Friday, April 30, 2010

Last Chance to Be a Winner!

It's the last day of the month, which means it's the last day of my blog follower contest.  I'm happy to report that I exceeded my goal of 25 and now have 26 unique blog followers!  Thanks to all of you who joined.  And to any of you readers who have been on the fence about joining, today's your last chance!

You can become a follower by going to the left side of my blog and either clicking on the Google friend connect button, or the networked blogs button, if you're on Facebook.

I will put all the names in a hat this weekend and draw one lucky winner, who will receive a Vintage Band Festival pin (a $25 value).  The pin entitles the bearer access to 50 outdoor concerts by more than 20 bands at the four-day festival in Northfield, set for Aug. 5-8.

The Russian Horn Capella from St. Petersburg is one of four international bands scheduled to perform at the Vintage Band Festival, Aug. 5-8 in Northfield, Minn.

The festival is about three months away, so mark it on your calendar now so you don't forget.  It's going to be great fun and will offer something for almost everyone – including music lovers, history buffs, and families looking for inexpensive entertainment.  Even if you don't win the pin, consider buying one to show your support for a worthy community festival.

Vintage Band Festival donors, board members and musicians are invited to attend a reception next week to kick off the summer season.  The reception is Saturday, May 8 from 3 to 5 p.m. at Butler's Steak and Ale, 620 Water St. in Northfield.  Come for the live wind music, the hors d'ouvres and the cash bar.  To RSVP or for more information, contact festival organizer extraordinaire Paul Niemisto at (507) 645-7554 or

If you can't attend but would like to get a taste of the music that will be featured at the festival, you can listen to Prelude to the Vintage Band Festival, a 10-part radio series produced by KYMN Radio, 1080 AM.  The episodes also are available in podcast form.

Thanks for reading, and good luck!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Show Me the Glee

It probably doesn't surprise people who know us that we are Glee watchers.  The Tuesday evening TV show has singing and dancing, it skews high school stereotypes, it has the amazing Jane Lynch  – what's not to like?  Well, I could digress and grouse about the inconsistent writing, the recent emphasis on songs at the expense of advancing plausible storylines, but even with those flaws, it's been fun to watch it together as a family.

It's certainly not what some people might consider family friendly – unlike, say, Disney's High School Musical, where the two leads don't even kiss.  But I've found that it gives Steve and me the chance as parents to emphasize what our values are, as it touches on issues like teen pregnancy, bullying and sexual orientation.  And it exposes the kids to music that has become an important part of pop culture, as in this week's Madonna-centric episode.

It's also fun to watch it with Steve, a former high school show choir member, and hear his commentary about how unrealistic and over-the-top it is, compared to his own experience (It reminds me of what it was like to watch ER with him, years ago, when he was a medical resident).  We didn't have a show choir at my high school, in Alexandria, Minn., and I hadn't really heard of them or at least paid attention to them until I met Steve in college.

 Steve performs a solo, "Heartlight," during a concert and spaghetti dinner on April 19, 1986.

 Steve, center, and his sister Beth, right, perform with the Twelfth Street Connection Show Choir.

Steve attended Eldora-New Providence High School, a small school in central Iowa, and was in almost everything – including show choir, band, jazz band, plays and musicals, golf, cross country, and student government.  This was in the early to mid-80s, when Madonna was consistently putting out No. 1 singles like "Live to Tell," and "Papa Don't Preach."  But unlike the Glee cast in this week's episode, Steve's choir was not Madonna-focused; at least, not during the 1986 concert pictured in the above photos.  That night, Steve performed the solo "Heartlight," the Neil Diamond song inspired by the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.  Steve's sister Beth also had a solo, with "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line.  The group opened and closed the two-hour concert with "Magic to Do" from Pippin.

I can't talk about Steve's high school choir experiences without mentioning one of the highlights.  In the summer of 1985, he was selected for the highly competitive Iowa State Fair Singers.  He and 20 other students from around the state spent 10 days rehearsing at Luther College and then two weeks performing at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.  The organization still exists in a slightly different form and is now known as Celebration Iowa

Steve, top center, performs at the Iowa State Fair in August 1985. 

