Plains Folk

Country Night at the Opera House


Lots of notices hit my screen to announce lots of country town events across the northern plains. Although I take an interest in all of them, this one in particular got my attention, for reasons I’ll soon recount.


Ellendale, North Dakota

Country Night at the Opera House

Saturday, March 10, 2012, 7:00pm until 10:00pm

Ellendale Opera House on West Main

Alyssa Nishek, Justin Meidinger, Tanya Phoenix, Hope Jury, and Brenda Rekow with her comedy sketch, “A Day in the Life of a Vet Tech”


I recognize the name of the young woman who will be offering a sketch of her experience as a veterinary technician. Will the sketch ever make the big-time? YouTube, maybe. But will the audience love it? Absolutely. Will they applaud the local talents serving up country music? You bet!


And is such entertainment in the spirit of the grand old Ellendale Opera House, which opened in 1909? Or all the other old opera houses—Lisbon, Maddock, and the rest of them—currently being rehabilitated for public purpose by public-spirited citizens of our country towns? It most certainly is.


Opera houses were constructed in the railroad towns of the plains for multiple purposes. Generally, as in Ellendale, there was retail space on the ground floor, performance space above. The performance space hosted traveling talent that came in by rail, bringing a wonderful, if uneven, array of professional performance to town.


From the beginning, however—and you can learn this by reading the early issues of any country town newspaper in the region—from the beginning there were people who took their cultural life into their own hands. Community theater sprang up like it was native to the place, along with musical diversions. Formal community events filled with public spirit—oyster suppers and the like—were so frequent that you would think people would have been socially exhausted, which perhaps they were. If you’re listening to these words from one of our country towns, then you’re nodding your head right now, because you know how packed your calendar is.


The era of consolidation of prairie society—roughly from the 1930s to the 1980s—saw the decline of home-grown community culture. It began to come back in the 1990s and is surging now in the 21st century. In places like Ellendale.


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit in on the annual meeting of the Ellendale Area Arts Council, in the back room of the Fireside Family Restaurant & Lounge. There was the usual business of shuffling the deck of officers and board members, but what was really interesting was the review of past activities provided by Ken Schmierer—the same good citizen who sent me the invitation to Country Night at the Opera House. The catalog of successful arts and heritage events carried out over recent years is too big to reproduce here, but gallery exhibits, musical performances, and community theater are regular features of life in Ellendale.


Much of the activity takes place in the Ellendale Opera House, restoration in progress forever, galvanized by the dauntless Jeanette Robb Ruenz, with scores of energetic citizens involved, including Jeanette’s longsuffering husband Stew.


This is how it’s done. This is how towns become communities. No black tie required. Money and tools sometimes required. Faith always required. And in our country towns, faith is coming back.


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