Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Embracing & celebrating the Hispanic Heritage in Northfield September 14, 2019

 

AFTER A WEEK OF TORRENTIAL RAINS, the sun broke through to a perfect Saturday afternoon in Northfield.

 

 

 

 

In this picturesque, historic Minnesota river town, people gathered to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at the public library. And what a celebration.

 

Art on the back of the portable stage.

 

 

 

 

Dancing centered the event as colorfully-costumed dancers entertained the crowd in this community tagged as the place of cows, colleges & contentment.

 

 

On this Saturday, it was also a city celebrating the culture of its Hispanic residents.

 

 

Giving us all a snapshot of this beautiful culture woven into our Minnesota communities.

 

 

 

 

I appreciate any opportunity to learn more about another culture. If I’ve observed one thing about those of Hispanic heritage, it’s the importance of family and of being together.

 

 

I also love the bright colors of this culture as noted in flags and costumes.

 

 

Attending this event simply made me happy with the vivid costumes.

 

 

Upbeat, thrumming music.

 

 

Wide smiles. All bring joy.

 

 

 

 

From the dancing

 

Sunlight filters through the colored tents, casting an orange hue onto young artists.

 

 

The art tents.

 

to the hands-on art

 

 

 

The candy table

 

to the vendors

 

 

 

 

to the food trucks and more, I felt immersed in the Hispanic culture for an afternoon.

 

 

Right there in the heart of Northfield. The celebration continues into October.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

Discovering a drive-in movie theatre in Luverne & a nation-wide effort to save these icons August 15, 2013

A FEW WEEKS AGO, while traveling specifically to Luverne in the southwestern corner of Minnesota to tour the Brandenburg Gallery and Blue Mounds State Park, I discovered a vanishing icon of American culture.

That would be a drive-in movie theatre on the south edge of town just off Interstate 90.

Verne Drive-in entry sign

The Verne Drive-In Theater, built in the 1950s, is one of only a few drive-ins remaining in Minnesota. Others include the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie, the Starlite 5 Drive-In Theatre in Litchfield, the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo and Sky-Vu Drive In in Warren. I think I’ve covered them all.

Nearly a year ago, the Cottage View Drive-In in Cottage Grove, in a controversial move, was closed and the land sold for construction of a Walmart store. (Click here to see Minnesota Public Radio photos of a September 2012 event celebrating the Cottage View’s 46-year history.)

Although I didn’t see a show at the Verne Drive-In, my husband and I drove through the vacant theatre parking lot on a Saturday morning just to check out the place and reminisce. We went to a few outdoor movies together when our community of Faribault still had a drive-in theatre. We also each attended drive-in movies separately while growing up. Me in Redwood Falls and he once in the Little Falls area and then near Brainerd.

Verne Drive-in, screen w filmstrip

I expect most of you hold on to some drive-in movie memories whether its cramming into the trunk of a car, making out with a long forgotten boyfriend or girlfriend, waiting in line for a concession stand snack or burger, tuning in to a movie via those little boxes stationed throughout the gravel parking lot, piling the kids into the car in their jammies for a night out under the stars…

At the Verne Drive-In a young couple, who went on their first date at the drive-in four years ago, recently became engaged there.

Drive-in theatres, most assuredly, are a part of our history, our culture, our growing up years and our personal memories.

Verne Drive-In exit sign film strip

Once commonplace in communities across the country, drive-ins are vanishing with only 368 remaining in the U.S., according to Project Drive-In established by Honda Motor Company. Honda, via an online and texting voting process, is giving away digital movie projectors to five drive-in theatres. The goal is simple: to save as many drive-ins as possible.

The financial challenge for drive-ins today lies in the need to switch to digital projection by the end of 2013, an upgrade which costs an estimated $80,000.

For theatres like the one in Luverne, winning a free digital projector through the Project Drive-In giveaway would be huge. You can vote online and/or via texting for these two Minnesota drive-ins daily for the next 25 days: the Verne Drive-In or the Long Drive-In. Click here for more information.

Project Drive-In also includes opportunities to donate monies toward saving our nation’s drive-ins and to pledge to go to a drive-in movie theatre. Win. Win.

WHAT MEMORIES DO YOU have of drive-in movie theatres? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

We’re not hyphenated Americans… September 12, 2011

Xafsa, age 5

THEY ARE THE FACES, the hands, the feet, the voices of a new Faribault. Not the community of only French or Germans, Scandinavians or whatever ethnic groups shaped and defined this southeastern Minnesota city for so many years.

Today the face of Faribault is changing with one-fifth of the population identifying itself as non-white in the 2010 U.S. Census. Most of those minorities are Latinos and Somalis, “drawn by the opportunity to live in a small town and work in food processing plants, especially meat-packing plants,” according to a recent research report, “After the Welcome Center: Renewing Conversations about Immigration and Diversity in Faribault,” conducted by students and staff with the St. Olaf College Political Science Department. To read that report, follow this link:

http://www.stolaf.edu/services/cel/students/CURI_Immigration.html

I can’t possibly attempt to summarize the contents of that report here. But it is packed with information that should be a must-read for every member of my community. We can all learn a thing or two or ten or 20 from this research project.

But mostly we can learn from meeting our neighbors at events like the International Festival held Saturday in Faribault’s Central Park. I’ve attended this meld of ethnic cultures several times already and each time enjoyed interacting with my neighbors whose skin color differs from my own.

That all sounds nice, politically-correct, and exactly what you’d expect me to write in a public venue like this blog. But I am sincere in my appreciation to the volunteer organizers of the International Festival and to those who participate. We just need more Caucasians to attend.

Several Latinos lead in singing of Mexico's national anthem on the band shell stage.

From the food and merchandise vendors to the musicians and everyone in between, I had ample opportunity to educate myself about Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Somalia, Holland and Norway. My husband and I sampled ethnic foods from five vendors.

We sampled pupusas right off the griddle.

My husband and I tried Guatemalan chuchitos-- chicken, corn and salsa wrapped in a corn husk.

Faribault resident and one of the organizers, Peter van Sluis a Dutch citizen who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, says the festival offers “a chance to mingle with different cultures.”

For me that mingling was most evident when children gathered under shade trees just south of the Central Park band shell to break piñatas. It didn’t matter if their skin was the beautiful color of sun-baked clay, or a nearly-black deep brown, or pale white. They were all kids, just kids, waiting to whack that swaying treasure-trove apart and then scramble for candy.

After the pinata was broken, the kids shared the candy.

While waiting for the piñata busting, I made a point of scanning the adult faces. I saw smiles—smiles nearly as wide as the brimmed hat worn by the man donning an El Salvador T-shirt. That’s an exaggeration, but you get my point. Viewing kids having fun has no color barriers.

Riyaam, 16

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention my chat with Owatonna High School student Riyaam, a stunning Somali teen who was peddling shoes, skirts and other merchandise at a table. Well-spoken and seemingly mature beyond her 16 years, Riyaam and I talked about clashes between whites and Somalis at OHS which she says has led to a new policy of basically, “you fight, you’re out.”

She told me how the angry voice of a single white student, who declared, “Somalis don’t belong here,” triggered those racial tensions.

As she spoke, her voice became more agitated, edged with emotion. I wanted to reach across the table and hug her and I wish now that I had.

But I didn’t and it is too late for that now, but not too late to encourage Faribault residents to make the effort to meet the Somalis, the Sudanese, the Latinos and other immigrants who now live among us. It is easy to dismiss and stereotype an ethnic group if you’ve never made the effort to personally meet them individually.

A member of the Faribault-based band Circles and Squares, of which two members performed at Saturday’s International Festival, nicely summarized, I thought, the goal of the gathering: “Remember, we’re not hyphenated Americans. We’re friends.”

Well, said.

National flag ribbons were tied to trees in Central Park during the celebration.

Vendors peddled their wares at the festival.

Shoes from Somalia on display at Riyaam's table.

A woman from El Salvador cooked at her food both.

Sanji, 18 months, plays with toys in the kids' activity area of the fest.

Hoop maker, performer and teacher Adrienne Lee teaches a Girl Scout the art of hoop dancing. The Girl Scouts were among the non-profit groups with booths at the festival.

A young girl's henna stained foot.

Colorful skirts for sale at Riyaam's booth.

THE ST. OLAF RESEARCH, which included interviews with 39 Faribault community members, states: “Most interviewees agree that Faribault’s immigrant and native-born communities operate alongside each other; coexisting peacefully, but not acting as a single integrated community.”

Exactly.

The report continues: “They do not agree about what should be done to unite these groups.

“We found Faribault leaders thus enmeshed in the long-standing American debate about which people ought to change and how much.”

A colorful, detailed wall hanging/blanket represented El Salvador at one booth.

FYI: International Festival, Faribault, a recently-formed non-profit, has set its number one goal “to promote understanding of different cultures by organizing an annual event,” says Peter van Sluis. Secondly, the group wants to raise money and assist other non-profits.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Benson theatre hosts screening of Midwest thriller, Munger Road July 26, 2011

The DeMarce Theater, a long-time business in downtown Benson in western Minnesota.

