Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mad about Main Street

If our family schedule wasn’t so complicated next week – it’s the first week of summer vacation for my kids, and tech week/opening weekend of Steve’s show, A Year with Frog and Toad – I’d plan to be in St. Cloud Tuesday through Saturday, enjoying all the events relating to the “Main Street to Eighth Street” celebration, which will honor the Lewis family’s connections to St. Cloud.  I’m glad we’ll at least be able to squeeze in an appearance on the final day of the celebration.

By Lewis family I mean Sinclair Lewis, Nobel Prize-winning author of Main Street and 22 other novels, and his older brother Claude Lewis, a doctor who lived next door to my dad’s family in the South Side neighborhood of St. Cloud, in the shadow of St. Cloud State University.

I know I’d enjoy the “Wit and Wisdom of Sinclair Lewis” reading at the St. Cloud public library on June 5 and the Sinclair Lewis Film Festival at the Paramount Theatre on June 7; and I’m especially sorry to miss the “Lewis Family in St. Cloud Lecture and Discussion” on June 8 at the Stearns History Museum, which will explore how Sinclair’s family and Minnesota upbringing influenced his books.

I started reading Main Street last summer when I was working on a travel story about Sauk Centre for the Star Tribune( you can read it here).  After visiting the interpretive center in Sauk Centre and learning more about Lewis’ life and career, I was inspired to finally read the novel that is based on his hometown, which is only 26 from my hometown of Alexandria.  Main Street was published in 1920, and I was surprised at how funny it was, and also how contemporary it felt – it was almost as though he was observing the conversations and foibles of people in modern day Northfield, or any other small Minnesota town.  I was also captivated by his language.  I found myself rereading his descriptive phrases and even reading a few sentences out loud, admiring their beauty.  I’m sorry to say that writing obligations pulled me away from the book, and then it was due at the library, so I returned it, vowing to finish it later.  Steve recently bought me a used copy, so I hope to put it on the top of the summer reading list.

This is not my copy, but I like the art.
Steve is listening to an audio version of the book, and he, too, has been captivated by it.  He said he’s laughed out loud several times and was also surprised at how well Lewis’ take on people in small towns back in the 1910s still rings true, 100 years later.

Our appreciation for Sinclair’s writing will make it all the more meaningful when we stop in next week at the SCSU library to view the Claude and Sinclair Lewis Exhibit, a collection of Lewis family memorabilia including autographed first editions of Sinclair’s novels, family photographs and letters, and video presentations on Sauk Centre and Lewis family history.


We also plan to attend the garden party in Barden Park, near Claude’s former house and the site of the house where my dad, his brother Bob and sister Dana grew up (their house, sadly, is no longer there; it was moved many years ago to make way for a parking lot expansion).  Several of my Riggs relatives plan to attend, and we’re making a family picnic of it, which will be great fun.

I’d love to stay for the concluding event of the afternoon, a performance by the St. Cloud Municipal Band, which is celebrating its 125-year anniversary, but we will probably have to skedaddle by then, to get back to our own small town for a trio of graduation parties, and Steve’s community theater performance – just the type of true life moments that gave Sinclair such rich material.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Trolling for Bemidji band stories

My friend Laurel says she can always tell when my life gets hectic – I stop blogging.  It’s true, I have not had much chance to blog lately.  My other (paid) writing gigs and all the end-of-the-school year concerts and events have filled my schedule.  But I did have the chance yesterday to spend an hour and a half at the Minnesota History Center library, and it felt great to be back amid the microfilm machines.

There are so many loose ends to the G. Oliver Riggs project, it’s difficult to decide which one to pick up and follow when I have an opportunity to do more research.  I knew I didn’t have enough time to glean the Louis Hill files for more Montana Cowboy Band information – a mission for this summer – so I decided to troll for newspaper stories from the early days of G. Oliver’s stint in Bemidji, Minnesota.

The Bemidji Boys’ Band, September 1922
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might recall that my great-grandfather's Bemidji Boys’ Band played at the Minnesota State Fair in 1922 and was declared “The World’s Most Famous Boys’ Band.”  The band’s state fair success came three years after G. Oliver formed the band upon moving to Bemidji from Crookston in 1919.

I spent some time two years ago researching the boys’ band and the state fair trip, but I had never done any research on the adult band G. Oliver directed in that city.  In the short amount of time I had yesterday to look through newspaper articles from June and July of 1919, I learned that the band was called the Bemijdi Military Band.  The use of the word military here is deceiving; it doesn’t indicate an affiliation with a military organization but instead means that the band was made up of both woodwind and brass instruments, as well as percussion.

The band gave its first open air concert of the summer at the city’s Library Park on Thursday, June 12 (a great day – it’s my son Sebastian’s birthday), and the program was composed of eight songs:
• “America”
• March “Hail to Old Glory” by Fred Jewell
• Overture “Greeting” by Franz Mahl
• “Sons of Australia” by Alex Lithgow
• Waltz “Vera” by Alex Lithgow
• Selection from “Fiddlers Three” by Alexander Johnstone
• March “Pozieres” by Alex Lithgow
• “The Star Spangled Banner”

An article from the Bemidji Daily Pioneer
Judging from the list of songs, I’d say G. Oliver was on a Lithgow kick.  I’d never heard of Lithgow, so I looked him up.  According to the National Library of Australia, Alexander Frame Lithgow was a famous composer and bandmaster who was born in Scotland in 1870 (the same year as G. Oliver) and moved to New Zealand when he was 6.  A musical prodigy, he joined the Invercargill Garrison Band at age 11; by age 16 he was its principal cornet soloist, and by age 20 he had become its bandmaster. 

I can see why G. Oliver took a liking to him. 

(If you’re interested, you can read more about Lithgow’s career here.)

Music from the operetta Fiddlers Three” (which was not by Lithgow)
In addition to its regular weekly concerts in June and July, the Bemijdi Military Band also played for the opening of Bemidji’s Diamond Point Park; it played at the train station to welcome the 2,000 Northern Pacific Railroad employees and spouses who came to Bemidji for their annual outing; it played a concert at the Birchmont Hotel (now known as Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge) to welcome the attendees of the Northern Minnesota Editorial Association conference; and it played for the city’s Fourth of July celebration.  As was typical, G. Oliver kept his band busy with appearances at community events.

Another thing I learned from scanning the Bemidji Daily Pioneer on microfilm yesterday is that G. Oliver formed an additional band that summer, the United Community Band, which was made up of 32 farmer boys from the townships around Bemidji.

The members were: Charles Hoffer, Ed Niemeyer, Clarence Travis, Herman Gregg, Roy Travis, Percy Maule, Bernhardt Hass, Clarence Wild, Erwin Krohn, Harry Falls, Clifford Travis, Martin Ketchum, Alfred Hass, Martin Hass, Eldin Niemeyer, Arthur Niemeyer, Clarence Pfeile, Herbert Swenson, George Hofer, Gotfred Hofer, George Lundergreen, Alfred Wild, Leonard Wild, Alvin Green, Laval Pfeile, Harry Fox, Roy Runick, Sidney Kruger, Roy Gregg, Tilman Gregg, Charles Bryant and Frank Sydow.

(It appears that Clarence and Roy were the Jacob and Ethan of popular names in 1919 – at least in rural northern Minnesota.)

I don’t know where G. Oliver found the time to form all these bands, instruct the boys, direct rehearsals and plan the concerts.  If blogging had existed in 1919, I suppose he would have fit that in, too!  What an overachiever.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Look to this Mother’s Day

Sunday is Mother’s Day, and I’ll be celebrating it in a most delightful way – hearing two of my three kids (Louisa and Sebastian) perform in the Northfield Youth Choirs spring concert.
The poster for the May 13 concert (designed by Kari Alberg).
The concert features special guests – the St. Olaf Choir, directed by Dr. Anton Armstrong – and a commissioned piece by Carolyn Jennings.  It begins at 7:30 p.m. and is in St. Olaf’s Boe Chapel.  Bring your mom, your kids, your friends – anyone who would appreciate an evening of beautiful music!

The concert is the concluding event of NYC’s 25th anniversary season.  As a parent of two singers and as secretary of the NYC board, I have enjoyed participating in events over the past 12 months that have celebrated the organization’s growth and success.  The milestone season kicked off last summer with the exciting trip to the Pacific International Children’s Choir Festival in Eugene, Oregon (Louisa participated and had a fabulous time).  It also included memorable events like Sebastian’s choir singing at the Twins game on Star Wars night in September; and the alumni singalong in December honoring NYC co-founder Cora Scholz, who was named Northfield's Living Treasure for 2012.

I know NYC Artistic Director Liz Shepley has exciting plans for the 26th season and beyond – stay tuned!