Beth Pinkney: The calm behind the Winter Carnival crazy

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2011 - 10:14 PM

After years on green golf courses, Beth Pinkney is back on home ice, running the St. Paul Winter Carnival through its 125th year.

Beth Pinkney, St. Paul Winter Carnival president, gets a little heat from Vulcanus Rex (top right) and the 2010 Vulcan Krewe. The former Iron Ranger helps the 10-day event run smoothly.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Beth Pinkney once chased sunshine. Now she's all about ice.

As the president and CEO of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, Pinkney is the calm eye in the middle of the 10-day storm of winter goofiness that celebrates its 125th anniversary starting Thursday with the coronation of King Boreas the LXXV.

For Pinkney, the job entails pulling 42 city permits for everything from fire pits to parade road closures to assuring the Prince of the West Wind can fire off blanks from his six-shooter when Vulcanus Rex overthrows the king of winter on the steps of the downtown library Feb. 5.

It also means trying to keep an old-school display of civic pride relevant, even though the days of corporations providing their own marching bands, queen candidates and cash for massive ice castles have long since passed.

An Iron Range daughter of two Hoyt Lakes teachers, Pinkney took a circuitous route to running the quintessentially St. Paul event. She planned to become a teacher, too, but after graduating from the University of Minnesota went to Florida to work some golf tournaments. That teed off a 14-year trek from one golf course to another. Pinkney's endless summer ended at the 2008 U.S. Women's Open in Edina.

She was back in Minnesota and feeling burned out by the constant road trips when the Winter Carnival job opened up. So Pinkney traded in the sun umbrella for a shovel, moved to Woodbury and quickly learned the importance of full disclosure.

"Up on the Range, people can tell if you're not from there and it's the same in St. Paul -- as long as you admit to not being from St. Paul, people are happy with that and move on," Pinkney, 40, explains while zipping between meetings on a cold night. She steers her Toyota Avalon down an icy road from a logistics meeting in the dark basement of the St. Paul Pool and Yacht Club. Her next stop is a townhouse off W. 7th Street where two women are typing feverishly on laptops, scheduling every breakfast, luncheon and parade appearance by the new royal family.

"Friday starts with a 6:30 a.m. wardrobe meetings and goes until the Klondike Kate Cabaret after 10 p.m.," says Amy Boche , the master scheduler whose husband was once Prince of the South Wind. "We have a big Lorenz bus and we'll be fine until the king decides to knight his brother's next-door neighbor's friend."

Pinkney flashes her ever-present smile.

"Everybody's here for fun. We're a 99 percent volunteer-based organization and everyone is passionate about St. Paul, the Winter Carnival, getting out in the winter and having a good time -- and I just love being part of it," she said.

Salt to social media

The next night, in an ornate former courtroom in the Landmark Center complete with a marble fireplace mantel and carved wooden pillars, Pinkney brings together insurance agents, cops, lawyers, public relations experts and Vulcans -- sans red capes and goggles -- for the annual, pre-carnival "come to Jesus meeting," as one insider puts it. Pinkney started this new tradition when she took over in 2009.

"Keep salt in your car and pull it out when you come across icy spots," suggests Jeffrey Maas , the carnival's insurance agent. Phil Schenkenberg, a pro bono lawyer from Briggs and Morgan, reviews the "legend character protocol" which this year includes social media guidelines aimed at assuring all images of the royalty and other carnival honchos "showcase only the best of the carnival" on blogs and Facebook.

Memories remain of the Vulcan king who landed in court for groping waitresses at a downtown bar, sullying the carnival's reputation.

"Everyone remembers the problems we had with the Vulcans in the past and thinks they're a bunch of drunken bums and thinks the royal family is a bunch of elitists but nothing could be further from the truth," says Peter Worth , this year's royalty cabinet chair and one of the volunteers who make a carnival that started in 1886 endure.

All the volunteers credit Pinkney's year-round leadership for keeping the carnival going. Her goal is to broaden the cult-like event from its generations of hard-core St. Paul devotees to something closer to a statewide attraction.

"What I really appreciate about Beth is her willingness to explore any idea -- she doesn't dismiss anything before saying let's look into it," says Kari Boe Schmidtz , the 1997 queen and current president of the non-profit St. Paul Heritage and Preservation Foundation board that runs the carnival.

Schmidtz points to next weekend's debut of a robotic snowplowing competition near Rice Park, where technology students from six colleges will go at it: "We're constantly trying to balance between maintaining tradition and remaining relevant."

Nice day for an ice wedding

At the same time, Pinkney has to supervise more than 2,000 volunteers who oversee everything from the debut of 75 miles-per-hour riding lawn mower races on Lake Phalen to the slightly slower curling bonspiels.

"She doesn't have an ego and she's so humble with no air about being the paid staff while others are simply volunteers," Schmidtz says.

According to the latest available records kept by the Attorney General's office, the Winter Carnival is financially healthy with more than $280,000 in reserves and $572,000 in revenues.

But Pinkney says it would take years of fundraising to come up with the cash to build another ice castle like the ones that drew huge crowds in the late-1880s, during the Super Bowl in 1992 and most recently in 2004.

She never frets over the weather, even though mid-winter thaws have dogged the carnival. "Golf tournaments are the same way," she says. "You depend on the weather, but you have no control over it, so why worry?"

On top of orchestrating the parades, cat shows, hot-air balloons and banquets, this year's carnival has provided yet another job for Pinkney -- wedding planner.

Dorothy Arneberg Furlong , the 75-year-old former Queen of Snows from 1955, is marrying 80-year-old 1983 King Boreas Charlie Hall in full carnival regalia in Rice Park on Feb. 5.

The happy couple sat down recently with Pinkney to iron out details. She offered to bring them both to the altar in limousines. The bride and groom shook their heads. They insisted on walking out of the St. Paul Hotel and Landmark Center and meeting in the park, where 1,000 onlookers are expected.

"We're not limo people, we're St. Paul people," says Furlong.

She will wear her daughter's wedding dress, but being St. Paul practical, minus the train. "I'm not walking through the slush with a train."

Pinkney grins.

"I was lucky to spend 14 years on green grass and now I'm staying busy in winter,'' she said. "Yeah, it's cold. But they make really nice winter apparel these days. So button up and come on out."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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