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New-look Playhouse: 'The Chief' gets a facelift as summer play season nears

Oscar Julin from Davis Drywall removes scaffolding at the rear of the newly painted exterior of the historic Chief Theater, home of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - It's a race to get renovations to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse finished in time for the opening of the first play, now less than a week away, but organizers are determined to make it happen.

Local businessman Chris Keenan, a member of the Playhouse board and the man in charge of building maintenance, is working alongside other contractors.

"When the board decided to go ahead with the plans for the renovations, I insisted that we use only local contractors because they are part of the community that has supported the playhouse for over 60 years," said Keenan. "The upgrades to the insulation are part of the energy rehabilitation so that the heat stays in during the winter and the air conditioning keeps the theater cool."

North Country Insulation completed the interior insulation work and Davis Drywall installed the exterior insulation finishing system.

"It's a more energy efficient building overall," Keenan said.

The exterior of the building, with an art deco look similar to interior of the Chief Theatre, was designed by Jim Lucachick. Artist Pat Shough chose the colors for the inside and outside, keeping to Lucachick's theme.

Business Manager Janet Brademan is also on hand to oversee the new box office and lobby renovations. All of the work is covered by three separate grants, totaling $150,000, from local foundations and business organizations.

"There are other future projects but they will need to wait until we get more grant monies," Brademan said. "But we did get to put in a new set of stairs down to the ladies dressing room and a new bathroom."

Erin Marsh, a box office worker, said, "I am looking forward to having more space for the box office personnel and a more professional looking lobby space for the patrons."

The front lobby is quickly being assembled, with a new look to the relocated box office, which allows customers to enter the front door and walk straight ahead to the counters.

Keenan said the motion and commotion looked familiar as he recalled the move of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse from Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge some 20 years ago.

"Wayne Thorson was instrumental in organizing the local contractors of Bemidji to renovate the old movie house into the present day Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Thorson used local people back then just as we have done now," said Keenan.

Right now, everyone at the playhouse is working full time to get the first show up and running on time.

The new artistic director, Terry Lynn Carlson, is rehearsing actors for the opening musical/drama on June 6. "The Spitfire Grill," with book and music by James Valcq and lyrics by Fred Alley, has some familiar Bemidji faces in lead roles. Visit the website for more information and ticket prices.