'A punk version of Bentleyville': Duluth artists create alternative holiday attraction

Boubville, a three-night pop-up produced by The Embassy collective, is an offbeat complement to the Christmas City of the North's Bayfront light display.

Lights shine on the #Boubville letters
Lights illuminate "#BOUBVILLE" letters displayed in the driveway of a residence at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth, on Dec. 7. Boubville will be held at the property Thursday through Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Ollie Morris realized, stringing lights around a cone of wooden spindles just tall enough to reach the ceiling of a Central Hillside neighborhood garage, that a little research was in order.

"I feel like I should Google it," said Morris. "What does the Bentleyville tree look like?"

Welcome to Boubville mural
A mural reads "Welcome to Boubville" on a garage wall at 311 W. Fourth St. in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

It was late afternoon last Wednesday, eight days before 311 W. Fourth St. was to open for a three-night run as "Boubville" — rhymes with "tubeville." A call for volunteers describes Boubville as "a punk version of Bentleyville."

"It was just wanting to do something silly, goofy, almost a little stupid," said one of the artists in the garage with Morris, carrying three-dimensional letters for a sign that would read "#Boubville." "Then it kept evolving."

Two men talking
Daniel Benoit, of Duluth, right, has a conversation with Allen Richardson, left, during a Boubville prep day Dec. 7 at Benoit's residence at 311 W. Fourth St.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Daniel Benoit is a member of The Embassy, the artists' collective behind Boubville. Benoit and his partner live in the house where Boubville is being staged.


"It started out when Bentleyville was drive-thru," said Benoit. "Our warehouse space is off Railroad Street, and so for a whole month, we had traffic block our entrance."

At first, the idea of an alternative holiday event was just a joke. Benoit remembered the artists thinking, "What if we did our own Bentleyville and just did a little detour and it was all the little weird art in Duluth, instead of classic Christmas?"

Replica reindeer and Santa's sleigh display for Boubville
A four-legged skeleton replica plays the role of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of an artistic sleigh display at a residence at 311 W. Fourth St. A lawnmower serves as a sleigh.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Artist Emily Koch proposed calling it "Boobville."

"It was inspired by (a) sideshow, trashy version of Bentleyville," said Koch. "Then it totally changed, because now we're turning it into this community event, and we're approaching it super earnestly."

"We are trying to raise money," said Benoit. "Several of the artists in the collective are just struggling, and we're debating about keeping our studios. Embracing this 'Well, what do we have?' Minnesota duct tape festival aesthetic is really fun."

House with lights and projected holiday images
Lights hang from trees while images are projected on a house at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth, on Dec. 7 ahead of the Boubville event Thursday through Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"The leg lamp from 'A Christmas Story,'" said Max Mileski, who's leading the event's live music component. "We are the leg lamp festival. In fact, there should be a leg lamp for one of these windows."

Holiday decorations for Boubville
Lights and other materials inside a garage at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth, will be used for the Boubville event Thursday through Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"I'm in the middle of turning my house into a projection, calling it 'Klub Zanta,'" said Benoit. Santa Claus and a bear were already appearing to gyrate in two of the house's windows, with a battery of projectors mounted under an ice fishing shelter.

The house has a large, wooded yard with an expansive driveway, making it an appealing setting for a communal arts experience. "Is there anywhere that you can string a zip line at all?" asked Allen Richardson, peering into the trees.


"Just kind of visualize what you could do with a zip line and a heavy bag," Richardson continued, after Benoit agreed there were some viable prospects for anchor points. "If your goal was just to repeatedly knock over like 10 or 20 plastic chairs, that's it!"

Man stands by replica Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
Tom Moriarty, of Duluth, stands near a a four-legged skeleton replica that plays the role of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at a residence at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Underneath a deck, Koch was using a staple gun to hang rows of faded blankets. "I think it's going to be a tunnel of Christmas memories or something," she said. "I just really wanted people to walk in and out of something."

The recent University of Wisconsin-Superior graduate creates work embracing both joy and melancholy. Her upcoming Kruk Gallery show will include eye-popping portraits, a multimedia cake and a pillow fort.

Nearby, a group of artists stacked scrap wood into what Benoit described as "the anti-Christmas tree, where you hang the most disgusting thing you have instead of the prettiest thing."

To the left of the anti-tree, a weathered shed stood amid snow-flecked trees. "That's the meth shack," said Benoit.

People help prepare property for Boubville event
Volunteers help to get the property at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth, ready for the Boubville event Thursday through Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"You have to clarify that," Mileski advised Benoit. "You have to explain that it is not (actually) a meth shack."

"You can decide for yourself," insisted Benoit, not wanting to spoil any Christmas surprises. "That'll be all lit up, and we had volunteers cut a little trail through the woods last week, so we'll have our own little loop there. Blacklight forest in the back."

The Boubville Facebook event promises "Krampus spankings" and a "photo op with drunk Santa." A riding lawnmower sleigh had already arrived, its team led by a skeletal Rudolph that would make Jack Skellington proud.


#BOUBVILLE letters
The "#BOUBVILLE" letters are assembled on a display in a garage at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"Tim Burton called," joked Mileski. "He would like his event back."

Mileski's synth-pop band Sadkin is playing Boubville's garage stage Thursday, part of a three-night lineup that Benoit described as "a really eclectic mix of mostly not folk."

Yes, the garage will be heated, and Benoit said a "premium" restroom experience will be available thanks to the generosity of a supporter. "One of our patrons rented a port-a-potty for the week, so we're excited about that."

Person puts lights on a wooden Christmas tree
Ollie Morris hangs lights on a wooden tree in a garage at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth, on Dec. 7 while preparing the property for the Boubville event.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Organizers are asking each attendee to make a $10 donation to support the cause. They also welcomed volunteer help building the attraction, with a series of workshops leading up to the event.

"It's kind of a trust fall with the community," said Benoit. "We've had this crazy idea. Who's got the time and energy and inspiration to come and do something weird?"

One of last Wednesday's workshop participants, Jer Baert, came to pitch in with mechanical and electrical projects. "I wouldn't consider myself an artist," said Baert. "I think of myself as an artist supporter, so if there's any technical things that I can help make a vision happen, that's what I try to do."

If the differences between Bentleyville and Boubville are apparent, so are the events' similarities. Both are labors of love for the people who volunteer their time to make them happen — and Bentleyville did, after all, start in someone's yard.

Nathan Bentley, the namesake and creator of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights, offers a modest assessment of the massive holiday light display that now occupies Duluth's Bayfront Park.

From the street in front of Benoit's house, the Bentleyville lights could be distantly seen down by the harbor, glowing to life as the evening darkened.


"Christmas is weird for a lot of us. It's not necessarily this happy, joyful thing for everyone," said Benoit. "As we put the idea (of Boubville) out there, we kept getting messages of support from people that were like, 'You know what, I want Christmas that's, like, my way.'"

Projected images on a house at the site of Boubville
Images are projected on a house at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth, on Dec. 7 ahead of the Boubville event Thursday through Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The organizers are "just making space for artists to show off what they do, share with the community," Koch elaborated. "It's really going to be a display of all of Duluth's creative energy."

"It's more than The Embassy. We're more like an aperture to help this thing manifest itself," said Benoit. "There's a lot of us putting in a lot of time, but it's the community at this point that's feeding it."

A robot wielder, muralist, projection artist and more have moved into a former Lutheran church. This weekend they're holding a bazaar.

The Embassy has a history of presenting events with a skewed take on Northland traditions. In 2020, when the collective had space in a former church, they hosted an "art-infused church basement coffee; an immersive psychedelic pancake feed dance party freak fest." This past summer, they organized an "absurd festival of lake loving" called Sub Superior.

"A lot of us, especially in The Embassy, are out on the fringes," said Benoit. "A lot of us have just not found spaces or opportunities to do the the work that was really meaningful to us. ... We're not trying to dis anything or bring any sort of negativity or critique. We just want to do our thing, and we're trying to build an audience for that and support each other while we do it."

Man stands near #BOUBVILLE letters
Clancy Ward, of Duluth, stands near the "#BOUBVILLE" letters inside a garage at 311 W. Fourth St. on Dec. 7.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Benoit doesn't expect any tourists will be confused. "It's going to be very clear that it's not Bentleyville," he repeated. "If they get lost and find themselves in this weird wonderland experience, great."

Back in the garage, as volunteers ate bowls of slow-cooker chili and chatted about the holidays ("Is 'the Grinch' his name, or his ethnicity, or what?"), Morris found photos of the Bentleyville tree.

The annual holiday spectacular kicked off Saturday as Santa himself helicoptered in.

"Oh, that's what it looks like!" said Morris, scrolling through images of the nine-story, 17-ton steel tree festooned with 50,000 lights.


"We're well on our way," said a fellow volunteer, attaching another light string to Boubville's wooden spindle cone.

"Yeah," agreed Morris with a laugh. "We're good."

For information on Boubville and other Embassy projects, see

People walking at the site of Boubville
People walk near the "#BOUBVILLE" letters Dec. 7 at 311 W. Fourth St., Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
What To Read Next
Get Local