Donor Zero

We got our first in-kind donation for the Snowblower Ballet! Woodbury resident Tom Harold saw an article about the Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant award and contacted me and asked me if I wanted a snowblower he was willing to donate. snowpup3

It turned out he had two Toro models, including a vintage Snow Pup owned by his father that must be about 50 years old. We hope to get them running for a preview performance of the Snowblower Ballet at the Art Shanty Projects this winter on White Bear Lake, and then on Harriet Island next winter. Stay tuned. And if you’d like to help with a donation, contact us at or call us at 651-336-6975.snowpup1


Big X

I was watching the classic adventure movie, “The Great Escape” with the production assistant for the Snowblower Ballet because I thought there might be some management lessons we could learn from what it’s like to organize a massive breakout from a German prisoner of war camp during World War II that we could apply to putting on a snowblower ballet.

The organizer of the escape — Squadron Leader Bartlett, or “Big X” as he’s called by his fellow prisoners — has to recruit collaborators with a pretty diverse set of skills: tunnel kings, forgers, scroungers, tailors to make civilian clothes, people who can manufacture air bellows, people who can hide the dirt.

Similarly with the snowblower ballet, we’ve got to recruit and assemble a lot of different moving parts: a choreographer, dancers, an orchestra, a venue, a sound system and a videographer, a drone pilot, costumes, marketing people, social media helpers.

Instead of moving dirt, we’re going to be moving snow, so we’ll need snowblowers and shovels and volunteers. And of course we need to raise more money to make it happen, which he hope to do  with the generous support of people like you.

I’ve already got some great partners: Jon Lewis and the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Zoé Emilie Henrot and the St. Paul Ballet, and my production assistant, Andrea Leap, despite the fact that  she thinks “The Great Escape” should be retitled “The So-So Escape” because nearly everyone gets recaptured.

In “The Great Escape,” there were plenty of headaches for Big X, played by Richard Attenborough: tunnel collapses, Blythe going blind, Royal Navy officers being late to committee meetings, Danny having a claustrophobia attack, the tunnel coming up short of the woods. Vexing.

Yet in the end, despite not making it home, Big X declares that the effort was all worth it, that he’s never been happier. I hope I feel that way. Stay tuned.






A few words about the Knight brothers

The Snowblower Ballet is being made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

But who are the Knights?

They were newspapermen, brothers who published some of the best newspapers in the country as leaders of the Knight Newspapers and then Knight-Ridder newspaper chains.


I feel a connection to them because for all of my adult life, I’ve been a newspaperman too, most of it at what was a Knight-Ridder newspaper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch.

I was always proud to work for a Knight-Ridder paper because it was known in the journalism business as the quality chain of papers, with members like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Detroit Free Press, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News.

Like the Pioneer Press, they were all newspapers with distinctive, independent voices. They all won Pulitzer Prizes. John S. Knight himself won a Pulitzer for editorial writing in 1968.

The Knights wanted their newspapers to make money, and that’s where they made their fortunes.

But Knight newspapers didn’t stint on spending to report important stories. According to this profile, John S. Knight once said, “A typewriter means more to a newspaper than an adding machine.”

“Now, there was an owner you’d go to — and through — the wall for,” according to Clark Hoyt, a longtime Knight-Ridder newspaperman.

Because I worked at a Knight-Ridder newspaper, I was able to spend six weeks in Iraq in 2005 working at the Knight-Ridder Baghdad bureau.

Because of the generosity of John S. Knight, I spent a year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.

The Knight-Ridder newspaper chain no longer exists. But the commitment of the Knight brothers to the cities where their newspapers were located means that St. Paul has enjoyed unique Knight Foundation-funded art projects like the Smallest Museum in St. Paul and the Floating Library.

It means that you can submit an idea on how to make the city more successful through the Knight Cities Challenge grant which has funded ideas like the Saint Paul Hello Welcome Hat program.

It means that a Snowblower Ballet will be coming to St. Paul.

