By Jessica M. Hawkes
It wasn’t long after the founding of the railroad and river town of New Rockford that entertainment venues started to put down their own roots. Its population bolstered by booms of nearby farmers taking advantage of the Homestead Act and itinerant workers building the Great Northern Railway Line to the west, the community teemed and fed the growth of dance halls, dining rooms, churches, bars, and, perhaps surprisingly, theatres.
In the days before radio, television, and Hollywood, public entertainment on the prairie came in the form of community bands, dances, and programs, and the occasional traveling moving picture show and theatre group. New Rockford boasted some of each in its formative years. Saad Hall hosted the first moving picture show in 1899, and the first opera house opened as an addition to the Brown Hotel in 1902. But as happened in many quickly-built communities, fires ripped through New Rockford’s nascent downtown with frightening frequency, razing the wooden buildings and encouraging the introduction of the brick buildings that still stand in the town today.
One of these, the building that would house the Niven Opera House, was constructed on one of New Rockford’s main avenues just following one such blaze in 1910. Up a wide wooden staircase from the street level entrance, now worn smooth from a century of footsteps, Sunday-best dressed patrons were ushered past a small Art Deco box office and then inside the second-floor theatre space, to see performances by local talent and traveling shows.
Not much is known to exist publicly in terms of memorabilia of this era of the theatre scene. Photos of shows and playbills with missing dates, few names, and little else in the way of historical detail tantalize with glimpses of their costumed casts. Several confirmed photographs, suits, tickets, props, and half a pot of grease paint makeup, all directly tied to early theatre manager Jack Johnson and his troupe, Jack’s Players, dress the lobby of the modern theatre space downstairs.
Since 1991, this space has been the home of Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts (DPRCA), founded and guided these past three decades by Managing Director Deb Belquist. Belquist is both the face and the heart of the organization, working in any and every capacity to see the shows launched, glittering, lit, staffed, dressed, and on time, season after season.
Cast and crew who have spent time in the Opera House will tell you, old Jack Johnson still makes his presence known in the building. Over the 20 years of productions held in the original Opera House by DPRCA, many inexplicable blackouts, strange noises, missing items, and other eerie happenings have been known to occur. Superstitious by nature and tradition, theatre folk are more likely to thank Jack than complain about him, lest his tricks get any worse.
But decades go by and the face of a small town changes, and as the aging Opera House demanded more and more upkeep, in 2011, the local Methodist Church had found its membership dwindled down to a handful of loyal congregants. They voted to dissolve, and to donate their own historic 1899 brick and stained glass church building to DPRCA. Several years of shoestring-budget handiwork, fundraising, grant writing, and constant, ongoing renovations—including the installation of brand-new individual theatre seating to replace the original church pews—have transformed the entire space. The former altar area is now the primary production space for the organization’s musicals, drawing in more than 10,000 annual visitors to the town of 1400 (at least, in the years pre-COVID.)
DPRCA’s productions are known for their ambition, taking on big name shows and first-run productions, and even more so for the incredible level of talent they bring together. Performers come from as far away as Illinois, Missouri, New York City, and Los Angeles, often with credentials of university-level Musical Theatre degrees. They, along with the crème de la crème of a substantial pool of local and regional talent, are invited to experience the rural life while rehearsing with Artistic Director Elliott Schwab, himself commanding 10 years of experience with DPRCA and a Master’s degree in Vocal Music from North Dakota State University. Such a crew has just pulled the curtain back on season 31 with a summer run of “Little Shop of Horrors”.
The original Opera House space still houses the administrative offices of DPRCA, but performances there have become fewer and more specialized. Live music, vendor events, and community meetings often fill the space now, while major productions roar at the Old Church Theatre down the street. Whether Jack stayed home or went to the new stage is still up for debate.
With such a long and storied history, what might the future hold for theatre in New Rockford, and for DPRCA? There have always been performers, stage hands, and theatre-goers in this prairie community, and may there always be.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
For more information on Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts, follow them on Facebook or go online at www.dprca.org to find performance tickets and information on upcoming events.
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