NEARLY SIX MONTHS after Tim and Susie Kletscher purchased the historic DeMarce Theatre in downtown Benson, they are hosting the screening of a Midwest thriller that just could hit the big-time.

Munger Road, written and directed by Nicholas Smith, debuts to the public at a 7 p.m. showing on Thursday, July 28, with a second show at 9 p.m. and repeat shows on Friday evening.

A promotional poster for Munger Road's screening in Benson.

“I’m extremely excited. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, our theater, and Benson,” Tim Kletscher says. “I feel really honored to have this chance. At this point it’s an independent film done by a ‘rookie’ movie writer and director, but there’s a really good chance that it will be shown in many theaters and DVDs will be sold.”

The PG-13 movie, shot in and around Smith’s native St. Charles, Illinois, is based on an urban legend about a supposedly haunted stretch of rural Munger Road. As versions of the story go, the ghost of a little girl killed on train tracks along the road still haunts the site as does a farmer who lived on a farm near the tracks.

The movie version focuses on four teens that go missing along Munger Road the night before the annual Scarecrow Festival.

St. Charles really does have an annual Scarecrow Festival—this year October 7 – 9—during which Munger Road will premiere. Actor Bruce Davison, with popular film credits like Six Degrees of Separation and X-Men, stars in the movie.

For now, the Kletschers get the honor of the first public screening in their western Minnesota theatre, which was recently updated with a new digital

Another poster promoting the Illinois-based thriller.

projection and surround sound systems and a silver screen.

The couple got their lucky break because Munger Road executive producer Jeff Smith, Nick Smith’s dad, grew up in Benson and graduated from Benson High School in 1973. The Smiths have many close friends and family in Benson and a nearby family lake cabin where they are currently vacationing.

“Originally, Jeff Smith, wanted to do a private showing for his friends and relatives.  I wasn’t supposed to advertise it, discuss it, tell about it, or anything with fear that it would jeopardize their movie company opportunity,” Tim Kletscher says.  “Then, he called back a week later and wanted to screen it to the public. He needed to start generating revenue, so they could start getting it in the hands of ‘mini-major’ film companies. I told him I’d do all I could to get as many people here to see it as possible. So, I’ve been pounding pavement and flapping my jaw about it since…trying my hardest to drum up excitement.”

That promotional groundwork has also included airing the movie trailer before every Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 showing at the DeMarce Theatre and doing interviews with area media.

Kletscher is hoping for big crowds to fill the 320-seat theatre. He’ll have Munger logo, “I survived the Drive” t-shirts, designed by Nick Smith, for movie-goers to purchase. Before the film starts, Nick Smith will address the audience and ask them to later evaluate the movie on comment cards. “They really want to hear what average people say about it,” says Kletscher, who has been in nearly daily phone contact with the Smiths and recently met them.

He’s impressed with the personable father-son, whom he terms “down-to-earth, Midwest guys.”

“Nick’s been rolling with the Hollywood guys, but he hasn’t lost his roots,” Kletscher says. “He’s unbelievably talented.”

It’s that hometown connection which led the Smiths back to Benson to screen their thriller. “The city of Benson means a great deal to my family,” a promotional poster reads. “We are very proud…”

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Tim and Susie Kletscher’s purchase of the DeMarce Theatre in February, click here to read an earlier blog post. Also, go to the DeMarce Theatre Facebook page by clicking here.  For the record, Tim Kletscher is my cousin and an elementary school teacher in Benson.

Text © Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo and posters courtesy of Tim Kletscher

 

You have heard of U2, right, Mom? July 22, 2011

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WHEN MY 25-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER mentioned the U2 concert to me about a week ago, I thought she said “YouTube” and asked for clarification.

“U-2,” she enunciated.

That didn’t help. I had no idea, none, nada, what musical group she was referencing. Never-the-less, she went on to tell me that four friends were going to the concert and she wished she was among them.

Then today I received an email from her, followed by more emails, in which she attempted to educate me about the hottest musical ticket in town since, well, I don’t know who.

I considered summarizing our online exchanges, but then decided they are just way too entertaining as written to edit anything except the frivolous fluff. I am, however, adding italicized, parenthesized editorial comments.

DAUGHTER: I’m going to the U2 concert!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m really excited, you have heard of U2, right, Mom?

(Are you really that excited—50 exclamation points excited? Yes, I have heard of U2. Read my email reply.)

ME: Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, I had not heard of U2 until you mentioned the group last week. Even Dad knows the group. What songs do they sing?

