Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Faribault history takes center stage in a must-see play by two high school students September 20, 2018


An original play about historic Faribault opens Friday evening, September 18, at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault.



All describe a debut play, A Celebration of Faribault: The 1855 Live Show, written and directed by high school seniors Logan Ledman and Samuel Temple. I attended a recent press screening of the Paradise Community Theatre production, set to open Friday evening at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault.


The cast of A Celebration of Faribault: The 1855 Live Show. Writers and directors are Samuel Temple of Faribault, left center row, and Logan Ledman of Northfield, right center row.


Featuring town founder Alexander Faribault, Bishop Henry Whipple, long-time Judge Thomas Buckham and his wife, Anna, as the lead characters, this play personalizes my southeastern Minnesota community’s early history. By the end of this lengthy show, I felt like I really knew the people I’ve read about in historical accounts. The directors/writers tackle real-life issues of the era head-on in a sensitive and relate-able way. They do that in intimate dialogue, in reading of letters exchanged between the Buckhams, in newspaper editorials, in a dramatic battlefield setting, in one especially powerful scene that closes the first act… I won’t share that closing. It needs to be seen and heard. Experienced really.


The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers who were killed in the area during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The Loyal Indian Monument at Birch Coulee Monument near Morton honors Native Americans and features strong words like humanity, patriotism, fidelity and courage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The content of this play takes me beyond Faribault and back to my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, at the epicenter of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a focal point in this production. I know well the history of that war, which I studied decades ago and once researched. Ledman and Temple clearly did their research, too, in writing this play.


The youth orchestra plays original music by Sam Dwyer, back in the headset.


The crew weaves in audio details that, with a surround sound system, amplify the impact of the script. Mood-setting music written by area high school student Sam Dwyer and performed by an all-youth orchestra enhances the production. Likewise lighting and varied ways of presenting content keep the play interesting and entertaining.


This sculpture of Alexander Faribault meeting with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


As I listened and watched, I considered how, 150-plus years later, my city still struggles with issues similar to those in frontier Faribault. Back then, town founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault, whose mother was the daughter of a Dakota chief and who married a part Dakota woman, welcomed the Dakota into his home, onto his land. Likewise, Bishop Whipple welcomed those native peoples into his church as friends. After the U.S.-Dakota War, locals were no longer so accepting of the Dakota presence here or in other parts of Minnesota.


A flag ceremony during a past international festival features national anthems and information about the countries from which Faribault residents have originated. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Today Faribault faces some of those same challenges with immigrants in our community. They have not always been welcomed. But I see that changing as time passes, as cultures adjust, as acceptance grows. So this play, though historically-themed, remains relevant. I would like to believe that Alexander Faribault (as scripted in the play) was right in his assessment: “We are neighbors in the human race. That is the community of Faribault.”

The deeply personal aspects of A Celebration of Faribault come in letters written between Thomas Buckham and his wife, Anna. The teen writers/directors spent hours at the Minnesota Historical Society reading those exchanges. With reluctance, Anna left her family on the East Coast to resettle in Faribault, only to return and care for her ailing sister. The Buckhams would be separated for 17 years with Anna returning to Minnesota upon her husband’s death. At times I felt uncomfortable witnessing the conflicts within this marriage and the choices made. But that says a lot for the script, for the acting, that I experienced those emotions. These were real people torn between family and place. Anna truly never felt at home in Faribault.


Anna Buckham gifted the city of Faribault with the Art Nouveau/Greek Revival style Kasota stone Thomas Scott Buckham Memorial Library. It was constructed in 1929-1930 for $240,000. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Still, she left a legacy honoring the husband she loved even through physical separation. That legacy stands just blocks from my home, at the site of a former livery stable. It is the Thomas Scott Buckham Memorial Library, complete with Greek murals celebrating Thomas’ adoration of the Greeks, the Greek language and culture, and Greek classics.


This bronze sculpture of Thomas Scott Buckham hangs above a fireplace in the library’s second floor Great Hall meeting space. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


As someone who grew up in a rural community without a library, I deeply appreciate this gift to the city I’ve called home for 36 years. I value Buckham library and the content therein from magazines to books to the art gracing walls to a stained glass window crafted by Charles Connick of Boston. Today my son lives and works in greater Boston. Growing up, he visited the library often, checking out books to teach himself computer programming. He would not be where he is today professionally without the resources of Buckham library. Likewise, my daughters worked as pages there, experiences that would later land them library jobs as college students. The library holds personal significance in my family’s history. Thus I appreciate its prominence in A Celebration of Faribault and its continued importance in my community as a welcoming place for all peoples.


High school students Logan Ledman, left, and Samuel Temple produce “1855: A Faribault History Series on FCTV” in Faribault. File photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.


Exiting the Paradise Center for the Arts theater following the performance, I felt a sense of gratitude to the young men who care enough about Faribault to research and embrace its history and then share their discoveries with others. Ledman and Logan are also creators of 1855, an acclaimed history documentary series aired on local public television. It’s hard to believe these two are still in high school. There’s no doubt these 17-year-olds possess a clear and deep love of history, of heritage and of this place we call Faribault.

FYI: Performances of A Celebration of Faribault: The 1855 Live Show are set for 7:30 p.m. on two Fridays, September 21 and 28, and at 2 p.m. on two Sundays, September 23 and September 30. Click here to purchase tickets.

A $3,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council helped fund this production.

© 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


Domestic abuse awareness takes center stage in Owatonna February 16, 2018

This graphic from the Little Theatre of Owatonna Facebook page promotes its current show, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”


WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE remaining in the national spotlight, most recently via accusations against a former staff secretary to President Donald Trump, it’s important to remember that this issue reaches beyond DC and Hollywood. In every corner of our country—from rural to city—abuse happens. To think otherwise is to turn our eyes from the problem.

That’s why I so appreciate efforts to discuss domestic violence locally. Little Theatre of Owatonna is tackling the topic as it presents Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The storyline of this Pulitzer Prize winning drama deals, in part, with domestic abuse.

Rather than simply practice, perform and then move on to the next production, LTO is seizing the opportunity to educate its audience on domestic abuse. The theatre troupe will provide information from the Crisis Resource Center of Steele County at each of its shows. And following the 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday, February 18, Jeffrey Jackson addresses how he approached the subject of domestic abuse in his director’s role.

I applaud this director, this cast, this small town Minnesota theatre company for taking that extra step to create awareness of domestic abuse and violence. It would be easy enough for them to let the curtain fall and walk off stage. But they are choosing to make a difference, to care, to educate, to enlighten. They understand this is their issue, too, not just something that happens in DC and Hollywood. But in Owatonna, Steele County, Minnesota. They understand that domestic abuse happens across the street, across the aisle, across town and perhaps even within their own families and/or circle of friends. They get it. And for that I am grateful. Awareness breaks the silence, brings hope and help to victims, to survivors and to those who love them.



“Sweet Land, the musical” proves as memorable & moving as the film October 13, 2017

The program cover from Thursday evening’s performance of “Sweet Land, the musical.”


SEATED ONLY ROWS from the intimate stage in an historic Faribault theater, I felt part of the set, part of the scene, part of the story that unfolded before me in “Sweet Land, the musical.”

What a gift to see this St. Paul-based History Theatre performance right here in my community, in the late 1800s Newhall Auditorium on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. I appreciate that History Theatre, through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, is touring this show in Greater Minnesota. Even though I live only an hour from the Twin Cities metro, I don’t attend theater there due to cost and, well, the hassle of driving and parking. Tickets for the Faribault performance were only $20.


A promo from the “Sweet Land” film website.


I walked into Newhall Auditorium with high expectations. Ali Selim’s independent film “Sweet Land,” upon which the musical is based (and rooted in Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”), rates as one of my all-time favorite movies. Filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, the setting of wide skies and land, naturally draws me in.

But it is the challenges faced by German immigrant Inge Altenberg, come to America in 1920 to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik, that make this story memorable and especially relevant today. As I listened to character Pastor Sorenson warn, “She (Inge) is not one of us,” I reflected on how we welcome, or don’t welcome, immigrants to Minnesota.


Faribault native Ann Michels in the lead role of Inge Altenberg alongside Robert Berdahl as Olaf Torvik on-stage at the History Theatre. While the movie was filmed in the Montevideo area of southwestern Minnesota, the musical sets the story farther north in the Park Rapids/Hubbard County area. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.


I was especially pleased that the History Theatre performance did not deviate from the film storyline, following it right down to the cup of coffee brewed by Inge and which the pastor declared too strong for his liking. Details like these are important because they connect with the audience in a relatable way.

Performers also connected via music. A musician even stroked a cello (or maybe it was a bass; I’m uncertain) to mimic the moo of a cow during a barn scene. Music from a violin, piano and, surprise, an accordion, and more followed the storyline plot from fast-paced and dramatic to soulful and reflective.

I felt the intensity of emotions in Inge as she struggled to learn English, in Pastor Sorenson as his voice boomed suspicion from the pulpit, in Olaf as he battled to hold his feelings in check.

My nearness enhanced my experience, especially during a softball game when actors moved off the stage, so close their gloved hands nearly touched audience members. As the musical progressed, I saw sweat sliding down performers’ faces.

During an apple pie making scene, I almost expected the scent of cinnamon to waft through the theater. While it didn’t, I caught the nuances of the interaction between Inge and her neighbor. When Inge called the pie strudel, Brownie corrected her. “No, apple pie.”

That’s the thing about this story, this film, this musical—seemingly subtle exchanges prompt the audience to think, to ponder whether the coffee someone brews really is too strong or whether it is our reactions that run too strong.


FYI: “Sweet Land, the musical” is showing at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, and at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center in Worthington at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 15, closing out the tour to communities in Greater Minnesota.

The lead actress role of Inge is played by Faribault native Ann Michels, who gave an outstanding performance to an appreciative hometown audience. The musical is part of the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series offered at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. This marks my first time attending a show here and you bet I’ll be back. The Vienna Boys Choir comes to the historic Faribault theater at 7:30 p.m. on November 16.

Special thanks to my husband, Randy, for gifting me with tickets to “Sweet Land” for my birthday.


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


Anniversary event features amateur silent film clips from Faribault March 16, 2016


A mural, one of several in the downtown area, promotes historic Faribault.

A mural, one of several in the downtown area, promotes historic Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I MAY NOT BE A FARIBAULT NATIVE. But I’ve lived here long enough—34 years—to surface-know local history.

A downtown Faribault mural featuring Fleck's beer.

A downtown Faribault mural features Fleck’s beer. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So when Brian Schmidt, native historian, collector of Fleckenstein Brewery memorabilia and member of the Rice County Historical Society Board of Directors, called me recently, I listened. Faribault history interests me because, even if I wasn’t born and raised here, this community is now part of my family’s history.

Inside the historic Village Family Theater. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

Inside the historic Village Family Theater. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2015.

On Saturday, March 19, a previously publicly unseen piece of local history will debut on the big screen at the historic Village Family Theater in the form of a silent movie. I could hear the excitement in Schmidt’s voice as he talked about amateur film footage shot between 1935-1938 by Charles Fleckenstein of Faribault brewery fame.

Schmidt purchased the unmarked film at a Faribault auction house. When he started viewing the clips, he knew he’d stumbled upon something remarkable. And now he’s sharing that discovery in a 10-minute professionally produced silent film montage reminiscent of a bygone era.

Stacked inside the Harvest and Heritage Halls are these crates from Fleckenstein, which brewed beer and made soda in Faribault.

Stacked inside the RCHS Harvest and Heritage Halls are these crates from Fleckenstein, which brewed beer and made soda in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

Viewers will see workers digging a tunnel and celebrating a birthday at Fleckenstein Brewery (yes, they’re drinking beer), plus other footage of a long ago golf course in the middle of town, the 1938 Faribault Jalopy Race and Thrill Day, The Top amusement ride on Roberds Lake, and the old Faribault Airport and The Bluebird Inn (a former high-end restaurant) south of town.

An edited photo of a sign at the Rice County Historical Society. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

An edited photo of a sign at the Rice County Historical Society. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

The silent film, followed by the feature film, The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, kicks off the Rice County Historical Society’s 90th anniversary celebration. Set and filmed in Ireland, the movie seems the ideal classic for a post St. Patrick’s Day show.

I did a quick tour of the theater in August 2015. This sign sat in the lobby. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

I did a quick drop-in tour of the theater in August 2015. This sign sat in the lobby. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

After the movie, attendees can tour the historic theater, purchased in 2103 by Steve McDonough and since refurbished. The building, just off Faribault’s Central Avenue, was built in 1896 as an Armory, then converted to a funeral parlor in 1912. In the late 1940s, the building became the Village Movie Theater, closing some 40 years ago. It also served for awhile as the Village Bar and as a church.


The wooden floor is original to the theater. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2015.

Schmidt says attendees at the RCHS event should take special note of supporting timbers in the basement. Those were cut to angle the floor for the movie theater. The floor is a floating floor, unattached to the walls.

Surrounded by history while watching history. That’s how I see it.

FYI: The 90th anniversary celebration begins with the silent film showing at 3 p.m. followed by the feature movie and tour. The Village Family Theater is located at 20 Second Street Northwest. Admission is $5 for RCHS members and $7 for non-members.


A Minnesota poet pushes his latest project, the weeCinema January 28, 2015

Not quite Vegas, but bingo balls at a church festival.

Bingo balls at a Minnesota church festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

MINNESOTA POET TODD BOSS is one of those creative types, so it seems to me, who is always tumbling ideas around in his head like bingo balls in a cage.

For him, poetry has exceeded the B-1 of poetry anthologies, of which he’s published two—Yellowrocket and Pitch. I personally love his work. He grew up on a Wisconsin farm; I can relate to much of his poetry.

Todd Boss reads from his poetry collection, Pitch, at the Owatonna Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

Todd Boss reads from his poetry collection, Pitch, at the Owatonna Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

Boss has rolled out public art projects and Motionpoems. He also writes commissioned poetry.

Now his latest idea, weeCinema, has tumbled into the public realm. He describes his current project as “an innovative new pop-up cinema concept designed to make art films more accessible to the general public.”

Motionpoems, Boss’ creative endeavor that turns contemporary poems into short films, has launched a KICKSTARTER campaign to raise $20,000 for the weeCinema. Monies will fund conversion of a used 20’x8’x8′ shipping container into a portable mini theater.

How sweet is that?

When I learned last week in an email about Boss’ weeCinema plan, developed in collaboration with weeHouse architect Geoff Warner and The Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul executive director Susan Smoluchowski, I instantly thought of Little Free Libraries. Another Todd, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, co-founded the LFL which has brought mini libraries to communities around the world, including my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota.

I can see Boss’ new theatre concept gaining similar momentum and interest in the art film world.

Once this first weeCinema is constructed—and I expect that will happen given Boss’ success at getting projects funded and done—I’d really like to see the mini theatre travel to outstate Minnesota. For those of us who live outside the Twin Cities metro, opportunities to view short art films in our communities are rare.

Bingo drew the young and the older.

Playing bingo at a Minnesota church festival.

We love our bingo. But we’d welcome a weeCinema, too.

FYI: To learn more about the weeCinema KICKSTARTER campaign, click here.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Looking for the best of the best in Southern Minnesota June 24, 2014

southern minnesota scene best of logoWHAT DO YOU LOVE about Southern Minnesota?

Now Southern Minn Scene, a regional arts publication/entertainment guide, is once again opening up nominations for the best restaurants, bars, music, theater, art, sports/outdoors, retail/services and miscellaneous offerings in our area of the state for 2014.

Who has the best fish fry or catering or BBQ in Southern Minnesota?

Where can you find the best Bloody Marys or happy hour?

Which music festival is a must-attend?

Who’s the best visual artist?

What would you rate as the best campground, sledding hill (yeah, I know, who wants to think winter) or bait/tackle shop?

What’s your go-to antique store?

And, finally, in the miscellaneous category, you can nominate “best ofs” like the best farmer’s market, best place to watch people and best blog/blogger (ahem, maybe Minnesota Prairie Roots).

