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​State of the Stages: Entertainment Venues in the Red River Valley

Theatre | June 15th, 2022

By Brittney Goodman 

goodmanbritg@gmail.com

The High Plains Reader reached out to many owners, operators, managers, and caretakers of performance venues in our area to see the “state of the stages.” We talked about enduring and coming back from COVID, their missions and visions, and the outlook for summer events and beyond.

The central theme when asked about their purpose and mission is to bring entertainment, arts, and culture to our community and to provide community-strengthening events. Every promoter and manager HPR interviewed was passionate about this focus and how they can bring enjoyment and joy to people.

Coming Back From COVID

For many performance venues in our area, dealing with COVID was difficult, if not near-devastating. Emily Beck, Executive Director of the Fargo Theatre, says that although now the Fargo Theatre is in a solid, stable position, the last two years have been “challenging”: “We are still feeling the impact of the pandemic. We are still seeing some postponement of events. Although it is still very much part of our daily existence, it has improved greatly over the last four months.”

Jack Stenerson, Production Manager for the Sanctuary Event Center, says that his venue was “pretty much dark for three months” although they did some socially distanced comedy shows and 49 capacity wedding events.

Jade Nielsen, Founder and Owner of Jade Presents, says COVID meant his company’s events went from “100 miles an hour to zero very quickly” with lots of postponing, canceling, and refunds being issued. Although business is back strong, Nielsen says that they experienced a total of 18 months with negative revenue during Covid and that it has been “tremendously challenging.”

Nathan Pitcher, Music Manager at Dempsey’s Public House commented: “During Covid there were times that we thought, okay, now we can start having music again. But as soon as we had that mentality, we had to stop due to another spike.”

How did our performance spaces deal with Covid? Some, like Walhalla ND-based Frostfire Summer Theatre, did virtual shows. Most closed their doors altogether for several months. Some, like some Jade Presents events, went to larger spaces for spreading out people or having smaller capacity offerings. And others moved outdoors, such as The Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks, with their production of Great American Trailer Park: The Musical, staged behind their building in lawn chairs. Theatre B produced both online and hybrid programming, which “required a lot of attention from ensemble members with certain technical skills, and a small company of performers and designers/technicians who carried a lot of responsibility,” according to Executive Director Carrie Wintersteen.

The amount of touring content has also decreased and that is a concern for many of the talent bookers and performance space managers.

“Finding employees has been rough,” noted Deanna Dahlsad, Public Relations and Events Coordinator for the VFW Club, Post 762, in Downtown Fargo. But on a positive note, she emphasized: “People are ready to get back out and do things. For 20-30 somethings, they prefer buying an experience more than buying a thing. The comeback is going to be strong once we get to a more healthy place. For the businesses that can hang on, they will do well.”

Mike Amundsen, with West Fargo Events, says that “coming out of the pandemic, we need to get together and gather; as humans, we are social and we crave that.”

Something for Everyone

The variety of music and theater venues and events in our area that are still operating is encouraging, and the events this summer and early fall are plentiful and varied. From events for children such as the August 7th Kidchella in West Fargo, featuring arts, crafts, activities for kids and a performance by Koo Koo Kangaroo, to musicals and theatre such as Annie Jr. at the TAK Music Venue in Moorhead June 22-23, to music festivals such the Prairie Pothole Music & Art Festival July 21-23, and to indoor music events like the Primitive Man 10 Year Anniversary at the Aquarium on June 21, and outdoor music events like The Fabulous Armadillos: What’s Going On? Songs from the Vietnam Era at Moondance in Walker, Minn. on June 29, or Lake Street Dive outdoors at Fargo Brewing on August 2, there is something for everyone.

Some highlights include food events such as the Food Truck Festival at the Elks in Fargo June 24-25, featuring live music and karaoke and Dia Del Taco outdoors at Fargo Brewing on June 18. Don’t miss out on Trollwood’s Sun Celebration with a picnic and talent showcase at Bluestem on June 29 and The Trollwood Players Best of Sketch Comedy August 10-11 at Fargo South High School.

