Ryan and Tina North bought the old North Theater on St. Paul’s W. 7th Street in late 2015 with the idea of making it a live performance venue. After all, they had met years ago as cast members in the play Tony and Tina’s Wedding.
But after sweating it out for a year to do the renovation work themselves, they found that with another business to run in Minneapolis, it would make more sense to run the century-old former movie house as an event center and occasional pop-up performance space.
Eye On St. Paul recently revisited Norths at North Garden Theatre, which opened in 2017, to catch up. This interview has been edited for length.
Q: How long did it take you to get in here?
You on: It took about a year of work to finally open the doors. There was no heat. Without water. The electricity was just a string of yellow construction lights in the center of the building that might just not have been there as useful as it was.
Ryan: We bought it at the very end of 2015. And then it took a year to get our construction loan.
You on: It was less than that. It was about six months because we were doing all the preliminary work with the city and presenting our plans to them.
Q: You also needed some sort of parking plan, right?
Ryan: yes Fortunately we ended up partnering with [Church of] Saint Francis [de Sales]. And it was a wonderful partnership. The day we found out this was going to be a thing, I cried.
You on: There were crazy public meetings and stuff. We had people who were super excited about it. We had people who were super cranky about it.
Q: What were they upset about?
You on: Parking was one of the big things.
Q: It was the Garden Theater for years. And was it vaudeville?
Ryan: It might have been in the first few years.
You on: Basically a movie theater, from most of the stuff we’ve seen.
Q: When did it close as a movie theater?
Ryan: The beginning of the 60s.
Q: What was between then and when you got it?
You on: A casket company where people can come in and choose your casket.
Ryan: Twin Cities [Casket] Co., I believe. And one of the last owners ran some sort of trinket shop.
You on: Antique stuff. Even after he left, there were still a few interesting things left in the pile.
Q: Such as?
You on: A strange hunting knife stuck in the wall was interesting. A strange little bone we found in plaster. We’ll go with, it was a chicken bone. They ground it to put it in the plaster. We hope so. And then the sign we found on top of one of those pillars. There used to be seating, second floor seating…
You on: It said “No one under 16 unaccompanied.” Apparently it was from the time when it was still a theater so it wouldn’t allow…
Ryan: Children to go up there and door.
Q: What were your original plans?
You on: Our first business [Moss Envy in Minneapolis] it was what I wanted and he supported it. So that was what he wanted to do. He wanted it to be theatrical.
Q: How did you find this space?
You on: I entered the [Multiple Listing Service] and spent hours digging around. We found this, put in an offer and happened to get it. And we quickly learned that a theater would not stand to do that and work with the majors [U.S. Small Business Administration] loan that would have been needed to repair it.
Ryan: We’ve always been open to letting it become what it will be based on how people want to use it.
You on: We do a little bit of everything.
Q: So can I rent it out as a performance venue?
Ryan: yes We do a maximum of two weeks for such a production. This is not the place to come and try to do your whole six week rehearsal period. We are more…
You on: Where you perform it.
Ryan: We love the fact that art still happens here. But we definitely do more weddings, receptions, corporate events.
Q: What was your first event?
Ryan: Our opening was a fundraiser.
Q: For you?
You on: Yes
Q: How many events do you have in a year?
You on: We usually only do one or two a week. It’s a lot more work than you think when it’s a six-hour event and you’ve got everything set up and torn down.
Ryan: I’d say before COVID there were about 60 to 70 events a year.
Q: Is it just you two?
You on: We have a few staff members who are kind of our staff, and then we have a few extra people who help out from time to time.
Q: What happened during your time in this space to make sure you made the right choice?
Ryan: To be in the presence of people’s joy and to become part of their celebration.
You on: We come to the end of the evening and you can say you have achieved success. People are happy.
Q: what are you sorry for
Ryan: [Pause] Snow removal?
You on: [Laughs]