Little Country Theatre: 100 Years at NDSU

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Little Country Theatre: 100 Years at NDSU

The story begins in 1914 with the theatre's founder, Alfred G. Arvold, whose other creations included the Lincoln Log Cabin, the Student Life Train, Lilac Days, and pageants attended by thousands. The story continues with Dr. Frederick Walsh, who spearheaded the building of Askanase Hall, originated the statewide traveling Prairie Stage, and produced and directed "Old Four Eyes" in Medora, ND.

AIRED: March 04, 2014 | 0:26:46
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Long winters in North Dakota--

what we need here is theater.

[orchestra playslightly and brightly]

The great thing about thetheater is, if you get involved,

that passion is always there,and that passion never dies.

Look at her Papa,she's right there.

Fargo is known for many thingsand I think

in the right circlesit's, LCT is one of them.

The Little Country Theatre hasexisted for a hundred years.

How many things do we haveat any institution

that have really lastedthat long?

♪♪

(woman)Production funding forthis program is provided by

the North DakotaState UniversityDivision of Performing Arts,

NDSU Development FoundationCentennial Endowment,

Major General Schroederand Jean Schroeder,

and by the membersof Prairie Public.

(Tom Isern) I think it'sparticularly important

to understand how Alfred Arvoldfits in

as an exemplar ofthe institution

of which he was a part here,

North Dakota AgriculturalCollege.

It's a land-grant collegeand called in those days

an agricultural college too,but of course,

a land-grant college is neverjust about agriculture,

although that's an importantprimary mission,

it also was about better living,particularly country living.

Alfred Arvold then believedthat he had a personal mission

as part of the institutionalmission to make life better

at the grassrootsin North Dakota.

And being a theater guy, thatmeant theater, we needed

to have theater everywhere,across the northern plains.

And we needed peoplewho would learn theater

here at North DakotaAgricultural College,

so they could go out and do it

and spread gospelacross the countryside.

It was started as a partof the little theater movement

across the whole country.

The official formation wasin February of 1914,

on Lincoln's,Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

He had an attachment to Lincolnthat I think that,

that drove manyof the date selections

in terms of things that he did.

There were only a few littlecountry theaters like NDSU

when it first started,and it was, you know,

it was a showcase for bringingtheater to communities

and these small unitsin rural areas.

(Don Larew)Alfred G.Arvold came

to theNDAC campusin 1907,

he got his degree in 1905 fromthe University of Wisconsin,

and he was hiredin the area of oratory

in the English Department,

and he was also hired to handle

all public programmingfor the University,

so that meantgraduations.

And hewas also

really responsiblefor recruiting,

bringing recognitionto the University.

And he was known everywhere;

I have in my scrapbook

a little map of the countriesthat were affected

by The Little Country Theatre.

He was very outgoing,he had very big ideas,

didn't worry about detailsas I understand,

I mean, it was morethe big concept.

Again, he came from Wisconsin,the idea of circuses

and that kind of largeness, Ithink was part of his activity.

He had this dream of plantinglilacs

all the way to Grand Forks,

and he wanted the University tocome to Hillsboro in this way

and we would go to Hillsboro,

and there'd be this whole rowof lilacs.

So every spring we'd haveLilac Days, Lilac Queen,

and queen, princesses, and wewould go and stop at the towns

between here and Hillsboro andput on skits, music things.

Well, we just hada wonderful time.

And I think the townspeopleliked it too,

and we planted the lilacs, butthey didn't ever seem to grow;

we seemed to plant themevery year.

(Don Larew) Then he alsowent out

around the state with theStudent Life Train.

It wentto Devil's Lake,

Minot, Bismarck,

and one of the other cities inthe southern part of the state.

They did whistle-stopsall along the way,

and they performedin these towns.

The band went, the theater went,

the home economics studentsdid the food preparation,

the students ran the trains.