If you like outdoor live music and you don’t mind traveling, you might want to note Quiet Riot with Autograph at the Greenbush Race Park in Greenbush, Minn. on July 3; North Dakota Country Fest featuring Locash, Chris Janson, Travis Tritt and Jon Pardi July 6-9 in New Salem, N.D.; the Prairie Pothole Festival July 21-23 north of Anamoose, N.D.; Moondance Rock Music Weekend featuring Bret Michaels, Daughtry, Collective Soul and Candlebox July 22-23; or WEFest Country Music Festival featuring Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, and Luke Bryan, August 4-6 near Detroit Lakes, Minn..

And the F-M-WF outdoor music scene is booming, between the many acts at the Red River Valley Fair, the Essentia Lights Plaza in West Fargo, and Fargo Brewing in Fargo.

West Fargo has really blossomed with events this year. Between West Fargo Events by EPIC Events and Stage West musical and theatrical performances, you are sure to find something in West Fargo to do. Don’t Hug Me, a musical, is at the POW/MIA Plaza in West Fargo June 22-27 and Legally Blonde at the Essential Health Plaza / The Lights July 29-31. West Fargo music is hopping with Big & Rich on August 11 and Hairball on August 12. This weekend is the West Fargo Street Fair at The Yards on Sheyenne. And don’t forget WestFest coming up September 12-17 in West Fargo.

And for the second year, we have a regular treat with Music in Broadway Square in Downtown Fargo.

Venues and Event Companies

Dempsey’s Public House and The Aquarium

Website: https://dempseysfargo.com/

HPR caught up with Josie Jereszek, Co-Director of the Aquarium and Nathan Pitcher, Music Manager for Dempsey’s.

Pitcher is especially excited about June 22nd, Ryan Neeci and The Buffalo Gospel: “They are on a short tour, and will be playing from 9 to 12, on their way to Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wis. They play great, hit you in the chest, folk and country music.” In addition to the Open Mic Night that Gina Powers hosts at Dempsey’s every Thursday, currently Dempsey’s main stage has live music on Fridays and every other Wednesday, but that frequency could change. Pitcher says “Fargo-Moorhead does have something special here in the music scene, and I feel a great privilege to be a part of it.”

Jereszek mentioned some standout events, such as the Emo Night on Saturday July 9, that are beach-themed. The tagline is “From Hot Topic to Hot Tropic – Get Leied and Cry About It.” She is looking forward to the Primitive Man 10 Year Anniversary show on June 21, calling it “a stacked lineup.” She is also excited about the Stuck, Product, and Disappear Forever show on July 22. Jereszek says that dance parties at the Aquarium have been very popular lately, and that they are beginning to see more touring acts coming through.

Empire Arts Center

Website: https://www.empireartscenter.com/

Debra Pflughoeft-Hassett, Executive Director of the Empire Arts Center, has been with the venue since 2008 and has served in her current position since 2019. The mission of the center is to “promote culture and lifelong learning by presenting our own artistic programming while providing a distinctive, welcoming venue for the arts, businesses, and community of the upper Red River Valley.”

In addition to theatrical and musical performances on the main stage of the center (the Thompson Theatre group is performing Footloose June 16-17), they also offer monthly Music Box events that feature live, local musicians and a jam session at the end where audience members can participate. The June session is on the 25th and then the July session is on the 30th. Their summer film series is vacation/summer camp-themed and occurs Sundays at 2 pm on July 17th, 24th, 31st; August 7th, 14th, 21st. More information is coming soon on the Empire Arts Center Website. In addition to the main stage, they also have a Black Box Theatre and a “Back Stage” that can be rented out for celebrations.

The coming season will include: Hands on a Hard Body, August 13-21; School of Rock, September 29-October 9; and The Life Span of a Fact, January 26-February 11. Hands on a Hard Body is based on a true story of people competing to win a truck by keeping their hands on it and is being staged at the Grand Forks Fairgrounds.

