by Lee Foster
If you want to plan for a U.S. summer vacation, keep Minneapolis-Saint Paul in mind. Summer pleasures include the annual Aquatennial celebration and an exploding number of drama and music performances. The Aquatennial occurs during ten days in the second half of July.
The Aquatennial started as a water festival, as the name implies, emphasizing the region’s natural splendor and outdoor sports. Minnesotans enjoy almost 12,000 lakes, meaning bodies of water covering at least ten acres and fed by a replenishing water source. The scooped-out lakes and gentle hills of Minnesota are a legacy of the glacial ages and a testament to the power of frozen water. License plates assert conservatively that there are 10,000 lakes, a sufficient number, with a better cadence and more imaginative ring than the literal truth.
From the air, as you approach the Twin Cities, the extent and importance of these lakes becomes apparent. The lakes have a calming and ordering influence on life here. They spread out the people in an already lightly-populated, park-like setting. Greenery is abundant everywhere. There is so much room here that many houses have a large lawn. Within the Twin Cities there are 22 lakes with 57 miles of biking and jogging trails. It is said that there are a thousand lakes within an hour’s drive of the metro area.
The Aquatennial Parade
The Aquatennial continues to evolve, as every healthy festival must. One event in this 10-day July celebration that I particularly enjoyed in the past was the parade, which is now a night time Torchlight Parade rather than a day time parade.
As a slice of Americana, this parade is choice. I remember bearded Vietnam Vets marching behind the Swede of the Year. High stepping baton twirlers preceded the representatives from Osaka, Japan. La Crescent’s Apple Blossom Festival float reminded parade watchers of a date to put on their calendars. The St. Paul Winter Carnival North Wind Prince sweated it out in his tux as the temperatures climbed to 95 degrees along the parade route. A Winnipeg, Canada float congratulated the neighbors to the south. The Wilmar Elks saluted their Miss Kaffefest.
From year to year the details change, but the spirit lives on. I further recall how Renaissance Festival Proclamations are signed for the deaf. There is a Miss everything. The Misses begin for each of the 10,000 lakes and branch outward to other subjects. There is a Miss Mountain Lake and a Miss Ham Lake. The directions then become more specific. There is a Miss East Bethel and a Miss North Shore. The Sons of Norway follow close upon Miss Minnesota Teen. Teenagers rev up on Hondas to perform a precision motorcycle crisscross routine that, in other states, would have liability-conscious parade organizers biting their nails. Minnesota parades are also well managed. Mobile street sweepers follow each horse-drawn unit, of which there are several.
The Knights of Columbus Marching Unit puts the priests in the same boat with the princesses. All the fraternal groups are well represented. The Lions have a Miss Deaf Minnesota. There is a Miss Wheelchair Minnesota. A parade in Minnesota serves the socializing and educative process. AAA has the Flintstone characters demonstrating what they call the All-American Buckle-Up for car safety.
What is most remarkable at the parade is that participants wave, with genuine friendliness, at the thousands along the parade route, who, in turn, clap their hands and congratulate each passing unit. The sentiments are genuine.
The current nigh time torchlight parade will at least allow all participants to avoid the searing heat of the day.
A Block Party and More
The Block Party on the Nicollet Mall is another pleasing part of the Aquatennial festivities. The mall itself is a curbless, landscaped main street for shopping in downtown Minneapolis, reclaimed for foot traffic and public transportation only. On any day it is a pleasant place to stroll. But during the night of the Block Party, parts of the mall are closed off, bands begin playing, smoke from the barbecue grills wafts through the air, and the beer flows freely. Thousands of Minnesotans gather in the jovial spirit of a summer evening.
The other Aquatennial events are an elaborate smorgasbord of fun, water sports, and good causes, all adapting to the changing times. Two of the bigger events are a sandcastling contest and a milk boat carton race. A recycled metal sculpture exhibit stresses both art and recycling. An elaborate scavenger hunt benefits the Salvation Army. A fireworks lights up the night sky, perhaps supplemented by the “heat lightning” that nature sometimes presents.
Twin Cities Summer Culture
Local enthusiasts claim that the Twin Cities have more theater and musical offerings per capita than most other areas, and they may be right. It is said that the Twin Cities spend more private and public money per capita on the performing arts than most other cities outside New York, and that too may be right. Local enthusiasts for the arts have their statistics in hand to substantiate the large numbers of theaters, art galleries, music performance groups, museums, and dance companies that flourish here.
The Cowles Center for Dance & Performing Arts, 528 Hennepin Avenue in the downtown theatre district, adds an elegant performance venue, opened in 1911. The Shubert Theatre was moved to the site and a Cowles building added, joining the Schubert with the sturdy and historic 1888 Masonic Temple, forming a block-long performing arts milieu. The setting is particular lovely at night when the Cowles Center is lit in varying colored lights.
The Walker Art Center is another must-see venue, both for the traveling shows it hosts and its permanent collection, such as the pixelated portraits of artist Chuck Close.
Adjacent to the Walker is the celebrated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a fine place to stroll. There you can observe the signature art image for Minneapolis, Claes Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry. This lyrical piece is especially lovely in late afternoon when the sun falls both on it and the skyline of Minneapolis in the background.
The other cultural area to focus on is the Riverfront District, where you’ll find the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater. This setting is adjacent to St. Anthony Falls, the only major cataract on the Mississippi River. Because of the huge energy potential of the cascading water, many saw mills and then flour mills were organized in Minneapolis, especially 1858-1930. Minneapolis became one of the world’s leading producers of flour. The Mill Ruins Park recalls this heritage, which included intricate waterways providing mechanical power to various mills. Railroads carried out the flour. Today you can walk out on the Stone Arch Bridge, originally a railroad bridge, and look back at the mill area and downtown Minneapolis. This is a remarkable urban walk, showing the Mississippi and the current configuration of St. Anthony Falls.
Returning to shore, be sure to allow time for the highly entertaining movie “Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat” at the Mill City Museum. The Mill City Museum presents re-enactors who portray characters in 19th century milling history. There is also a notable Flour Tower tour that re-creates the mechanized world of the flour mills. You rise eight floors to the top of the mill and learn how the water power from St. Anthony Falls propelled all the intricate milling machinery.
Next door is the world-renowned Guthrie Theater, which has flourished in Minneapolis as a quality repertory company since 1963. I first enjoyed the Guthrie in the 1960s at its original location near the Walker Art Gallery. The company has resided since 2006 in a handsome new riverfront home. The building, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, has both main stages and smaller performance spaces. There is a striking cantilever bridge outdoor overlook, called The Endless Bridge, facing the river. This outdoor platform is the perfect spot for a pre-performance pause in the twilight. A restaurant on the 5th floor, called the Level Five Café, offers elegant dinners, with no risk that you will miss the play by being stuck in traffic.
Whenever I get back to Minnesota, attending a play at the Guthrie is on my must-do list. The 2011 performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, done with a clever early 20th century look, reminds audiences of how universal and timeless is Shakespeare’s genius at portraying the hopes and foibles of the human animal. One premise of this play is that wit and repartee, so fun at the onset of a love relationship, can inhibit the progression of love when delight in wit becomes an end in itself.
Another cultural institution along the riverfront to enjoy, beyond the Guthrie, is the silvery-skinned Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road, at the University of Minnesota. The Weisman is a stunning piece of local architecture to observe. Architect Frank Gehry designed this stainless steep showplace. Proceed to the campus and get a close-up view of the building from below it, next to the river. This multi-angled architectural tour de force catches the sun on its many-plane façade. The design is a striking contrast to the usual sturdy, rectangular box look of much Minnesota architecture.
For music, see what’s playing at Orchestra Hall, downtown on the Nicollet Mall. For example, on one earlier visit, I enjoyed hearing local composer Libby Larsen’s work, Genesis 3, a musical score that attempts to approximate the experience of looking over the Minnesota landscape.
“Minnesota offers the artist of today a chance to see his or her work performed,” Larsen said to me. “The State balances nicely a respect for artists of bygone ages with a celebration of art as it is created today. The long winters here also encourage people to get their artistic work done before spring, when they will want to go outdoors. The climate for getting work done and getting it performed is special in Minnesota.”
The Northeast Neighborhood is an up and coming area worth putting on a visitor’s radar because of its emphasis on culture, fine dining, art, and community. The cultural hub is the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, guided by Michael Romens. The Ritz hosts a variety of innovative shows. I caught a Middle Eastern dancing performance of the Jawaahir Dance Company during my visit.
One big arts magnet in the Northeast Neighborhood is the former Northrop King Building (www.northrupkingbuilding.com), 1500 Jackson Street NE. This former cluster of structures for the giant seed company now houses 190 artist studios. I happened to meet ceramic sculptor Steve Hemingway, of Hemingway Ceramics, and learned about his raku-fired pieces. The First Thursdays in the Arts District open house is the best time each month for a visitor to see art in open studios and meet the artists. There are also two annual art crawl events, Art-A-Whirl in the spring and Art Attack in November. Both are good opportunities to meet artists and see their works.
The Aquatennial, the arts, and a special Minnesota slice of Americana combine to make the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul an appealing summer destination.
Minnesota: If You Go
For a full schedule of the Aquatennial events, see www.aquatennial.com.
The overall tourism information contact is Explore Minnesota Tourism at ww.exploreminnesota.com.
For Minneapolis information, contact Meet Minneapolis at www.meetminneapolis.com.