book “Betsy-Tacy”, which begins with Betsy’s fifth birthday, and end with “Betsy’s Wedding”, which is obviously about the main character’s wedding. The high school books are my favorites, and I still go back and read them. Just picturing the dances, sleigh rides, parties and football games that the kids enjoyed – the books just really make you appreciate a time before tv and video games.
Years after I first read the Betsy-Tacy books, I discovered an amazing book called The Betsy-Tacy Companion. It was after devouring this book, that I found out that the character Betsy was actually based on the author, Maud Hart Lovelace, and that Tacy was based on her real-life best friend, Bick. Deep Valley was really Mankato, MN, and all the characters in the books had real-life counterparts, and that the stories in the books had actually happened. I did a bit more poking around and found that there is a group called The Betsy-Tacy Society who have not only worked very hard at keeping the books in print all these years later, but have bought the two houses in Mankato that Betsy and Tacy (Maud and Bick) grew up in, and are in the process of restoring them to the way they were in 1900.
So, to make a long story short, I printed out a walking tour of Deep Valley (Mankato) from the web page of the Betsy-Tacy Society, drove to Mankato, and spent an afternoon wandering around the neighborhood that I had been reading about for years and years.
What was truly amazing about Mankato, was that without trying all that hard, I was able to block out the KFC and Dairy Queen, and really imagine what it was like to be living there a hundred years ago. Many of the houses are the same structures that they were back then, and the descriptions in the books are so good that I realized, walking around, that “Deep Valley” really looked exactly as I had imagined.
There were a few disappointments. The bench at the end of Hill Street (Center Street) where Betsy and Tacy spent many a night hanging out, was gone. I could see the impression in the cement where it should have been. There was some repaving of the street going on, so maybe it had been removed for safe-keeping. Because I was visiting on a Monday, I was not able to go inside Tacy’s house (it is only open on Saturdays), nor was the Blue Earth Historical Center open (where there is a Maud Hart Lovelace display). I also couldn’t get to the Glenwood Cemetery, where Maud is buried, because of roadwork. I was also sad to find that the house Betsy lived in during her high school years had been torn down to make way for a parking lot (!)
HOWEVER, the day was magical. Betsy and Tacy’s houses are exactly as I imagined, and because no one was around, I could sit on their porches and transport myself back into the time of the books. I walked up the Hill Street hill and the Big Hill. I saw many of the houses of their friends, including Tib’s (Midge Gerlach, their other closest friend) which was around the corner on Byron Street. I saw the high school where so many of the stories take place, and the slough, where the characters went picnicking and sledding. Carney’s (Marion Willard) house, with its big lawn, is still standing, and looks exactly as it did in my mind’s eye.
It was an amazing day, seeing the town where I had spent so many hours visiting in my mind. I was so happy to see that Mankato takes a real pride in the fact that Maud Hart Lovelace is from there, and was also happy to see so many of the old houses still in existence. There were other parts of the town, the Front Street business area, for example, that made me sad though, because the original architecture is gone. Seeing photos of the spectacular old storefronts just made me more disgusted by the new generic buildings that have taken their place. Where the old opera house used to stand is now an office building. Where the old Melbourne hotel was is now an ugly Holiday Inn. I went into a mostly-abandoned shopping mall downtown and saw that a couple of the old brick storefronts are still there, but have been enclosed inside the modern indoor shopping center. And just seeing the KFCs and Burger Kings, etc., made me ache for the days of mom-and-pop businesses, when towns had originality and personality. Although I am happy that many of the original houses are still standing in Mankato, the business district, like so many other cities in America, has sadly become generic and ugly and could have been almost any city, really, personality-less. I think these are the reasons I love the unique coffee shops in the various cities, and why New York City and San Francisco, despite their flaws, remain two of my favorite American cities – because they still have one-of-a-kind, interesting shops and restaurants that make up the quirky and unique personalities of those cities. There are pockets of those cities that are not all Hooters and Home Depots.
I wish we could go back to a time where small, individual businesses could flourish and not be such a rarity.
I drove back to St. Paul from Mankato on a couple of rural highways where I could really appreciate what a beautiful state Minnesota is. They don’t call it “the Land of 10,000 Lakes” for nothing! There are lakes everywhere. It is really amazing. I wanted to stop and pull over constantly because there were so many breathtaking sights.
I reached St. Paul as the sun was getting low in the sky and took advantage of the great light and the rental car, and drove up the hill to the cathedral to take some photos of this stunning building. I plan to go back this week or next to see the inside. I realized that the Cathedral hooked up with Summit Avenue, which is lined with all kinds of big, fancy houses, including a house where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived. I made another plan to go back and wander around before we leave town.
Yesterday I drove over to Grand Avenue, St. Paul gem #3. There is a strip, about three miles from downtown, which is oh-so-cool, with boutiques and restaurants and coffee shops. Another place I must go back to. I popped into The Yarnery – a yarn shop – to look for some buttons to put on the sweater I just finished (pictures next post). What a great yarn store! The outside doesn’t look like much, but this store is STOCKED! They have tons of really quality yarn, including lots of Rowan. They also have a ton of pattern books and magazines, and lots of notions, needles and bags and accessories. I was REALLY impressed. If you a knitter and in the area, check this store out.
I then drove over to Minneapolis and visited the Uptown neighborhood, which is filled with shops and restaurants. I spent the afternoon doing a yarn shop tour – visiting three different shops in the city. None were as good as The Yarnery, but it was cool driving around to the different neighborhoods. Minneapolis has some spectacular houses and again with the lakes everywhere! Amazing! Funnily enough, I ended up finding the buttons for my sweater at good old Joann’s Fabrics!
I finished up in Minneapolis with a little bit more Betsy-Tacy history – visiting Betsy and Joe’s (Maud and her husband Delos’s) first apartment, which is immortalized in “Betsy’s Wedding”.
This week I am looking forward to visiting the Farmer’s Market around the corner from my apartment building, which I suspect may be St. Paul gem #4, and driving to Sobieski, Wisconsin on Monday to see Ryan’s house (he is there this week doing some more work on the place). And I definitely want to get back to the Cathedral, Summit Ave and Grand Ave.
I am definitely feeling Minnesota.