Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Czech film coming to New Prague April 26, 2019

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

 

A DOCUMENTARY FOCUSING on 45 years of Czech culture and heritage in my region of southern Minnesota is coming to Czech country next weekend.

 

Source: New Prague Area Community Education Facebook page.

 

The film, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, shows at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, at the New Prague High School Auditorium. General admission tickets for the event offered through New Prague Area Community Education went on sale earlier this week.

For more background on the film co-produced and co-directed by noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom and Daniel Geiger, click here to read my previously published post on the documentary.

Also click here for more info, including ticket info.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Sweet finds in Montgomery, Part IV: Discovering LaNette & Carol’s shops April 13, 2013

A shot of First Street in Montgomery with LaNette's on the right.

A shot of First Street in Montgomery with LaNette’s on the right.

YOU NEED ONLY STEP inside LaNette’s Antiques ‘N Lace to experience her passion for antiques, window treatments, chocolate and coffee.

Shoppers can relax with a cup at a table and then buy the table and chairs if they wish. Note the beautiful wood floor, which is not original to the store. LaNette bought some pine planks at the lumberyard to recreate the vintage look.

Shoppers can relax with a cup of jo or other treat at a table and then buy the table and chairs if they wish. Note the beautiful wood floor. LaNette bought pine planks at the lumberyard to stain and seal in creating the vintage look. Also notice samples of LaNette’s custom window treatments.

They’re all there in her inviting corner shop in downtown Montgomery which features everything from her customized window treatments to local artisan products to antiques and collectibles, plus coffee, tea, ice cream and chocolate.

That's LaNette behind the counter.

That’s LaNette behind the counter.

Add owner LaNette Kuelper’s friendly welcome—she’s a genuine people person—and you’ll feel like you’ve known her for years, although you’ve only just met her.

Shoppers can settle in and watch activity along First Street in this cozy corner of LaNette's shop.

Shoppers can settle in and watch activity along First Street in this cozy corner of LaNette’s shop.

Colorful comic books found in a tiny back room of the store.

Colorful comic books found in a tiny back nook at LaNette’s.

Vibrant handcrafted clothespin bags and glassware are among the merchandise offerings.

Vibrant handcrafted clothespin bags and glassware are among the merchandise offerings.

LaNette's delightful vintage cash register.

LaNette’s delightful vintage cash register.

LaNette is among the array of hospitable shopkeepers my husband and I met on a recent Saturday visit to this south-central Minnesota community of some 3,000 known as The Kolacky Capital of the World, tracing to the area’s rich Czech heritage.

The presence of the Czech heritage is so strong here that Montgomery celebrates with an annual summer Kolacky Days celebration, hosts the annual Miss Czech Slovak MN Pageant and is home to a Czech import shop.

Cjay's Czech Imports, 506 Fourth St. S.W.

Cjay’s Czech Imports, 506 Fourth St. S.W.

At Cjay’s Czech Imports, we met owner Carol Kotasek, raised by her Czech grandmother and fluent in Czech. You can hear a hint of dialect in her speech, a comforting connection to The Old Country.

Beautiful glassware imported from the Czech Republic.

Beautiful glassware imported from the Czech Republic.

Carol regularly travels to the Czech Republic to purchase the handcrafted artisan merchandise which graces her cozy shop on the southwest side of Montgomery along Minnesota State Highways 13/21. She knows her artists by name—Bohunka, Myška, Krupička…

Being 100 percent German, and once fluent in Deutsch, I find the names foreign. Carol must spell the names, pointing out the accent marks above consonants.

There’s something particularly endearing in this exchange—the spelling of unfamiliar names, the hint of dialect, Carols’ appreciation of fine Czech craftsmanship—that touches my soul. That we should all cherish our heritage with such passion.

Caps popular with Czech girls.

Caps which are very popular with little girls in the Czech Republic.

Handcrafted toys and information about the craftsman from the Czech Republic.

Handcrafted toys and information about the craftsman from the Czech Republic.

More stunning Czech artisan glassware.

More stunning Czech artisan glassware.

FYI: Cjay’s Czech Imports, 506 Fourth St. S.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Click here to link to the store’s website.

LaNette’s, 225 First St. S., is open from 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday – Thursday and from 6 a.m. – 3 p.m. Friday – Saturday. Closed Sunday. Click here to reach LaNette’s Facebook page.

Please check back for one final post from Montgomery. I’ll take you to a local pizza place and inside a one-of-a-kind museum. If you have not read my earlier posts, go back to Sunday and start reading about Montgomery. Also check my March 4 – 8 archives for stories published after a previous visit.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery, Part II: Entertaining & inspiring the folks of South Central Minnesota in an historic dance hall March 5, 2013

A sign just off Minnesota Highway 13 welcomes travelers to Montgomery.

A sign near the Minnesota Highway 13 and 21 intersection welcomes travelers to Montgomery.

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.

The red-roofed building in the distance is Hilltop Hall.

The red-roofed building in the distance is Hilltop Hall.

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.

Hilltop Hall was "falling apart," John Grimm says of the building he bought in the early 1990s. He reroofed, gutted and reconstructed and/or restored the interior.

Hilltop Hall was “falling apart,” John Grimm says of the building he bought in the early 1990s. He reroofed  the hall and gutted and reconstructed and/or restored the interior.

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.

A sign outside Hilltop Hall directs guests to the Curtain Call Theatre performance of "On Golden Pond." The area theatrical group also performs in neighboring New Prague.

