Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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.

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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.