By JAN WILLMS
Can Can Wonderland at 755 Prior Ave. is a connector between the past and the future. That is how Jennifer Pennington, co-founder and CEO of the arts-based entertainment center that features mini golf and so much more, describes it. “A lot of mini golf courses use technology and are motion activated, and we have that, but we also have the old-time pinball machines,” she noted. “It’s nostalgia, but innovation. It’s cool.”
The center’s other founders are Chris Pennington, Christi Atkinson and Rob Clapp. They first started toying with the idea of the unique amusement center in 2008 but did not start pursuing it until 2010. Can Can Wonderland has been open about three months.
“The concept started in a few different ways,” Pennington explained. “One was just wanting to get more people involved with arts and making arts more fun and accessible. We had been involved in some other projects that had raised funds for the arts and private art galleries. Then the recession hit. Galleries were able to stay open because of those programs.”
She said that realization challenged them to want to create art that was self-funded. “Now there’s talk about maybe the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) closing, so we wanted to try and figure something out. Arts funding has always been difficult and hard to come by.”
Pennington said one of the greatest challenges in getting Can Can Wonderland off the ground was securing all the funding that was needed. “A place like this has never been done before, and it’s a new concept. We had to get people confident in what we are doing and take a risk on us,” she explained.
It took about seven to eight months from the beginning of construction on Can Can Wonderland until the operation opened. It occupies 20,000 square feet of the 450,000 square foot building that was American Can factory in St. Paul. “The building had been vacant for five years,” Pennington said.
She said that for the mini golf course, they asked artists for submissions of ideas to design a course they had always wanted to play on. “We had proposals from as far away as Australia,” she said, “but we ended up selecting local artists.” She said a prospective artist was given two options. “You could submit a design idea, and we would hire fabricators to construct it, or you could submit a design that you could build yourself. But you had to tell us you had the skills to do that,” Pennington stated. She said the resulting course is a mix of both types of proposals.
As far as other forms of entertainment, the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band performs every Friday night. The group has been together for over 40 years and served as the house band for Nye’s Polonaise Room before it closed.
“We also have a 15-year-old DJ who is playing,” she said. “We have senior performers, too, and on Thursday nights a variety show with a house band and MC and different acts.”
Those acts have included circus performers, artists, jugglers, ballet dancers, tap dancers and tuba players. “We have also had cloggers perform,” Pennington said. “And every Friday we have Tappy Hour, with free tap dance lessons with shoes provided.”
“We try to have something for everyone, no matter what your age or background,” she noted.
Can Can Wonderland offers concession foods at this time, with plans for getting a grill, fryer and hood, and expanding to a bigger restaurant.
Craft cocktails are also offered. “We want to be creative on our drinks,” Pennington explained. “So we contracted with an organization called Bittercube, out of Milwaukee. They offer these creative, delicious cocktails, making their own bitters. They’ve worked in a lot of local restaurants in the Twin Cities and some new hotels in the warehouse district. You can get an Old Fashioned with an ice cube that is like a colored golf ball. It is really pretty and tastes great.”
There is a space called the Boardwalk within the Can Can Wonderland’s premises, with different activities. There may be musicians who play for tips, face painting henna painting, or caricaturists. “Some artists want to do installations,” Pennington said. “We have a small wall for fine arts that will rotate every four months. We are getting some submissions for that now. So we are pretty open to whatever people want to do. We want to be here for emerging artists and established artists.”
The organization’s website reads: “We are proud to be the first arts-based public benefit corporation in Minnesota. Our social purpose is to be an economic engine for the arts.”
Pennington said the most challenging part once the doors opened is that crowds have been bigger than expected. “We have to scramble a lot to get enough employees and get staffing levels where they need to be,” she commented.
She said she has been most pleased with the diversity of the people who come. Some have told her they drove a thousand miles to see the place. “I don’t know how they heard about us, but that’s very nice,” she said. She also noted that some of the former workers from the can factory have visited, people who worked in the location 40 years ago.
“We want to be a great community gathering place, where people do have a good time,” Pennington said. “I think that’s important. We have a lot of serious issues we have to come together to solve, and if we’re not having fun together, I don’t know how we can come together to make serious decisions. We just want Can Can Wonderland to be a fun place where people can come and have fun and feel safe and be delighted and discover new things.”