by David Lamb
The manmade tunnels behind West St. Paul’s castle-like structure, once the site of a speakeasy said to be frequented by notorious gangsters, are set to close in November. Owned by Donna and Stephen Bremer since 1994, the 12,000-foot three-cave complex has more recently served as a venue for dances, weddings, and other gatherings as well as for tours examining the area’s history. After the COVID-19 pandemic suspended those activities indefinitely, the Bremers recognized that they wouldn’t be able to weather the storm.
“We’re an attraction and we’re not allowed to open,” Donna Bremer told the Star-Tribune. “That would be bad enough. But then to have everybody cancel their events and want all their money back — and you can’t blame them.” As the couple worked to repay event deposits while unable to raise revenue, the Bremers, each in their 70s, decided it was time to move on.
Venues across the West End are staring down similar challenges, brought on by the pandemic and exacerbated by the economic recession that has resulted. The Grand Oak Opry, a site on Goodhue Street for intimate outdoor concerts, was forced to cancel its spring events. Its owners acknowledged in a recent post on Facebook that “[w]e won’t be gathering in the yard this year most likely.”
The North Garden Theater on West 7th Street, a historic cinema that hosts weddings, live performances, and other parties has also cancelled the public shows on its calendar, though it continues to book private events so long as the space remains below 25% of its former 210-person capacity, allowing social distancing to be possible. “We’re trying to stay creative,” said Ryan North, co-owner of the Theater, “thinking about smaller things we might be able to do to generate revenue.”
In place of physical gatherings, the Opry has promoted online events for musicians affiliated with its concert series. Writing in the wake of George Floyd’s killing about the importance of music for bringing people together to stand up for political action, the owners of the Opry asked their social media followers to “turn to musicians…to listen to them, to support them financially, and to support their work in the community.”