He was very much about takingtheater to the people,

creating spectacles, pageants,you know,

one of his community projectswas to turn El Zagal's area

into a bowl that could,

where he could stagemajor historical dramas

and he'd have thousandsof people participating.

And he'd have horses and buggiesand very much about making sure

that people in the ruralenvironment had opportunities

to appreciate cultural things.

When they didthe historical pageantsinitially in North Dakota,

it was a part of theacculturation for preparing

the new immigrants to learnabout American history.

And they would do these thingson the 4th of July

or they would do them where theywould be a huge event,

and there would bethousands of people,

like 30,000 people would come,

everybody would comeand watch this.

It was about participation, andthat was the good feelings

that you got when you were ina theater production,

and they often would say, weweren't very talented, we

weren't very good, but he madeus feel so good about doing it,

because we did the best wecould.

He was truly embracing whata land-grant college does.

It has research,and it has education,

but it has the outreach,and he established outreach.

And so he felt that the lendinglibrary, for example,

that he had created, could helpall these little tiny towns,

coming from this Little CountryTheatre.

It started with scripts

that Alfred Arvold had broughtwith him

from Wisconsin when he cameto North Dakota.

And he got a letter from ateacher who said do you have

some plays that we might thinkabout doing out here?

And so he sent her some scripts,and apparently,

that teacher talkedto another teacher,

and so he started gettingthese letters from people

in communities who wanted himto share with them,

so he started collecting more,

and so he hada whole big library

of 1-act plays, 3-act plays,skits, things that could

be performed by the commonperson without a lot of staging.

But there were also,from what I understand,

there were also how-to typepackages, how-to do makeup,

how-to build a flat, how-to dothe different kinds of things

that would be a partof these programs.

The physical spaceup in Old Main

was calledThe Little Country Theatre,

but it was also a program thatincluded the lending library,

the package libraryand the outreach programs,

and the idea of communitycenters.

Initially they did performancesdowntown in the opera house,

because really, what they had inOld Main here was a chapel,

and eventually that's convertedinto a theater, but initially

it was not really consideredto be a performing space.

And so then that was eventuallyconverted

at the time of The LittleCountry Theatre's founding,

converted into that,into that performance space.

(Beverly Blanich) Small theater,beautiful little theater,

I think it seated 350 people

and it was, the stage was small.

Oh they had beautifulstained-glass windows

depictingscenes from Shakespeare.

Well, initially it wasan empty attic space.

Back in 1916, they turned it

into what they calledThe Hayloft,

which I think they just simplyput in a floor,

it was still cold up here so itcouldn't be used

in other seasons,but they wanted to use it.

In 1923 then, they decidedto convert it actually

into what they now callThe Lincoln Log Cabin

or The Lincoln Cabin.

So those people that came inlike for the lyceum,

they would have them here,host them

at dinners beforehandor perhaps afterwards.

They used it as a placeto build scenery.

Above this level is wherethey had the costume shop

and the property shop,so it was a very functional,

very functional space as well.

The Lyceum Series wasstarted in 1910

as a citizens lecture course

and continues ina much different way now,

but 100 years later, it brought

some of the most outstandingartists to this area.

(Beverly Blanich) That wasa highlight, of course,

The Little Country Theatre,

the sponsorship from all thesewonderful artists coming

to little old Fargo, you know,on the prairie, so to speak.

(Steve Stark) Because he hadso many other contacts

from other adventures

of his around the country,then being very involved

with, as a Freemasonand the Shriners,

he had made contacts in showbusiness all over the world.

And so he had virtuallyevery famous name

that was appearing onstagecoming

to North Dakota AgriculturalCollege.

(Janet Foss) The one I rememberthe most

for some reason was Harpo Marx.

Of course, he was such a riot inthe show

and then afterwards very quietand subdued... nice man.

(Beverly Blanich)The most interesting was

the Baronessvon Trapp.

The whole family was there,and after the concert,

he always had the artist come upto the little log cabin

for, most of the time it wasa turkey dinner.

Afterwards, the seven girlstook care of all the dishes,

washing the dishes;[laughs] I was

a little embarrassed by that,

but they, they justall fit right in.

I think it's an incredibleheritage

to think that this theater

was established at a timewhen there was

such an isolated sense ofcommunity, and people

were working, I think,very hard, I think, for,

and there was really nofinancial support to speak of

from the collegefor this theater.

And it was the box office

is what paidfor the next production,

and so there was not initially,with Mr. Arvold,

there was nota financial support.

And so it was a creative way of,of doing theater,

I think, and again,

he was very committed in termsof, to bringing opportunities

for the communities to thriveand in an artistic way

and in a waythat took away the drudgery.

Dr. Fred Walsh came into take over the program,

and he perhaps more legitimized

the academic part of the program

and created the Departmentof Speech,

eventually Speech and Drama.

(Robert Littlefield) Fred wasmore of a,

you're cast and you play a role

that you're suited for, and youdevelop that character.

That was the, kind of thedifference between

the early era, the Arvold Era,then what Fred Walsh brought.

So of course,there would be some,

that crossover between the twoof them, was at times perhaps

a little uneasy because it wasa whole different perspective

that Fred brought, and it tookThe Little Country Theatre

to a different placethan it had been.

(Don Larew)He was interested in outdoordrama, which interestingly,

Mr. Arvold hadthat same interest as well.

During the time that Dr. FredWalsh was here they,

they createdthe "Old Four Eyes,"

which is now the Medora Musical

out in the western part of thestate.

There was a reporter, and shewas trying to raise $20,000,

an amount like that,to do a production

and Fred said something like,

if you want to raise $20,000

to just do one production,why don't you raise $50,000

and create something that willlast for a lifetime.

(Carol Olson Larson) It was

a gorgeous setting,I mean gorgeous.

I went out and performed in thatfor him

when I was Miss North Dakota.

They gave me a little bit thingthat I could do

just to get me on the stage andto advertise it.

It was probablycomparatively a pretty,

a pretty simple productionback then.

(Martha Keeler Olsen)Fred Walsh created

The Prairie Stage and we wouldput together repertoire

of shows that were suitablefor summer fare.

And he had builtthis marvelous tent.

He set up a tent that sat about200 people,

and no elephants! [laughs]

It was a trial--you'd go in the night before

and stake all the stakes,and the next morning

you'd get up about 4:00in the morning, set the show,

and take a rest and come backand do a show at night.

So it was really out there,

really doing grassroots,in-the-field theater.

They generally performedabout ten different towns

and they did eight performancesin each town.

They did three productions;one would run three nights,

another one three nights, andthen they had a children's show,

they'd run matineesin the thing,

so that was a real outreachfor the University.

For them I think it wasa recruiting program,

but at the same time,the public loved it!

They came in, they saw shows,they went out happy.

(Michael Olsen)The Prairie Stage reallygave you an opportunity

to work in theaterat every level.

We were the techies, we were theactors, we were the roustabouts,

we were everything and gave

a real appreciation and

a well-rounded experience in thetheater.

It was in the fall of the year,

and there was a productionof "1776."

And my wife Marthahad the female lead.

She'd been recruited to cometo NDSU by Fred Walsh.

I came and saw her inthis production.

And I knew people in the show,

'cause I had graduatedfrom here, so I went

backstage and I was going tosweep this woman off her feet!

And next to her wasthis really big

good-looking guy,maybe 6'2", whatever.

He had his arm around her,and it was very chummy

and I said, wellthe heck with that.

Later, when we wereperforming "The Fantasticks"

here in this building...

(Michael Olsen)She had the female lead in that

and, of course she waswonderful, sang like a bird,

gorgeous, all of those things,and I went well,

what the hay,I'm going backstage again,

'cause I knew peoplein that show as well.

He came backstage and...

There's no guy standing nextto her.

