IN RURAL SOUTHERN MINNESOTA, in the heart of Czech country, in a community with a fading welcome sign noting local Miss Czech-Slovak U.S.A. queens Connie David (1989-1990) and Marisa Schleis (1998-1999), you’ll discover an unexpected treasure.
Historic Hilltop Hall sits on the north end of First Street in Montgomery, past the library and chiropractic office, the eateries and bars, the newspaper and accounting offices, the antique shops, even farther than the bakery which bakes ethnic kolacky, just two doors up from the meat market, source of homemade sausage.
The red-roofed 1892 brick structure on the National Register of Historic Places represents a center of culture in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World, a farming town of nearly 3,000 notably proud of its Czech heritage.
The community should also be proud of Hilltop, a rare small town gem which hosts once-a-year comedic performances by Curtain Call Theatre and monthly Hilltop Happenings Series variety shows in the second floor 75-foot by 45-foot vintage concert and dance hall. The main floor is home to the Montgomery Area Arts & Heritage Center—featuring rotating historic and artistic exhibits—and a floral/gift shop, Posy Pantry.
Native Wisconsinite John Grimm, 72, a retired airline pilot, entrepreneur and former Le Sueur County commissioner who has lived in the Montgomery area since 1992, represents the driving force behind this cultural center nestled into a hill across the alley from St. John’s Lutheran Church.
This composer and singer—by passion, not profession—and a team of equally enthusiastic musicians six months ago revived the variety shows which have been an irregular part of Hilltop since Grimm purchased and restored the building in the early 1990s. He bought the old hall, he says, “to save a significantly historic building” and “to create a place where local folks could perform.”
Now on Sunday afternoons, during the recently-resurrected variety shows, audiences ranging from 30 – 100 gather in the upper floor venue, feet planted on the restored wood floor, to hear next-door Lutheran pastor, Bob Kaul, strum his folk style guitar music or professional musician Craig Wasner of Northfield perform or Grimm present his Elvis impersonations (or other musical selections).
In a kicked back atmosphere where performers arrive two hours before the 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. show to rehearse, if necessary, and then sit among the crowd, the audience will hear a wide range of music from gospel to pop, folk, country, classical and more presented by regular troupe members from the Montgomery, Le Sueur, New Prague and Northfield areas.
Among the crowd favorites, Grimm notes, is 2012 Montgomery-Lonsdale High School (now Tri-City United) graduate Jesse Beulke, a gifted musician studying psychology and music at Minnesota State University, Mankato, with aspirations of becoming a professional composer. Beulke’s classical music selections on the piano have drawn standing ovations. “The audience recognizes his talent,” Grimm says.
Other regulars include musicians Wade and Mary Lou Fradenburgh, Maren Wasner and Wendy Zaske.
Grimm is planning to add original humorous skits to the monthly Sunday variety shows, tapping into his passion for performing. Fran Bohlke, who played Ethel Thayer opposite Grimm’s Norman Thayer Jr. in the Curtain Call Theatre’s recent performances of “On Golden Pond” at the Hilltop, will also sing at the March 24 show.
While Grimm and his troupe welcome guest performers, those entertainers must audition for what’s billed as “a unique mix of breathtaking talent, lighthearted entertainment and tasty snacks—all in one lovely historic place…that brings entertainment, enjoyment and inspiration to the folks of South Central Minnesota.”
The snacks include freshly-popped popcorn from the popcorn machine tucked in the hall’s second floor corner kitchen and pizza from Pizzeria 201 just down First Street in the historic Westerman Lumber Company office and residence. Grimm also owns that 1895 building which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door you’ll find Big Honza’s Museum of Unnatural History, another project of the creative Grimm.
As Grimms tells it, the fictional Big Honza Giganticzech originated when he penned a musical for Montgomery’s annual Kolacky Days celebration, embellishing local history to create the town’s version of Paul Bunyan. That led to the museum where visitors will see items like Big Honza’s airplane/corn shredder, a chain driven concertina and more. The museum is open by appointment or ask the folks at the Pizzeria to let you in; they have a key.
At Hilltop Hall, a rendition of Big Honza is painted onto a wall of the stage where those Curtain Call Theatre comedies are presented each February. Grimm enjoys the intimate setting of the old dance hall which will seat about 100 during the dinner theatre shows. On a recent Sunday afternoon, dinner guests savored chicken breast with pasta and sauce, roasted cauliflower and fresh fruit in a meringue-topped shell catered by Pizzeria 201. Other audience members arrived later just for the show.
“People look forward to it,” Grimm says of the yearly winter plays first performed at the Hilltop in 1999 with “Bull in a China Shop.” Other shows have included “The Odd Couple,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” The Dixie Swim Club,” and more. “Bathroom Humor” is slated for February 2014.
Set requirements, due to limited space in the built-on stage area, are the biggest restrictions in selecting a play, Grimm says. He doesn’t worry about the number of performers as a spiral staircase hidden behind the stage allows actors and actresses to slip down to the first floor floral shop to await their cues. Grimm installed the staircase after removing the building’s original freight elevator, a decision he today regrets.
He’s never regretted, though, his decision to buy the old dance hall, although Grimm admits some people think he’s crazy. But his passion for singing and entertaining—he’s composed several hundred songs, made four CDs and authored a play, “It’s About Us”—for promoting Montgomery, and for offering this arts venue, drive him.
With annual taxes on the building at $10,000-plus and a monthly light bill of some $200, his Hilltop project is a “money losing situation,” Grimm says. He justifies the expense noting that he doesn’t take vacations, so his vacation money goes into his arts endeavor.
Grimm admits an ineptness at promoting and that Hilltop Hall is under-utilized. But he won’t compromise his conviction not to allow alcohol into the building which is also used for the occasional community meeting, piano recitals and exercise classes.
For now he’s focused on those monthly variety shows, bringing “pizza, performers & plenty of pizzazz” to the folks of South Central Minnesota at the historic Hilltop Hall in Montgomery.
FYI: Upcoming Hilltop Happenings Series shows are set for 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. on Sundays, March 24, April 28, May 26 and June 30. Admission is free although donations are accepted to help defray production and overhead costs.
The 2013 billing promises “…popular favorites to concert hall classics; from costumes and comedy to inspirational gospel and harmonic collaborations.”
Hilltop Hall is located at 206 First Street North in Montgomery’s downtown business district.
To learn more about the people and places in this post, be sure to click on their highlighted names. I’d encourage you, especially, to click on Jesse Beulke’s link to hear two original compositions, “I Guess It’s Goodbye” and “Rise,” by this gifted young composer and musician.
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© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling