Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.


HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?


Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.


Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.


The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.


The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.


Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…


Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.


The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.


The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.


A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.


A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.


FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A close-up look at the Veseli Ho-Down August 24, 2011

A banner below the hill by Most Holy Trinity Church and school welcomed attendees.

WHENEVER I ATTEND an event like the Veseli Ho-Down, or go anywhere, I notice the details.

That skill has evolved from my years as a writer, fine-tuned also by my work as a photographer. Photography encourages me to seek the faces, even the hands and feet, of individuals in a crowd to tell a story in an unexpected way.

I apply that same method to photographing buildings and activities, anything really. Give an overall picture, but then move in to showcase the often overlooked details.

That said, as promised in a previous post, below are more photos from the festival my husband and I attended on Sunday at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Veseli, near Lonsdale in northwestern Rice County. Enjoy the details, from my perspective, of the Veseli Ho-Down.

First...the crowd...and then a closer look at individuals, and more, at the festival...

An employee from a Bloomington group home brought residents and their therapy bird, Buddy, to her hometown for the Ho-Down. The parakeet (is that correct?) quickly attracted the attention of fest-goers like this girl.

An 11 a.m. polka mass started the day's activities. I took this snippet image of worshipers from the balcony of Most Holy Trinity. I'll feature detailed photos of the church in another post, so check back.

While technically not the best photo, I still like this image for the story it tells of women taking a break from their work in the church basement. When I noticed the rosaries and cross above the kitchen window opening, I knew I had to photograph this scene. The volunteers were selling baked goods.

Kolacky, a Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the festival.

The New Prague Czech Singers performed in their mother tongue under a tent in mid-afternoon.

I upped the contrast on this image to make the colors pop on this costume worn by a Czech singer.

The hands of the bingo number caller, or whatever you call a person who calls bingo numbers.

A sign on a propped-open-with-a-rock church basement door directs fest-goers to the bake sale. To the left in the photo is the station for the hog raffle.

I met 94-year-old (almost 95) Celia enjoying a burger in the company of her great niece, Brenda. I was charmed by her beautiful face and quiet elegance. Ceila grew up near Webster and today lives on a farm with her bachelor son near Lonsdale. Celia typically attends about a half-dozen area church festivals each summer. Her great aunt likes visiting with people and enjoys the Czech music, Brenda says. A few weeks ago Celia won $100, half a hog and $10 playing bingo at the Immaculate Conception Church festival in Lonsdale. She's one lucky lady.

The kids, as kids will, chased each other up and down the handicapped entrance to the church.

Waiting for customers at the duck pond in the kids' games tent.

I laughed when I saw this sign on yellow beans for sale. That's an interesting way to sell produce.

I am Lutheran. We do not do raffles. But everywhere I turned at the Ho-Down, someone was pedaling raffle tickets. As I waited in line for the chicken dinner, two men pushed Split the Pot raffle tickets. For $1, you buy a ticket. Every hour a winner is selected and gets half the money. The rest goes to the church. No, we did not win, but we contributed to Most Holy Trinity. These guys hustled the grounds all afternoon.

And where did all that raffle and other money go? Right through the cashier's window in the former Catholic school. I walked by this building numerous times before I noticed the sign, the open window and the well-worn step-up step. It's details like this that tell the complete story of small-town events like the Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling