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A Meeting on "Saving the spirit of the Oak Street"

Posted at 2:10 PM on April 11, 2006 by Euan Kerr

There were moments of gentle surrealism at the meeting called by Bob Cowgill and friends at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown last night. About 200 people came to hear Cowgill's proposal to take over the running of the Oak Street.

I have to admit I got there just a little late, but I was in time to see film fixture Al Milgrom announce loudly from the back of the theater that he didn't have time to wait for the Harold Lloyd short because he had "a film festival to book." Then he left.

The Lloyd short was great fun, accompanied as it was by Rich Dworsky, of Prairie Home Companion fame. Sadly as I was at the back I had to peer round an ornamental tree, which always seemed to obscure whatever vital part of the action it was occurring on screen, but that's what comes of being late.

After the film the meeting got down to business. While there were voices raised occasionally, it was a much more reasoned gathering than the last meeting in January.

Cowgill asked the people in the crowd to do one of two things: either write a check to the MFA board in support of the current situation, or pledge money to a new board charged with bringing back the Oak Street.

Cowgill outlined his plan and then invited Milgrom and anyone from the board to come forward to answer questions.

Milgrom was gone of course, but after a little prompting longtime member Steve Zuckerman took the stage and laid out his version of the situation. He said the board has been in survival mode since late last year and has been unable to focus on much more than getting the MFA out of its financial hole and getting the 2005 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival set up. He said when Cowgill approached the board with his plan they were in no position to deal with it. He said that after the festival is done that might change.

Then the audience asked questions. Many thanked Zuckerman for coming to the meeting. There were suggestions on using the MFA's 501C3 status to save the theater, and questions about why the Board hadn't seen the financial problems earlier, about what happened with past MFA Executive Director Jaimie Hook, and about who is running the MFA website.

Zuckerman answered the questions, and explained what had happened from the boards point of view. Eventually Cowgill called out "Just give me a chance Steve!" Another questioner asked whether the board was ready to let people interested in the MFA's future to have a voice in the debate.

Zuckerman said again they had to wait until after the film festival before they can make a decision. Some of the crowd grew restless and called out for the board to resign. Zuckerman said that it was unfair to blame the board. He pointed out that Bob Cowgill had been in charge of the organization, but he had left for another job. Again some in the crowd howled he was trying to shift the blame, but Zuckerman said he was only pointing out that there were many things which had led to the current situation, and it was wrong to point to one single cause. He pointedly asked Cowgill just how he thought he could save the Oak Street.

And that's when Bob Cowgill stepped on stage and said "I dunno. With a little song and dance?" And with Zuckerman occasionally joining in, he sang "Don't monkey with the Oak Street," a comic song based on a Cole Porter number "Don't monkey with Broadway.

The heat went out of the room, and people sang along. It turned out they were scribbling away too. By the end of the evening the Save the Oak Street group had almost $40,000 in pledges towards its cause. Cowgill acknowledges pledges aren't checks, but it's a lot more than he expected. Now he says he's trying to work what he is going to do next.

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