Sightlines: The Pony Goes

Article by Heidi Arneson

Heidi Arneson is a local actor, performance artist, painter, recently published author, and self- described  toublemaker  with a unique perspective on the world and she has written a wonderful story about an early show (with live animals) that she was a part of at the Olympia Arts ensemble in the 1970s, an event mentioned in Mim Solberg’s article last month as “a story in itself.”  Here it is.  - Mike Wangen

There is a pony. And there is a freight elevator. The pony is in the freight elevator. The freight elevator is in a warehouse and the warehouse is in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis in December of 1978.

The Harmony Building at 200 North Third Street still stands on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. A freeway now screams by, and the troupe of theater artists, dancers, painters, ex-cons, drug addicts, drug dealers, musicians, poets and creative maniacs that made theater on the second floor, called OLYMPIA ARTS ENSEMBLE, is long gone.

Led by Peter Scangarello, transplanted New York Sicilian, the ensemble put on play after dark European play. Blonde goddess Mim Solberg aced all the lead roles, and Peter Scangarello passionately directed, encouraging us from the makeshift wings at every opening with his tender whisper, “Go fuck ‘em in the heart! Fuck ‘em in the heart! Fuck ‘em in the heart!”

The winter of 1978, Mim needed a rest. Peter said, “Let’s the rest of us put on a Christmas show! For the kiddies! Let’s put on a CLOWN show! And let’s call it… ‘THE CLOWN SHOW’! And let’s have CLOWNS! And ACROBATS! And (what vaudevillian W. C. Fields warned to never have onstage), LIVE KIDDIES and LIVE ANIMALS!”

Peter and Mim somehow got hold of a pony, a goat and two children. The little girls were no problem; they learned their lines, cues and blocking and were turning cartwheels as we adults fumbled with page one of our scripts. The animals were another story. We actors crowded into the one bathroom shared with the audience to put on our makeup and costumes, because the tiny dressing room was occupied by the pony, the goat, great stacks of straw bales and steaming piles of horse mush. Many times the pony escaped from the dressing room to relieve itself on the wooden floor of the theater, leaking urine into the machinery of the machine shop below. Many times the cops came to tell Peter, “You can’t have animals in this building, you cannot have animals in this building, you can’t have animals in this building!” Every time Peter nodded, “Yes, of course, Officer. Of course! I’ll get rid of them tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Tomorrow and tomorrow crept… and the animals remained.

THE CLOWN SHOW, with the admission price of one dollar and seventy-five cents, was not much to speak of. We clowns and acrobats, such as Paul Smith, Tony Thomas, Giselle, the lead Clown Ollie played by Colin Rich and I painted our faces and talked loudly with enthusiastic gesticulations, but we were upstaged by the animals. The most exciting parts of The Clown Show were improvised: When a resident mouse ran over the feet of the front row, setting an audience member screaming, and when Mavis the goat trotted downstage, broke the fourth wall and put her feet up on an audience member’s knees, bleating,“Maa-aa-aa, maa-aa-aa,” and leaving a trail of marble-sized nuggets behind, or when the pony, during the climax of the children’s show, spontaneously sprung a horse-sized erection.

After an all-night Christmas party that left several of us asleep in the theater, Tony Thomas woke me with a smile.

“Heidi, it’s time to walk the pony.”

“What?”

I open my eyes to the after-party scene, plastic beer cups half-filled with floating cigarette stubs, sleeping bodies scattered on piles of velvet curtains, the sagging couch, the floor, snores rising.

“Come on, we gotta walk the pony!”

“Walk the pony?”

“Yeah! Look!”

Tony gestures to the windows all around. In the night, as we partied, fresh snow fell. The Minneapolis warehouse district, coated in white.

“Come on!”

I rub my eyes, find my coat, and off we go, down the freight elevator with the pony into the dawn. Tony, the pony and I leave tracks as we pass empty warehouses and cross over the railroad tracks, down Washington Avenue, past a liquor store. A life-size statue of a white horse stands in the liquor store window.  The live pony stops at the white horse in the window. The pony nods. The white horse in the window doesn’t nod. We continue on our way as the sun rises orange over the empty city, over the railroad tracks and back to Olympia.

The play is over. It’s time to take the pony home to wherever home is. Perhaps, I think, the Como Park Petting Zoo. The cold has cracked. It’s frigid as we stand, Peter, Tony, Colin, Paul, Giselle and I, out in the fifteen-below, in a parking lot near the New French Café (on the corner of 4th St. and 2nd Ave.N.), trying to coax the pony into the trailer. The pony will not go. We try sweet talk. We try leading, we try pushing. We try gently slapping the rump. The pony will not go. Our noses dripping, then numb. Our fingertips freezing. We stamp our feet, we hug ourselves, we shout in steaming clouds. We pat the pony harder on the rump. The pony will not go. It stands still as the horse in the liquor store window. Tony Thomas pulls from his pocket a peppermint, a cigarette, a pipe, and offers them to the pony’s nose, encouraging it to step towards the dark mouth of the trailer. The pony will not go. Not one hoof on the ramp. Not one foot near.

From the theater, Giselle runs back with a broom, a bouquet, a candle, and entices with threats, blossoms, scented wax. The pony will not go. Paul brings pots and pans and bangs. The pony will not go. I stand with hands deep in my army surplus coat watching, no bright ideas from me. The pony will not go. We are frozen, tired, hungover and hungry. We want to go home and learn the lines for our next roles. The pony will not go. Finally Peter Scangarello says, “Everyone. Stop. Backup. Step aside. Just leave us alone for one moment.”

We back off, obeying our director. Peter puts his mouth to the pony’s ear. We cannot hear what Peter says to the pony. We see him gesturing as he repeats.

The pony nods and goes up the ramp into the trailer.

I did not know till thirty-five years later that the pony was not a pony. The pony was an old paint. And the pony was not going home. Or perhaps home. I learned, years later, from Mim, that the pony had come from a petting zoo and was going to the glue factory. The Clown Show gave it a few more weeks onstage…

No wonder he did not want to walk up that ramp.

I still don’t know what Peter Scangarello whispered to that pony. Some loving thing he’d later whisper to Mim when he got home from Olympia? Some Italian lullaby his grandma sang to him that he’d later sing to his baby girl? I’ll never know since Peter followed the pony a few years after, but perhaps he whispered, “Go fuck ‘em in the heart, fuck em in the heart, fuck em in the heart!”

-Heidi Arneson is a many-armed troublemaker. She first stepped on stage at age three. Now she paints, writes and performs in an attic studio that she finished by hand. She just published her first novel, INTERLOCKING MONSTERS, available from Amazon Books.