I’m glad I live in a Knight city.

Thank you John S. and James L.

Richard Chin

What do we do now?

So we learned last night at a swelegant announcement ceremony put on by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation at the James J. Hill Center that the Snowblower Ballet is one of the winners of a Knight Arts Challenge Grant.


The grant funds “the best ideas for engaging and enriching St. Paul through the arts.” It makes me proud to be living in a Knight city and working at a former Knight newspaper.


The fund will provide more than $34,000 from Knight to help pay for an orchestra, dancers, a choreographer, a venue, a videographer, sound system, and of course, and snowblowers, provided we can get matching funds. Snowblower ballets do not come cheap, and Knight’s main goal is artistic excellence.

We also got this swell plaque.0

And we’re already drawing media attention from the Star Tribune and MPR.

But we also feel a bit like Robert Redford in “The Candidate” after he won the election. What have we gotten ourselves into?

I think what we do now is to ask for your help and support, especially when it comes to raising matching funds. Please contact us if you’d like to make a tax deductible donation or would like to be a sponsor or know someone who would to be a sponsor of a uniquely Minnesotan event capable of capturing the imagination of the public and a potential national media audience. Our plan is to stage The St. Paul Snowblower Ballet presented by Your Name Here in the week leading up to Super Bowl LII at the end of January 2018. Watch this space for details. Follow us on Twitter @Snoblowerballet.

“You had me at ‘snowblower ballet.'”

We felt we were on to something with the Snowblower Ballet based on the reactions we got from people when we told them about the idea of a dance with snowblowers and snow shovels. The concept seemed to ring a bell with Minnesotans. The typical responses were “genius idea,” or “You must do this,” or “cool project” or “You’re the snowblower guy? Awesome.”

But our favorite reaction came in a voice mail from Jon Lewis, executive director of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, which will be playing at the ballet. You can hear it in this little video we sent to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation when we were applying for a Knight Arts Challenge grant to fund the project. The Knight Foundation is in Miami and we wanted to be sure they were familiar with snowblowers. And snow. And how emotional Minnesotans can be about both of them.

The St. Paul Ballet, or where the dancers are going to come from

The vision for the Snowblower Ballet project includes using volunteer performers from the community, people who know how to shovel snow or run a snowblower, but maybe never saw themselves as dancers.

But we knew we wanted pros to choreograph and perform as well. That’s why we’re really happy to have St. Paul Ballet as an artistic partner. They’re a professional dance company and school that carries on the tradition of classical ballet but also has experience presenting art in non-traditional settings.

St. Paul Ballet used to have a studio above a hardware store on Grand Avenue. Now they’re housed in a former printing plant owned by a church that also is space for a boxing gym. The nonprofit is also up for a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant of its own to present a program that combines ballet with boxing.

I saw a bit of what they do while writing a Pioneer Press story and doing a video about the long history of dance at the Grand Avenue studio.



Our hope for the Snowblower Ballet is to produce something fun and even funny for the city of St. Paul. But we also want to create something of real art and beauty as well.

Our sense of snow

Part of the reason why I thought snow removal could be art was because of the way it looks when it’s being thrown about by man and machine. We’re all familiar with the delicate beauty of snow flakes falling out of the sky. But there also can be something strangely beautiful about it when it’s pushed off of a sidewalk or a road. It can be like a thick stream of opaque white water shot out of a hose or a fountain when it’s being propelled out of the chute of snowblower. I once spent some time riding shotgun in a highway snowplow and have seen freshly fallen, heavy snow being turned into a thick, milky wave curling off the blade of the plow, arcing heavily onto the side of the road. Sometimes, when the plow hits a snow drift at full speed, it’s like smashing into the surf, with the windshield going white momentarily and the thump of packed snow hitting the top of the truck cab. Let’s hope there’s snow in January 2018 when the Snowblower Ballet comes to St. Paul, and we can capture some of those qualities.