Remember the scene in the movie Moulin Rouge when Ewan McGregor is experiencing the cancan dancers for the first time? Jim Broadbent starts the action and song by Fatboy Slim by yelling “Because we can, can, can!” The stage swirls, women twirl, legs kick, and dancers create a flurry of color and movement as he sings, “Everybody can, can!” Similar to that scene, Can Can Wonderland, in one of the industrial pockets of St. Paul, swallows up visitors and pulls us into a loud gallery of motion, sound, smells, tastes, and scintillation. Bordering on overstimulation, the whole experience can never be consumed on a single visit, but requires return trips. The original art on the walls, the furnishings, the artist-made mini-golf course, the arcade games, the stage, the drinks, the food: there’s no way to dance fast enough for this place. But try, we can, can, can.
And I am absolutely thrilled about that. St. Paul needed a bit more fun. We’re seen as kind of stuffy over here. I know this to not be true, but you kind of have to be in the know to find the extended versions of St. Paul. The director’s cut. Where the streets are crooked and we let loose a bit. You also need to know how to find this place. Look for a smokestack, some signs, and just follow your art-instinct (GPS helps). I found myself parking beneath a building and knew I was in the right place when I was parked next to a huge puppet-bicycle, the likes of which I’d seen at the May Day Parade and the Art Shanty Project.
Now added to my beloved list of art-centric experiences, Can Can Wonderland is reminiscent of so much, but all brought together in one location. It’s campy like Betty Danger’s, but without the big wheel to ride. It’s like going out to Franconia Sculpture Park, but it’s in a big basement in St. Paul…and you play mini golf through it. Then add some of the fun that has come with bringing back arcade games as has been done with Up-Down arcade bar and TILT Pinball Bar in Minneapolis, but make them go even further back in time. Add some amusement park food, cocktails and beverages that delight the eyes as well as the tongues, and then stir in a lively events calendar to bring about a whirlwind of activity. This place is like no other.
It should come as no surprise that all of these things can be pulled together with style, skill, and overwhelming popularity. The people behind this venture — Christi Atkinson, Rob Clapp, Chris Pennington, and Jennifer Pennington — are also those who’ve brought about such art projects as Walker artist-designed mini golf, the Ten Second Film Festival, and Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement. These are wildly popular attractions in our art-o-sphere, as is Can Can Wonderland now. What’s more, Can Can Wonderland is the first arts-based public benefit corporation in Minnesota with the social purpose to be an economic engine for the arts. So, what you spend there not only pays for your experiences, but goes back into providing funding for the arts. Talk about a win-win.
The main attraction is the mini-golf course at $12 a round for adults, $9 a round for kids, veterans, and folks who are 62 and older. With 18 holes, there is so much to see and pay attention to, more than just your ball or where it’s going. Or the drink you’re holding (I need a holster for my ice cream soda float the next time I go). I suggest checking out the artists on the website and reading up on the pieces you’ll be playing on and in and around. Each hole has not only a person or a team that designed it, but a person or team that fabricated it, being sure to give credit where it’s due. There are Rube Goldberg-esque holes (perhaps all mini-golf holes are), one with kitschy furniture, a frog, some water, and the last one is really hard, where you have to hit the golf ball off of a baseball tee (I think I need a helmet for that one next time). Watching people play through is as much fun as playing the holes, in my opinion, and many people do just drink on the sides and watch the melee go by.
Then, be sure to grab some grub and libations. The Culinary Amusement Park has a crazy array of foods, including toasties featuring cheese, brisket, Nutella, and veggies; nachos featuring chili, barbacoa, and beer cheese toppings; hot dogs served old-school, Coney, bahn mi, vegan, mac and cheese, and with bacon and cheese; salads; mini donuts (with a variety of toppings); Heggie’s pizzas and Hot Pockets after 10 at night; and snacks like cotton candy, popcorn, and pretzels. With two bars, the Main Bar and the Wee Bar, Bittercube has designed cocktails to sling with plenty of whimsy to be imbibed. There’s a carrot drink that comes in a terra cotta pot. Adult milkshakes to please the sweet tooth. Cereal-coated cocktails. Be prepared to smile at what comes (and passes by) your way.
Things to take note of before visiting include the hours, the location, the wait list, the activity level, and the willingness to let an experience take control of you. Can Can Wonderland is open Thursday through Sunday and shares a building with BlackStack Brewing, so parking is a bit competitive in the lots, but there’s plenty of room on the streets. The mini-golf course has a wait list, so be sure to get there early to get your name on it, then have some fun in the rest of the place. Be prepared for a lot of people, including kids, and plenty of noise, including the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band (from Nye’s!) or variety shows and concerts. You can check Can Can Wonderland’s website for all of the activities to attend or aim for more quiet times on Thursday and Sunday afternoons if you’re not ready for a whole lot of busy-ness. And then let go when you get there.
There’s a very interesting business model here that is not often seen. It’s not a museum, nor is it a for-profit arcade and entertainment center. Those both have rather static attractions that are staid and predictable, with exhibits or features that switch out on occasion. It’s not only not a corporate chain restaurant, but it’s got amusement park food with drinks as fancy and frivolous as amusement park rides. It’s not a place with delineated rules and expectations, but it’s organized chaos with group tap dance lessons and balloon animals on the side. It’s a dream that’s been brought to fruition and I am so excited that it exists. There’s plenty of risk involved, but risk can bring reason. And that reason is that people will return to experience it differently every time.
Can Can Wonderland
755 Prior Ave. N, Suite #004