A sign outside Hilltop Hall directs guests to the Curtain Call Theatre performance of “On Golden Pond.” The area theatrical group also performs in neighboring New Prague.

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.”

Except for a small section which was damaged by water, this wood floor is original.

Except for a small section which was damaged by water, this wood floor is original. Here volunteers stack chairs following the final performance of “On Golden Pond” while the cast enjoys pizza.

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.

A view of Hilltop Hall's performance venue shows John Grimm and Fran Bohlke playing the lead roles in "On Golden Pond."

A view of Hilltop Hall’s performance venue shows the cast of “On Golden Pond.” John Grimm, center, plays the lead role along with Fran Bohlke of Shakopee, left in Curtain Call Theatre’s production. This marked Bohlke’s third time playing Ethel Thayer. She previously played the part during performances in Worthington and Luverne. Stenciling in the hall was either replicated or restored, depending on condition.

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.”

Big Honza's Museum of Unnatural History.

Big Honza’s Museum of Unnatural History.

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.

Big Honza' sprinkling can located near his museum.

Big Honza’ sprinkling can located nest to the Big Honza museum.

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.

A view of the set for "On Golden Pond" with Big Honza painted on the wall to the left.

A view of the set for “On Golden Pond” with Big Honza painted on the wall to the left.

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.

When Grimm purchased Hilltop Hall, site of a laundromat, he found 10 inches of lint covering these walls as dryers had been vented into the hallway. This hall runs between the heritage center and floral shop and leads to a stairway to the performance space.

When Grimm purchased Hilltop Hall, site of a laundromat, he found 10 inches of lint covering these walls as dryers had been vented into the hallway. This hall runs between the heritage center and floral shop and leads to a stairway to the performance space. The chandelier is not original to the building.

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.

The ceiling plaster had crumbled, so an artist laid on his back to re-create this mural on sheetrock in the center of the performance space.

The plaster had crumbled, so an artist laid on his back to re-create this ceiling mural on sheetrock in the center of the performance space. The chandelier is antique but not original to the hall. The original lights could not be restored, Grimm says.

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.

These exterior doors open to the hallway leading to the performing arts center.

These exterior doors open to the hallway leading to the upstairs performing arts center. A handicapped accessible entry is at the rear of the building off the alley.

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.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE posts from Montgomery.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A close-up look at the Veseli Ho-Down August 24, 2011

A banner below the hill by Most Holy Trinity Church and school welcomed attendees.

WHENEVER I ATTEND an event like the Veseli Ho-Down, or go anywhere, I notice the details.

That skill has evolved from my years as a writer, fine-tuned also by my work as a photographer. Photography encourages me to seek the faces, even the hands and feet, of individuals in a crowd to tell a story in an unexpected way.

I apply that same method to photographing buildings and activities, anything really. Give an overall picture, but then move in to showcase the often overlooked details.

That said, as promised in a previous post, below are more photos from the festival my husband and I attended on Sunday at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Veseli, near Lonsdale in northwestern Rice County. Enjoy the details, from my perspective, of the Veseli Ho-Down.

First...the crowd...and then a closer look at individuals, and more, at the festival...

An employee from a Bloomington group home brought residents and their therapy bird, Buddy, to her hometown for the Ho-Down. The parakeet (is that correct?) quickly attracted the attention of fest-goers like this girl.

An 11 a.m. polka mass started the day's activities. I took this snippet image of worshipers from the balcony of Most Holy Trinity. I'll feature detailed photos of the church in another post, so check back.

While technically not the best photo, I still like this image for the story it tells of women taking a break from their work in the church basement. When I noticed the rosaries and cross above the kitchen window opening, I knew I had to photograph this scene. The volunteers were selling baked goods.

Kolacky, a Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the festival.

The New Prague Czech Singers performed in their mother tongue under a tent in mid-afternoon.

I upped the contrast on this image to make the colors pop on this costume worn by a Czech singer.

The hands of the bingo number caller, or whatever you call a person who calls bingo numbers.

A sign on a propped-open-with-a-rock church basement door directs fest-goers to the bake sale. To the left in the photo is the station for the hog raffle.

I met 94-year-old (almost 95) Celia enjoying a burger in the company of her great niece, Brenda. I was charmed by her beautiful face and quiet elegance. Ceila grew up near Webster and today lives on a farm with her bachelor son near Lonsdale. Celia typically attends about a half-dozen area church festivals each summer. Her great aunt likes visiting with people and enjoys the Czech music, Brenda says. A few weeks ago Celia won $100, half a hog and $10 playing bingo at the Immaculate Conception Church festival in Lonsdale. She's one lucky lady.

The kids, as kids will, chased each other up and down the handicapped entrance to the church.

Waiting for customers at the duck pond in the kids' games tent.

I laughed when I saw this sign on yellow beans for sale. That's an interesting way to sell produce.

I am Lutheran. We do not do raffles. But everywhere I turned at the Ho-Down, someone was pedaling raffle tickets. As I waited in line for the chicken dinner, two men pushed Split the Pot raffle tickets. For $1, you buy a ticket. Every hour a winner is selected and gets half the money. The rest goes to the church. No, we did not win, but we contributed to Most Holy Trinity. These guys hustled the grounds all afternoon.

And where did all that raffle and other money go? Right through the cashier's window in the former Catholic school. I walked by this building numerous times before I noticed the sign, the open window and the well-worn step-up step. It's details like this that tell the complete story of small-town events like the Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling