Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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26 Responses to ““Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage”

  1. Claudette Says:

    Singing in the grain…lol. So clever!

  2. Ruth Says:

    Oh I want to see the film and eat kolachy. What a joyous post Audrey.

  3. Almost Iowa Says:

    OMG!!

    Al Milgrom!

    Talk about a blast from the past!

    Back when I went to the U, I worked at the U of M Audio-Visual Department. I know, I know, that is the very definition of a geek – but the fun part was interacting with Al. If memory serves me correctly, the department and Al had a sort love/hate thing going. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember Al standing in the cold rain, knocking on a window…

    Me: Whaddya want?
    Al: Something light but artsy, five minutes in length.
    Me: It’s 8:30 pm, we’re closed.
    Al: It’ll only take a minute.
    Me: I dunno, I heard you were 86’d from the AV Department.
    Al: That was then, this is now.
    Me: Not happening.
    Al: I’m getting wet.

    Note: This is either an accurate depiction of events or the product of my faulty memory combined with a fevered imagination, I cannot say for certain because it has been almost forty-five years.

  4. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    This film sounds delightful; so happy someone decided to focus on the Czech cultural treasures in Southern Minnesota. We sought to include some bits and pieces of Czech heritage in Under Minnesota Skies but a film will be amazing. I hope some of my Minnesota family get to see it. Thanks for the enthusiastic post and I too love the film’s title.

  5. I hope the documentary will be streamed through the usual methods (Amazon, Netflix, etc.). It would be very interesting to see. The Kolacky looks delicious!

  6. Gunny Says:

    In San Antonio, that Kolachies (kolachy???)are a Czech food item, Theses can be gotten in most gas stations that serve the invariable hot dogs or other “treats”. Texas has a Czech population that dates way back as well as Silesian, Norwegian, Polish, Mexico, Irish, Scots, English and the Wends. But the one food item that stick out at the service stations / fast food mart are Tamales, Breakfast tacos and Kolachies.

    St Paul / Minneapolis and San Antonio are connected to this day by Interstate 35, It is easier for someone from one area to go to the other than it is to go across town!

  7. I so want a few Kolacky now – YUMMERS! Your post brings back the memories for me today. I grew up in this area from middle to high school. I am not of Czech descent, however, my German, Norwegian, Dutch and Danish descent fit in pretty well. I have fond memories of learning how to polka dance too – oom-pah, oom-pah . . . Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  8. My grandbabies have Czech in them… their Grandpa (Jenny’s dad) is full Czech. Sounds like an interesting film, it’s always fun to hear and learn about the culture of other ethnicities. I need to get ahold of a Kolacky…yum!

  9. Looks like a good time. Those pastries look mighty tasty and the colorful costumes are beautiful

  10. Margaret Says:

    Thank you for writing about this movie. Those of us with Czech ancestry are eager to see it. I forwarded your post to two Czech organizations – Milwaukee SOKOL and a Czech club in Sun City, AZ. Both want to show the film, but they don’t know how to get it. Do you have any ideas on who to contact? Thanks for the info.

    • You are welcome, Margaret, and thank you for reaching out to those Czech organizations.

      I will try to connect with Al Milgrom again and tell him of your interest.

      The other option would be for you to reach out to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival organization. I found this email address on that group’s website:

      info at mspfilm.org

      You may hear from me via email.

  11. Dolores Valek Says:

    I would like to see this film brought to New Prague.


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