EPIC Events 

Website: http://EPICEventsND.com

HPR spoke with McKenzy Olson, VP of Communications for EPIC Events, whose parent company is EPIC Companies. They are West Fargo-based, with an office in Minot.

They buy talent and put on events primarily at Essentia Health Plaza (The Lights) and have recently branched out to Scheels Arena. Olson says that they hope to expand to some plaza spaces in Grand Forks and Minot. Many of their events are free to the community.

The events they manage at the Essentia Health Plaza (The Lights) are unique for our area with its combination of entertainment, commercial, and residential. The experience is modeled after L.A. Live and Phoenix Live as an outdoor “experience in itself.” Being surrounded by buildings, it holds in the sound. Olson says that the plaza can hold around 4,000 people. “Anyone who hasn’t been there, I recommend checking it out.”

One event Olson is excited about is the Norsk Hostfest, September 28-October 1, which is North America’s largest Scandinavian festival, with some prominent entertainment, including Big & Rich and Toby Keith. Olson says, “We are keeping the heritage and cultural side and also trying to catch a little bit of a different audience, including a younger audience.”

The FargoDome 

Website: https://www.fargodome.com/

Upcoming events include USA Wrestling, July 16-July 22; Machine Gun Kelly with Special Guests Avril Lavigne and Willow, July 27; Maroon 5, August 12; and Greta Van Fleet, September 23. Fall and Winter are the more popular trade show seasons, and the FargoDome has many coming up.

The FargoDome also has several options for renting its spaces, from meeting rooms to the entire arena.

Dykema’s favorite part about working at the FargoDome is “when the lights go down right before a show starts” and she is happy to see people coming back: “You can’t have the event without the people being interested. It is not a life necessity to enjoy yourself at a music concert. They are spending their money because it brings joy to their lives.”

Fargo Brewing Company 

Website: https://www.fargobrewing.com/

Jade Nielsen, a partner in the Fargo Brewing Company, enjoys working with that venue. Fargo Brewing Company offers The Taproom and The Hall - indoor spaces for events - and Outdoors at Fargo Brewing. Both venues are very active this summer and fall. Some of the events, all in partnership with Jade Presents, include: the fourth annual Dia Del Taco, June 18, Outdoors at Fargo Brewing, which includes several taco vendors, tequila tasting, and margaritas; Chase Rice with Alexandra Kay on June 23; Corb Lund with Lauren Morrow on June 29; The Melvins with Helms Alee and Harsh Mellow, July 9; and Lake Street Dive on August 8. There are many more acts and events that you can find on their web site.

You can also rent the Hall, The Lounge, and the Brewer’s Bar at Fargo Brewing for private events.

Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre 

Website: https://fmct.org/

The Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre (FMCT) is currently operating out of the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. The mission for FMCT is “enriching our greater community through engaging theatrical and educational opportunities of high artistic quality.” In addition to the theatrical performances, FMCT offers year-round educational programs with a variety of classes and performance opportunities for individuals of all ages.

An approaching show is “9 to 5: The Musical” which is running from July 19 – 25. And for their upcoming 76th season (wow), the FMCT is offering The Little Shop of Horrors: Summer Edition, Silver Follies: Spamalot, Jr., All Childish Things, Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, First Date – a musical, and Mad as a Hatter. Descriptions of shows and ticketing options are available on their website.

The Fargo Theatre 

Website: https://fargotheatre.org/

HPR spoke with Emily Beck, Executive Director. This historic facility features two theatres. While the summer is lighter on live entertainment, they are getting excited for fall and winter. Beck is excited about Deana Carter taking the stage on June 19 and the comedian Steve-O is performing on June 19. Both movie theatres are running first-run films and doing well. Their Kids Flicks series is back with Saturday movies for kids and their parents. She says, “It is really fun to get the families and the little kiddos back.”

