It always breaks our hearts to see history as grand and marvelous as the Winona Historic Masonic Temple Theater’s collection of 98 theatrical backdrops go up for sale. Honestly we wished we had the funds to purchase them ourselves but this is what is happening.
On Tuesday, the Winona City Council will consider auctioning off all of the Historic Masonic Temple Theater’s rare collection of 98 theatrical backdrops.
The 1909 drops were originally used by the Masons in Scottish rite ceremonies, and depict three-dimensional scenes of everything from ornate cathedrals to idyllic forests. A set of backdrops depicting a volcano scene includes backlit, glowing veins of lava that stage hands can manipulate to emulate lava slowing pouring down the side of the volcano. Many Winonans long considered the drops to be part of what is unique and historic about the Masonic Temple, and city officials hoped to save and preserve them all on the Masonic Temple stage until last year, when Winona businessman and philanthropist Mike Slaggie made a proposal to turn the temple into a multipurpose event space and host an event series there. Slaggie offered to split the cost of future improvements to the building with the city — an offer worth millions — but his proposal would have required some of the drops to be removed to make way for modern equipment. The council invested in the building and pursued a plan to borrow $1.8 million — to be split with Slaggie — to continue fixing the building up, and the city studied options for keeping some historic drops onstage alongside modern equipment.
Last month, Slaggie withdrew his proposal and Theatre du Mississippi (TdM) leader, and theater expert Paul Sannerud offered to buy the drops for $1,000. Sannerud said he would store the drops until some time in the future when he might be able to work to restore them and display them somewhere. Sannerud has been a leader in a movement to save the drops, but said that allowing Slaggie’s proposal to succeed was more important and that he made the purchase offer in hopes that it would clear the way for Slaggie’s proposal. Slaggie said he knew Sannerud had made that offer when he withdrew his proposal for the theater.
Tuesday night will be the first time the full council gets to discuss all of those big changes to its plans for the Masonic in a legal, public meeting. The council has not discussed whether to continue with its plan to borrow $1.8 million to continue fixing the building at public meetings, but in interviews earlier this month, city manager Steve Sarvi said he had private conversations with all of the council members and they support continuing with the project.
City staff members did not put the issue of Slaggie’s withdrawal and whether to move forward with the project on the agenda they prepared for Tuesday’s council meeting. City staff do plan to ask the council to vote to borrow the $1.8 million next month. A proposal from staff to put the drops up for auction is on the agenda.
A City Council policy requires the city to put city property to be sold up for auction. So, in response to Sannerud’s proposal to buy the drops, city staff recommended holding an auction. Selling the drops and dedicating the stage to modern equipment will make the theater more flexible for a wide variety of events, it will keep the drops together as a collection, and it will “eliminate the city’s liability” for storing, restoring, insuring, and owning the drops, city staff wrote in their recommendation to the council. Previously the council had directed city staff to try to keep “up to 10” historic drops on the stage. The new proposal would keep zero.
The City Council will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 21, on the third floor of city hall, 207 Lafayette Street. This meeting is open to the public to attend, but the council does not invite public comments at its meetings. — by CHRIS ROGERS (2/20/2017)