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Early years of 100-year old theater

Fergus Theatre started with vaudeville acts

By Carol Stender

The 1921 grand opening of Fergus Falls’ new theater was quite a spectacle. People from around the area came to celebrate this new arts and entertainment venue featuring Horace Golden’s masterpiece, Sawing a Woman in Half.

That wasn’t a play. It was the actual vaudeville act, one of many live performances at what is now known as the Fergus Theatre.

For 100 years, the building on Lincoln Avenue has been the hub of entertainment for the area. It started with vaudeville acts then turned its attention to silent movies complete with pipe organ accompaniment then to motion pictures with stereo sound. When people focused on TV for their entertainment, the Fergus Theatre closed for several years, but reopened thanks to the group Center For The Arts. Live performances now grace its stage in the renovated space.

The Fergus Theatre has gone by other names over its 100 year history including The Orpheum, but it has always been a mainstay of arts activities for Fergus Falls.

The original idea for a theater was first discussed in 1920 at a Commercial Club meeting. A committee supporting a theater had already gathered $100 in pledges and, by evening’s end, the Commercial Club members gathered a total of $8,000 in pledges.

It was decided to purchase lots between the new Victor Lundeen’s building and Palmquist Drug Store which is now part of Olson furniture.

Those lots were unoccupied and the most desirable, wrote Marion Kohlmeyer, who chronicled the history of the theatre in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. Early buildings in this area had been destroyed by fire.

It was named the Orpheum Theatre, at first, as G.W. Frankberg and C.W. Kaddatz spearheaded the construction with a Fargo firm.

The building’s estimated cost was around $80,000 and was paid off entirely when the Orpheum opened for audiences on Dec. 29, 1921.

Besides the sawing a woman in half act, those attending the performances also heard from the Carmen Sisters, banjo experts; Gene Metcalf, the Silvertone; and Foster and Petty featuring the mindreading dog. And if that wasn’t enough, a six-reel feature picture was also shown.

The Orpheum was also used by the community for style shows and the 1922 high school graduation where 84 students received their diplomas.

No refreshments were sold at the theater before the 1930s, the accounts stated. It was Ray Langfit, the theater’s manager, who convinced the building’s owners to install a popcorn machine. Bagged popcorn sold for 5 cents while a box of the popped goodness topped at 10 cents. Buttered popcorn came later as well as pop and candy sales.

The advent of silent pictures prompted owners to install a pipe organ in 1922. The console was on the left side of the orchestra pit and the pipes were installed in the loft. Several pipes had to be cut because the ceiling wasn’t high enough.

Alice Saline (later Mitchner) was the talented organist who played the Orpheum’s organ for eight years before “talkies” became vogue. While the music helped create the mood of the silent picture scenes, the organ itself was quite temperamental.

“Sometimes it just quit when too much dust got in the generator for the blower motor,” Kohlmeyer wrote.

A special transformer was installed to help.

It didn’t phase Alice. This talented organist, who performed three shows a day, simply moved from the organ to the piano.

When “talkies” came, Alice was out of a job, but she didn’t despair, Kohlmeyer wrote, Alice viewed it as another chapter in life. The organ was sold to Aastad Lutheran Church. Farmers transported the organ pipes on hayracks with Gottfred and Esther Nelson assembling it all.

Times were tough in the 1930s and the theater manager took novel approaches to get attention to the theater. He even had a pen of pigs in front of the building to gain interest.

The theater showed some popular films including National Velvet starring Elizabeth Taylor in 1945. So much money was collected from tickets and refreshments from that showing that the money was placed in a garbage can until it could be deposited.

A shift from live performances to movies meant additional changes to the theater, especially with “talking films.” The theater was renovated in 1949 and 1950 to enhance the movie experience. Acoustic tiles were installed to help with sound, new carpet was laid and air conditioning installed. A new marquee with traveling lights and neon signs advertised the newest movie releases. The theater could now seat 800 people and new projection equipment was capable of showing cinemascope formatted movies, according to Michael Bergraff, current Center for the Arts director.

The changes prompted a new name, as well. The Orpheum became the Fergus Theatre. Lloyd Evenson became the theatre manger from 1966 until 1979, when it closed. People were spending more time at home watching TV, it was said. Movies weren’t as popular as in the past.

While it wasn’t open for public use, two enterprising theater enthusiasts rented it and used the front area as a practice venue for the Old Tyme Variety Players. Tim Berg and Ron Monson spearheaded the group and performed their acts at the Fergus Falls Middle School auditorium. To advertise their performances, the group put graphics and signs outside the downtown Fergus Theatre. Area residents asked if this meant the theater would be opening again. It gave them an idea to make it happen.

In 1982, the two accepted the theater building as a gift from Gordy and Joan Bakken.

Renovations were started to make it a performance venue. Around 300 seats were removed from the front of the house and a thrust stage was built. It would accommodate the musical and drama performances. More than $1 million was raised to cover the costs.

To help cover some of the costs, performances took place in the renovated structure. It was one of these events that drew Rebecca Peterson’s attention to the Fergus Theatre.

The Fergus Theatre has been a staple in downtown Fergus for 100 years. Contributed photo

“I moved to Fergus Falls in 1991 and was immediately taken by the flashing lights on the marquee at the Fergus Theatre - yes, even before the renovation, the marquee was still (sort of) working,” she said. “We were headed to a Fergus Falls High School football game on a Friday night and all of these people were dressed up and headed to that flashing marquee. What was this place and what was going on?”

As an avid lover of the arts, she did some research and found out. She learned the people going to the Fergus Theatre that night were headed to a concert by the Center Singers, a group of professionals who, in their volunteer life, liked signing jazz. She also learned, through her research, that the theater was in dire need of upgrades and only offered programming spring through fall. The roof leaked and the inside was in need of major overhaul.

Peterson approached the Center for the Arts board asking to be a fiscal agent for some summer arts programming she was writing a grant for. They agreed. The successful $9,000 grant application got their attention and she was asked to help with fundraising. That effort would be a $1.2 million capital campaign to repair the building.

Two years later, she was hired as the first executive director for the Center for the Arts.

During the fundraising phase, organ builder and organist Lance Johnson, a Fergus Falls native, came to the board and asked if they’d consider installing a Mighty WurlitZer Theatre Organ. This would raise the price tag a bit from the original project cost of $700,000 to over $1 million. A special campaign was started for the organ.

Volunteers from the community helped through a grassroots operation. They went door to door seeking funds. The efforts got the attention of the Bush Foundation, the McKnight foundation and the State of Minnesota, which brought in a total $350,000.

Next the group worked on the theater seating. The volunteers removed the seats and stored them. Shoremaster Fabrics, a local business, cut and sewed the fabric to replace the old seat coverings. A local car dealership painted the metal parts and pieces and volunteers reassembled it all thanks to donated space at the Regional Treatment Center in Fergus Falls.

The renovation brought new opportunities. The Mighty Wurlitzer prompted the Center to show old 16mm silent movies with Lance Johnson providing the accompaniment. The lobby became an arts exhibit gallery with the help of local artist Charlie Beck. A grand piano was purchased. And they collaborated with downtown businesses on projects and promotions.

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