Music Box cranking out a new tune

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Photo by Joe Fahey
Despite the tough economic times, there have been a surprising number of new music venues popping up around the Twin Cities -- the 501 Club on Washington opened earlier this year, and this month will see kick-off shows from Sauce on Lake and Lyndale and the Music Box on Nicollet and 14th. All three venues appear to be oriented toward promoting local music, and are located in areas that are otherwise lacking in live music haunts. Whether the scene is busy enough to support these new ventures is yet to be seen, but the prospect of three very different and attractive music venues popping up in the span of a couple of months is exciting.

Of the three new venues, the Music Box is by far the most intriguing. The history of the building alone is enough to demand attention: What began in the 1920s as a venue for vaudeville and cabaret-style shows transformed in the 1950s to a church run by Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim -- the pair were even married inside the theater. Many of the rooms used by the Bakkers during the church days still maintain the original decor, and a walk through the deepest corridors of the basement reveals cavernous spaces painted with depictions of Jerusalem and Jesus.

Most Minneapolitans will recognize the theater as the 13-year home for local comedy show "Triple Espresso," which was the venue's most recent tenant. The theater troupe ended their epic run in April of last year, and the Music Box has sat vacant ever since, save for the occasional rented-out show.

Enter Pete Christensen, a local music lover and business man, who has been tapped to breathe new life into the old theater.

"I want to turn Eat Street into Beat Street," Christensen says with a mischievous grin, referring to the rows of restaurants surrounding his venue. Since he took over managing the theater, Christensen says he has been working around the clock preparing the space for shows and booking acts. "But it's all joy. Even when I am working 80 hours a week, it's 80 hours of pure joy."

Christensen says he's excited to provide the community with a unique place to gather and play. The Music Box is home to an impressive $100,000 sound system, and the small 400-capacity space feels incredibly intimate. The quality of concerts there could be high enough to give the Cedar a run for its money (and perhaps the space could take over booking eclectic folk and world music shows during the Cedar's off-season).

The first official concert at the Music Box will take place this Friday, featuring Christensen's longtime friend Jim Walsh. Walsh says he is entranced by the new venue, and has decided to move his weekly hootenannies across town to the theater.

"I love it," Walsh says. "I love its roots. Its character. Its neighborhood. Its marquee (which is lit up beacon-like most nights, unlike the pussy Grain Belt Beer sign). Its quiet. Its posters. Its basement-slash-place-for-Satan-worship-catacombs. Its sound system. Its energy.

"It's proof positive that something good is happening right now."

The new Music Box opens this Friday with the Mad Ripple Hootenanny at 6:30 p.m. The event is "pay-what-you-can," with a suggested donation of $5. All ages. 1411 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis.

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