Tonight, instead of watching actors pretend to be high school students who sing and dance, we will attend a live performance by actual high school students.  Steve's sister Beth, who grew up to be a high school English teacher, is directing the stage version of Disney's High School Musical at Farmington High School.  Beth is one of those wonderful teachers who has a real gift for inspiring and motivating high school students.  Steve, the boys and I are looking forward to seeing the show.  Performances are at 7 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday at the Boeckman Middle School auditorium, 800 Denmark Ave.

(Louisa, sadly, will miss the show because she has rehearsals this evening for not just one but two shows of her own: the Northfield Arts Guild's upcoming production of The Phantom Tollbooth, and her Very Short Play, "The Acting Class," which will be performed Friday night at the NAG theater.)

Follow the Blog!

I wanted to thank all of you who have become followers of my blog since I put out my blog challenge in a recent post.  I am now at 19 followers and would love to get at least six more by Friday, the 30th.  Remember, if I acquire at least 25 followers total (through Google Friend Connect or Networked blogs on Facebook) by month's end, I will draw the name of one follower, and that person will receive a pin ($25 value) that will give its bearer a free pass into this summer's Vintage Band Festival, Aug. 5-8 in Northfield.  And if I get 40 followers, I will donate $40 to the Save the Northfield Depot committee.

You can join anonymously, but if you do that and want to be included in the drawing, please send me an email ( so I can put your name into the hat.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fresh Spaghetti and Sweet Music in Old Market Omaha

Our house is rarely quiet, but it's certainly been quieter than usual since Louisa left Thursday morning on a tour to Omaha with the Northfield Youth Choirs.  So I was happy to hear the phone ring yesterday afternoon and hear her voice on the other end of the line.  She was calling from the Omaha Strategic Air and Space Museum.  She told me a little bit about the fun she's having, but most of the short conversation involved me reading off the cast list of the Northfield Arts Guild's upcoming production of The Phantom Tollbooth.  The cast was announced yesterday, and Louisa will be playing the parts of Lethagarian #6 and the gatekeeper.  It should be great fun.  The performances are in June, and rehearsals start next week.

The choir was scheduled to eat dinner last night at Spaghetti Works in Omaha's Old Market District.  If we'd had more time to talk, I might have mentioned to Louisa that she would be walking over cobblestone streets that her great-great grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, likely traversed as a 19-year-old man.  About six blocks from Spaghetti Works there once was a theatre called Boyd's Opera House.  In 1889-90, G. Oliver played first cornet at Boyd's as a member of the National Salsbury Orchestra.  I know he was proud of this because he mentioned it a few times in his writings, and it's listed among his accomplishments in his entry in the 1941 edition of Who’s Who in Minnesota.

According to the Omaha Public Library website, Boyd’s Opera House was built in 1881 by James E. Boyd.  It was the first prominent theatre in town.  Located at the northeast corner of 15th and Farnam streets, it could seat 1,700 people.  Boyd later built a new theatre at 17th and Harney streets, and he leased the original Boyd's Opera House to L.M. Crawford, who changed the name to the Farnam Street Theatre.  The building was destroyed by fire in 1893.

I'm not sure why G. Oliver ended up in Omaha; whether he went there for the job, or if he found the job because he was already living there with his parents and sister, Daisy.  I do know that he was on a temporary break from his schooling, trying to earn enough money to return to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he studied violin, piano, cornet and the history and theory of music.  When his family left Omaha in August 1890 and moved back to Joy, Illinois, G. Oliver moved, too.  He got a job in Albia, Iowa, directing a band, and he also played solo cornet for the Third Regimental Band in Centerville, Iowa, under the direction of George Landers.  He returned to Oberlin and graduated in 1891.

Louisa will be home tomorrow evening, and it will be fun to hear all about her adventures in Omaha: the visit to Boys Town, the performance of Mister Roberts at the Omaha Community Playhouse, singing at St. Michael's Lutheran Church with the Nebraska Children's Chorus, the visit to the Henry Doorly Zoo.  I'm especially interested to hear what she thought of the Joslyn Art Museum.  I learned from the website that the Art Deco museum opened in 1931 and was given to the city by Sarah Joslyn in memory of her husband, George Joslyn, who made a fortune in the ready-print news business.  The Joslyns moved to Omaha in 1880.  They were huge supporters of music and art and – who knows? – they may have attended one of G. Oliver's concerts.

The only time I've been to Omaha was in 2006, when our whole family went with Louisa's Girl Scout troop.  We also ate at Spaghetti Works, although I didn't realize at the time that I had an ancestral connection to that historic part of the city.  The most memorable experience of that trip was our overnight at the zoo, where we slept in sleeping bags in front of the penguin exhibit.  It was not a restful night.  I'm hoping Louisa gets more sleep on the choir trip, although that's probably wishful thinking.

Sebastian and Elias pose with the gorilla statue at the Henry Doorly Zoo, June 2006.

Louisa at Spaghetti Works, in Omaha's Old Market District, in June 2006.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Be a Follower and Boost the Bands

Lots of activity this week in the life of the Musical Family, and much of it involving my daughter, Louisa.  Louisa is in deep in rehearsals for Seussical Jr., which will be performed April 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Northfield Middle School.  She's leaving tomorrow morning for a four-day tour to Omaha with the Northfield Youth Choirs Concert Choir (Because of that tour, she has to miss the eighth grade band's trip to Hastings for a day-long band clinic.  Hope the French horn section can hold up without her).

She also is trying to schedule rehearsals for her very short play, which will be performed Friday, April 23, as part of the Northfield Arts Guild's Very Short Play Festival.  Louisa can't be in or attend her short play because of Seussical, but as the playwright she's responsible for casting and directing it.

Louisa, holding a cornet that belonged to G. Oliver Riggs, her great-great grandfather.

Oh, and on Sunday evening she auditioned for the upcoming NAG production of The Phantom Tollbooth, and she also wants to audition for the NAG's August production of Romeo and Juliet.

And she's turning 14 at the end of the month, and is planning a big murder mystery party.

I'm now exhausted, just writing all this.  And that's why I'm not going to spend much time on a blog entry today.  No long, involved story in which I weave the threads of my hectic life into the fabric of my ancestral history.  Just a friendly plea and reader challenge.

I know some of you out there are reading me on a regular basis, and I appreciate it!  Now I'd like to boost the number of my official blog followers, either through Google or through Networked Blogs on Facebook.  It doesn't mean you have to read every post.  There will be no quiz.  You can be anonymous.  But it is helpful for me to get a sense of my audience.

So here's the challenge:

If I can get a total of 25 followers (up from the current seven) by the end of the month, I will donate $25 to the Vintage Band Festival, and then draw the name of one lucky blog follower (spouses are not eligible; sorry, Steve!).  That person will win the nifty souvenir VBF pin, which gets its bearer into concerts during the music festival, set for Aug. 5-8 in Northfield.

(Most of the 50 VBF concerts are technically free, but the purchase of pins is strongly encouraged.)

And if the response is so overwhelming that I get up to 40 followers, well, then I'll donate $40 to the Northfield Save the Depot Committee.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A World's Fair to Remember

If you're a fan of pop culture, you may know that the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack and Juicy Fruit gum all debuted at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  If you're a student of architecture, you may know about the fair because of the contributions of Daniel H. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, among other well-known architects.  Or, you may have read Erik Larson's amazing non-fiction book, Devil in the White City, which explains both Burnham's herculean efforts to build the fair, and the fiendish way serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes (aka Herman Webster Mudgett) used the fair to lure victims, mostly young women, to his nearby hotel.

The Stearns History Museum, in my dad's hometown of St. Cloud, Minn., is hosting a traveling exhibit through May 10 called Centuries of Progress: American World’s Fairs 1853-1982.  It includes items from the Chicago World's Fair, also known as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The museum is having a special family day this Sunday, April 11.  More information about the exhibit is available on the museum's Facebook page and website.

I've heard many references to the Chicago World's Fair over the years, but I became even more interested in its history after learning that my great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs, attended the fair as a young woman.

Islea Graham at about age 18

Islea graduated from Aledo High School in May 1892.  Several months later, she traveled to Chicago to take music lessons from Emil Liebling, a pupil of Franz Liszt, at the Chicago Conservatory of Music.  She lived with her aunt, Luella Bassett Adams, during her stay in the city.

 This article is from an Aledo, Ill., newspaper.

I have a scrapbook of Islea's, and in it she pasted programs of the numerous concerts she attended while in Chicago, including some by the Chicago Symphony, directed by Theodore Thomas.  Thomas was the musical director of the World's Fair for a time, but he quit out of frustration because he felt audiences weren't appropriately appreciative of the high quality classical music.  They preferred the excitement of the Midway.

Islea also attended several operettas, including a touring production of Girofle-Girofla starring the famous actress Lillian Russell.

I know from news accounts that a special train ran from Islea's hometown of Aledo to the fair, and that Islea's grandfather, prominent attorney Isaac Newton Bassett, attended the Fair's dedication ceremonies, held on Oct. 21, 1892.

An Oct. 28, 1892, article in the Aledo Democrat described it this way: "A large number of visitors to the World’s Fair city returned Monday evening.  It is said that the dedicatory exercises were on a scale so grand as to beggar all description.  M. F. Felix and I. N. Bassett returned home from Chicago Saturday evening where they witnessed the greatest celebration Chicago has ever known."

The fairgrounds weren't opened to the public until May 1, 1893, and the fair continued until October 30, 1893.

A program from a concert Islea attended on Oct. 20, 1893.

I'm not sure how long Islea attended school in Chicago.  Her programs seem mostly to be from October through December of both 1892 and 1893.  It makes me wonder if she returned home to Aledo for some time in the middle, and returned to Chicago during the latter months of 1893.

I know from reading newspaper items that Islea's parents, William Graham and Flora Bassett Graham, were among the Aledo residents who traveled to the fair at least a couple of times.  I have yet to establish whether my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, also attended the fair.  I would bet money that he did, though.  It was too big of an event for him to miss, especially considering that John Philip Sousa's new band played there twice.  Sousa had left his position as director of the U.S. Marine Band and formed his own band, which played in Chicago for two weeks in October 1892, and returned to the World's Fair for concerts in May and June 1893.

I know that G. Oliver and Sousa were acquainted, at least by 1899, when G. Oliver lived in Crookston, Minn.  One of the puzzles I've yet to solve is how and when they met.  It could have been at the World's Fair.  It would certainly make for a good story!  I will have to expound on the G. Oliver/Sousa connection in a future post.

G. Oliver knew Islea in 1893, but I don't think they were dating yet.  He was teaching music at the Iowa Wesleyan Conservatory of Music in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and would travel to his parents' home in Joy, Ill., near Aledo, on weekends and breaks.  According to his notes, he spent time in Chicago in either the summer of 1893 or 1894 studying violin with Luigi von Kunitz, who later became the director of the Toronto Symphony.

After the fair closed, a fire broke out and destroyed most of the famed White City.  One of the two original buildings that remain is the Palace of Fine Arts, which became the first site of the Field Museum and later was renovated to become the Science and Industry Museum of Chicago.  I've been to the building a few times in my life, but I hadn't known about my family connection to the World's Fair until my most recent visit, last September, when we went to the museum to to see Harry Potter: The Exhibition.

While we walked inside and around the grounds of the massive building, I thought about my great-grandmother.  Had she, too, witnessed magical displays inside these walls?  Had she taken a ride on the Ferris Wheel, an amusement that must have seemed as improbable as riding a Firebolt broomstick?  Did she buy an overpriced package of Juicy Fruit, like Elias purchased an overpriced package of Chocolate Frogs in the exhibit gift shop?  Or did she stick to musical pleasures?  Her scrapbook does not reveal the answers to these questions.

Louisa displays her Harry Potter exhibit souvenir T-shirt inside the Science and Industry Museum in September 2009.

Even though I've seen pictures of the World's Fair, as I stood on the former site, gazing toward Lake Michigan, I found it it difficult to visualize where the buildings were located in relation to each other, and how the canals and lagoons complemented the classical architecture.  I've discovered that I could get a better idea if I were to take advantage of the museum's new Blueprints to Our Past Tour, which explains the building's origins and includes a simulated computer tour of the White City.  The special tour starts later this month, on April 25, and is scheduled on Sundays through Dec. 12, 2010.

We may have to revise our summer or fall plans to include a trip to Chicago.  If we can't fit it in, we'll have to do the next best thing.  Load the iTunes library with Sousa tunes, and break out the Cracker Jack.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Save the Northfield Depot!

Soon after we moved to Northfield almost 12 years ago, I noticed the lonely, boarded-up train depot located about five blocks from our house.  Depots ooze nostalgia and romance; they once were the center of community activity.  I've always thought it was a shame that this one hadn't been renovated and put to a new use, as has happened in other towns. 

So I was excited to learn recently about a grassroots effort to preserve the Northfield Depot before it's too late.  The Save the Depot committee held a meeting at the end of February to gauge interest in the project and is now developing plans to relocate and restore the 122-year-old building.

According to a March 31 article in the Northfield News, members hope to raise $200,000 to $300,000 to restore the depot to its 1917 elegance.  The committee is looking at possible relocation sites and is seeking community input about possible uses.  Those mentioned so far include a visitors center, a bus-friendly transportation hub, a cafe, and a place to host arts-related events.  The group is looking for volunteers, and if you're on Facebook, you can become a fan of Save the Northfield Depot.

I'd be interested in the effort anyway, just because of my love of history and cool old buildings, but as it happens, I have a personal connection to this depot.  Anyone who knows me well and has followed my research project may find this particularly amusing, but yes, G. Oliver Riggs, my bandmaster great-grandfather, has been to the depot; he conducted a brief concert there in 1931, assisted by his younger son, Percy.

A photo of the 122-year-old depot as it looks now in April 2010

Here's a close-up photo of the boarded-up Depot, located behind the Country Inn and Suites.

I didn't know about this connection until a few years ago, when I was researching details about a big trip the St. Cloud Municipal Senior Boys' Band took to Des Moines in June 1931 for the National Junior Chamber of Commerce Convention.

I knew, from an article I'd read in the St. Cloud Daily Times, that the 70-piece senior boys' band had traveled to Des Moines by train.  On the way to Iowa, the band stopped in Minneapolis and in St. Paul and paraded through the streets, stopping to serenade people in front of the Minneapolis Journal and Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch buildings.  The band also broadcast a program over KSTP radio.  During the journey home, the band stopped to play "complimentary" 15-minute concerts at the train stations in Mason City, Albert Lea, Faribault and Northfield.

When I looked this up in the Northfield Public Library (now celebrating its centennial), I found one article in the Northfield Independent about the band's expected arrival.  I didn't find a post-concert story, or any coverage in the Northfield News.  If anyone reading this was living in Northfield at the time and has a photo of the band concert, let me know!

An article from the June 11, 1931, Northfield Independent.

I can't vouch for its appearance in Northfield, but I know that during the stop in Mason City, a bear cub was among the concert listeners.  The bear had come along on the Des Moines trip as the mascot of the St. Paul Junior Chamber of Commerce delegation.  

(It's not the first time a bear has come up in a G. Oliver story; see my earlier post).  

An article from the June 15, 1931 Mason City Globe-Gazette explains:  "A cub bear, mascot of the Junior Chamber of Commerce delegation in the special train on which the band traveled, sat solemnly on the platform to listen to the music."

Unfortunately, the article doesn't mention what songs the band played, or which one the bear preferred.  It does mention that the band stopped in Mason City to pay respects to that city's high school band, which had won high honors in a national school band contest.  The Mason City band was directed by Gerald Prescott, who later became the first director of bands at the University of Minnesota and was a friend of my grandfather, Ronald.

The bear made the paper in Des Moines, too – it's in a photo on the front page of The Des Moines Register (my former employer).  The photo is dark, but you can see the bear in the lower right of the bottom photo.

 The front page of The Des Moines Register on June 11, 1931.  Sixty years later, I joined the staff.

I'm sure there are many wonderful stories out there about the Northfield Depot and how it has intersected with people's lives over the years.  I hope the Save the Depot Committee's efforts stir the memories and open the pocketbooks of people who care about preserving this piece of our town's history.  Once the depot is moved and restored, I think it would be appropriate to have a band play as part of the festivities.  Maybe we can even rent a bear!