Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The Santa Diaries II” debuts in Faribault with humor & so much more December 11, 2018

From The Merlin Players Facebook page.

 

WHEN I ATTENDED The Merlin Players’ performance of The Santa Diaries four years ago at the Paradise Center for the Arts, I laughed. And I cried. Playwrights and performers brought a moving message coupled with comedy to the stage.

And now they’ve done it again in A Christmas Wedding—The Santa Diaries II. I attended Saturday evening, a day after the play debuted. Writers Laura Ambler and Mala Burt flew in from Maryland to watch as a talented cast—many of whom performed in the first Santa Diaries—took the stage.

The play focuses on a Hollywood couple returning to their hometown for their desired small town Christmas wedding. Except others have other ideas, including making the wedding a reality TV event. So the story evolves with humor aplenty, conflict and discerning what’s most important in life. Choose fame and fortune? Or love, happiness and contentment?

I realized part way into the play that I was smiling nearly non-stop. That says a lot for the writing and the performing. But when the script got serious, my thoughts turned introspective also. Like the characters in the play, we all have choices to make, especially this time of year. It’s easy to get caught up in finding the perfect gift, the material things that we think will make us, or our loved ones, happy. But really, it is the gift of time, of being with family and friends, that’s most important. I left the theater with that point reinforced.

I also left with awe at The Merlin Players’ performance, echoed by the playwrights with whom I chatted briefly. Laura Ambler praised the cast. I did, too, But I also praised her writing and that of co-writer Mala Burt. It takes a good, strong script to make a play successful as much as good, strong performers and production staff.

And there were many talented actors and actresses. Plus singers. Solos by Mandie Siems and Paige Pick held a quality of pureness. I could sense the raptness of the audience as the two sang.

I especially appreciated the ways in which the play became distinctly Minnesotan, even distinctly Faribault. Local radio personality Gordy Kosfeld voiced the radio announcer. Casseroles became hotdish, at least in one reference. Poinsettias set on stage came from Donahue’s Greenhouse, so said one of the performers. Details like that endear a performance to a local audience.

The playwrights also endeared themselves to me in their appreciation of Faribault, telling me how much they enjoyed the fresh snow and exploring my community. I loved hearing that. Locals don’t always appreciate Faribault’s historic setting and small town feel. This really is a special place.

And that includes the Paradise Center for the Arts. I am so grateful to have this arts center in the heart of our historic downtown with professional theater and so much more available locally.

FYI: Additional performances of A Christmas Wedding–The Santa Diaries II are set for 7:30 p.m. on December 13, 14, and 15 and at 2 p.m. December 16 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue North, Faribault.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Merlin Players deliver an evening of laughter in Faribault via “Barefoot in the Park” February 24, 2018

 

MORE THAN EVER, I need laughter. I need to sequester myself in a place without media, without any hint of what’s happening outside weather-wise or world-wise. I need to laugh in bursts of untethered delight.

That happened Friday evening inside the darkened historic theatre at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, in downtown Faribault.

There, The Merlin Players opened “Barefoot in the Park,” a romantic comedy by Neil Simon set in a New York City brownstone in February 1963. There I found the delight I craved, I needed, I longed for in recent days. I laughed. Free. Full. Joyous.

This six-person cast presented a stellar performance of this story about newlyweds settling into their apartment and into married life. A drop-in mother-in-law, a quirky and friendly neighbor, a telephone repairman and a delivery man round out the cast.

What most impressed me, besides the acting, was observing just how much these performers love working together. In one scene, mother-in-law Ethel Banks (played by Susan Dunhaupt) and neighbor Victor Velasco (played by Carter Martin) started laughing. Not as part of the script, but at lines in the play and the audience reaction. It was one of those moments that drew us all in. Unscripted. Pure and full laughter rolling through the theatre. Until the pair could pull themselves together enough to continue.

After the show, at an opening night reception, Martin was overheard saying he didn’t expect they would have a “Carol Burnett moment.” He was referencing the superstar comedian who sometimes also laughed so hard she paused in performing.

Faribault is fortunate to have a semi-professional theater company based in our community and one which draws such talented performers—like the leads in this play, professional actor Paul Somers and Sydney Place Sallstrom. Matt Drenth (the phone repairman), in his buffalo plaid shirt, also brought plenty of humor to the performance as did Gary Hoganson with his minor delivery man role.

All in all, “Barefoot in the Park” gave me exactly what I needed on a February evening in Minnesota. Laughter. And a few hours secluded in the darkness of a theater, away from the real world, real life.

FYI: Other performances are set for 7:30 p.m. February 24 and March, 1, 2 and 3. A matinee showing is at 2 p.m. February 25.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Historic “Wrapped in Love and Glory” honors women of the mill & more in Faribault December 12, 2016

The scene outside the Paradise Center for the Arts during intermission of "Wrapped in Love and Glory."

The scene outside the Paradise Center for the Arts during intermission of “Wrapped in Love and Glory.” I snapped this cell phone photo of Central Avenue while standing under the theater marquee.

SNUGGED INSIDE FARIBAULT’S historic Paradise Center for the Arts on a cold and snowy Saturday evening, I awaited the world premiere of “Wrapped in Love and Glory” penned by native son and playwright Michael Lambert.

A promotional poster hangs outside the Paradise.

A promotional poster hangs behind glass outside the Paradise.

My expectations—in performance and in the storyline—ran high. It takes a confident writer to pen a play that focuses on local history. And it takes an equally confident cast to perform it before a hometown crowd. Lambert and The Merlin Players did Faribault proud in presenting the stories of local women who wove blankets for American troops at the historic Faribault Woolen Mill during WW II. The mill, still in existence today, continues to weave blankets for the military.

Before the play opened, I took this cell phone image of the set showing Woolen Mill blankets suspended with the video screen to the left.

Before the play opened, I took this cell phone image of the set showing Woolen Mill blankets suspended with the video screen to the left. Lighting was insufficient to truly reflect the simplistic beauty of the display.

Against a backdrop of mill blankets from Lambert’s personal collection, narrators, actresses and singers took the stage of this intimate theatre for the two-hour production. This playwright mixed music of the era, like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Blue Skies,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and 23 other songs in to the narrative. The music, performed primarily by a trio of women in Andrews Sisters style—think synchronized hand motions, swaying and tipping microphones on stands—with the loveliest of voices, ranged from sweet crooning to rhythmic.

Music and dialogue complemented each other as did video clips of actors (soldiers) reading letters written to the women back home. Authentic letters that Lambert gathered from within the Faribault community. Letters with endearments like darling, sweetheart, dearest.

Video stills also featured newspaper headlines, photos and more, adding to the historic context.

Some of the cast members of "Wrapped in Love & Glory" pose inside the Faribault Woolen Mill. Photo by Edward Brown.

Some of the cast members of “Wrapped in Love & Glory” pose inside the Faribault Woolen Mill. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

Lambert wove a lot of history in to “Wrapped in Love and Glory.” History of WW II. And then local history. Of the Faribault Woolen Mill, which contracted with the U.S. government to supply 250,000 drab olive Army blankets and sleeping bags for troops. Of the Cannon River, along which the mill sits. Of WW II pilot and WASP Betty Wall (Elizabeth Strohfus) presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. Of Heisman Trophy winner Bruce Smith. Of German prisoners-of-war working at the Faribault Canning Company. All flowed in the storyline, along with familiar names like Klemer and Caron.

It was a story that made me consider the dedication of the hardworking women who wove those blankets for American soldiers serving in the cold mountains of Italy, storming the beach at Normandy, or training in places like Chicago. The women who exchanged letters with those soldiers. The women who relied on each other and their inner strength during a time of war and of separation. The women who kept America running.

On Saturday morning, before snow began falling, I took this photo of the historic Paradise Center for the Arts.

On Saturday morning, before snow began falling, I took this photo of the historic Paradise Center for the Arts.

FYI: Additional performances of “Wrapped in Love and Glory” are set for 7:30 p.m. December 15, 16 and 17 and at 2 p.m. December 18 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, in historic downtown Faribault. Call (507) 332-7372 for ticket information. Or click here.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Experience holiday festivities this weekend in Faribault December 8, 2016

Mike Fuchs guides his team or horses southbound on Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault late Saturday afternoon.

A scene along Central Avenue during the 2015 holiday season. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON blankets Faribault this weekend with holiday events ranging from a figure skating show to a kids’ Christmas party to concerts to a home-grown theatrical production and much more.

Dark wood and stone define the cathedral interior.

Dark wood and stone define the sanctuary at The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

When I started jotting a list of events, even I was astounded. I could schedule my entire weekend around enjoying myself rather than focusing on holiday prep. If I wasn’t donating blood on Friday evening, I could kick my weekend off by attending Handel’s Messiah, presented at 7:30 p.m. by the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra at The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour, 515 Second Avenue Northwest.

Some of the cast members of "Wrapped in Love & Glory" pose inside the Faribault Woolen Mill. Photo by Edward Brown.

Some of the cast members of “Wrapped in Love & Glory” pose inside the Faribault Woolen Mill. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

I already have tickets for The Merlin Players performance of “Wrapped in Love & Glory,” an original play written by Faribault native Michael Lambert. “The show weaves together the letters, history and music of the women working in the Faribault Woolen Mill to make blankets for the troops fighting overseas during WW II,” according to a TMP press release. Twenty-six songs from that era are incorporated in to the production.

The show opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, with additional evening performances set for December 10 and 15 – 17. Sunday shows are at 2 p.m. on December 11 and 18. Click here for more information or call (507) 332-7372.

This jar of veggies carries the perfect name, "Summer in a Jar."

Canned produce sold at the summer Faribault Farmer’s Market. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Also at the Paradise are the creations of area artists. Perfect for holiday giving. Additionally, from 1 – 4 p.m. Saturday, the Winter Farmers’ Market opens inside the Paradise with local vendors selling everything from eggs to maple syrup to soap, baked goods and more.

Historic buildings in downtown Faribault are decorated for the holiday season.

Historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Historic downtown Faribault will be one busy place Saturday as Faribault Main Street also hosts its second annual Holiday Snack Contest from noon – 3 p.m. While you shop, you can sample tasty treats at local businesses. All through-out the downtown, local shopkeepers (and even a pop-up shop) offer a variety of goods—shoes, home décor, antiques, electronics, specialty gifts, baked goods, cheese

We wanted to sample all of the beers on tap, so we ordered a flight.

A sampling of flight offerings at F-Town. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And let’s not forget the beer. Drink it on-site at F-Town Brewing, just off Central, or purchase a growler to take home. Or check out a local liquor store for F-Town beers.

The cast, with the little Snowflakes on the right as audience favorites.

A scene from the 2012 ice skating show at Shattuck. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

If you’re out and about with your family, drive to Faribault’s east side for Shattuck-St. Mary’s School’s annual Christmas Walk. The free community event begins with a “Christmas Spectacular on Ice” show at noon in the SSM Sports Complex. Festivities continue thereafter until 4 p.m. on the Shattuck campus with musical performances; activities for kids in Morgan Refectory; visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus (from 1:30 – 4 p.m.) in The Inn; and a 3:30 p.m. holiday concert in The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

Kids worked on holiday crafts in the dining hall.

Kids worked on holiday crafts in the dining hall at Shattuck. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

On Sunday, there’s more family-oriented fun, this time at the Faribault Eagles, 2027 Grant Street, as the club hosts its annual free Kids Christmas Party from noon to 3 p.m. for kids 12 and under accompanied by an adult.

Nearby at the Faribo West Mall, shoppers can take in a 3 – 3:30 p.m. Sunday concert by the Faribault High School Orchestra followed by the Faribault Area Community Band’s “A Christmas Concert for Busy People.” That concert title seems especially fitting given the season and all that’s happening in Faribault. These pre-Christmas weekends are busy ones in my southeastern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-see holiday play: The Santa Diaries December 10, 2014

I THOUGHT I MIGHT make it through a local holiday theatrical production without crying.

But I didn’t.

The Santa Diaries actors, left to right, Thomas Drenth as Timmy; Samuel Temple as Marley the Dog; and Michael Lambert as Will Hawes. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

The Santa Diaries actors, left to right, Thomas Drenth as Timmy; Samuel Temple as Marley the Dog; and Michael Lambert as Will Hawes. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

Saturday evening found me seated on the far right side of the Bahl Family Auditorium, near the back of the Paradise Center for the Arts restored theatre in historic downtown Faribault, wiping away tears during The Merlin Players performance of The Santa Diaries.

The play penned by Mala Burt and Laura Ambler and debuting in Minnesota, in Faribault, resounds with the age-old theme of discovering what is truly most important in life.

For main character Will Hawes, played by seasoned actor Michael Lambert, that is deciphering whether he truly values his success as a Hollywood actor over love and family. A return to his small hometown at Christmas causes Hawes to reexamine his choices in life.

During an especially creative scene in which Hawes is dreaming, he is advised to “open your heart and listen.”

This holiday chorus line will have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

This holiday chorus line will put you in the Christmas mood and have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

That could be the mantra for a production that mixes serious topics with humor. From the Hotdish Ladies (“Casseroles” in the original script, but this is Minnesota) bearing Sweet Potato Hotdish to a chorus line to the moment that made me cry—hearing the inner thoughts of Martha (played by Stephanie Weiss) wanting nothing more than her family home for Christmas—The Santa Diaries touches the heart.

You will laugh. You may cry. And, with absolute certainty, you will consider your own family and your life priorities as The Santa Diaries unfolds.

The older I grow, the less I care about the worldly trappings of Christmas. Like Martha, I just want my family home for Christmas. That won’t happen. Not precisely on Christmas Day. But we will have 1 ½ days together prior. And I am grateful for that. (The college son arrives home from Boston in exactly eight days.)

While The Santa Diaries presents a rather predictable happy ending—hey, you can’t have a holiday show that ends badly—real life isn’t that way. I know that. You know that. Life is messy. Work and distance and disagreements and busyness keep families apart.

But there is hope. People change. Situations change. We grow older and wiser. And, like main character Will Hawes, we eventually figure it out, that family is more important than money and success and work and schedules and, well, whatever else fills the time we could be with those we love.

The Paradise Center for the Arts is the cultural hub for theater and art in a historic theatre along Faribault's Central Avenue.

The Paradise Center for the Arts is the cultural hub for theater and art in a historic theatre along Faribault’s Central Avenue. Each December a holiday show is featured. This photo is from a past performance.

FYI: Additional performances of The Santa Diaries are set for 7:30 p.m. December 11, 12 and 13 and for 2 p.m. December 14. Julianna Skluzacek is the artistic director for the play featuring 28 passionate performers ranging from elementary age to decades older.  Call (507) 332-7372 for tickets from noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday or noon – 8 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets may also be purchased an hour before show times. I wouldn’t wait, though. Tickets are selling quickly.

The playwrights are flying into Minnesota from the East Coast on Friday and will be here for all three weekend performances.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Santa Diaries photos copyright of Edward Brown/The Merlin Players and published here with permission.

 

The tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” November 30, 2011

THE PROMO READS:

A delightful holiday musical for the entire family. It’s the true story of a Great Lakes schooner, whose captain risks life and limb to transport Christmas trees to the German immigrants in Chicago during the late 1800’s. The result was the Christmas tree tradition spread throughout the Midwest and America.

Attend The Merlin Players’ production of The Christmas Schooner, opening Friday, December 2, at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault, and you’ll never view a Christmas tree in quite the same way. Guaranteed, you’ll appreciate your tree a whole lot more and the ease with which you can pull yours from storage, browse in a Christmas tree lot or tromp through the woods to chop down your own.

Allow me to take you 6 ½ hours away from Faribault to eastern Wisconsin, to Rawley Point, a piece of land that juts into Lake Michigan in Point Beach State Forest five miles north of Two Rivers.

Rawley Point at Point Beach State Forest along Lake Michigan in early August.

Off this point 26 ships sank or became stranded, including the steamship Vernon, which broke up in stormy waters in 1877 with 52 lives lost. Only one seaman survived.

Then there’s the Rouse Simmons schooner, widely known as “The Christmas Tree Ship.” With Captain Herman Schuenemann at the helm, the ship left Thompson, Michigan, on November 22, 1912, bound for Chicago with a holiday cargo of Upper Peninsula Christmas trees. (Sorry, but I can’t explain the discrepancy in dates between the play promo and the true date of the schooner’s demise.)

A painting of the Christmas Tree Schooner at the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum in Two Rivers.

The schooner, with 16 crew members, never reached Chicago. Not until 59 years later was she found in 170 feet of water off Rawley Point, her Christmas trees still stashed in her hold. The schooner remains preserved in the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

The beach at Rawley Point on a Sunday afternoon in August.

Walking Rawley Point beach on an August afternoon, the only hazards are stinky dead fish and driftwood.

The U.S. Coast Guard's erector style lighthouse at Rawley Point rises 113 feet above Lake Michigan. The light is one of the largest and brightest on the Great Lakes and can be seen from 19 miles away.

This past summer my family visited Point Beach State Forest and attractions in nearby Two Rivers, all within an hour’s drive of my second daughter’s home in Appleton, Wisconsin. On that Sunday afternoon, strolling along the sandy beach near Rawley Point Lighthouse, it seemed impossible that Lake Michigan could transform into stormy waters that would become a grave for so many.

But it did.

Now you can experience the touching and tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” via The Merlin Players’ The Christmas Schooner production. I saw this performance several years ago at the Paradise.

I cried.

I’ve never cried before at a play.

The historic Rogers Street Fishing Village includes the 1886 Two Rivers' North Pier Lighthouse, to the right.

Inside the Coast Guard museum, a worker points to a model of the Rawley Point Lighthouse, which was moved from a French exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 to Rawley Point.

You'll find information and artifacts from area shipwrecks at the fishing village and museum.

FYI: Performances of The Christmas Schooner are set for 7:30 p.m. December 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 and at 2 p.m. December 4 and 11 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Admission is $14 for adults and $9 for those 12 and under. For tickets, call (507) 332-7372 or stop in during box office hours, from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday or from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday.

I’d highly-recommend buying tickets in advance.

CLICK HERE for information about the Rouse Simmons schooner from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

CLICK HERE for info about Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

CLICK HERE for info on Point Beach State Forest.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post I wrote about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Plaid in Paradise August 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:29 AM
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I KNEW HE REALLY didn’t want to attend the show. I’ve been married to my husband long enough (28 years) to gauge his interest.

So when I asked Thursday evening at the supper table whether he wanted to go to Forever Plaid by The Merlin Players at the Paradise Center for the Arts, I didn’t expect (and didn’t get) an “Oh, yeah, I can’t wait to see the play,” jumping-up-and-down reaction. Randy isn’t that sort of emotional guy.

I purposely failed to mention one little fact to him. Forever Plaid is a musical. If I want Randy to attend a musical production with me, I won’t let the “m” word slip from my tongue. That’s almost a guarantee that he’ll balk at attending.

But apparently he’s caught on to my lack of full disclosure. As we settled into our seats, among the few remaining for Thursday evening’s nearly sold-out performance, I turned to him: “Oh, I didn’t tell you this is a musical.”

“I thought so,” he said.

The Paradise Center for the Arts theatre during last summer's production of South Pacific.

For the next 90-plus minutes we listened to Forever Plaid, a quartet of actors/singers, croon and belt out songs from the 1950s and 1960s in a high-energy show. From “Chain Gang” to “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” to “She Loves You,” these guys could sing and dance and move in nearly perfect unison. What a show. They made me tired simply watching them perform, and sweat.

They also made me smile, non-stop. After awhile I realized that I had been smiling from the moment the quartet, and their back-up band, set foot on the Paradise stage. It’s that kind of musical.

I especially enjoyed their three-plus minute interpretation of The Ed Sullivan Show. The Plaid Boys zipped on and off the stage as jugglers, ventriloquists, a singing nun and more representative of the Sunday night television variety program. Wow, that brought back memories.

Mostly, though, Forever Plaid, the story of a male quartet killed in a tragic accident and come back to life for the performances of their lives, entertained me. And isn’t that what theater is, should be?

I just have one little confession. I dislike plaid—really, really, really dislike plaid.

Plaid, no favorite of mine, and the reason I couldn't print this photo in a larger size, although this plaid is more subdued and OK with me, as far as plaids.

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The Merlin Players will present two more productions of Forever Plaid at 7:30 p.m. on August 13 and 14 at the historic Paradise Center for the Arts at 321 Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling