Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a Peabody Award-winning cult classic sci-fi comedy TV series from Minnesota that ran on and was canceled from four-ish different networks between 1988-1999, and has been producing new episodes on Netflix since 2017. Featuring laughably low budget mad scientists, robot puppets, styrofoam spaceships, and terrible movies, it contains all the elements needed to stir up an incredibly devoted, undying multi-generational fan base. A fan base that, since the time I was a depressed 15-year-old who desperately needed a good laugh, I am proud to count myself a part of.
In June of 2016, the cast of MST3K reunited for a live show for the first time ever at the State Theater in Minneapolis. As agent, promoter, and assistant to two of the stars, Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu, I was given an all-access pass to every backstage and VIP event. This is an account of how I abused that privilege.
Episode One: The Garden of Eden
I stared out the van window like a child visiting Disneyland for the first time, desperately soaking in the luscious vivid greens and sparkling blues of the brilliant Minneapolis skyline. I drank it in like it could be taken away from me at any moment, recalling the thousands of times over the past five years I’d wished I could be here, just be here. Just breathe this Midwestern air, the very same my idols breathed more than twenty years before.
The very same air my idols breathed in the van I was riding in now, actually. Directly in front of me was the iconically fabulous white hair of the legendary comedian Frank Conniff, who at that moment was pointing out the window for our entertainment at a building in the city where he used to live. (The “Frank Conniff Tour of Minneapolis”, he called it, chuckling.) Dressed in his usual short-sleeved shirt and shorts, he made me feel noticeably but not uncomfortably overdressed in my polka-dotted ’50s era getup, complete with heels I knew I’d be kicking off after hour two at the party where we were headed. I couldn’t help my wardrobe choice; the event may have been a backyard cookout affair, but the company would be worthy of Peabodys, so I dressed for the red carpet for respect’s sake.
Next to Frank in the middle row of seats was the yet-unknown-to-me Carolina Hidalgo, a young standup from New York who was good friends with Frank. Though we hadn’t spent much time together, she won me over quickly with a friendly “How’s it going, man?” and high-tops paired with a band tank top from which the sleeves had been cut out by hand.
Driving this whole geeky operation was none other than the brilliant and snarky Trace Beaulieu, my hero since I was 15 (though he always pshaws when I remind him of that fact). Towering over me at about 6’2”, I literally look up to him. Trace was also the reason I was in the car at all, as he had gotten me on the party’s incredibly exclusive guest list: just MST3K creators and their family and friends.
Joining us was Trace’s wife, Katy, who I’d been fortunate enough to talk with a few times digitally but hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting in person until I’d climbed into the car. Sweet and quiet, I could tell right away that our respective demeanors had a lot in common.
We were out of the city now, rushing down unfamiliar highways past greenery I couldn’t believe. Minnesota is just as beautiful as I’d always heard, especially in the gentle, welcome sunlight of late June, when evening is just beginning to form, as it was on that car ride. I stayed quiet for most of the ride, preferring to listen to the old inside jokes being cracked around me and the glittering stories of the Twin Cities in the ’90s being passed back and forth.
Suddenly, among the rolling emerald hills and soft golden sunshine, I saw it. A simple street sign like any other, but carrying almost three decades of magic in its meaning: Eden Prairie, the industrial park-speckled Minneapolis suburb that housed what used to be Best Brains, Inc., where MST3K was made.
My jaw literally dropped for a moment and I thrilled. Having been a super-fan for two years before ever meeting any of the MST3K crew, I still often fall into the trap of believing that actors and props and sets on TV aren’t real; like cartoons, they exist as light inside a box, intangible and incorporeal. Proof of the show’s earthly existence – even a small sign indicating that I was, finally, in Eden Prairie – felt and continues to feel as miraculous as a cartoon coming to life.
Although I knew I was the only one in the car who felt this way, I was too excited not to say something about it. “Some of my friends from the forums and I are coming back this way tomorrow morning,” I ventured out into the cabin of the van. “We’re gonna see the building where Best Brains was and take pictures.”
“Oh yeah?” Trace said. “Well whaaaaaat if I told you we were at that place right now?”
I froze a beat, then whipped my head around to stare out the window, desperately searching for the familiar black and brown angular building, the parking lot I’d memorized.
“Would you like that, Zoe?”
I was speechless.
“We are near there, aren’t we?” Frank toned in.
Trace took a turn the map display didn’t tell him to, because hey, we were early for the party anyway.
We spent the next ten minutes or so driving through a delightful juxtaposition of soulless business parks and beautiful lush vegetation. Finally, Trace found his way onto Golden Triangle Road, to victorious cries of “This is it, this is the road! I remember!” from both him and Frank. Wrong turn here, u-turn there, and then finally –
They’d torn the building down.
In fact, not only had they torn it down, they’d dug out the parking lot, too, so that the whole thing was beneath ground level. Instead of the Best Brains I’d seen in photos, I found myself gazing at a long, red brick building displaying the words RIVER VALLEY CHURCH in big white letters. As a non-religious woman, I wasn’t enthused to see the birthplace of my precious MST3K torn down and re-sculpted into a church. Regardless, we all lined up in front of the sign, and after taking several dozen bittersweet photos on four separate phones, it was back into the van and we were on our way.
Five seconds down the road, and to cries of oh my GOD from everyone, we happened upon the Best Brains building, and the parking lot I’d memorized.
We all climbed out of the car again, laughing and poking fun at Trace for being so close yet so far from locating the right spot. No, the Best Brains building hadn’t been torn down – we had just been at the wrong address.
In fact, it looked exactly the same as it always did in the 25-year-old photos, almost totally untouched by time. We brushed aside the cobwebs (“I see they kept some of my old material,” Frank cracked) and peeked in the windows: it was abandoned, empty but for a few ducts tumbling quietly from the ceiling and a patch of sunlight streaming in from a window on the other side of the room. I stared at the open floor by the far window and pictured the grand hexagonal and pentagonal panels of the Satellite of Love standing there proudly as they did until 1999. I Accuse My Parents, Teenagers From Outer Space, The Final Sacrifice – host segments for all of them had been filmed in that exact spot no more than a few feet from me.
For the second and far from last time that evening, I thrilled at the realization that everything – and everyone – I’d seen on MST3K were very real.