Beck highlights that the Fargo Theatre is the only movie theatre downtown and between its performance events and films, “You can make a whole afternoon or night of it. It is especially fun in the summer” with options for ice cream, dinner and a movie or an event. “The absolutely unique atmosphere at the Fargo Theatre in every way shape and form – everything – the architecture, and the people” is seen as a big draw and selling point by Beck.

Frostfire Summer Theatre 

Website: https://frostfirepark.org/summer-theatre

Misti Koop, with Frostfire Summer Theatre, has a lot to be excited about with her venue and event. The Sound of Music is this summer’s big event, and she is returning to the stage as Maria! “I am excited to bring new things to Maria and to work with a new cast. I am excited for people to see the depth of this story.” Frostfire is in Walhalla, N.D. She says that this year’s cast and crew has “great energy.” Tickets are available now and a delicious, themed buffet is offered.

Frostfire Summer Theatre is in its 38th year. Koop hopes to see the venue expand its offerings to music events and would like to expand its lodging options. In addition to the summer musical, Frostfire also offers an Encore Camp – led by theatre, art, and music professionals – where kids spend half of the day with visual arts and half with theatre and at the end of the week, they put on an art show and program. “It grows every year,” Koop adds.

Jade Presents 

Website: https://jadepresents.com/

As the largest promoter in our region, Jade Presents is a huge player in the music and other entertainment scene in the Red River Valley. HPR caught up with Jade Nielsen, Owner of Jade Presents to talk about the company’s role in keeping entertainment alive in our community. Nielsen has been a concert promoter for 32 years, “preceding the FargoDome,” he notes.

Nielsen, in addition to owning and running Jade Presents, is a partner in Fargo Brewing and The Sanctuary, two venues that host events booked and produced by his company.

Jade Presents handles all touring concerts at Bluestem Amphitheatre for ten years – since that venue opened. They also manage all live concert events at the Fargo Theatre and The Sanctuary.

Nielsen says his company is “a very community-based business with a community-based mission. Ultimately, we are looking to improve the life of the community. Often, we make choices from a business perspective, but at the same time we do a lot of events from a quality-of-life standpoint for our community.”

Jade Presents-produced upcoming events are too numerous to mention, so check the web site for a complete list, but Nielsen highlighted the Roughrider Expo they do annually as a great community event and the Live and Local Series in collaboration with the Downtown Community Partnership.

Jade Presents has recently refocused on more local events, after more of a national focus a few years ago. The newly revised mission and rebranding is: “Our mission is to set the stage for local audiences to experience exceptional live events, enriching the community, and making it a better place to live.”

Moondance Events and Moondance Jam 

Website: https://www.moondancejam.com/

HPR chatted with Kathy Bieloh, Owner of Moondance Events, who has been managing Moondance for 31 years. Although this year’s two weekend festivals, Moondance Country Festival and Moondance Rock Music Weekend are a bit downsized, she says it is still going to be a lot of fun: “Our mission is to have people gather and have fun in one of the friendliest atmospheres around.” There are still some major acts playing, along with a great camping experience.

Moondance Country Festival is June 17-18 and has musical acts such as Jamey Johnson, Ashley McBryde, Matt Stell, and Logan Mize. Moondance Rock Music Weekend is July 22-23 and features performances by Bret Michaels, Daughtry, Collective Soul, and Candlebox.

Bieloh is also proud to offer other events and hopes to make people see that Moondance is more than those two weekends. For example, Dueling Pianos with Deuces Wild is returning to the Moondance Jam Saloon on August 12 and the Harvest Moon Beer and Wine Tasting Festival with Live Entertainment is September 17. Bieloh is especially excited to be bringing The Fabulous Armadillos – What’s Going On? Songs from the Vietnam Era to the main Moondance stage on June 29: “They are absolutely fantastic, and the music is directed towards 1960s-70s era veterans.”

North Dakota Country Fest 

Website: ndcountryfest.com

HPR spoke with John Gourley, the Director of Marketing and talent buyer for the fest. This is the fifth anniversary of the festival, happening July 6-9 in New Salem, N.D., about 20 minutes west of Bismarck. Artists include Locash, Chris Janson, Travis Tritt, and Jon Pardi.

Gourley describes the talent lineup for this year’s fest as “unprecedented.” We’ve listened to our audience and they “want the best of classic country and the best of new country and this year we have absolutely hit the bullseye.” The festival has expanded to four days and the first day of the festival, with Locash as the headliner, the admission is a free will donation and 100 percent of those donations goes to First Responders, the area 4H, and the area FFA.

Gourley says this festival is unique with a “Main Street” with a tent with charitable gaming and live music and air conditioning. The camping experience is fun, with the largest cornhole tournament in the world and a decorate your campsite contest.

Gourley says the slogan is “Come for the music. Stay for the experience” and that they aim to make good on that promise.

Prairie Pothole Festival 

Website: https://www.prairiepotholemusicfestival.com/

HPR chatted with John Wardner, the Founder/Owner of Prairie Pothole Festival. This is the 6th year of the festival, held July 21-23 near Anamoose, N.D.

Wardner says to expect “lots of music, and lots of varieties of music. We like to feature every genre that we can. We love music.” Musical acts include Jon Wayne and the Pain, Wick-It the Instigator, Camp Comfort, Prophet (X2), Rootz Within, and Alejo. The event has four stages in addition to arts and crafts and food vendors. There is also an annual kayak race on Saturday. And this year, they have added a 6-hole disc golf course: “It’s going to be pretty cool.” They also offer camping and a lake that is great for non-motorized boating and swimming.

Sanctuary Events Center 

Website: https://www.sanctuaryevents.com/

Jack Stenerson, Production Manager at Sanctuary Events Center, in downtown Fargo, says that while summer is focused more on outdoor music venues in this area, The Sanctuary Events Center stays busy year-round with a variety of events. For music and other entertainment, they partner with Jade Presents, and Jade Nielsen is a partner in The Sanctuary. Rooted in preserving the past while celebrating the present, Sanctuary Events Center is a unique space for cultivating memories, sharing experiences, and contributing to the cultural growth of Downtown Fargo.

Stenerson describes The Sanctuary as a “welcoming and inviting” atmosphere for not only concerts, but wedding receptions, parties, and celebrations of life.

An upcoming concert of note is Asleep at the Wheel on August 25 and more will be announced soon.

Scheels Arena 

Website: https://www.scheelsarena.com/

HPR spoke with McKenzie Myrkle, Event Manager for Scheels Arena.

In addition to concerts and other performance events, Scheels hosts many community events for nonprofits and corporations, such as the showcase for American Gold Gymnastics at the end of their season, Bell Bank’s employee party, a North Pole Gala early holiday party and fundraiser to raise money for families in need of food and items for the holidays, The United Way school supply drive, and the Feed My Starving Children event. They also host fundraising walks.

On June 25-26, Jurassic Quest comes to Scheels Arena, featuring skyscraping, realistic dinosaurs for family fun.Three Food Truck and Flea Market Festivals are on the books, happening June 30, July 21, and August 18. These events will feature a variety of food trucks and people can also buy and sell items in a garage sale / flea market atmosphere. These events are taking up half of the parking lot of the venue. Myrkle likes using the parking lot “because we have the space.” And Lady A is performing at Scheels Arena on September 30.

TAK Music Venue 

Website: https://www.takmusicvenue.com/

Todd Carlson, Owner and Founder of TAK Music Venue in Dilworth, has his goal as “providing a high-quality live music experience for the patrons and for the musicians.” TAK opened its doors in 2018 and prides itself on being a space where “music comes first.” TAK is an acronym for Todd and Kirstin, husband and wife.

In addition to providing an excellent live music experience, TAK is available to rent for parties, graduation celebrations, and a variety of other uses.

This summer, TAK has the following coming up: Annie Jr.: The Musical, June 22-23; Semi Charmed Hero, June 29; and Walking Phoenix Album Release with The Knotties and The Cold Casuals, July 14.