So I go hm, well alright, I walkup to her,

I grab her hand,I look into her eyes

And he said, "I fell in lovewith you

when I saw you in '1776,'

and you've done nothing tonightto disappoint me."

And then he walked away.Oh he was oh so theatrical!

So thanks to Little CountryTheatre, 36 years later

I'm happily married to the samewonderful woman I saw onstage.

(Martha Keeler Olsen)Fred was a guywho got things done.

Fred had a way of positioninghimself

so that he could maximize

people, resources,

for the thing that he lovedthe most, and that was theater.

And he was this interesting mix

of theatrics, politics,

and um... and business.

He had a really solidbusiness mind,

knew what he wanted to do

as far as running the theaterwas concerned.

That was his training intheater, so he knew that.

But he was a politician, and hewas a really good politician,

and I don't know, maybethe only theater head in history

that was also interimathletic director.

And that doesn't happenvery often.

And that was because he knewthe system

and he knew how things worked,and when that job was open,

apparently the presidentof the University thought

well, he's our man for a while.

We know how great athletics are

and how reveredthey are at NDSU,

and I think from that, he wasable to rub shoulders

with people who couldbenefit his cause

of improving the facilities

and raise the visibilityof The Little Country Theatre.

In fact, the Askanase Hallwe're sitting in right now

was very mucha Fred Walsh contribution.

Dr. Walsh and the whole staffwas so proud of Askanase Hall

and of course, you know, he hadbrought this, and it was

the first building, of course,built on any college campus

by private funds, and so hedidn't really care to show me

the old Little Country Theatre.

This wasmy Little Country Theatre.

When they movedto Askanase Hall,

they separated that namefrom the actual physical place,

so now we are justThe Little Country Theatre

or LCT Productions,which includes

all of the different thingsthat we do,

like the Musical Theatre Troupe

and The Newfangled TheatreCompany.

And the To Be Determinedour improv troupe

and we hope someday soon,a dance company.

In addition,we're still continuing

to bring in guest artistsfor residencies.

In the past couple of yearswe've had the opportunity

to have an Indian master dancerwork for an entire semester

that ended in a productionwith our students

of "The Recognitionof Sakuntala."

Another semester we brought in

kyogen master artistTokuro Miyake,

and that ended ina production as well

of "Wokashi,"an evening of one-act comedies.

We've had Andrew Lippahere for a semester;

he's a Broadway composer,

right now has "Big Fish"running on Broadway.

And he did master classes andperformances with our students.

We've had numerous other guestdirectors and guest designers.

In my experience, love often survives distance

better than it does proximity.

(Janet Dickinson) It'sa tough dream

to want to pursue the theater,

either in acting, directing,or in, you know, as a teacher.

Just that the inflection should be happy.

(Anna Pieri) Some of theprofessors

that I've met through the yearshave absolutely inspired me.

Through Don Larew we've learnedso much about Fred Walsh

and Alfred Arvold, and throughthose men

learning more about our heritageas a Little Theater.

It's so remarkablethat this tiny college

in Fargo, North Dakotahas such rich history.

Having a degreefrom North Dakota,

has really made me moremarketable

in the theater opera world,'cause people see that.

And so, that gets theminterested

and reading the restof the stuff on my resume.

Okay, so let's see, a little bit of the...

We have students that are outworking as scene designers,

we have them working asscenic artists, painters.

We have actors that have workedin New York

and have done touringproductions as well,

and we have a stage managementtraining program,

we have a couple really finestudents that are working

in that fieldin terms of the moment.

So I think there'squite a broad spectrum

of opportunitiesfor the students.

It was a really goodcomprehensive experience.

You know, I havea lot of friends here

who work in my particularindustry of scenic art

that come from a variety ofbackgrounds, but I find that

the peoplethat come from programslike Little Country Theatre,

you get a very fullunderstanding of production.

People need to be prepared togo out and create theater

wherever they land, that you'renot, you can't just count on

being one part, but you have tobe ready to fill in

with whatever's neededwherever you go.

