by CHRIS ROGERS
The old St. Theresa’s campus in Winona is full of stately architecture put to new use, and its historic theater just got a facelift. On Wednesday, St. Cecilia Theater will host the first in a new series of music and arts events in Winona: a Valentine’s Day serenade by Martin Zellar.
Zellar is an Americana singer-songwriter from the Twin Cities who made his name with the Gear Daddies in the 1980s. His show will kick off a series of performances hosted by the Winona nonprofit Hurry Back Productions. Cotter Schools’ St. Cecilia Theater will be the site of most of those performances.
Last fall and this winter, the Slaggie Family Foundation funded $325,000 in renovations to Cotter Schools’ St. Cecilia Theater, replacing all the seats, refinishing and replacing the flooring, installing new and improved sound and light systems, and uncovering stained-glass windows that flood the 412-seat historic theater with light of every color. “Your eyes get pulled all over the room,” said Mike Slaggie of the Slaggie Family Foundation and Hurry Back Productions.
Slaggie originally founded Hurry Back Productions to launch a series of performing arts events at the city of Winona’s Masonic Temple Theatre. He described his vision for Hurry Back: hosting a series of high caliber events to attract residents and visitors to Winona and answering the age-old question: “What do we do in this town?” In early 2017, the City Council faced a tradeoff between saving as many of the Masonic Temple’s historic backdrops as possible and making more room for modern equipment. Slaggie wound up withdrawing his offer, saying the City Council failed to give him a definitive answer on the drops and how limited stage space would be used.
Now, the venue is different, but the vision is the same. “I continue to believe that Winona can be a destination for entertainment in addition to what the existing festivals and organizations are putting on,” Slaggie said. “And when things with the city didn’t work out, I just kind of mentioned it to Sister Judy, the president of Cotter. Our foundation has been long-time supporters of education of all shapes and sizes, so there was great enthusiasm with the family to look at doing this.” Fixing up St. Cecilia Theater had been on Cotter’s wish list for a while, so it was a no-brainer, Slaggie said. “The fact that I was able to revisit the Hurry Back Productions’ idea was kind of a bonus,” he added.
“We have a 100-year-old theater, which is a beautiful architectural piece. We had not renovated or remodeled it in a long time,” said Cotter Schools President Sister Judy Schaefer. “We needed to do some repairs on the second floor. The Slaggie family agreed to help us if we wanted to do more. So we ended doing a whole remodel of the entire theater.”
Zellar will have a newly refurbished, historic theater in which to strum on the heartstrings of Winonans and their dates. He has been performing as a solo artist for decades now — long enough to earn positive reviews from across the U.S. “I’ve seen him both playing an acoustic show and playing with his band many times,” Slaggie said of Zellar. “He’s honestly a brilliant songwriter. He puts on a wonderful show. The acoustic setting we have him in lends itself to him giving more background into writing the songs, which gives you a whole new appreciation for his music. He’s a very experienced entertainer who knows how to put on a good performance.”
Hurry Back has not yet announced its next shows, but Slaggie said he hopes to bring in recognizable artists and work with local festivals and arts organizations. Music is the focus for now, but Slaggie aspires to host film, theater, and other performing arts. St. Cecilia Theater is not the exclusive venue of Hurry Back’s productions. Slaggie said he is interested in working with the city on shows at Levee Park, and is open to hosting shows at other locations, too. “Moving forward, I think the goal is going to be to partner as much as I can with existing organizations,” he stated.
Meanwhile, the city has moved forward with its efforts to renovate the Masonic Temple Theatre and make it a prime downtown venue, though the city does not have clear plans for regular events at the space.
Slaggie said that after withdrawing, he did reconsider working with the city at the Masonic Temple. “It’s incredibly encouraging to see the continued progress the city is making at the Masonic Temple,” he said. However, there was still an unresolved issue, he stated. “If anything, I’m still not exactly sure what the goal is down there.” The council made a decision to save the drops, but from Slaggie’s perspective, it did not answer his questions. “What is the use for them? Who is going to come see them? What is the use in terms of programming? That decision is a decision that I don’t feel that the council ever made.”
Winona’s community theater organization, Theatre du Mississippi, has used the drops in its productions. When he and five of six council members voted to save 10 of the historic drops, Mayor Mark Peterson argued, “These are valuable assets we have. I don’t think we should discard them. Once they’re sold, they’re sold, and they’re gone forever. I don’t feel right about that.” Council member Pam Eyden said the city could save 10 and have enough space for dynamic, modern theater.
Ticketing information for Zeller’s performance is available at http://hurryback.eventbrite.com.