Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In New Ulm: George’s Ballroom, when the music stops April 19, 2021

The boarded entrance to the long-closed George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic oom-pah-pah of the polka, see the couples twirling across the scuffed wooden dance floor, smell the scent of whiskey poured from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.

George’s, on the corner of Center and German Streets, also housed a bar and, at one time, a bowling alley. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Across Minnesota, ballrooms once centered Saturday evenings with wedding receptions, concerts and parties celebrating milestones. The Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall. The Gibbon Ballroom, site of Polka Days, in Gibbon. The Pla-Mor Ballroom in Rochester. George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. And many others.

The historic marquee marks George’s Ballroom. What a beautiful piece of art. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Now most of these entertainment venues are shuttered. Abandoned. Or gone. The places of memories shared in stories. The places of memories photographed. A bride tossing her bouquet. A couple wrapped in each other’s arms. A trio wildly whirling in The Chicken Dance. My parents met at a dance in a southwestern Minnesota ballroom in the early 1950s. So many Minnesotans hold ballroom memories.

The bar entrance is here, the ballroom entry to the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Last summer while in New Ulm, I photographed the exterior of George’s Ballroom, an art deco style brick structure built in 1947 by George Neuwirth. The facility, which could hold up to 3,000 guests, once served as this community’s celebration and concert hub. Lawrence Welk, Glen Miller, The Six Fat Dutchmen and other big name bands played here.

George’s closed in 1991, reopened for awhile under new ownership and then shuttered again—permanently—in the early 2000s. Property taxes went unpaid. Options expired.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the former dance hall faces likely demolition, according to media reports. Cost to restore the ballroom is estimated at $5 million. Cost to demolish it, $1 million. That’s a lot of money. But when you’re dealing with mold from water damage, asbestos and other health and safety issues, costs climb quickly.

Here you can see some of the damage, underneath that BAR sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

All of this saddens me. I love historic buildings. They’re often well-built and hold important historic, community and personal importance. But I am also a realist who recognizes that not everything can be saved.

The marquee first caught my photographic interest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I do hope, though, that the George’s marquee and signage—which drew me to photograph the building in the heart of downtown New Ulm—will be saved. It sounds like that’s the plan. I hope the historic art can be incorporated into an outdoor public space rather than tucked inside, mostly unseen and under appreciated. People need easy access to George’s memorabilia. To photograph. To reminisce. To remember the Saturday nights of Big Bands and polkas and partying with family and friends. With a little creative thinking, George’s can continue to draw locals and others, adding another attraction to a community that excels as a destination city.

TELL ME: What would you do with George’s Ballroom and/or the marquee and signage? I’d love to hear your creative ideas and/or your memories of George’s or other ballrooms.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Coming soon to the former PIX Theater in Sleepy Eye: Coffee & Beer August 21, 2019

The PIX Theater marquee photographed in March 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHEN I LAST PHOTOGRAPHED the marquee of the historic PIX Theater in downtown Sleepy Eye, I found the signage in need of repair. But I knew the future appeared bright for this once popular entertainment hub. Plans were underway by two local physicians to open a brewery and coffee shop in the old theater.

 

The coffee shop is expected to open first, later this summer, followed by the brewery.

 

Today that business, Sleepy Eye Brewing & Coffee Company, is nearer to opening. The evidence shows in the restored marquee. Peering through windows, I observed laborers working inside to create a space that will showcase the bones of this building.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

I look forward to stopping at the brewery in this small town just a short drive west of New Ulm along U.S. Highway 14. I expect this to become a popular stop, destination or local hang-out for those who appreciate craft beer. And for those who don’t, they can patronize the coffee shop—complete with soup, sandwiches, pastries and coffee during daytime hours.

 

Photographed last week before Sleepy Eye’s annual Corn Days celebration. The marquee serves as a community bulletin board for now.

 

Anytime a business opens in a rural community is reason to celebrate, but especially now with Del Monte’s announced closure of its Sleepy Eye food processing plant. The closure will affect 69 full-time employees and some 350 seasonal workers. This is a tremendous economic loss for this farming community. When I was in Sleepy Eye last week, Del Monte had not yet announced this devastating decision.

 

I’m reflected in the mirrored underside of the marquee.

 

As I photographed the theater marquee, I delighted in its restored beauty and what this means to the good folks of Sleepy Eye. This historic building holds so many memories…with new ones yet to come.

 

I need to see the marquee at night with the lights aglow.

 

THOUGHTS?

Click here to view a story on KEYC-TV in Mankato about the brewery and coffee shop.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III from La Crosse: Hollywood, Wisconsin style March 24, 2017

 

DRIVING PAST THE HOLLYWOOD Theater on the fringes of downtown La Crosse, I wondered whether the theater was open. It appeared closed. An online search later confirmed that.

Not that efforts haven’t been made to restore the 1936 theater. It has opened and closed multiple times, last closing as a live music venue in the late 1990s, according to an article published on the La Crosse Public Library website. The current building owner planned to renovate and reopen the theater. But then a fire damaged the building in 2013 stalling that project.

Black-and-white images in the library’s “La Crosse Movie Palaces” story show a splendid 42-foot high illuminated HOLLYWOOD tower gracing the theater along with a wrap-around marquee. Both were removed after World War II. What happened to those? The article doesn’t reveal that and perhaps it’s unknown.

I hope finances fall into place for the current owner to complete renovation plans and reopen the Hollywood Theater. In my community of Faribault, a former theater is now the Paradise Center for the Arts, a gem of a place that includes galleries, clay works and textile labs, classrooms, a library and a theater performance space.

I appreciate when aged theaters are valued and saved.

TELL ME: Are you familiar with a similar vintage theater that has been restored to its original glory? Please share.

Or, if you’ve been inside the Hollywood Theater when it was open, I’d like to hear your stories.

FYI: Please check back for more stories in my “From La Crosse” series. Click here to read Part I and click here to read Part II.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling