July is almost gone. Any day now the box stores will carve out large spaces for school supplies. We all know what’s coming — what every North Dakotan knows must come — and it makes us want to linger outdoors in the evening, makes us want to schedule more picnics, more hikes, more days at the lake, more time on the river, more afternoons in the Badlands than we would think appropriate if this were southern California and summer lasted forever.
We cannot afford to pace ourselves here. North Dakotans have to squeeze in an awful lot of recreation between July 1 and Labor Day. It’s use it or lose it on the northern plains.
My daughter and I were in Medora last week to see the Medora Musical with the great Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her 50th summer in the Badlands.
Sheila’s husband Harold Schafer (1912-2001) started with nothing in life, worked like a demon, made what was then a vast fortune by marketing Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach, and Mr. Bubble, and then gave it all away — to worthy young people who needed money to go to college, to fledgling organizations and institutions across North Dakota, to perfect strangers for whom he felt instantaneous bursts of sympathy. But above all to the broken down little cattle town Medora, which he began to restore in the 1960s.
After he had rebuilt the Joe Ferris Store and the Rough Riders Hotel, Harold more or less inherited the Burning Hills Amphitheater when the North Dakota State University outdoor melodrama “Old Four Eyes” broke down.
At the time, the amphitheater was just plank boards and a rudimentary stage perched on a steep Badlands slope. No seat backs. When it rained, the hillside oozed down onto the stage, and Harold and Sheila could be seen, along with Gold Seal’s Rod Tjaden and whoever else was handy, shoveling mud and bentonite off the stage to clear the way for the show.
Harold decided that what Medora needed was a music and dance extravaganza — songs with a western feel, a little dollop of “Teddy” Roosevelt, a little gospel, a little humor, some serious patriotism, and a celebration of virtue and the work ethic. Harold brought reliable family entertainment to the Badlands, derivative, during those first years, of the “Lawrence Welk Show.”
In the middle of each show he wanted a visiting “act”: acrobats, clowns, comics, or — if the gods were smiling — a dog act, like one of Harold’s perennial favorites, “Victor Julian and His Pets.” Nothing like a dozen poodles in pink tutus.
In the early years, a crowd of 300 was seen as a “stunning success,” but even to achieve that, Harold sometimes had to round up nurses or bank tellers in Bismarck, bus them at his own expense out to Medora, feed them along the way, and give them free passes to the show.
If you think about it, it’s an inherently insane idea: to try to get a thousand people per night to venture west to a village with a permanent population of around 100, for the purpose of seeing an outdoor song and dance show during North Dakota’s brief temperate season. Only Harold Schafer could have cooked up such an improbable notion, and only Harold Schafer could have persevered to make it work.
In 1992, the current version of the Burning Hills Amphitheater was built, with its wide stage, sets and backdrops worthy of Hollywood or Disneyland, a state-of-the-art sound system, and comfortable seats. All it needs to achieve perfection is a second escalator. Average summer attendance is now slightly more than 100,000.
The musical is always good and sometimes great. But I doubt 1,000 people per night would venture into the Bismarck Civic Center to see it. The magic of the Medora Musical is that in order to see it you have to sit in the open air on a summer night in the Badlands.
You begin the evening under blue skies and end it under the twinkling stars of the Northern Hemisphere. Before the show, I like to linger up on the Tjaden Terrace, where you can look to the south and see North Dakota’s greatest butte, Bullion Butte, off on the horizon, and nothing but broken Badlands in between.
As I sat there Tuesday night, next to two of my favorite people in the world, in shirtsleeves, with happy, relaxed, and happy people seated all around us, I had that sudden realization that we North Dakotans get, “Hey, I’m sitting outside at 9 p.m. It’s still light. There are no mosquitos. The temperature is absolutely perfect. I’m in my shirtsleeves.”
But gurgling through the lower reaches of my brain was the grim knowledge that there are really only about 50 such shirtsleeve days per year in North Dakota, about one in seven. There are at least four months per year (November-February) during which no amount of protective gear would be enough to keep you in am amphitheater seat for two hours, four more (October and March-May) when you’d be in a pathetic group huddle under parkas, stocking caps, mittens, and blankets, and the Burning Hills Singers would be blue, stiff, lurching stick figures, blown off the stage from time to time, slogging not clogging to the sound of music.
Actually, I have experienced such an evening at the musical, two years ago, and it was in late June!
September is arguably the most beautiful month in North Dakota. In an ideal world, the musical would start on June 20 and continue to Oct. 12. That’s 114 temperate days, outdoor amphitheater days. If we lived by “Summer Savings Time” rather than daylight saving time, and the North Dakota school system would agree to cooperate, we wouldn’t have to roll up summer (boats, cabins, picnic and camping gear) on Labor Day, and effectively shut down our outdoor life a month early.
We North Dakotans need to savor every temperate day we get. It’s a shame to move life indoors prematurely, when there is still so much joy to be banked in anticipation of the first ground blizzard.
In the course of my life, I have seen the musical at least 50 times, most of them with Sheila Schafer whooping next to me, shouting out “hi, band!,” laughing, wiping away tears, dancing in her seat, and single-clapping, as if she were sitting in the amphitheater for the very first time.
All I can say is it’s quite a show — and so is the musical. When she is in the house, all the performers bring their best game to the stage. It’s impossible, I realize, not to be carried away by Sheila’s youthfulness (at 89) and generosity of spirit, but I do honestly think this is the best Medora Musical ever.
The talent of the Burning Hills Singers is more uniformly high than ever before. Chet Wollan just gets better every year, and he somehow fills that whole wide stage when he steps forward to sing. Candice Lively has a perfect Medora Musical voice. When she sings about North Dakota, I just well up in state pride every time. Host Emily Walter is so major a talent that it is amazing she is willing to spend it out here on the frontier. And Bill Sorensen’s buffoonery never fails to make the audience groan with appreciation — what could be better than that?
It got dark a little sooner last night. By my calculation, we have just 36 days until Labor Day. That’s when we fire up the snowblower, just to make sure.