Historic finds inside Avalon Theater tunnel

Entering an 86-year-old tunnel under the Avalon Theater is not exactly easy.

"It can be scary. There's some artists that snuck down here and I think they put up a painting of a horse," says resident artist Steve Ackerman. He admits that the horse art installation is too deep into this gradually narrowing hallway that he wants to go again.

"I'm sure there's some spots I haven't explored. As the building transferred owners and everything… pieces that were more original to the building were stored in the attic or in here."

The Avalon Theater at the corner of East Lake Street and 15th Avenue in South Minneapolis was built in 1937. It's the third theater at this location, but the first to make the switch from silent films to "talkies". Michelle Pett, executive director of HOTB, says by about the 1950s, audiences changed.

"It was a porn theater, movie theater for 25 years and Heart of the Beast worked really hard with this neighborhood Powderhorn and Philips to purchase this building," says Pett, "And turn it back into a community asset."

Needless to say, if these walls could talk. Somewhere between pulling wires through the tunnel to the stage and renovations going on for the past 18 months, Ackerman discovered treasures in the tunnel, covered in decades of dust which turned out to be original chrome light fixtures that are now cleaned up, fitted with LED lights and put back in the lobby.

"Now these are on all the time," says Pett.

Once out of the tunnel, Ackerman took us up, way up in the janitor's closet. Hidden just below the stair to the second level, an artist from the past left a display, including stools, candles, faux flowers, for someone in the future to find.

"It says 'I have been expecting you,' which is a little creepy," says Ackerman. "I think there's some spirits or ghosts hanging out."

By far the easiest historic find to access was discovered in the floor of the old corner-facing ticket booth.

"There's a safe right here and who knows? it could be -- maybe there's a million dollars?" says Pett. "Or maybe it's empty like Al Capone's vault."

While these pieces of the past have massive amounts of mystery surrounding them, the well-known collection of old and new puppets in the attic and theater space continues to grow. So many HOTB has now started what is believed to be just the third puppet lending library in the country. Mostly paper mâché masterpieces available for the community to borrow for two weeks at a time for free.

"I really feel we are doing our best to credit and embrace the legacy of all the artists over the years because it's on their shoulders that we are standing," says Pett. "I'm excited because I believe this is where the future is happening."

And while there's still two more phases of renovations, Pett is hoping the building's untouched nooks and crannies offer even more surprises.

"There is still a missing piece of the marquee," says Pett. "I'm hoping it exists somewhere in the building."

She just won't be the one venturing too deep to look for it.

"No, I draw the line," says Pett. "I've looked into that tunnel and that was enough for me."