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Spring 2005

Vol. 05, No. 2


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Drama kings.

Drama kings.


Alfred G. Arvold pulls a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit. He wipes away the dust stuck to his perspiring face, then absently stuffs the grimy cloth back into place. His eyes follow a covered wagon rounding a corner in the amphitheatre as the audience cheers. It was Arvold's idea - one of many masterminds of this arts pioneer - to develop this spot in north Fargo, to turn these fifty acres along the Red River into El Zagal Park, with El Zagal Bowl at its heart. Scanning the crowd, he smiles. On this warm, 1930s day, it looks like the whole town has turned out.

Standing some distance off, 7-year-old Bev Halbeisen is mesmerized by the swirl of stagecoaches, covered wagons and horseback riders. With its cast of hundreds, all clothed in colorful costumes, it's the most awe-inspiring thing she's ever seen. When her parents point out the large, balding man they say is in charge, she strains for a glimpse, never dreaming that one day she'll be one of his prize students at North Dakota State University.

Today Bev Halbeisen Blanich lives across the street from El Zagal Bowl. "I still call it the bowl," she says, even though the Shriners turned it into a nine-hole golf course years ago. From her living room window, she can look out and remember that first, flashy introduction to A.G. Arvold, general director of speech and theatre at NDSU.

As a member of the class of 1945, Blanich knew Arvold could be heavy handed and demanding, and at times "a little weird," but she also found him a wonderful teacher and supportive mentor. Plus, he was famous. She'd seen the book of plays George Bernard Shaw presented to Arvold when he visited England in 1930. Shaw had inscribed the volume to "the minister of fine arts to the country communities of America." So, like many other alumni, Blanich felt horrible when the university forced their beloved teacher to retire. The poorly handled transition cast 70-year-old Arvold and 37-year-old Frederick G. Walsh against one another. Walsh was highly-qualified, a war veteran with three master's degrees and a doctorate in theatre, but when he first presented himself for duty, Arvold looked him hard in the eye and said, "Don't unpack your bag, young man. I'm going to have you fired."

Arvold never recovered from his unceremonious unseating, and Walsh - haunted by Arvold's 45-year dynasty and national reputation - struggled to escape the legend's shadow. Had they met under different circumstances, the two might have become friends or, at least, respectful colleagues. Both were creative, tenacious and supremely confident human beings. Both believed in theatre of the people, by the people and for the people. Both made an indelible mark on dramatic arts on campus and across the state. They were the kings of theatre in North Dakota from 1907 to 1978.

NDSU President John H. Worst hired Arvold in 1907 because he saw his fledging land-grant college not just as a place to train good farmers and teachers. He wanted to make farm life and its labors a "business to be envied," and knew one way to do that was by involving students in the arts. Arvold embraced the idea of theatre as diversion from life's daily toil. He figured the greater the spectacle, the more people would be drawn to the transformative experience.

Arvold was never short of big ideas. Just a few months after he arrived on campus, he persuaded most of the student body to volunteer for his Cyclone Circus. On a chill March day, his costumed performers slogged the three miles of unpaved road to Fargo and back in a pre-performance parade, then gave two shows featuring fiery dragons, polar bears, sea serpents and more. Featured acts included the "blood-curdling dip of death" and "The Resurrection - not one of the shocking details left out."

Arvold based his "cheerful country life laboratory" in Old Main, the turreted administration building in the center of campus. A former chapel on the second floor became the theatre, where he prepared his young proteges to put on festivals, plays and pageants in their own hometowns. For his office, Arvold chose a circular room in Old Main's clock tower. He filled his inner sanctum with favorite books on magic, ballet, opera and anthropology and covered the walls with photographs signed by the world-class performers he enticed to appear in NDSU's Lyceum series.

The demands of running his "humanizing agency" meant he had to rely on a cadre of assistants to execute the many class plays, commencement programs and club cabarets staged each year. But every spring and summer break, Arvold was front and center as he and his student actors toured up to 40 towns, presenting modest one-acts and assessing community needs.

In 1913 the state Legislature allocated $3,000 to expand and improve Arvold's theatre. Christened the Little Country Theatre on February 10, 1914, the refurbished auditorium featured a 17-foot stage, with no wings to speak of, and seating for 350. Its most impressive architectural feature was six magnificent stained-glass windows, which Arvold convinced local community groups to donate. Perfectly reflecting Arvold's interests, they featured classic playwrights - Goethe, Ibsen and Shakespeare - as well as Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty and Justin Morrill, author of the act that created land-grant universities.

He'd been in the national press before, but in 1916 McCall's Magazine made Arvold the talk of housewives all across America. Framed in soap-opera-like narrative, the three-page article extolled Arvold's Little Country Theatre Package Library, a free lending library that made plays and skits available to people across the state. With titles like "Grandma Keeler gets Grandpa Keeler Ready for Church" and "Training a Wife," these pieces weren't high art, but rural audiences couldn't get enough of them. Arvold was pleased to see the article accompanied by several photos, including one of him checking in dozens of scripts and sending them out again.

Arvold had a passion for famous quotes. Sometimes he published his own thoughts next to the greats, as if by association he might join their ranks. None, however, inspired him more than Abraham Lincoln. From play openings to theatre dedications, Arvold tied every significant event he could to Lincoln's birthday. Then, one day, he thought of a way to pay the 12th president an even greater tribute in, of all places, the Old Main attic.

Feeling like a child building a secret hideaway, Arvold ordered split logs from Minnesota's Itasca State Park and used them to cover the walls and high-peaked ceilings of a space used for set building and storage. He commissioned campus blacksmith Haile Chisholm to fashion wrought iron hinges, door handles and chandeliers. And he furnished the rooms with bark-covered straight-backed chairs and tables. In the crook of the L-shaped space, bricklayers installed a fake fireplace, inscribed with Abraham Lincoln's words: "Let us have faith that right makes might."

From the time it opened in 1922 until Arvold retired, the Lincoln Log Cabin served as the social heart of the Little Country Theatre. In this artificially rustic setting, the Von Trapp Family Singers dined, Native Americans danced, Edwin Booth Dramatic Club inductees made their pledges and Lilac Days revelers dined on lavender mashed potatoes.

Lilac Days was one of Arvold's most long-lived and unique creations, a product of his abiding love for pageantry with a purpose. His vision was to connect Fargo and the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, with an 80-mile lilac hedge to be celebrated each year with music and dining. Despite the fact few of the lilacs survived, each year NDSU's sun-bonneted lilac queen and her lilac maidens sang the Lilac Days anthem to school children in small towns along North Dakota Highway 81. In the evening the royal court joined their friends for the annual Lilac Days feast, for which everything - even the turkey - was dyed purple.

To Walsh, NDSU's theatre program represented a bygone era. He'd read Arvold's book on the Little Country Theatre. And he recognized Arvold as one of the "dynamic figures" of American academic theatre prior to 1930. Still, in his mind, academic theatre in those days "didn't amount to much."

Unlike Arvold, Walsh was not a warm and fuzzy guy, say his former students and colleagues. Respected, yes. Professional, to the core. Sentimental, absolutely not. Physically, he was different too. Shorter, wirey, a cigar or pipe often in his grasp. And yet, they shared some strong similarities. Both, for instance, were fascinated with outdoor drama.

As soon as he set foot in North Dakota, Walsh began cruising the state like a movie director looking for locations. Each time he investigated a historic site and its surrounding terrain, he wondered if this might be the spot to stage his masterpiece. That's why - when he heard the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Badlands Association board wanted to stage a pageant commemorating Theodore Roosevelt's love of western North Dakota - he knew he had to have the job.

And so it came to pass, in the summer of 1958 - 40 miles from the nearest town - "Old Four Eyes" sold out 32 of 33 performances in a 2,000-seat amphitheatre built into the side of a Badlands' butte. Eventually, after three years of rewrites, Walsh could nearly claim the script as his own. The show would run a total of six years, before being dropped in favor of an extravagant variety show known as the Medora Musical. The thought of tap dancers and dog acts being favored over legitimate historical drama boiled Walsh's blood. Bitterly disappointed, he came to think of "Old Four Eyes" as "both the zenith and the nadir" of his career. Although his artistic vision was abandoned, Walsh's Burning Hills Amphitheatre remains.

No less a mover and shaker on campus, Walsh quickly updated the curriculum and created the university's first bachelor's and master's degree programs in speech and drama. Next he tackled the theatre itself. It took him more than a decade, but in 1968 - with the help of a generous donor and plenty of political savvy - Walsh got what he wanted, a new building. That summer of 1968, when incoming freshman Steve Stark arrived at Old Main for his official campus visit, he could see Walsh had no interest in showing him the original Little Country Theatre. "He barely opened the door and didn't even turn on the lights," Stark says. "He was more excited about Askanase Hall."

Once Walsh got the kinks worked out of his new theatre, he started looking for a new project. Just like Arvold decades before him, Walsh turned his gaze on the hinterlands, saw an unmet need, and created the Prairie Stage. Between 1971 and 1976, Walsh dispatched a 16-member troupe to as many as 10 North Dakota communities each summer. The repertoire included three shows, including one for children. During the day the actors taught drama to local high school students.

Walsh himself designed the Prairie Stage tent and the complex wood egg-crating system that supported the stage and seating area. Michael J. Olsen, a 1973 graduate of NDSU, remembers the dry run in Fargo. It took the actors, who doubled as the technical crew, days to get it all assembled. "But Fred hung with it, and you know we got better and better. Part of the key was, in those first couple of weeks, the cast accidentally lost a few pieces of the egg crating along the way," which considerably speeded the setup time, Olsen says. "I would guess he was mystified as to where those pieces might have gone."

Walsh retired from NDSU in 1978. While passing the Little Country Theatre torch wasn't as painful for him as it had been for Arvold, giving up the limelight wasn't easy. He never stopped being creative and always had a one-act play or some other project in the works. Olsen and Stark say he mellowed with age, becoming - or at least trying to become - a delightful old curmudgeon.

Given some artistic license, the real-life drama of Arvold and Walsh could have a happy ending. Set in the great cosmos, the two directors cordially trade stories in front of a stone fireplace. Of course, they're trying to top each other's tales, but in the dramatic moment when Walsh shares the philosophy that's guided his every effort, Arvold smiles and says he strived to do the same: "to make theatre, not a means of earning a living, but the means of a way of living a life."

-- Catherine Jelsing


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