The Sheldon Theatre’s mission is to entertain, educate, and enlighten the community of Red Wing and it’s visitors through the transformative power of the performing arts. As you’ll soon discover, upholding that statement takes intention and focus.
They have designed six different series that touch on aspects of community, interests, entertainment, education, and enlightenment. From a Family and Youth series that supports kids and schools to a Great Sound series that concentrates on artists who are making a splash in their genres, each is done with purpose. As Executive Director Bonnie Schock shares,
“It’s essential to an organization like this because we’re different from major metropolitan areas where most are going to niche specialize. Our specialty is to be eclectic, because we need to serve the whole community.”
Built in 1904, the Sheldon Theatre started by showing silent films and theater productions. The entryway still houses the original doors leading into the foyer. The authentic tile flooring and ornate decorations feature Masonic, Christian, heraldic, and theatric symbols. Most of the imagery is a combination of different visual and spiritual traditions, all related to theater. These Masonry, Christianity, and Greek Baucis elements are based on an idea of elevation and the ability to transcend.
In the mid-30s to the mid-80s, the theater was primarily a movie theater. The venue had placed carpet over the tile and sheetrock over the sculptures in the 50s. When they renovated and peeled everything back in 1988, they rediscovered these features that a whole generation of people hadn’t seen at all. The Sheldon gets its nickname as a “jewel-box” based on the number of details scattered around its’ design.
The theater seats 468 and now has one balcony. Sitting on the second level is the original ticket inventory system. The wooden box has the exact number of seats and rows. A physical ticket would be placed in every single slot. When a ticket was sold, it was pulled out and handed to the person. This visual tool allowed them to see how many tickets where left and exactly where they were.
One of the newest additions to the venue is the 3rd-floor studio. Made as a rehearsal space, the studio is the basic width and depth of the stage itself. It hosts VIP parties, meet-and-greets, and weddings.
Added mirrors in the back of the room reflect the architecture from the windows overlooking the stage. The effect was a total surprise in the renovation and one that makes the room look bigger, as well as providing a fantastic aerial view of the performance space.
The theater has a miniature Fitzgerald feel to it. The thrust of the stage gives the crowd a close connection to the performers. As an artist, the design of the seating must feel like you’re getting a little hug from the audience. Standing on the stage you can see every single seat. It’s an intimate experience and is easy to understand why artists love playing the venue.
The heart of what makes a venue shine is in the sound. The architecture of 1904 had a purpose to carry the sound without amplification. The portrait above the stage is a natural bandshell that carries the sound up to the balcony. Director of Production Russell Johnson perfectly handles the balance of amplified versus natural acoustics. His expertise shows by how he approaches sound in that unique space.
“I listen to what comes off the stage. I make sure the artists are hearing what they need and then I let the room do most of the work.”
For outside engineers, entering the space with complete knowledge of every idiosyncrasy of the their group can hinder them. They may know the bass player tends to play a little harder on certain songs, or the guitar player whales in certain parts. Those intricacies becomes a universal conduit to mix the sound in a certain way. It can lead to pushing the speakers too much or relying on audio board presets more than listening to the room and how it’s reacting.
Russell shares that often he can start mixing with everything turned down and letting the instruments project. Then he can slowly bring in elements that need that amplification more. The theater has speakers scattered around so every seat is getting a full audio picture. He can then individually balance every sector of the venue. If it’s under the balcony and a spoken word piece, he can bring up that section up louder.
Another important identity of the venue is the historic Kilgen organ. Used for silent films, the instrument is built within the venue itself. The marimba and percussion are up in the ceiling and the pipes along the sides of the stage. So the organ player is literally playing the theater. You can feel the vibration in your body. It’s quite a visceral experience that brings people back to these special occasions.
Bonnie Schock, Executive Director
Bonnie Schock has a direct ear in the programming and direction of the theater’s season. She sees each and every group who is considered for the Sheldon, as well as making sure their mission statement is met with high criteria. It’s a relationship that has to happen between the venue and the artists and then between the venue and community to form that crucial intersection. She serves as that bridge between the artist and the audience.
“I think my job as a curator and as a leader of this organization is to build trust with the community so that when artists come and they (the community) don’t know who someone is, they’ll take a chance.”
Her philosophy focuses on giving Red Wing an amazing experience every single time, so they are confident, craft-wise, that what is up on stage is going to be good. Never compromising on quality ensures the artists on her stage are rock stars.