So happy for you! I heard last night on the news that they are making plans for dealing with the crowd in case of bad weather, which is a possibility. Also sounded like there would be a mess of traffic.

Better you to go than me.

(I’m emphasizing my lack of cultural knowledge by typing that string of “m”s. Yes, it is abundantly clear that my musical mindset is still locked onto Chicago, The Eagles, The Moody Blues and maybe Rod Stewart.)

Just a sampling of the 1970s era music I own on cassettes and CDs. Most of my collection from that time is on record albums, which I did not feel like digging out of storage.

DAUGHTER: Mom. I’m sure you’ve heard “Beautiful Day” and a bunch of their other songs. They are the biggest band to come to the Twin Cities in 30 years. Maybe you should do some googling to see if you have heard of them?

(Do I sense a bit of frustration in your comment, perhaps disbelief that I really, honestly, am unfamiliar with U2?)

ME: Maybe I’ve heard “Beautiful Day.” Well, you would think I’ve heard of the biggest band to come to the Twin Cities in 30 years, but…

Google, I will.

How much are tickets? They must cost a LOT OF MONEY???

(I am trying to save face here. Can you tell? I may recognize songs when I hear them, but I often don’t know the artists. And notice that trio of question marks after the uppercased LOT OF MONEY???)

DAUGHTER: …this is a once in a lifetime opportunity…this could be the last time the band tours and I’ve heard the show is incredible.

(I was wondering if you noticed the three question marks and capitalized words, LOTS OF MONEY???)

ME:  Oh, OK, then, kind of like seeing the Beatles… Has U2 been around for a long time?

(Comparing U2 to the Beatles…I can’t believe I wrote that.)

DAUGHTER:  Yes, since 1976…they are from Ireland… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U2. They became popular internationally in the mid 1980s.

(Hmmm, now I’m feeling really stupid. The 1970s would be my era. And yet I don’t know this band…)

ME: OK, I will check them out and educate myself.

(Now, dear readers, it is your turn. Add whatever comments you wish.)

#

FYI: My daughter scored a U2 ticket because one of her ticket-holding friends had his wisdom teeth out today and doesn’t feel like driving up from Iowa for the Saturday U2 concert at TCF Bank Stadium.

(Timing is everything, huh?)

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

A virtual tour of Mankato’s sculpture walk July 9, 2011

Louise Peterson of Guffey, CO. created this $20,000 bronze sculpture of a playful Great Dane titled "Tickled."

DEAR READERS,

I realize that some, maybe even many, of you, do not live anywhere near Mankato, the southeastern Minnesota community where I recently viewed sidewalk sculptures.

Heck, some of you don’t even live in states bordering Minnesota. Your chances of ever seeing these 25 pieces of art in person are about zilch.

So, for those of you who will view the City Art Walking Sculpture Tour only via Minnesota Prairie Roots, I’ve pulled together one last blog post. Please read my previous two posts for more details and photos of this community art project by first clicking here and then here.

This whole concept of bringing art to the streets through a rotating sculpture tour pleases me immensely. What a grand idea. Such art adds to the vibe of a downtown, to its art, history and culture.

Thank you, Mankato, and everyone who supported this cause financially, for bringing these sculptures to southeastern Minnesota, within quick driving distance of my Faribault home.

Yours gratefully,

Audrey Kletscher Helbling at Minnesota Prairie Roots

Sioux Falls artist Darwin Wolf's $13,500 sculpture, "The Fountain of Life," references Jesus washing Peter's feet at the Passover. It emphasizes the healing, life-giving qualities of water.

"Poco a Poco" a $12,000 bronze sculpture by Pokey Park of Tucson, Arizona, highlights the tortoise, representative of wisdom in American Indian culture. The building in the background houses Number 4 American Bar & Kitchen.

"Fowl Ball" celebrates geese, ducks, turkeys and chickens in this $7,600 forged and welded weathered steel sculpture by Lee W. Badger of Hedgesville, West Virginia.

All of the sculptures are marked with informational signage.

Dee Clements of Loveland, Colorado, created the $6,000 bronze "The Farmer's Wife," one of my favorite exhibit pieces.

To fully appreciate these sculptures, you must notice the details, including the Korean woman clenching her walking stick in "The Farmer's Wife."

Details define "Reading Magic," a $8,500 bronze sculpture by Julie Jones of Fort Collins, Colorado.

"Spirit of Energy," a $8,400 bronze by Karen Crain of LIttleton, Colorado, represents three renewable energy resources: sun, wind and water.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling