Man behind the Deer Camp shows

Waite Park man wrote the humorous musicals

Many audiences across Minnesota and the nation have enjoyed the show Deer Camp the Musical and its sequel, Holy Bells! A Deer Camp Christmas during the past few years. Deer Camp the Musical first premiered in St. Cloud in 2007 and tells the story of four friends and “mighty hunters” who leave their homes in fictional Elmwood, Minnesota for their annual fall trip to the deer shack in search of a big buck. But, in 30 years of hunting, the hunters have never even fired a shot. The man behind Deer Camp and its sequels is Gene Jurek of Waite Park.  Jurek worked in marketing and advertising for most of his career. He worked at the Paramount Theater in St. Cloud from 2001-2005. While working there, he spent a lot of time thinking about the many different forms of entertainment and what types of shows “worked” and were successful with local audiences. “People want to be entertained,” Jurek said. And, he was convinced that what would entertain, was musical comedy. An idea to write formed in his mind. “I decided that if I was going to write something, I needed to pick a subject that would guarantee a crowd.” When he learned that over 600,000 deer licenses are sold in Minnesota, Jurek decided on his crowd. He began writing Deer Camp the Musical in 2003. Jurek’s wife, Edie, was battling cancer during this time and one side effect she experienced was a lot of fatigue.  He would work on the script when she was resting. Jurek said that when Edie was up, he would read her parts of the story. “I would write something I thought was funny, then read it to Edie, and if she would smile or chuckle, I would leave it in. If she didn’t like it, I would take it out.” Jurek learned years later from Edie’s niece that she had once complained, “I wish Gene would finish that play!” He laughed as he repeated the comment. Jurek’s writing provided some much needed smiles and laughter during a very difficult time for them both.  Edie was a big supporter of her husband’s efforts but, unfortunately, she died in July, 2006 before the show went into production.  He was her primary caregiver during the final months and he said that working on the play helped bring a sense of calm to his life. Jurek has never been a deer hunter but his father hunted and he’d heard a lot of stories and jokes about deer camp over the years. When it came to the music, Jurek enlisted the help of friend and songwriter, Doug Spartz of Pine River. “I roughed out what I wanted and gave a start to the lyrics and he smoothed out the bumps,” Jurek said of Spartz. Deer Camp the Musical opened at the Pioneer Place on Fifth theater in downtown St. Cloud in August, 2007. Twelve performances were originally scheduled but five more were added. All seventeen shows sold out, which surprised everyone. “August is the worst month of the year for live theater. No one wants to be sitting in a theater then,” Jurek said. The show came back to St. Cloud in January and nine more shows sold out. “It was fun to see it all come alive,” said Jurek about the show’s opening. He said that fifty percent of those who attended were first-time theater-goers. Many in the audience dressed in hunter orange or camoflage clothing. The show was popular with audiences and performances were soon scheduled throughout Minnesota. Before long, Jurek began work on sequels– Deer Camp 2: The Hunt for Stinky Peterson which was followed by Holy Bells! A Deer Camp Christmas. Jurek said that when he finished Holy Bells!, he was welcomed with open arms by the local theater community. In Willmar, theater staff didn’t even bother to advertise the Christmas show. They simply got on the phone and called the people who had seen Deer Camp the Musical and the shows sold out immediately. A year ago, Deer Camp made its national debut with a different cast performing outside of Minnesota. Jurek is thrilled that they were able to cast Tony Papenfuss as Doogski and John Voldstad as Digger. Papenfuss attended St. Cloud State University years ago and both he and Voldstad starred on the show Newhart in the 1980’s. They played “Darryl, and my other brother Darryl” on the television sitcom. Jurek heard that the character “Larry” from Newhart had recently attended a performance in Pennsylvania. Jurek has two daughters, Heather Jurek, who lives in California and April  Schuller, who lives in St. Cloud. April and her husband have 12 children. The oldest, Christian, is 20 and was recently married and the youngest just turned one. April home schools the children, some of whom have been active in the local theater scene. Christophe, 12, recently performed in GREAT Theatre’s A Christmas Carol at the Paramount in St. Cloud. He played Tom Cratchit. Lily ran the spotlight for the show and Gabrielle and Madeline worked behind the scenes sewing costumes, etc.  Madeline and Gabrielle also were involved in the play The Pilgrim’s Progress which was performed at Calvary Community Church in St. Cloud in November. They did all of the hair and makeup for cast members. Jurek joked that he could write a musical like The Sound of Music and it could star all of his grandchildren. Instead, he is busy working on another Deer Camp sequel at his home in Waite Park. He works at his computer in a plant-filled sunroom, which reminds him of Edie and her talent for gardening and raising plants.  April thinks that Edie would have loved it all. “She knew he had this creative side and she always wanted him to do well,” she said. Besides being creative, April said her father makes people laugh. “My kids love to be around him.” Jurek calls his new play Big Foot, the Musical, which he hopes will be completed by next fall. It will be about the same characters, Diesel, Moose, Doogski and Digger, who go north to the cottage and one of them runs into Big Foot.  He says the writing becomes easier when you know the characters so well. “When I write a line, I know who will say it.” Jurek enjoys his work. “And,” he said, “ it feels good to know that when the grandkids see or hear about Deer Camp, they will think of me, ‘Papa Gene’.” That is what makes him most proud.

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