Medora Musical

Volunteerism in the House that Harold Schafer Built

Last weekend my daughter and I drove out to see the Medora Musical for the first time this summer. It's always pure joy to sit in row G with the incomparable Sheila Schafer, now 90 years old (but going on 60!). When we were there she had already seen the Musical eight times this summer, but you would have thought she had just dropped in from Mars and was experiencing the show, the Burning Hills Amphitheater, and the badlands for the very first time. She laughed at every joke or gag as if she had not heard them repeatedly over the last three weeks. She jumped and clutched her throat when Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders shot their way up San Juan Hill. She cried over a sad country western song and when the patriotism climbed up towards tilt. If anyone could ever genuinely enjoy the Medora Musical more than Sheila Schafer does—and 30-40 times per summer—I have not met that person. 

Meanwhile, she performed her usual a whoopin' and a hollarin' routine from the stands, beginning with her ear-splitting salute, "Hi band!" when the Coal Diggers first appear on stage. People in our vicinity turn their heads to see who is making all the ruckus, but when they recognize that this is the famous Sheila Schafer, widow of the man who transformed the sleepy village of Medora into North Dakota's premier tourist attraction, they relax and smile knowingly. Sheila is almost as good a show as the Musical. Throughout the evening, people meander up the stairs nervously and kneel before her to tell her how she and Harold changed their lives some time long, long ago. "You won't remember me," says a woman in her sixties, but Harold put me through NDSU back in 1972, when my parents got a divorce." "You won't remember me, but you sent a gift to me in the hospital when I had that emergency surgery. And yet we had never even met."

She does remember.

Sheila is a living embodiment of the concept of grace. If grace is the love and benefit that come unearned, unexpected, and undeserved in life, when we least expect it, Sheila appears to exist to perform that role in the world. I have seen her write a note of appreciation to someone she has never met or heard of, but who was mentioned in the newspaper for having represented the Hettinger speech team at the national finals. "Congratulations! You've made all of North Dakota proud." Think of the effect of such an unlooked-for act of generosity--particularly in the heart of a young person just starting out in life.

The Harold and Sheila philosophy of life seems to inspire everyone who visits or works in Medora. Perhaps Harold put something in the water supply. He did, after all, build Medora's basic infrastructure in the 1960s. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (the heir to the Gold Seal Company) hosts an astonishing volunteer program, which this year will bring more than 600 people from all over the United States to spend 5-14 days in Medora—at their own expense. More than 1000 people from 23 states vied for the chance to come to Medora this summer to plant flowers, bus tables, sweep sidewalks, greet foursomes at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, work at one of the food stations at the Pitchfork Fondue, or hand out programs and point people to their seats at the Musical.

Why do they do volunteer? Because they love Medora and the badlands. Because they love what I call "the House that Harold built." Because they like the mix of innocence, family friendly entertainment, faith, patriotism, and optimism that Medora represents. Because they want to spend time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Because they are the kind of Americans who live to volunteer. Because they love Harold and Sheila Schafer, and all that they stand for. 

Someone close to me had a close encounter with the American medical system recently and was treated like a leper: rudeness, arrogance, dismissiveness, unnecessary pain, how do you intend to pay? But in Harold Schafer's Medora you never hear a rude remark and, if you do, that person will not be working there long. There is something at times a bit retro and corny about the Medora Musical, but that turns out to be one of its greatest charms. In an era of breathtaking change, including here in North Dakota, there is something very comforting in driving off the northern Great Plains into the badlands, into a kind of magic western frontier village where the old values and verities still have traction. When I see the TRMF's extraordinarily successful CEO Randy Hatzehbuhler running up and down the amphitheater steps selling popcorn, I just feel better about myself, my state, and my country, however silly that may sound.

The performers on that stage—the Burning Hills Singers, the Coal Diggers (band), Sheriff Bear, cowboy Lyle Glass, the Medora Trail Riders, and hosts Emily Walter and Bill Sorensen—dance and sing and play their hearts out night after night all summer long, in good weather and bad. And whatever the harshest critic may say of this dance or that joke, the performers are clearly having the time of their life, and the audience quickly leaves all their troubles aside and surrenders to the spirit of the place. Innocence still matters. When the North Dakotans in the cast are introduced, they get a roar of pride and affection. When Emily Walter (an Air Force veteran) asks all the veterans in the audience to stand, I choke up every time. Nor can I hear the North Dakota songs without covering my face and feeling a wave of joy, pride, nostalgia, and loss wash through me. Several of the key players on that stage have significant health issues, but you would never know it from the unrestrained exuberance and joyfulness of their performances. 

Meanwhile, back at the Rough Riders Hotel, my young Argentine friends Fecundo and Lucia (and all of their mates from 28 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states), work cheerfully through long shifts as if it were a privilege to spend their summers in Medora rather than a job. We have all experienced the sullenness of service employees in some of our national parks and in commercial stores and restaurants around the United States, and indeed here in North Dakota. But you never see that in Medora.

Why? The best answer I have is that the spirit of the founder, Harold Schafer, lives on. Randy Hatzenbuhler has done a marvelous job of keeping Harold's spirit at the center of every aspect of the Medora Foundation's mission. Another CEO might not have been able to do that, or even wished to. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the indomitable Sheila Schafer is now spending her 50th consecutive summer in Medora, on this, the 50th anniversary ofthe Medora Musical. If you ask her, she will tell you all about "my five terminal diseases," with joyful detachment, while she bakes 200 rolls for a family gathering or rolls out a pair of rhubarb pies, plays a couple of rounds of miniature golf, greets a parade of strangers on her front porch, or gets ready to whoop her way through another Musical performance under the moon and stars. 

Happy Golden Anniversary, Medora Musical. What would a North Dakota summer be without you?

Will It Ruin Your Day If I Use the Word "Snow Blower?"

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 fiftieth 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 NDSU 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 1000 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 nine 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 fifty 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 October 12. That's 114 temperate days, outdoor amphitheater days. If we lived by "Summer Savings Time" rather than Daylight Savings 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 snow blower, just to make sure.

Time to Stop Exporting Our Native Talent

My mother and daughter and I were sitting at the Medora Musical on the Fourth of July—soaking in the joy of a perfect evening in a perfect place. This year's Musical looks back over 50 years of song and dance on the stage of the Burning Hills Amphitheater. At one point the lovely and talented host Emily Walter mentions a few Musical performers who went on to national careers: David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), Job Christianson (Broadway), Tom Netherton (The Lawrence Welk Show), and most recently Kat Perkins (The Voice).

It's an impressive but only a partial list. Harold Schafer's summer open-air show has been the nursery for some major national talent. More importantly, it has served as a platform on which scores of talented young people have had the chance to live out their dreams of performing live before large audiences in one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota.

When Theodore Roosevelt spoke of "the glory of work and the joy of living," he helped to create the mythology of the Old West frontier. That mythology is alive and well in Harold Schafer's Medora, and in Sheila Schafer, now 89, who sits in Row G, a whoopin' and a hollarin' as if she were seeing the Medora Musical for the first time. We all know that she has seen the Musical on several thousand occasions in the last 50 years, and yet every evening that she glides down the escalator into the amphitheater, the magic of an outdoor theater in the heart of the badlands rejuvenates her. And everyone around her.

One of the best things about the economic miracle that has come to North Dakota is that it is laying the groundwork for a burst of new cultural activity in a state that has traditionally exported its talent. The old paradigm was represented by Angie Dickinson and Eric Sevareid—talented and ambitious North Dakotans who were born and raised here, but who left the state at the first opportunity and seldom came back. In fact, Sevareid and Dickinson both sometimes spoke about North Dakota as if it were a slough of rural parochialism and mediocrity that had to be overcome if one really wished to live a full and happy life. Once they achieved escape velocity, they gave their mighty energies to other zip codes, and came back once in a very long while to accept awards from a state that congratulated itself for giving the world people it could not keep.

That North Dakota is ebbing away and I say good riddance. I revere Sevareid, who epitomizes what sane public commentary should be, and who was a lively presence at the birth of broadcast news. And I had the chance a year or so ago to be part of an interview with Angie Dickinson, who has softened her quarrel with the northern prairie, and whose performance in Rio Bravo (with John Wayne, 1959) is enough to make you fall in love. But they left forever.

The Minot-born actor Josh Duhamel is a source of pride for North Dakotans, and he seems genuinely to care about the land of his childhood, but we ought to be prouder of musician and writer Jesse Veeder-Scofield, who has chosen to live on a ranch near Watford City, when she could live anywhere, and who sings the song of North Dakota (not Texas, not Hollywood, not New York City and not Nashville), including the song of the oil boom. Her creativity and her art are not just derived from the broken country of western North Dakota, but her Muse seems to be here, in the creaking floors of the old ranch house and out along the ridgeline. Her presence amongst us makes North Dakota a better, richer place to live. She is just getting started. We need people like Jesse to explore our experience and tell our story, to tease out the mystery and identity of North Dakota in the twenty-first century. Her presence will attract other young artists, especially young women, to cast their lot here and not just bolt for easier venues.

The same is true of our fabulous troubadour Chuck Suchy, who is a great musician and an actual farmer south of Mandan. That's the source of his authenticity. His music over the last few decades has taught us how to love our home place. He has given us a vocabulary for our pride in wildflowers, in a red hunting dog bursting through the tall grass, in the dignity of agricultural life. He is more significant to North Dakota than Warren Christopher, now deceased, who was born in Scranton in 1925, and who served as President Clinton's Secretary of State. Christopher was an important diplomat, but what did he do for North Dakota? He's in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame, as he deserves, but the fact is that he built his life elsewhere. He was one of our great exports. Chuck Suchy has done more for us than anyone who was merely born here. And he is not yet in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame.

Over the past couple of years I have heard Governor Jack Dalrymple, on at least half a dozen occasions, say that we should use some of the great Bakken oil windfall to fund and encourage cultural activity in North Dakota. I love it when he speaks of the cultural heritage and potential of North Dakota, of our responsibility to give it as much attention as we give wheat and soybeans, higher education and oil zone infrastructure. It is clear that he has a vision of what North Dakota could and should be in the year 2030—and beyond. Few places ever get what we are getting—a sudden gigantic infusion of wealth and possibility, beyond our immediate ability to spend it or spread it around. I think the Governor is right that we will be judged—centuries hence—by just how we invested the surpluses.

We have it in our power to make North Dakota the most remarkable place on the Great Plains, one of the most remarkable places in America, if we have the imagination and vision to plant the seeds now.

Great things are already happening here. Some of them are still below the radar, but you will hear more and more about them in the coming years. Organic farms, community gardens, a new higher agrarianism, a food coop (soon!). A renaissance of craft and localism, more high tech and somewhat less clunky than the kind we prized in our grandparents. Independent filmmakers are sprouting up all over the landscape. Brew pubs. Young writers are coming or returning to the state, drawn by the complicated story of the boom, but their best work will almost certainly be about something else that is rooted on the northern plains. When is the last time a North Dakotan wrote anything as good as Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1976)? That moment is likely to come, and it will owe something to shale oil.

I do not wish to play down the dark side of the industrial revolution that has swept into our beloved homeland. But we need to remember that the other side of the coin represents virtually infinite possibility, if we have the strength and imagination to insist upon it. We must demand a conservation and cultural renaissance as our compensation for the losses we feel but hardly yet dare to express.

Of Tawny Grass and the Medora Musical and a Perfect Summer Night

The solstice has come and gone. That always trips a little anxiety deep below the surface of my summer joy. We have reached peak light and now we are heading back into the darkness at the rate of three minutes per day. I spent that evening outside. It would be a crime against the light to be inside on 21 June. I don't know what your top five things about North Dakota are, but for me the lingering summer dusk is one of them. Sunset plus two hours of speechless serenity. Yellow followed by gold followed by pink followed by Bloody Mary red followed by charcoal and gray. Each color phase longer and subtler than the last. The pink sometimes wraps itself all the way around the horizon. Now station a thundercloud way, way off on the far western horizon intermittently pulsing with firefly light and you have paradise on earth.

When you sit out on a night like that, it is like a moment out of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883):

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
To which I reply, Oh let the summer linger and the light.

On the Fourth of July I went to Medora with my daughter and my mother. My daughter is home in western Kansas for the summer. She is involved in 4-H for the last time as a competitor and she already feels the loss. Ask what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America and you will get a range of answers--from the exquisite Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress to the perfect cubic dining room at his retreat home Poplar Forest in Bedford County, VA. As far as I'm concerned, 4-H may be the epitome of Jefferson's vision of life rural kids learning principles of stewardship, humane care of livestock, household economics, craft, nutrition, rural teamwork, and responsible record-keeping, at the hands of enlightened community volunteers.

We sat through the Medora Fourth of July parade in mid-afternoon smirking, had supper in the hotel, and then went to the Medora Musical with Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her 49th consecutive summer in the badlands. Her health issues keep creeping up towards the tipping point, and she just keeps swatting them away with her perpetual youthfulness and lust for life. Her refrain seems to be, I'll let you know when I'm ready! I just want my daughter to be in the presence of such a woman, the most life-affirming person I have ever met. So there I was in the Burning Hills Amphitheater on a fabulous early July evening, with my three favorite women in the world my 18-year-old daughter, my 81-year-old mother, and the ageless Queen.

There were about 1,800 people in the crowd. The singing and the dancing are especially splendid this year. The prestidigitator Bill Sorensen (co-hosting) tells jokes so lame that we guffawed in spite of ourselves. My daughter laughed until she had tears in her eyes. And the principal co-host Emily Walter has such beauty, talent, and stage presence that in my opinion she deserves a much fuller portfolio, in Medora and beyond. Off in the distance Bullion Butte, and the sinuous thread of the sacred Little Missouri River.

The show was moving towards its close. The Burning Hills Singers had danced themselves out. The two North Dakota songs—Come Home to North Dakota, and Always North Dakota-- choked me up, as always, and sent a surge of raw North Dakota pride right into my heart. The finale this year is a beautifully understated patriotic medley. As it began, the most wonderful thing happened. Spontaneously, without cue cards or a barker or an MC, the large crowd just stood up to honor America, born 237 years ago in the pen of our most gifted dreamer Thomas Jefferson. It was everything you could want on the Fourth of July—just retro enough to clear out all the noise of modern life and make you believe again.

Afterwards, Sheila handed out hundreds of ice cream bars out behind her cabin tucked under the bluff at the edge of town, while one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen cascaded down just over our outstretched heads. God Bless America.

On the way home the next day, near Almont, I noticed that the prairie grasses have begun to turn. After a late wet spring, the northern plains are beginning to take on their proper tan and russet look. The moment when the grass turns, mostly green and partly tawny, mostly tawny but still partly green, is my favorite moment of the summer in North Dakota. It's the paling and the graying of the green. That's when I think Ah, I live on the Great Plains of America.

This last Tuesday night I found myself at home alone with no pressing deadline. There had been a quick soaking thunderstorm about four p.m. so I could not work in my much-neglected garden without becoming a human mud ball. I made myself a little dinner of little leftovers and ate it in silence as I read the famous steeplechase scene in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All my electronics were in the off position, as they say on commercial aircraft. The house was perfectly quiet. I took my book and a glass of cold white wine out onto the deck.

The temperature was perfect, precisely what I would have dialed up if I had a hotline to the great god of meteorology. It was not hot. It was warm and, depending on how the breeze stirred, sometimes a little cool and sometimes a little toasty, but toasty in just the right way. No wind, just a gentle breeze that came and went without any drama, like the steady even breathing of the continent. If it had been ten degrees hotter or the breeze three miles per hour stronger, it would have been just one of those North Dakota summer evenings with a summer wind. That would be just fine, but I would not have lingered outside. But this was an evening so perfect in every way that it made me forget that there is winter on the northern plains. About an hour into my reverie, I remember thinking, If I died at dusk tonight (rather than go in to fetch a jacket), I'd be wholly content. The Oglala warrior Crazy Horse used to ride off to battle saying, Le anpetu kin mat'e kin waste ktelo, it is a good day to die. That's how I felt Tuesday night, though I am quite happy to be alive and (reverie or no reverie) there are, fortunately, dozens of projects that must be completed before I let myself croak. Still, that feeling that this is what human happiness is, there is nothing that is missing, was exquisite. I miss my daughter sorely, but if she had been with me we'd be chattering and laughing, not drinking in the gentle breeze in a silence so powerful that you hear it, if that makes any sense.

I just lay there just taking in the evening like a human zucchini, letting thoughts drift in and out of my mind the way you see those motes in your eye drift around slowly and disappear. Somewhere in the distance a mother called out lovingly for her children to come in now for the night.

Happiness at its core is such a simple thing.