MEDORA — Bill Sorensen knows his happy place.
"This place got its teeth into me," the former Bismarck mayor and longtime performer said, sitting in the front row of the Burning Hills Amphitheatre as stage preparations wound down Thursday evening at the Badlands venue.
Sorensen, 69, is beginning his last season as co-host of the Medora Musical. But it's not curtains for his performing career; he'll still appear in the Medora Gospel Brunch, Christmas tour and Old Town Hall Theater performances.
"It won't be the last of Bill, that's for sure," said Emily Walter, who has co-hosted with Sorensen as the Medora Musical's "Queen of the West."
Sorensen grew up in Bismarck and found his way to Medora in 1976 after graduating from and working at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. He performed some magic shows that summer of the American bicentennial and knew he had to be back.
And so he has been — logging 2,500 music, magic and comedy shows of the 4M Revue beginning in 1984. He came to co-host the Medora Musical in 2013 with Walter after stepping in for a magic act.
"I consider it an honor to have my chance on the stage to continue that tradition and that heritage that has gone before me," Sorensen said. "I love it."
Sorensen's fellow performers say his spontaneity, self-deprecating humor and stage presence are what they value in him.
"He’s the most professional unprofessional person on stage I’ve ever met," said Curt Wollan, the musical's producer/director, who was a Burning Hills singer when he met Sorensen in 1977.
His son and Sorensen's co-host Chet Wollan said he'll miss Sorensen's energy. The 33-year-old has known Sorensen since he was 2.
"Sometimes you don't even know what's going to come out of his mouth or how long it's going to take, but that's part of the fun of working with Bill," Chet Wollan said.
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"I think the biggest thing is he just truly, truly, truly loves to perform," Walter said.
As Sorensen's performing career began, so did his tenure in elected office. He was 28 when he began his first of two terms on the Bismarck City Commission in 1978, followed by two terms as a District 47 House lawmaker in the North Dakota Legislature as a Republican.
In 1990, the communications businessman ran for mayor of Bismarck and won the first of three terms ending in 2002.
"I was very fortunate to be the mayor when we did a lot of things which I thought were progressive and good for the city," Sorensen said, pointing to the MDU Resources Community Bowl and restoration of the Belle Mehus Auditorium.
"I can't tell you how much I loved that job," he said.
Sorensen also managed boxing champion Virgil Hill.
But the years have seen their ups and downs. Sorensen underwent multiple heart bypasses in 2008 and was absent from the 2016 Medora Musical season during treatment for Stage 4 throat cancer, but he still managed gospel brunch performances.
Today he's cancer-free, feeling "lucky and blessed," though he considered his health in his decision to make this season his last.
He's working on other projects, both related to natural gas flaring in North Dakota's Bakken oilfield, and he still has his other Medora shows in his semi-retirement.
"He has lent his incredible talent to the stage for a long time," Walter said.