Puppets have taken their places at the Avalon Theatre on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Dozens of papier-mâché faces now line the auditorium, perched on shelves and peering down from scaffolding.

They will oversee a reopening.

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre has reversed its plans to sell the storied theater, its home since 1988. Instead, it's investing in it — spiffing up the auditorium, renovating the second story and upgrading the lights. The 86-year-old building's new look will debut at a Puppet Fashion Show, April 13-16.

Then, later this month, the nonprofit will open a puppet-lending library in the space. That library, Minnesota's first, will offer free access to a trove of hundreds of puppets created by artists and neighbors over decades of performances and May Day parades.

"We've been on this corner for over 30 years. There's been a theater on this corner since 1909," said Michelle Pett, Heart of the Beast's interim executive director. "So this has been a centerpiece and an anchor for this community for a very long time.

"And it was really important to us that it would continue to serve that purpose."

The nonprofit has informally lent its puppets for protests and parades. But borrowing them meant knowing an artist who could unlock the storage space it rented nearby and navigate the maze of masks and materials.

Starting April 29, anyone will be able to visit the theater's Puppet and Mask Lending Library at the Avalon, point to a puppet on the wall or in a shadow box and check it out as they might a book, returning it two weeks later.

The library will be open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first and third Saturdays of every month.

"These are not just the work of individual artists," Pett said. "This is the work of a community. And that makes it more important for people when they have them in their possession. They're a part of that legacy, too."

There are just a few puppet lending libraries in the United States. They include Boston's Puppet Free Library, its hundreds of puppets housed in a church basement. A sign advertises the library's hours: Tuesdays 2-7 p.m.

The Boston library "sort of drifted into being in the '90s," said longtime puppet maker and librarian Sara Peattie. People started borrowing puppets, and she started writing down who was taking what.

The process remains informal. "I'm thinking about getting a computer," Peattie said. For now, folks sign out puppets with a name, email address and promise to return.

Schools are a common borrower. Organizations check them out to celebrate the opening of this or that. For the opening of a bridge, someone might borrow a troll. But just like a librarian who lends books, Peattie doesn't ask questions.

Borrowers tend to return the puppets, she said.

"They're giant puppets. Nobody has the closet space to keep them."

During its long, scrappy history, Heart of the Beast has weighed whether to sell or renovate the building on Lake Street and 15th Avenue S., with its leaky, concrete roof. The nonprofit announced in August 2021 that it would sell the building and vacate the storage space it rented nearby.

But foundations, nonprofits and other theaters reached out, asking: How can we help you stay?

"We discovered we had friends we didn't know we had," Pett said.

For example, Hennepin Theatre Trust is running the box office for next week's show, a kind of puppet cabaret featuring mystical chickens and high-fashion wrestlers.

The nonprofit is spending $150,000 to $200,000 on the first phase of renovations, which include improved space for offices and community rooms on the second story, as well as windows that look out over the auditorium.

"It's pretty surreal," said Steve Ackerman, who oversees mainstage productions and community partnerships. He has worked for Heart of the Beast for 13 years, surviving the latest hard times in the puppet theater's long history of hard times.

Lighting upgrades already have made a difference to performers, Ackerman said. "We used to have giant, sodium, money-sucking lights," he said. If you turned them off for a shadow-puppet piece, they'd take 10 minutes to power back on.

New LED lights come on instantaneously and are more energy efficient.

He and Pett imagine artists spending more time in the revamped theater in coming months, perhaps using new, walnut workstations that were donated. The puppet library, too, will re-energize the place, Pett said. Heart of the Beast has received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to partner with Roosevelt High School to build new puppets that will, eventually, end up in that library.

Pett has a history of helping arts nonprofits through hard times — "getting the cow out of the ditch," as she put it.

During the past 18 months, she's led Heart of the Beast in crafting a new strategic plan and soon will help it hire a producing artistic director.

Mapping a future for Heart of the Beast has, in a way, meant mapping the future of Lake Street. That's important to Pett, whose father, now 88, grew up in south Minneapolis and remembers going to the Avalon on a Saturday afternoon to watch "The Shadow" and munch on popcorn that cost a nickel.

"Tens of thousands of people have been through these doors and have had a moment of joy or transformation in this space," she said. "That's what we're trying to ensure continues for another 86 years."