Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A reason to be happy in Le Sueur January 12, 2021

Posted on the marquee of the Le Sueur Theater. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.


Ah, what a message, one that, in these turbulent times, seems difficult to follow. Or even consider. Yet, focusing on the positives and joys in life feels more important than ever right now. Not that we should ignore the challenges—and there are many today—but rather balance them with also viewing the bright side of life.

Soon this marquee will be restored. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Don’t worry, be happy. Those words from the 1988 hit song by Bobby McFerrin make me smile all these years later. At the cheesy simplicity. At the thought that we can focus on the light of happiness even in the worries of darkness.

Photographed in August 2020 along Main Street South in Le Sueur. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

With that, I shift to a series of photos I took in downtown Le Sueur in late August 2020. I typically fall behind in posting my images given all I shoot during the warm weather months here in Minnesota. Regardless, this seems the right time to pull these photos from the archives and share a bit of “happy.”

In the process of being restored in downtown Le Sueur. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Visually documenting small towns like Le Sueur, a community of some 4,000 in southern Minnesota, is often a focus of my photography. I delight in the details, the architecture, the only-in-a-small-town scenes, the history, people and more that define these communities.


Before work began on the Le Sueur Theater. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.
When I first photographed the theater in 2016, this eviction notice was posted on the door as the property went into foreclosure. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.
Signs of a once active movie theater. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.
A movie poster still posted when I first photographed the theater in October 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And so, while walking through the heart of downtown Le Sueur, I came across the vacant Le Sueur Theater and its once beautiful marquee. I remember photographing this theater previously and lamenting its abandonment. But then, while researching for this post, I discovered a reason to feel happy. Thankful, really.

I can only imagine how beautiful this marquee once its restored (or whatever it takes). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

In March 2019, cleaning, repair (roof, walls, etc) and restoration began on this building vacated in 2008. Work to preserve, restore, replicate, replace and reinforce the marquee is expected to begin in the spring. You can find details about the ongoing project on the Le Sueur Theater Facebook page by clicking here.

A side view of the Le Sueur Theater marquee. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Leading the project is Katie Elke of Le Sueur, who bought the building in 2016 and plans to reopen the theater for cinema, music, theatrical performances, comedy shows and other entertainment, making it a community gathering spot.

Some day this space will be filled with a new listing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

I love this plan. This idea. I’ve watched as my own community of Faribault restored an historic theater into the Paradise Center for the Arts, a center for arts, entertainment and more. That the good folks of Le Sueur and the surrounding area will now have a similar hub makes me happy. I recognize that this happens only with plenty of funding (Katie started a go fund me site), hard work and enthusiastic support. Some day I hope to step inside the restored Le Sueur Theater and show you how a plan, along with grit, determination, effort, money and a whole lot of happy can take an idea to reality. Even, and especially, during a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part III from La Crosse: Hollywood, Wisconsin style March 24, 2017


DRIVING PAST THE HOLLYWOOD Theater on the fringes of downtown La Crosse, I wondered whether the theater was open. It appeared closed. An online search later confirmed that.

Not that efforts haven’t been made to restore the 1936 theater. It has opened and closed multiple times, last closing as a live music venue in the late 1990s, according to an article published on the La Crosse Public Library website. The current building owner planned to renovate and reopen the theater. But then a fire damaged the building in 2013 stalling that project.

Black-and-white images in the library’s “La Crosse Movie Palaces” story show a splendid 42-foot high illuminated HOLLYWOOD tower gracing the theater along with a wrap-around marquee. Both were removed after World War II. What happened to those? The article doesn’t reveal that and perhaps it’s unknown.

I hope finances fall into place for the current owner to complete renovation plans and reopen the Hollywood Theater. In my community of Faribault, a former theater is now the Paradise Center for the Arts, a gem of a place that includes galleries, clay works and textile labs, classrooms, a library and a theater performance space.

I appreciate when aged theaters are valued and saved.

TELL ME: Are you familiar with a similar vintage theater that has been restored to its original glory? Please share.

Or, if you’ve been inside the Hollywood Theater when it was open, I’d like to hear your stories.

FYI: Please check back for more stories in my “From La Crosse” series. Click here to read Part I and click here to read Part II.

© Copyright 2017 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


Keeping a small-town Minnesota movie theater open February 11, 2011

“WE’RE DOING IT for the community…it really is important to us to keep this asset in our community.”

Those words scroll across my computer screen like credits on a movie screen.

Credit for the above statement goes to my cousin, Tim Kletscher, who along with his wife, Susie, last week bought the DeMarce Theatre in Benson. With a $50,000 forgivable loan from the Benson Economic Development Authority and the promise of future investments, the couple signed papers that will keep this western Minnesota movie theater going.

The DeMarce Theatre, a long-time business in downtown Benson in western Minnesota, will remain open. The neon lights on this building are lit during movie times.

Larry DeMarce, 74, who has operated the family movie theater for more than 40 years, will stay on as manager. “He really is the face of the theater and really is a local icon,” Tim says. The theater has been in the DeMarce family since 1925 and is the only movie theater in Swift County.

For Tim, 38, an elementary school teacher, and Susie, 40, a stay-at-home mom, their purchase represents an investment in the future of a town which may have been without this entertainment option. DeMarce planned to retire soon and the time was right for the pair to buy into Benson.

“We bought the theater to keep it going, to help out the community, to provide a ‘part-time’ job for our kids when they are older, and for something for me to have when I retire from teaching,” Tim says. “It (buying the theater) was always something we’ve talked about the past few years, but never said anything to Larry until November.”

For the residents of Benson, population 3,376, keeping the theater open is good news. “Tim and I will be giving people a chance to take a break from reality, get out of their homes and help keep downtown Benson alive,” Susie says.

That’s important in this community, where the nearest theater is in neighboring Morris, in Willmar, 30 miles away, or Alexandria, some 45 miles distant.

Tim says the lower cost of attending a movie in Benson—current ticket prices range from $3.50 for children 12 and under to $5 for adults ($4 for seniors)—is part of the “big draw” locally.

Ticket prices may increase some after the Kletschers upgrade from obsolete 35 mm equipment to a digital projection system this summer. But they still plan to keep prices affordable, honoring the commitment the community has made to them, Tim says. If they go with a 3D projector, 3D movie prices will be a bit higher than a regular movie.

Yet, bottom line, this couple has their community in mind as they invest in its future. And Benson residents are assisting by contributing to the $50,000 Theater Legacy Fund, set up to repay the public investment.

I appreciate that small-town attitude, that depth of community ownership found in residents like Tim and Susie, who have called Benson home since 1994 and 1996 respectively. I’m not saying such strong connections don’t exist in bigger communities. However, in smaller towns, lives are so intertwined that residents comprise the threads woven into the fabric of a community.

While my cousin and his wife are planning electrical and technological updates to the theater building and maybe some new paint inside the lobby, they intend to maintain the architecture and feel of the building and keep the DeMarce Theatre name.

I haven’t seen the old theater, but Tim tells me there’s a stage in front of the screen.

My head is already spinning with possibilities. So is Tim’s apparently. “I’m hoping to get my buddy from Alaska, who’s a poet/storyteller, to come this summer and do a show. He used to teach here with me and he performs at the Fringe Festival in the Cities and in Kansas City. He’s hilarious,” Tim says. In the past, the local Dreamland Theater group and the White Sidewalls performed in the historic theater and the Kid Day Coronation happens here every summer.

Susie has ideas too. “As a parent, I realize there aren’t a lot of places in Benson for kids to hang out,” she says. So she wants to add more games in the lobby or perhaps upstairs. She’s also pondering rentals for Saturday afternoon birthday parties. “I feel I am kind of a kid at heart so that is where most of my thinking goes.”

I like the parental perspective Susie brings to the future of the theater. That can only benefit the families of Benson.

Tim and Susie plan to use this drawing of the DeMarce Theatre on their business cards for TSK Productions, LLC. Local resident and school secretary Pam Anderson created the art.

NATURALLY I WONDERED if Tim and Susie are big movie buffs, expecting that, since they have purchased a theater, they would be. I was wrong. With two young children, their movie attendance has been limited to kids’ movies.

Yet, Susie has her favorites, like The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments, which she watched every year on her family’s black-and-white TV while growing up in Blue Earth.

“My parents didn’t take us to the theater…and we didn’t have a movie theater in Blue Earth (which is part of my motivation in wanting to keep the one in Benson going), but I do remember my cousins taking me to The Empire Strikes Back when I was around eight years old,” Susie says. “I recall them asking me what kind of “soda” I wanted and I responded chocolate…not knowing they meant “pop.” They were from Colorado and I hadn’t heard “pop” called “soda” before.

I loved the movie and I remember seeing Return of the Jedi later on…one of my all-time favorite movies. I loved the humor and the drama.”

Well, Tim and Susie, I expect you’ll see a lot more movies now that you own a movie theater in Benson.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling