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Pipestone Performing Arts Center has entertained since '93

The fireplace mantel in the lobby (at right) came from Rockledge (King-Watkins) Mansion in Winona. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 4
The art deco lobby at PPAC gives visitors a feeling of stepping into another time. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 4
The stage at PPAC is not raised, but is spacious enough for just about any kind of performance. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)3 / 4
PPAC Managing Director Dennis Hansen sits surrounded by photos of past performances. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)4 / 4

PIPESTONE -- Stepping through the black doors of the Pipestone Performing Arts Center, first-time visitors may feel like they have entered a different world or possibly stepped back in time.

The art deco lobby has a bit of a majestic, old-timey feel -- one that may make a female want to don a sweeping gown and grab an artfully flirtful fan, or a male reach for a top hat to tip. Along the front walls are plaques bearing the names of those who donated to get the center up and running, and standing in graceful splendor across from the theater entrance is a marble fireplace mantel, one of four artifacts salvaged from Rockledge, the King-Watkins mansion in Winona.

From the bright lights and colors of the lobby, the purposeful darkness of the theater pulls at a visitor's imagination until he or she has to step inside. But the stage itself is not immediately visible. The first thing a visitor sees is remnants of performances past.

Covering the dark walls are framed photos of the casts of a variety of shows -- Opland Singers, Calumet Players, the Calumet Children's Theatre and shows from the Presenter Series. There are dazzling costumes and smiling faces, carefully arranged thespians and performers or those caught in mid-dramatic pose or gesture -- actors, dancers, orators and musicians of all ages.

Past the walls of faces and performances past, the visitor emerges into the theater and gets a first look at the stage. Unlike many theaters, the stage is not raised, but is at normal floor level.

Most visitors never get to look beyond, or beneath, to the many, many rooms at PPAC.

Pipestone Performing Arts Center (PPAC) Executive Director Dennis Hansen knows his way in and around the rooms and areas of the center without giving it a second thought, but in a Phantom of the Opera-esque fashion, a newcomer could easily get turned around in the many hallways, nooks and crannies that can be traversed under the stage. There's even an elevator that can pop up in the center of the stage, although it hasn't been used in some time.

One room, right at the bottom of the staircase, is where the Opland Singers get together for their practice sessions. At the back of the room is something that would make any music aficionado drool -- a long row of filing cabinets, completely filled with sheet music. Longevity-wise, Hansen is one of the oldest members of the Opland Singers still performing. He joined the group in 1955, when it was still just a male chorus. It wasn't until the 1980s that women joined the group.

"We heard that some ladies in town wanted to start a group," Hansen explained. "We figured we had better ask them to join us or they might leave us in the dirt."

It was in 1993 that the PPAC came to be, giving the Opland Singers a home. Between their performances and those of the Calumet Players, the Calumet Children's Theatre and the Presenter Series, the center is utilized more than 250 days a year.

The choir room is only the first stop on the labyrinth of rooms under the stage. Continuing down the hallway, there are dressing rooms, a green room where actors wait for their turn to emote on stage, and, most importantly, storage areas.

One section is filled with paint cans, one is home to ladders. One has plastic totes loaded with hats.

And then there are the costume rooms.

One contains the costumes and some props used by the Opland Singers. Sequins by the million are sewn onto outfits that hang on something Hansen is particularly proud of -- the clothes hanger rods are on special tracks so they can be slid closer or farther apart for ease of access. On the shelves nearby is a unique collection of items that bring up a bevy of questions when seen individually. A rubber lion's face? A bag of stuffed fish? A half dozen fluffy mops?

What could they possibly have been used for?

Each item has graced the stage at one point or another and may be needed again someday, so for now are stored on a shelf or hanger in anticipation of that time.

Bigger items -- large backdrops and things of that nature -- are kept on the main floor, just offstage in the scene shop. Off to one side, a tool room and small shop house the things needed to build or rebuild.

Out in the theater is a relatively new light board and a Bose theater sound system, both of which are run almost exclusively by volunteers, Hansen said.

"We have three sound people we really rely on, and two on the light board," he stated. "The programming of things is more complicated. Setting it up is more of a challenge."

Other than Hansen and two custodians, PPAC is volunteer-based.

"You have to really love it and be devoted to it," Hansen explained. "To be involved, you have to commit to a lot of rehearsals."

He's not just talking about performers. There are the already mentioned light and sound operators, costumers, set designers and builders -- the list goes on and on. And don't forget the board members and support group.

"We have a large donor support group, and each year we come close to meeting our goal of $45,000," Hansen explained. "We take in money from ticket sales, and we have an underwriter's fund. There's legacy money and grant writing.

"So, between grants, ticket sales, donations, we come very close every year to being in the black."

PPAC does approximately 50 productions a year between the groups that use the facility, and with seating for 290, it can be utilized in a variety of ways, which is what keeps it busy 250 days of each year.

"There aren't very many towns of 4,500 that can do that," Hansen stated.

Loyal patrons keep PPAC running in a time when entertainment dollars are stretched very thin, Hansen acknowledged. And even after years and years of witnessing it time and time again, it never ceases to amaze him what kind of talent can come out of the woodwork and walk in the doors.

Beginning April 1, the Opland Singers will perform their Spring Festival of Songs, "Travel'n Through the Timeless Classics." The show features songs such as "At the Hop," "Lollipop," "Day O" and "The Woodchuck Song."

Other upcoming shows include "Three Decades of Modern and Jazz Dance," by the Zenon Dancers on April 16; Monroe Crossing on May 14; Lorie Line on May 19 and the Calumet Players presentation of "Annie" beginning June 16.

For more information about upcoming shows, times and ticket prices, contact the PPAC box office at 1-877-722-2787 or visit the theater online at www.pipestoneminnesota/artcenter/index.htm.