Movie buffs rally to save theater
Comet Theater needed $80,000 to upgrade equipment
DigitalCarol Carlson, co-owner of the Comet Theater in Cook, gives a thumbs up this week upon hearing their fundraisiung effort was successful.
By Tom Klein

COOK – When it comes to the movies, everybody loves a happy ending.

The Comet Theater, in business since 1939, got its own happy ending this week when an online fundraising campaign surpassed expectations and will keep the curtain from descending on the venerable movie house.

The Comet’s goal was to raise $80,000 to upgrade its equipment to meet the demands of a new digital age in film. As of this week, 381 people had pledged $81,866 for the project.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Carol Carlson, who bought the Comet with John Metsa in 2000. “I am elated at the commitment and enthusiasm that people showed in our desire to take the Comet Theater digital.”

According to Carlson, the new equipment should be arriving within a month. “It should be here by the second of June at the latest,” she said.

To make room for the new equipment, which includes an upgraded digital sound system as well as a new projector, she will have to disassemble the old equipment and haul it away. In addition, Carlson will have to upgrade the Comet venting and electrical system.

Professionals will install the new equipment and provide training on how to use it. Carlson expects that process to take about three days.

Necessary change

The shift to digital was necessary if the Comet were to remain viable as a movie theater. But Carlson said the investment in upgraded equipment would require too large a loan for a marginal business.

That’s when she turned to Kickstarter, an Internet-based funding program designed to help the creative community of filmmakers, musicians, artists and designers.

Carlson said she chose Kickstarter because of its good reputation and its all-or-nothing approach to funding.

She said she was hesitant to ask Cook residents to help her business make the digital transition, noting that residents already donate generously to many local causes and she didn’t want to compete with those causes for their support.

As she researched Kickstarter, she decided it was the best way to raise funds. By seeking donations online, she said, she was able to reach tourists and other summer residents who make up a big share of the theater’s audience. In addition, she offered contributors something in return, such as free theater tickets or T-shirts depending on the size of their donations.

With under a month to go, Carlson had reached the halfway point of her goal, but was concerned donations would fall short of the $80,000 goal. An anonymous benefactor offered to match the donations on Kickstarter to reach the $80,000 goal, but Carlson said she didn’t to have to rely on that generous offer.

Donations started to pour in as the deadline approached and Carlson reached the goal 17 hours ahead of the deadline.

Since then, she said, she’s been on the phone a lot with well-wishers, technicians and electricians. “I am in the process of writing everyone who joined in in the last 48 hours, but until then I just had to say thank you again,” she said.

Many of those pledging donations also left messages of support and told how the Comet meant so much to them.

“As a child, I think I spent every Friday and Saturday night at the Comet,” wrote Stefanie Porer. “It is certainly a big part of my childhood memories.”

Dan Danyluk wrote that his donation was the least he could do “to make up for all of the times in my teens that I snuck in the exits and watched for free.”

John Hanson, director of the film “Wildrose,” recalled when he appeared at the Comet for a 1984 showing of his film, which was set on the Iron Range.

“I remember an enthusiastic reception from a full house and several of our cast and crew from the Cook area made personal appearance,” wrote Hanson. “Those of us who make independent films need theaters like yours to provide small-town and rural audiences a place to gather for a communal cinematic experience. Good luck and keep the magic alive!”

Some who pledged funds had never been to the Comet, but valued preserving a part of small-town history.

“I live in Colorado and most likely will never see the Comet Theater,” wrote E.S. Knightchide. “This is your hometown theater? Do you really want to see what happens when a town’s theater goes dark?”

Carlson said those heartfelt messages of support were gratifying and she’s looking forward to bringing the Comet’s patrons an enhanced movie experience with the new technology.

In addition, the switch to digital films will make a wider library of films available more rapidly. For instance, Carlson had to wait two and a half months to obtain a film print of “Lincoln.”

It will also eliminate the need to splice spools of film on a gigantic reel and save on postage costs for receiving and sending films. A typical film, which would arrive on several reels, weighed between 50 and 60 pounds and had to be lugged up a flight of stairs to the Comet’s tiny projection room. Future films will arrive on a disc about the size of a DVD, according to Carlson.

Patrons will also benefit from the improved sound system. The theater will feature surround sound emanating from several speakers instead of a single large speaker near the screen.

But the comforting, cozy atmosphere of the tiny home theater will continue. That — plus what many say is the best popcorn at any theater — is what makes the Comet special, said Carlson, and that won’t change.

Comet Theater Unlike Any Other
A Slice of History on Cook's Main Street
Yoga Classes


It seems appropriate that a former church become a yoga studio. Both places seek to transform lives.

"Yoga is about reaching your full potential," said Carol Carlson, who with her husband John Metsa bought the First Congregational Church of Cook and has converted a portion of the building to a yoga studio. "It helps you get in touch with who you are and amplifies that person."

Her students agree. Ann Lorbiecki, who practiced yoga before moving to Cook two years ago, said it's much more than exercise. "It benefits you mentally and spiritually as well as physically," Lorbiecki explained.

Jeannine Emmons shares Lorbiecki's passion for yoga. She originally started attending classes to improve her posture and flexiblity, but said yoga has also changed her outlook by strengthening her belief in her abilities to overcome obstacles.

Others cited how yoga has increased their stamina, provided peace of mind and enabled them to cope with the day-to-day pressures of life.

Wednesday morning's class ended with mediation as class members recited a transformation phrase repeatedly, with heads bowed and eyes closed as they concentrated.

In essence, it was a prayer. But Carlson notes that yoga is not a religion, but a means of getting more in touch with your spiritual side. "I've had Christian students who say that yoga has made them more Christian," she said.

Carlson's Path
Carlson's own introduction to yoga began straight out of high school while she was attending the University of Oregon in 1977. Her studies deepened as she worked as a professional dancer in Minneapolis and New York.

Among others, she studied with Yogi Bhajan, who became a yoga master at the age of 16 in his native India. Bhajan eventually moved to the West to teach yoga to the public.
Carlson, whose yoga name is Sat Nam Kaur, began teaching yoga and even made an instructional tape distributed nationally.

Although she has studied a variety of yoga methods, Carlson primarily teaches Kundalini yoga. Kundalini is Sanskrit for "the uncoiling of the serpent" and is a technique for releasing dormant energy within the body.
Kundalini results in a higher state of consciousness, said Carlson. It detoxifies the body and mind, organs and behavior patterns, and strengthens the nervous system and glands to allow people to meet life's challenges to the fullest.
Carlson offers a variety of classes, each tailored to specific groups.

The First Steps class (offered on Tuesdays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.) is aimed at beginners. Participants learn basic yoga postures and breathing techniques designed to develop strength and flexibility.

A Gentle Lotus class (held Friday from 9 to 10:15 a.m.) is geared for people with injuries, arthritis, insomina or other stress-related problems while the Happy Hour Yoga class (Thursday from 5:20 to 6:50 p.m.) is aimed at relieving stress and restoring energy after the work day.

Both Sun Celebration (Monday and Wednesday from 8:30 to 10:15 a.m.) and Liberated Living (Saturday from 9:30 to 11 a.m.) focus on more advanced yoga.

In addition to yoga classes, Carlson will offer dance classes. The first class will begin Feb. 4 with Carol Booth and Jim Ganahl leading a course in basic ballroom dancing.

To register for the dance or yoga classes, contact Carlson at the Comet Theater at (218) 666-5814.

Her own studio
The ability to offer a range of classes is one of the main advantages of having her own studio, said Carlson, who previously offered classes in the basement of Cook's Trinity Lutheran Church, at Studio North in Ely and at Range Office Supply in Virginia.

Her goal is to ultimately offer not only a studio for classes, but also a library of yoga materials. In addition, Carlson plans to offer workshops for more intensive study of yoga and to invite guest instructors.

The building, renamed as River Front Square, will serve as more than a place for yoga studies. Carlson hopes to see the place utilized as a community center, available to be rented for family reunions or weddings. There is still work, however, to be done on the church's reconstruction.

"We still have the basement to tackle," said Carlson, who added that plans also call for the construction of a deck on the side of the building facing into River Street.