And that was definitelythe training, the heritage

at The Little Country Theatre,teaching people that

you can set up a theater in abarn, literally, if you need to.

At NDSU you get that experienceof what it is to really be

an all-around theaterprofessional,

not just an actor,not just a designer,

but a theater professional.

And this goes in between.

You will do everything fromstage management to directing,

from designing to playingthe leading role.

I'm not saying you'll, you'llfill all those positions,

but the opportunities are there.

If you work hard enough,you'll get 'em.

And my experiences at NDSUwith Little Country Theatre are

something that are going to livewith me until my dying days.

Seem natural,seem like you're actuallyhaving this conversation.

(David Boyd) There were greatmentors, leaders, and there was

a high level of professionalismand intensity

that they instilled in all of us

because they all exhibited thatthe whole time we were there.

[singing vocal exercises]

Every instructor has the bestinterests of every student

in their mind, and everyone isconstantly watching

the entire department to seewhere people can grow

and how to stretch differentpeople.

[piano plays accompaniment]

♪♪

I had professors who wouldcast me in roles

that I didn't expectto be cast in,

so I had to stretch myselfas a performer,

really try to heighten my senseof creativity

and my ability to perform in,in different circumstances.

So that was really an incredibleexperience.

Who are you? Because I have a feeling I might know.

I said it doesn't matter.

Well, have you ever taken a life?

NDSU's program is very uniquebecause it truly prepares you

for a life in professionaltheater.

So you learn about auditionsituations, you learn

about making it in New York, howto scrape together enough money

to pay your rent while stillgoing on auditions every night.

John's waitin' on us, our boat leaves at noon.

(Anna Pieri) The nice thing isthere are

so many successful NDSU alum inNew York that you really have

this "Bison Nation,"as we call it, already there,

a support systemof these wonderful artists

that know where you'recoming from.

They're so happy for youand so supportive.

We were promised passage!

It was a great springboardfor me to go to New York,

and it was a great group ofpeople and a great theater.

And they really did top qualitywork

and I just so appreciatethat I had that opportunity.

There's nothing more important

in the lives of human beings

than the self-expression thatcomes from the creation of art.

Heaven's glory is sun!

I look forwardto what is possible

for the theater studentsand the community

that experiencesThe Little Country Theatre

in the next century.

A happy 100th anniversaryto Little Country Theatre.

Happy 100th birthdayLittle Country Theatre.

Happy birthdayLittle Country Theatre.

100 going strong, hopeto see the second hundred.

Happy birthdayLittle Country Theatre.

Have a great time this year,and congratulations.

I wish a great 100th anniversary

to my alma mater here at NDSUand The Little Country Theatre.

Happy birthday Little Country Theatre,

wishing you many more years to come.

Cheers to The Little Country Theatre

on celebrating its centennial.

Happy birthday LCT, it's beena great hundred years,

hope you havea hundred or more. [laughs]

Happy 100th anniversaryLittle Country Theatre.

Happy 100th birthdayLittle Country Theatre.

Thanks for the memories andhere's to many, many more.

Happy hundred years LittleCountry Theatre, I love ya'.

Happy anniversaryLittle Country Theatre,

a hundred great yearsof theater on the plains.

Happy 100th year anniversary

Little Country Theatre.

NDSU Little Country Theatre,

congratulationson your hundredth anniversary.

Have a happy, happy birthday.

Happy 100 yearsLittle Country Theatre.

Happy 100th LCT.

From New York City,I'd like to wish you

a very happy 100th anniversary.

Happy 100 years! Muowa!

(woman)To order a DVD copyof "The Little Country Theater,"

please call 1-800-359-6900

or visit our online storeat prairiepublic.org.

Thank you.

(woman)Production funding forthis program is provided by

the North DakotaState UniversityDivision of Performing Arts,

NDSU Development FoundationCentennial Endowment,

Major General Schroederand Jean Schroeder,

and by the membersof Prairie Public.

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