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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Cook’s historic Comet Theater faces major cleanup

David Colburn
Posted 6/27/24

COOK- From her spot in the boutique and coffee shop of the Comet Theater, Shelly Hlavinka had a front row seat to the rising flood crawling toward her last Wednesday. “It started getting higher …

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Cook’s historic Comet Theater faces major cleanup


COOK- From her spot in the boutique and coffee shop of the Comet Theater, Shelly Hlavinka had a front row seat to the rising flood crawling toward her last Wednesday.
“It started getting higher and higher, so I called city hall and said, ‘Hey, what do I do? I’ve never been in anything like this,” Hlavinka said.
She said city administrator Theresa Martinson told her to start preparing by putting some sandbags in front of the door, which she borrowed from someone else.
“And then it kept coming up higher and higher and I called her again,” Hlavinka said. “Theresa said to me, ‘I should just start answering the phone Hello, Shelly,’ because I called her like five times because it was coming up really bad. People were driving through and it was starting to wash up and make waves.”
But Hlavinka learned that closing River St. wasn’t the city’s call, it was the county’s. When the street finally was barricaded, people still kept driving through until the city positioned fire trucks on all four sides of the intersection to block traffic, Hlavinka said.
While Hlavinka was holding down the fort, the Comet’s owners, Steph and Ryan Horner, were at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary doing their other jobs as executive director and chief operations manager, respectively.
“My mom was working at the coffee shop, and she sounded the alarm, letting us know just how bad it was getting and how fast it was rising,” Steph Horner said. “My husband left right away, but I was still managing a team of interns and keeping them safe with the bears so I couldn’t go right away. I think I got here about 2 p.m. There was just a little bit of water, and we were thinking we were going to be fine.”
But as Hlavinka said, the water kept rising higher and higher, and suddenly the need to act became urgent.
And fortunately, the Horners had lots of help.
“People that we didn’t even know were all helping us,” Ryan Horner said. “It was just people from around town were coming in. I recognized faces, but I didn’t know names, and they were just coming in grabbing stuff and saying what do you need me to do? Can we help? It’s been amazing with all the support that we’ve gotten from the community.”
While Shelly, Steph, and some volunteers worked on moving merchandise in the boutique and coffee shop, Ryan got to work on a sandbagging effort.
“One of the neighbors said, ‘Hey, let’s go get some contractor bags. My friend has a sand pit and we’ll go fill them there,’” Horner said. “Then this kid next door asked if we needed some help. We three were bagging and taking a truck full of 20 bags over at a time. We didn’t know how serious it was. It was still coming up.”
At about 3:30 p.m., Ryan decided to call in some reinforcements. He called the bear sanctuary and asked for eight or nine interns to come down to help.
“It was coming up super fast and we couldn’t keep up,” he said.
Meanwhile, starting out with the thought that it wouldn’t get too bad, the crew in the boutique worked on moving up the lowest merchandise.
“There was just a little bit of water,” Steph said. “Then more came in and it came really fast. Thankfully, I had about 10-15 people in here. Most of them I’d never met in my life.”
Horner said there was one volunteer in particular who insisted that the water was going to get much higher and that they needed to move all of the merchandise.
“Had we not listened to him, I would have lost a lot of merchandise,” Horner said. “It’s like $50,000 to $70,000 worth. Thankfully, we saved all of it.”
Saving it all turned out to be a multistep process, however. They moved a lot to the stage in the theater, which was also filling up with flood water. Ryan said that someone with the county came by about 4 p.m. to assess the situation and said he believed the water would not reach the stage, but would come close.
But as it had been doing all day, the waters kept getting higher and higher, and the Horners and their crew of volunteers moved everything off the stage into trailers outside the back door, and then they watched as the water covered the stage and kept rising.
“It got almost a foot above the stage,” Ryan said.
The theater, inclined to run below ground level to accommodate the seating, looked like a swimming pool. The back row of seats were covered above their armrests, with most of the rest of the rows completely submerged. The Cook Fire Department pumped nearly 300,000 gallons out of the theater, Ryan said. A steel tank built to hold that much water would be about 50 feet in diameter and 21 feet high.
They had hoped to salvage the cushioned seats through a combination of power washing, steam cleaning, and kiln drying, but on Tuesday they declared them a lost cause.
“None of the seats are salvageable so we will need to replace those,” Steph wrote in an email update. “We have to take all of the theater walls off at least up to the top of the red (which appears to be well over six feet). All of the floors will need replacing. We are now estimating that we won’t have the theater portion open this summer at all and are desperately trying to prepare the coffee shop and boutique to reopen sometime this summer.
The Horners have gotten much more help cleaning up the Comet as best they can in the days following the flood.
“The Cook Lions Club has been a big help, not just for us but for everyone in town,” Ryan said. “Steve (Kajala) knows what I need and he’s been working his butt off trying to find stuff for that. And a big shout out to the fire department. We were trying to pump it out after the governor was here and the fire department came and pumped it out. It was all out by Friday afternoon.”
When the Horners purchased the Comet last year, they embraced the notion that they weren’t merely the new owners, but were the caretakers for a beloved community historical landmark, the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the state.
“That’s the part that’s hard,” Ryan said. “But we’ll be open again.”
A GoFundMe campaign has been established for those who would like to make a donation to help the Horners restore the Comet. You can donate at
A GoFundMe representative emailed the Timberjay on Monday with a list of additional campaigns for individuals and businesses who experienced catastrophic flood damage. All campaigns related to Cook have been gathered together on a special topic page for Midwest flooding fundraisers. To see those campaigns, go to and scroll down to the Minnesota section. All campaigns appearing in the Midwest flooding section have been verified as legitimate by GoFundMe, which has a team of specialists that work to prevent and fraudulent campaigns set up by scammers.