The studio itself isn't completely finished. Although new windows were installed and the hardwood floor restored, carpeting has yet to be installed in one section of the room and there are some finishing decor touches to be made.
Just acquiring the property itself took some time. Although the building had been vacant for years when Carlson first envisioned purchasing it for a studio, the church congregation had not made a decision yet to sell.

A couple of years ago, church members approached Carlson and other interested people about purchasing the property, which also includes a large parsonage. Carlson and Metsa submitted a bid and were happily surprised to find their bid accepted.

They first fixed up the parsonage to rent and provide some income for other renovations, Carlson explained. The studio officially opened this month as the first phase of a series of steps to convert the church into a community center.

Carlson's goals for the building and the community can be summed up in the Chinese characters that decorate the pillars at the building's entrance. They stand for health, happiness, peace and prosperity. To that list, she plans to add love and longevity.

Mesabi Daily News 6/ 18/06
COOK — “There’s no place like home,” said Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” — one of the first films played at Cook’s main street theater — the Comet — after its 1939 inception. And today, there’s no place quite like the historic Comet Theater. Carol Carlson, who owns the vintage theater with husband John Metsa, says so. So do customers, local and from afar. No doubt, they’re right.
Where else can you watch a first-run movie on a 1939 screen, while surrounded by Tiffany-style lamps? And shop for beaded handbags and one-of-a kind totes — suspended from an indoor tree; along with jewelry and gemstones, hand-made silk shoes, skirts and shawls, teapot sets and cut glass and other collectibles. And sip a vanilla green tea latte or a frozen banana split espresso, while doing a little antiquing. And maybe even learn a bit about Kundalini yoga.
The Comet Theater embodies all of the above — and much more.
“It’s like a girl’s day out” type of shop, Carlson said. It’s a fashionable boutique brimming with exquisite things, yet “it’s a down home place” — still embracing the romance of old-time cinema.
The Comet in Cook is Minnesota’s longest continuous running movie screen, Carlson said. Originally located at the end of the main street in the 1920s, the theater was rebuilt in its current location in the summer of 1939 by owner Lawrence “LD” Gustafson, who sold it in 1970.
The theater changed hands a number of times, but was always owned by local residents. It never closed — remarkable “for a to wn this size,” Carlson said.
In August 2000, Carlson and Metsa, both originally from Virginia and from entrepreneurial families, relocated to Cook, drawn to its setting as a “gateway to Lake Vermilion.”
Carlson, long involved in dance and a yoga — having run her own yoga studio in Manhattan — had a love for theater. When the Comet became available, she viewed owning it as a “great, romantic idea.”
She mostly operates and manages the theater/boutique, but Metsa, principal of the Cherry school and involved in real estate, has helped make the Comet what it is today.
Carlson sees herself as a steward of the historic theater and its wide 22-by-13-foot screen, where movies are played twice a day in the su mmer and where live performances are held on its stage.
The theater has overseen the evolution of cinema since opening with classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” “It (1939) was a magnificent year” in motion picture, Carlson said.
The Comet has also weathered its share of history, especially during Cook’s Great Flood of 1970, when main street was awash with several feet of water. “People were catching northerns off the stage,” she said.
Though her role is guardian to the theater, the rest of what is found inside “feels like it’s mine.” Carlson knew she wanted its entry to contain a coffee shop serving specialty drinks offered at large coffee houses. That grew into the clothing and gifts, blossoming into antiques and home decor.
Metsa remodeled the lobby, tearing down the dark paneling and installing windows. It was his idea to put a tree in the store; now a main feature, its branches adorned with colorful fashion handbags and dressy clutches of all shapes and sizes.
“Some of what you see is ‘off-the-wall John,’” Carlson said. “He keeps me thinking big.”
A big part of the shop is the array of vintage and modern jewelry. Like artworks in their own right, cases are bejeweled with sparkly necklaces, dangling earrings, beaded bracelets and shiny gems.
Stylish attire includes summer dresses and skirts and chic hoodies, embellished shoes and sandals, along with “unique T-shirts,” such as the “Bad girl of the north” clothing line.
The Comet is the only shop in the area offering Franz porcelain, Carlson said. Tiffany-style stained glass lamps, which “I sell at a good price,” trim all areas of the store. More reside past the curtains leading from the concession area into the theater, where a collection of lighting fixtures lines the front row and rear seats.
Carlson sells some northwoods accessories, but focuses mostly on elegant, dainty, whimsical, unusual and interesting items — marking them at the best prices possible. Everywhere you look there’s more to see — wine and champagne glassware, pottery, clocks, baskets, vintage mixing bowls, salt and pepper shakers, hand-painted trunks, crocks and planters and vases, art pieces and antique decorative objects.
“We have real unique stuff other stores don’t have,” she said. “There’s no place like this.”
Women are the prime customers, but guys, feeling guilty after long fishing trips at the lake, “stop in and shop for their wives or girlfriends.”
The boutique and movie theater are each hits with visitors, Carlson said. “Tourists love both.” At some point, nearly “everybody pops in... The resorts are supportive.”
The Comet coffee shop features fresh roasted Alakef Coffee, chosen for its gourmet beans and its commitment to supporting sustainable agriculture and fair trade.
Flavored or plain cappuccinos, lattes and teas are made with milk or soy. Frozen drinks and fruit smoothies are a summertime favorite, Carlson said, including the Frozen Irish Brownie made with Irish cream, Frozen Mocha Berry, and Frozen Bear Claw, an iced blend of espresso, chocolate, coconut, caramel and milk. Fresh cookies, muffins and donuts are available as well, and can be enjoyed on the outdoor patio — a place “where vacationers and locals can come and relax,” Carlson said. Of course, coffee and pastries can also be ordered up in time for a show, along with candy, popcorn, or ice cream treats at the concession stand.
Movies change each Friday, with occasional two-week runs. A 1 p.m. matinee and 7 p.m. show is held daily in the summer; and weekend matinees in the winter. There’s a requirement of at least four people to present a film, due to wear and t ear on the old equipment.
Admission is $6 for adults; $4 for children and seniors, except on Thursdays, when a long-standing Comet tradition is honored — two-for-one movie admission. The Comet also books private shows.
For the past three years, the theater has hosted “Chick-Flick Night,” a fund-raiser for the W.C. Heiam Medical Foundation of the Cook Community Hospital. Some 120 women gather at the Comet to raise money for the non-profit organization that supports the hospital, sample hors d’oeuvres and wine, and watch a movie. “It’s a fun time for the locals to get together,” Carlson said. This year, the event raised $2,288.64.
Live performances on the theater stage are an acoustical wonderment, she said. “The concerts here are amazing. Musicians love to play here.”
The Brittany Lee Band did a show there during the recent Cook Timber Days festival. Stage acts slated for this summer include “Love, Sex and the IRS” by the Virginia Repertoire Players with Peter Pellinen in July; the music of Paul Mayasich Aug. 11, and a performance by blues artist Paul Metsa, John Metsa’s brother.
Carlson is also cultivating her own artistic talents at the Comet, with the help of friends. A mural stretching across the building’s outside wall has been in the works for a few years. It’s a cinema timeline of sorts, including depictions of Dorothy and the Tin Man and the yellow brick road, Walt Disney characters, scenes from “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind,” Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Indiana Jones and “The Little Mermaid.”
Carlson plans to incorporate other movies into the mural, such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” — maybe even have a three-dimensional spaceship crashing into the building.
Looking after an old-time theater and operating a boutique “is constant work,” but worth the effort, said Carlson, who only recently hired her first employee.
When small business owners can say their labor has “evolved into their passion” and “you feel it expresses who you are... while always keeping a sense of integrity,” it’s a sign of success.
Carlson, who teaches yoga three mornings a week at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cook, aspires to one day open a yoga studio and spa on property near town and rent the upstairs apartment at the Comet.
She has more plans for the theater as well.
They consist of a larger patio with more seating, a second mural on the opposite outer wall, perhaps even a wine bar. And Comet merchandise & mdash; handbags to lamps — will be available online at www.comettheater.com by July.
“It’s a fun place,” Carlson said of her little slice of history on main street Cook. “I think it’s special.”



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