Bye-bye porn. Hello puppets

Three decades ago, this message appeared on the marquee of the Avalon Theater on Lake Street in South Minneapolis. After a grim epoch of projecting porn in a neighborhood that – not coincidentally – was also a haunt of ‘Johns’ and prostituted women, the old art deco show house was undergoing a metamorphosis from worm to butterfly. In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater was taking ownership of the Avalon.

Mayday workshop 2000

Over the next 30 years, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater (HOBT) would use the space to put up their mirthful and inventive collection of puppet-based performances, unique holiday stories and free lobby shows for neighborhood kids on Saturdays. But the company is best known for its annual MayDay experience that traveled the Southside streets to Powderhorn Park, where the parade became a progressive pageant of epic proportions.

From the 1975 Mayday video

A 1975 documentary produced in association with UCVideo (Intermedia Arts) offers a glimpse of a MayDay experience. The video shows that, though well attended, the streets were not crammed with the crowds you would see in later years. Absent are the food trucks, vendors and info booths of countless organizations. But the elements of the puppet-led parade, and the progressive politics, are present in the fuzzy, black-and-white ‘portapak’ video.

May Day parade in downtown Minneapolis in 1937

Filmmaker Jim Gambone asks attendees about the May Day tradition. The older interviewees make the connection to the event’s radical backstory that many contemporary MayDay attendees likely don’t know as it weaves in historic photos of union and labor-led May Day marches of the past. Other commentators observe what the South Minneapolis event would become in the years to come as an African-American parade watcher articulately summarizes the event’s esprit of inclusion and diversity. One woman muses about just wanting to be out in the warmth of the sun, which, depending on how spring is showing up in early May, has a considerable impact on the event.

Sandy Spieler leads a May Day workshop in 2000

2019 marked the 45th MayDay Celebration in Powderhorn Park. At the time, financial struggles for In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater were stoking fears that it could be the last. And, in fact, it was the last MayDay Parade under the creative and spiritual guidance of master artist Sandy Spieler. Long before Julie Taymor brought a new power of puppetry to the world stage with The Lion King, Spieler and her collaborators were recapturing the ancient and original performing art form and taking it to the streets of the south side. The theater troops that had merged to become HOTB effectively infused radical, early ’70s “flower power” into the traditional union-focused May Day demonstration. The maypole, in HOTB’s incarnation, has grown into the towering Tree of Life puppet, which is now older than most of the 50,000-plus people who filled the giant natural amphitheater that was Powderhorn Park on May Day 2019.

MayDay square dancing near the small bandstand in Powderhorn Park
The spot of the post-parade ceremony hasn’t changed but the crowds have grown by the tens of thousands

Colleen Sheehy curated an exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum about the HOTB called Theater of Wonder: 25 Years in the Heart of the Beast. In the companion catalogue, Sheehy aptly described how the spectacle’s, “seriousness of its subjects and themes alternates with the zaniness of circus performances or the joyousness of a parade.  Through its art and vision, In the Heart of the Beast offers us something that often seems in short supply today – the ability to reimagine the world and ourselves, to hope.”

Photo from HOTB

In conversation, MayDay’s spellcaster Sandy Spieler once described to me how the multigenerational, transformational MayDay Celebration had become so meaningful to Minnesotans that some have asked her that their ashes be spread in the park as part of the event. The 45-year-old experience is clearly more than theater. But it’s hard to imagine a better theater review than that.

This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.