Tee Time at Can Can Wonderland

Chris Pennington gives mini-golf an artful twist

Chris Pennington, owner Can Can Wonderland

photos by ackerman + gruber

In 2008, after collaborating on the design of a hole for the Walker Art Center’s artist-
designed mini-golf course, local artist Chris Pennington was inspired to create his own version. He leveraged his experience as a creator of the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement and the 10 Second Film Festival to found Can Can Wonderland, an indoor, 18-hole, artist-designed mini-golf course joined by two bars, food, and live entertainment in the basement of a former can factory in St. Paul. 

“I grew up with golf. My dad was a golf junkie. He was never very good, but he loved it so much that in our backyard we had a patio that was turfed over in green Astroturf with a putting cup installed in between the table and chairs. My friends and I would use rocks and build different mini-golf holes on it to play.” 

“I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where there’s a mini-golf course called Vitense Golfland. It’s a classic ’70s-era-style course, with dinosaurs, a lighthouse, and a waterfall. Going there was something I did all summer-long when I was a kid. It was common in Madison—I just assumed every city in America had a Vitense.

“You can’t be just a spectator, you have to be involved to make the artwork. That was seductive for me.” 

“I used to do more traditional artwork. People would walk up and look at it, and you never quite understand what they were thinking about it. I was left wanting more feedback from the audience, so I decided to go more experiential, creating art that wouldn’t work unless you actively participate in it. With the 10 Second Film Festival, the Haunted Basement, and Can Can Wonderland, you can’t be just a spectator, you have to be involved to make the art work. That was seductive for me.”

“The idea behind Can Can came from Christi Atkinson, who organized the first artist-designed mini golf at the Walker Art Center. She was a big mini-golf enthusiast, and thought the art scene would embrace it—and she was right. I thought it was a cool idea, so I submitted a proposal for a hole that included a stationary bike mounted on a platform. You had to pedal backwards and the front wheel would kick the ball into a structure shaped like a pinball machine. It was a nightmare for the Walker staff to maintain it—it kept breaking.” 

“We were originally planning on having an outdoor course at the Schmidt Brewery, but we couldn’t come to terms on a lease. I thought the project was dead, but my wife [Can Can Wonderland CEO and communications director Jennifer Pennington] said to me, ‘Dude, let’s just look around the city and see what there is.’ This is the second place we visited, and we immediately fell in love. We walked down into this dark basement with flashlights and came across this beautiful open room with natural light. I thought right then and there, this is where we’re doing this. It’s a magical, dreamlike place.”

“We knew that drinking and mini golf make a great combination. During our first meeting with the Bittercube cocktail team, they exploded right into ideas inspired by what we were doing, just merged with liquors. The boozy ice cream drinks they came up with for us are amazing.” 

“We asked ourselves, how do we do art and be self-sustaining? We found out, it’s liquor. Booze helps make the rent, frankly. It’s a key component of it being financially viable. We’re trying to be an art institution that doesn’t need to rely on grants.”