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 space. After all, they'd met years before as cast members in the play "Tony n' Tina's Wedding."
But after sweating through a year of doing the renovation work themselves, they discovered that with another business to run in Minneapolis, it would be saner to operate the century-old former movie house as an event center and occasional pop-up performance space.
Eye On St. Paul recently revisited the Norths at what is now North Garden Theater, 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?
Tina: It took about a year of work just to get the doors finally open. There was no heat. No water. The electricity was just one string of yellow construction lights down the center of the building, which could have just not been there for 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.
Tina: It was less than that. It was something like six months, because we were doing all the pre-working with the city and bringing our plans to them.
Q: You needed some kind of parking plan too, right?
Ryan: Yeah. Luckily, we ended up partnering with [Church of] St. Francis [de Sales]. And that's been a wonderful partnership. On the day that we learned that was going to be a thing, I cried.
Tina: There were crazy community meetings and things. We had people who were super excited about this. We had people who were super crabby about this.
Q: What were they crabby about?
Tina: Parking was one of the big things.
Q: This was the Garden Theater for years. Was it vaudeville, too?
Ryan: It might have been, in the first few years.
Tina: Mainly a movie theater, from most of the stuff we've seen.
Q: When did it close as a movie theater?
Ryan: The early '60s.
Q: What was it between then and when you got it?
Tina: A casket company, where people could come in and choose your casket.
Ryan: Twin Cities [Casket] Co., I believe. And one of the last owners ran some sort of a thrift store.
Tina: Antique-y things. Even after he left, there were still a few interesting things left in the pile.
Q: Like what?
Tina: A weird hunting knife stuck in the wall, that was an interesting one. A weird small bone we found in plaster. We're going to go with, it was a chicken bone. ... And then the sign that we found on top of one of these pillars. There used to be seating, second story seating …
Ryan: A balcony.
Tina: It read, "No one under 16 unaccompanied." It was obviously from when it was still a theater, to not allow ...
Ryan: Kids to go up there and neck.
Q: What were your original plans?
Tina: Our first business [Moss Envy in Minneapolis] was what I wanted, and he supported it. So this was what he wanted to do. He wanted it to be theatrical.
Q: How did you find this space?
Tina: I went into the [Multiple Listing Service] and spent hours digging around. We found this, put in an offer and happened to get it. And quickly we learned a theater was not going to sustain getting this up and running with the large [U.S. Small Business Administration] loan that was going to be required to renovate it.
Ryan: We were always open to letting it become what it was going to be, based on how people wanted to use it.
Tina: We do a little bit of everything.
Q: So I could rent it as performance space?
Ryan: Yes. We do a maximum of two weeks for a production like that. This is not the place to come and try to do your whole six-week rehearsal period. We're more …
Tina: Where you perform it.
Ryan: We love the fact that there is still art happening here. But we definitely do more weddings, receptions, corporate events.
Q: What was your first event?
Ryan: Our opening was a fundraiser.
Q: For yourself?
Q: How many events do you have in a year?
Tina: 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 all the set up and tear down.
Ryan: I'd say, before COVID, it was about 60 to 70 events a year.
Q: Is it just the two of you?
Tina: We do have a few staff members who are kind of our go-to staff, and then we have a few extra people who help once in a while.
Q: What has happened, in the time you've been in this space, to make you sure you made the right choice?
Ryan: Being in the presence of people's joy and getting to be a part of their celebration.
Tina: We get to the end of the night, and you can tell that you've had success. People are happy.
Q: What do you regret?
Ryan: [Pause] Snow removal?