From now through July 27, you can submit your choices. The top three to five nominees in each category will then be announced as finalists around August 1. Thereafter you will have until Labor Day to vote for the winner.

Simple and fun. And a great way to honor all the great people and places and things of Southern Minnesota.

Click here to begin the process of nominating your favorites in Southern Minnesota.


I discover Plainview & then the curtain falls November 15, 2013

A snippet of Plainview's downtown.

A snippet of Plainview’s downtown.


It’s not like I live a great distance (60 miles) from Plainview, home of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center. But I’d never been to this rural town 20 miles northeast of Rochester until recently. A wrong turn on a Sunday afternoon drive led my husband and me into this Wabasha County community of some 3,300.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center.

And there we discovered the old farm implement dealership building turned arts center—complete with theater, art gallery, bookstore and writers’ retreat center.

Dean Harrington showed me copies of Green Blade, the annual literary journal produced by writers who gather here.

Dean Harrington showed me copies of Green Blade, the annual literary journal produced by writers who gather here.

We met Dean Harrington, local banker, arts center enthusiast and CEO of the Rural America Arts Partnership, who was manning the front desk during the afternoon production of Ole & Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary & Vow Renewal. I swear Harrington could have been noted Minnesota author and former Plainview resident Jon Hassler’s twin right down to his sweater vest.

As close as I got to the theater.

As close as I got to the theater.

I wished right then and there that I was seated in the theater, belly laughing at/with Ole and Lena. But it was near intermission, much too late to join the audience.

Words & Afterwords Book Store sells ne

Words & Afterwords Book Store features more than 4,000 used and selected new titles.

Instead, I settled for poking about the gallery and bookshop and snapping a few photos and thinking, how grand to have a place like this in Plainview that embraces the arts. A return trip for a more in-depth look at this community and theater is definitely needed. Maybe next time with play tickets in hand.


I’ve had the above ACT I in my draft posts for a few weeks. I never expected to be penning an ACT II. But in a story reported Thursday on Minnesota Public Radio (quoting the Rochester Post-Bulletin), I learned that the Jon Hassler Theater is closing at the end of 2014. I didn’t see that coming. Dean Harrington offered no hint of the theater’s tenuous situation when we spoke briefly a few weeks ago.

But apparently the audience just isn’t there to continue supporting a theater in Plainview. Plans are to keep the self-supporting bookstore, the art gallery and the writer’s retreat open.

Just two days ago I received an email from the Jon Hassler Theater inviting me to a reading and Q & A by Northfield writer Scott Dominic Carpenter, author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth. Carpenter will be the Third Wednesdays guest reader at 7 p.m. on November 20.

And now this, this news about the theater’s closing comes. Before I’ve even seen the curtain rise in the Jon Hassler Theater, I’ve seen it fall. Anytime a rural community loses local access to the arts, it’s not good.

I’m fortunate to live in a community with a strong theater presence (Paradise Community Theatre and The Merlin Players) at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. I don’t have to, and don’t want to, drive to the Cities to see great theater. Yet, I know many local residents who’ve never set foot inside the Paradise, but who regularly travel to the Cities for their arts fix. It’s this type of ambivalence and lack of local support, in my opinion, that lead to an outstate theater’s demise.

Apparently the audience numbers weren’t there in Plainview and now this small town is losing its theater.


Here are a few more photos of that inviting bookstore inside the Rural America Arts Center and of downtown Plainview.

Theater books for sale.

Theater books for sale.

A cozy bookstore nook.

A cozy bookstore nook.

Loved this bookstore signage by the coffee pot up front.

Loved this bookstore signage by the coffee pot up front.

Across the street from the arts center.

Across the street from the arts center.

Meaningful mural details.

Meaningful mural details.

The back of Auto Value, across the street also from the arts center.

The back of Auto Value. If you walk up the sidewalk, cross the street and go left, you will find the arts center.

A birth announcement in the front window of a downtown business, converted to black-and-white so it's readable.

A birth announcement in the front window of a downtown business, edited to photocopy black-and-white so it’s readable.

© 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.

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© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling