Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The day the music died February 1, 2019

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

SIXTY YEARS AGO ON FEBRUARY 3, a charter plane crashed into a northern Iowa field killing all aboard. It was, they say, the day the music died.

 

Portraits of the deceased musicians. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

Dead were rising musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

 

All around Clear Lake, you’ll see posters from the annual Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom. I found this one at the AmericInn Hotel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

This weekend the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, continues its Winter Dance Party honoring those singers who performed there before that fatal flight en route to Moorhead, Minnesota.

 

The ballroom stage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

Several years ago I visited Clear Lake, a delightful lakeside community just across the border from Minnesota. That trip included a stop at the Surf Ballroom. My knowledge of the famed musicians and of music in general is rather limited. But I do remember Don McLean’s lengthy American Pie hit from 1971 with that repetitious the day the music died. That line references the deaths of Holly, Valens and Richardson. I never understood that as a teen. I simply liked the melody, puzzled by the words.

 

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock and roll legend Buddy Holly. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

I am of that era when rock and roll represented rebellion with young people challenging societal norms and authority, voicing their opinions via music. It was a time of turmoil in many ways. A time of change.

 

This display references American Pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

The February day the trio of musicians died in 1959 in Iowa really wasn’t the day the music died. Rather, rock and roll continued to rise, flying, soaring, reaching new heights of popularity.

THOUGHTS?

 

TO READ MY ORIGINAL POST on the Surf Ballroom, complete with more photos, click here.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Faribault artist honors Prince, Dylan & other musicians through her oil portraits October 17, 2016

Dana used a stencil to incorporate musical notes in to this painting of Prince. Notice the detail of the heart-shaped mole on the musician's cheek.

Dana Hanson used a stencil to incorporate musical notes in to this painting of Prince. Notice the detail of the heart-shaped mole on the musician’s cheek. Prince Rogers Nelson was inducted in to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

DANA WARMINGTON HANSON can’t read a single musical note. But she doesn’t need to. She paints music.

Using a photo as her guide, Dana works on her Dylan portrait.

Using a photo as her guide, Dana works on a portrait of Bob Dylan during a summer concert in Faribault’s Central Park. He was inducted in to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 1991. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, July 2016.

This past summer, the Faribault artist painted several Minnesota Music Hall of Fame inductees during Faribault’s Concert in the Park Series as part of the Artgo! group of plein air artists.

Dana's younger version of Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Dana’s younger version of Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Her decision to paint Prince and Bob Dylan, especially, seems particularly fitting given the recent focus on those world-renowned musicians. Last week Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. And Prince’s Paisley Park Museum opened temporarily to fans.

"Bob Dylan: A Voice to be Remembered," a 22 x 28-inch oil portrait by Dana Hanson priced at $1,400.

“Bob Dylan: A Voice to be Remembered,” a 22 x 28-inch oil portrait by Dana Hanson priced at $1,400.

Dana says she appreciates the musical talents of both. Back in the day, she listened to Dylan, which may explain why she painted two portraits of the Hibbing native.

Prince by Dana Hanson.

“Prince: A Voice We Remember,” a 22 x 28-inch oil painting on canvas by Dana Hanson priced at $1,400 honored the musician who died in April.

As for Prince, she’s not a fan per se, but calls him “an extremely talented and gifted musician.”

And I call Dana an extremely talented and gifted artist.

A poster posted at the initial exhibit.

A poster promotes an exhibit of Artgo! work in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Her artwork exudes the passion she holds for creating art. I’ve watched her paint for two summers now during the concerts in the park. She paints with a flair, with a zeal, with an obvious love for the craft. As a freelance artist, Dana does commission work of animals and people. She’s also created cover art for books and is currently working on contracted art for a children’s book.

Dana Hanson's oil paints.

The artist’s oil paints on foil during a summer concert. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

At her full-time job in Faribault’s Fareway Foods Bakery, Dana uses her creative skills, too, to bake and to decorate cakes along with her sister Bobbi Dawson. The two long-time professionally trained cake decorators call themselves the Sweet Sisters. Dana is certainly that. Sweet. Friendly. Talented. She hopes to some day make art her full-time work. For now, she paints when she can, with a regular first and third Saturday painting time at House Church in Eagan.

Dana Hanson's artist statement posted at the 2016 Artgo! art show in Faribault.

The artist statement for Dana Hanson posted at the 2016 Artgo! art show in Faribault.

Her artistic talents trace through her family. Dana’s grandma, Frieda Lord, founded the Faribault Art Center, today the Paradise Center for the Arts. Dana has a show coming there in February. It will be just one more opportunity to view and appreciate the talents of this gifted Faribault artist.

Dana Hanson also painted this portrait of Judy Garland, who was inducted in to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 1991. Judy was born as Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and starred in "The Wizard of Oz."

Dana Hanson also painted this portrait of Judy Garland, who was inducted in to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 1991. Judy was born as Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and starred in “The Wizard of Oz.” The portrait is a 22 x 28-inch oil priced at $1,400 in titled “Judy Garland: Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

FYI: If you are interested in purchasing one of the portraits featured here, contact the Paradise Center for the Arts, Jeff Jarvis at the City of Faribault or me and we will connect you with Dana.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos of Dana Hanson’s art were taken with permission of the artist.

 

Part IV: Touring the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa June 4, 2015

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

WHEN I MENTIONED to a friend that my husband and I were going on an overnight get-away to Clear Lake, Iowa, he immediately asked if we were touring the Surf Ballroom. We were.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

The Surf is the focus for many visitors to this north central Iowa community. It wasn’t our main reason for traveling here. But we knew we couldn’t visit Clear Lake without seeing the famous Surf, site of Buddy Holly’s final Winter Dance Party performance before he, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a February 3, 1959, plane crash along with the pilot.

This display references "American Pie."

This display references “American Pie.”

It was, writes Don McLean in his song, American Pie, “the day the music died.”

Another tribute to the Surf's most memorable performed, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Now I’m not much of a music history person, nor a person with musical talent. I can’t read a note. I don’t have a particularly good singing voice. I typically cannot tell you who sings what and even had to ask my husband, before our arrival at the Surf, what songs Buddy Holly sang. He cited Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day.

The exterior ticket booth.

The exterior ticket booth.

Looking toward the interior lobby doors.

Looking toward the outside, this interior set of lobby doors are hefty and heavy. To the right is the original coat check area, not shown in this image.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

Yet, even for someone like me who is rather musically illiterate, the Surf proved an interesting place. Built in 1948, the current ballroom (the first burned down) is on the National Register of Historic Places. And rightly so. From the exterior ticket booth to the heavy doors that lead into the dark lobby, where you can check your coat, the Surf holds that feel of yesteryear. It’s difficult to explain. But you feel that sense of entering a different world from a bygone era the minute you step inside. As if you’ve left Iowa. And today.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

You'll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

You’ll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

Here you’ll discover a hallway museum of musicians’ photos, posters and history. And inside the lounge you’ll see stars’ guitars and more photos and other tributes to those who have performed here. If a musician’s picture is displayed, then he/she’s played/been here.

The ballroom stage.

The ballroom stage.

On the Friday afternoon we arrived at the Surf, we almost didn’t make it into the actual ballroom. Black curtains were pulled across two entrances and marked by “closed” signs. I peeked through the curtains to see musicians for Lee Ann Womack setting up inside. I failed to notice on the Surf website that the dance floor occasionally closes if a concert is scheduled. So be forewarned: Check the Surf calendar. Even better, call ahead.

But then, as luck would have it, Mark, who’s been working Surf security since 1978 and clearly loves this place and his job, parted the curtains and invited us inside with the admonition to keep our distance from the stage. He’d overheard our disappointment and said, “Since you drove a long ways…” We’d traveled only 85 miles. But another couple had driven nearly four hours from Omaha.

In the back are layers of booths, all original.

In the back are layers of booths, all original, and beach-themed murals.

Portraits

Portraits of Ritchie Valens, left, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson hang inside the ballroom.

Signatures...

Signatures…

He led us onto the original maple floor dance floor, pointed us to the original booths (where I slid into one; it’s a tight squeeze), noted the beach themed décor (it is, afterall, the Surf), took us into a small room where musicians and others have signed the walls…

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

I wished I could have lingered longer in the ballroom, asked Mark to switch on more lights for better photos. But I didn’t press my luck. If not for his graciousness, I would have remained on the other side of those black curtains.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Shortly before our visit,

The day before our visit, the king of blues died. B.B. King’s promotional poster hangs in the lounge.

Lee Ann Womack's band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit.

Lee Ann Womack’s band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit. This was snapped just outside the front entry doors.

About a block away, this outdoor sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson.

About a block away, this outdoor turntable/album sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson. You can also visit the plane crash site about five miles from town. Because of rainy weather, we did not go there.

FYI: Please check back next week for the three remaining installments in this series of seven posts from Clear Lake, Iowa.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Benson Family Singers: “To you, O Lord, I will make music” January 19, 2014

Benson Family Singers Rachelle, left,

The Benson Family Singers Rachelle, left, Aaron, Pete and David. Luke is also a member of the group, but did not perform in this song.

MIXING HUMOR AND SERIOUSNESS with music ranging from foot-stomping bluegrass to gospel, barbershop style and even rap, The Benson Family Singers of Faribault presented a wholesome family concert Saturday evening that has me singing their praises.

Posted on the bulletin board inside the church entry.

Posted on the bulletin board inside the church entry.

This family—Pete and Rachelle and sons David, 13; Aaron, 11; and Luke, 9—performed at St. Luke’s Church, Faribault, to raise awareness and funds for the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center. Paul, 2, has yet to make his stage debut.

But if he’s anything like his brothers and parents, his musical talents, enthusiasm and confidence will shine during shows at churches, festivals and elsewhere.

The family will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 1, at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault, in what is billed as “the perfect family entertainment experience.” That it should be.

In today’s world, it’s truly refreshing to listen to musicians like the Bensons. You needn’t worry that they’ll say or sing anything remotely offensive. They are genuine, Christ-loving and family-focused with their music as their family ministry.

Their purpose, says Pete, is “preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever we go. It’s the most important thing we can do in this life.”

So, in a break between songs, this father of four sons shared his faith with the audience at St. Luke’s.

The family balances its serious message with humor as Luke role-played Lars and Pete his counterpart, Ole, in several Norwegian jokes. Not too worry. All of their jokes are kid-friendly funny.

A rapt audience at St. Luke's.

A rapt audience at St. Luke’s.

The Bensons definitely reach out to kids with Sunday School songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and other selections that have young and old alike clapping in time to the music. Think a bluegrass tune from The Andy Griffith Show.

Listening to their barbershop style a cappella singing is an absolute auditory pleasure.

I especially enjoyed the old familiar hymns such as “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

The Benson "boys" presented a rap version of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

The Benson “boys” present a rap version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

But, by far, the hit of the evening for me, and I expect many in the audience, were the family’s numerous versions of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The family pulled out barbershop hats, sunglasses and other props to sing “Leaning” in styles from Johann Sebastian Bach to barbershop to doo-wop, Beach Boys, “clean rap” and music from the hills of Tennessee or Kentucky.

It felt good to laugh.

And it felt good, in the closing song, to join this talented family in singing the chorus of “There Is Power in the Blood.”

FYI: To learn more about the Benson Family Singers, click here. To learn more about their upcoming performance at the Paradise Center for the Arts, click here.

Information about the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center was available at the concert.

Information about the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center was available at the concert.

For info about the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center, a pro-life organization dedicated to providing physical, emotional, social support and assistance to women by empowering them to make healthy, life-affirming choices, click here.

© Copyright 2014 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