The diversity in the programming is seen in almost every series they manage. Her outreach opportunities with Caravan du Nord and Hispanic workshops with Award-winning artist Gina Chavez are essential to educating a younger audience. The school-day matinees include study guides and curriculum materials provided to classroom teachers in advance. A team of over 100 volunteers supports and assists with making all of their events a success.
When the venue underwent a major renovation back in 2018, about half of the funding came from state bonds and funding, while the other half came from the community itself. Since the venue was gifted to the city of Red Wing in 1904, it’s the second oldest municipally-owned theater in the country. The Sheldon Theatre is a pioneer in the whole notion of government entities holding the arts as a central part of their identity.
“Our job is to communicate out to the people, to believe in our product, and let them know what the kinds of experiences they can have here. And to make them feel welcomed.”
If you’re traveling to Red Wing for a show, make it an experience and spend the night there. The downtown area is quaint and friendly, filled with things to see. The St. James Hotel is the perfect place for a historic adventure.
Also, look to see if The Sheldon Theatre offers a VIP add-on for the show. This gets you a full pre-show gourmet meal in the studio along with a chance to meet the artists and have your photo taken with them. This extra opportunity to splurge can make for a once-in-a-lifetime memory.
The Guest Room
John Munson, Musician in The New Standards
Relationships are everything in the music business. For John Munson, that relationship took off with a guarantee after his band’s first show at the Sheldon Theatre. They had pitched a show idea to Bonnie, who was skeptical at first. The show ended up being okay, but John felt they could do better.
“I made a guarantee to her that the next time that we performed down there, we would sell the place out. And I was right. That’s the sort of thing and kind of steps to build trust between a performer and a venue,” John states.
He shares that the theater has all the guilt and all the features of a really big theater, but it’s very small and intimate at the same time. He feels like the audience is right there with him when they perform. John notices the details further. “That crazy stage with the little bit of a thrust that almost kind of bows out. That shape is mirrored in the balcony and has a little bit of an arch to it that reflects the edge of the stage. It’s just a really, really beautiful design.”
Over the course of 6-7 years of doing shows there, one memory stands out more than the others. They were doing a sold-out Valentine’s day show and having a really fun evening of music. Afterwards they went back to the St. James Hotel with their spouses and celebrated on the top floor. Fans of the band also had the same idea and bumped into them at brunch the next day. Overall the experience made for a wonderful trip to Red Wing and the theater.
Full schedule can be found here. A few immediate highlights include:
12/31 – New Year’s Eve with Monroe Crossing – Named in honor of Bill Monroe, Monroe Crossing dazzles audiences with an electrifying blend of classic bluegrass, bluegrass gospel, and heartfelt originals. Their airtight harmonies, razor sharp arrangements, and on-stage rapport make them audience favorites across the United States and Canada.
2/1 – Leo Kottke – Kottke is a master of guitar, a beloved Minnesota performance personality, and a fixture at the Sheldon. His unique performances showcase his virtuosic playing as well as his quirky humor. After recording more than 40 albums over four decades, Kottke is known across the nation for his impressive body of work and a simply stunning fingerpicking style that has won him two Grammy nominations. His sound draws inspiration from folk, blues and jazz, as he plays his signature 6-string and 12-string guitars.
2/29 –Aby Wolf: Champagne Confetti – An evening of new electro-acoustic works composed by Aby Wolf, in collaboration with Eric Mayson and Grant Cutler, and performed by a cast of renowned musicians as comfortable in experimentation as virtuosity. Blurring the lines between ambient neo-minimalism, chamber music, and electro-R&B, Champagne Confetti delivers a gateway from near-silent meditation to full harmonic abundance, experienced as a union of sonic dream states and coursing, rhythmic waves of unbounded sound.
4/4 – The New Standards – A stellar Minnesota-based trio with a global following, The New Standards are joined by a big band and an incomparable mix of musical friends as they bring you songs and themes from their favorite cult and classic film scores, presented with flair and filtered through their inimitable style.
Music venues are the lifeblood of our community. By providing musicians the opportunity to showcase, collaborate, and experiment with their craft, venues are essential in their development. This series will continue to promote and support our local venues across Minnesota. Please see the previous articles below and go support local music. Our hope is these articles show the importance of supporting venues and places where creativity can thrive.