In the Fall, live music will start picking up, and right now, Carlson is excited about the return of Free Fallin’: Todd Petty Tribute Band on November 18: “They are phenomenal.”

Theatre B 

Website: https://www.theatreb.org/

Just closing out its year of performance, Theatre B is going strong, according to Co-Founder and Executive Director Carrie Wintersteen. Although they have wrapped up their 19th season, there is much to look forward to in Season 20 – with four Main Stage shows and two “community collaborations” planned.

One of the collaborations is with the F5 Project, a criminal justice reform organization, to explore a show called “The Exonerated,” “a powerful piece based on the stories of real people freed from death row after their convictions were overturned.” She hopes that there will be a public performance of this staged reading format play. Another collaboration is with HOPE, Inc., an adaptive sports and recreation organization and Concordia Theatre. This is in the initial planning stages. The 20th season Main Stage Shows are: “Keely and Du,” about the abortion debate; An Act of God, a comedy about creation; The Nether, a dark and disturbing play exploring morality and accountability online; and “Small Mouth Sounds,” with a setting of a silent retreat, with body language, shifts in weight, movement, small gestures, fervent glances, and little smiles that tell the story.

Wintersteen also mentioned a “sizzling” summer fundraiser “B ON FIRE” on Thursday, August 11th with music from Tucker’d Out, and enjoy food trucks, homemade marshmallows, fire rings and a special sneak peek at the upcoming season.

Theatre B continues to carry out its mission “to ignite conversations that transform our community through intimate and courageous stories.”

Trollwood Performing Arts School 

Website: https://trollwood.org/

HPR spoke with Kathy Anderson, Executive Director of Trollwood Performing Arts, with a mission “to inspire and help people realize their full potential.” Trollwood is a program of the Fargo Public Schools with three objectives: to provide an outstanding arts education program for kindergarten through graduating seniors; provide outstanding entertainment options for the community; and to serve as an event center, including for weddings, graduation parties, and corporate workshops.

Trollwood offers a variety of programs and classes that serve kindergarten children through graduated seniors, including Arts Spark for young kids, middle and high school classes, with performance opportunities. The Trollwood Academies allow children to immerse themselves in music, dance, film, improvisation, stage makeup, etc. They offer Student Leadership opportunities and a Star Program for students at risk.

Events coming up are the Sun Celebration, June 29; The Wizard of Oz: Totally Trollwood Musical, August 2-3; and the Best of Trollwood Sketch Comedy, August 10-11.

For large events, they partner with Jade Presents. Our teams work “seamlessly together. Jade’s been an excellent partner and we are excited to continue to work with them,” says Anderson. She also thanks their biggest sponsor, Bell Bank.

VFW - Downtown Fargo 

Website: https://fargovfw762.org/

HPR spoke with Deanna Dahlsad, the Public Relations/Events Coordinator at the VFW Club, Post 762, in Downtown Fargo about their performance venue and event spaces. The VFW offers a Main Stage on the first floor of the building as well as a Club B in the lower level. Many parts of the club can be rented out for private events – birthdays, wedding receptions, retirements, etc. In addition to live music every Friday and Saturday night on the Main Stage, the VFW has frequent (usually twice monthly) performances from the FM Drag United, with popular drag shows in Club B. Some upcoming shows for FM Drag United are July 9 and July 30, Dahlsad said they are working with FM Drag United on some potential all-ages brunches / shows. They are also planning some other partnerships for open-microphone comedy shows in Club B.

The Post and Club are looking forward to the 90th Anniversary Post Celebration, being planned for a date near this coming Veteran’s Day. Details will be available soon.

West Fargo Events and Stage West Theatre: POW/MIA Plaza, Essentia Health Plaza at the Lights 

Website: https://www.westfargoevents.com/

HPR spoke with Adam Pankow with the West Fargo Events Theatrical Group and Mike Amundsen, Executive Director of West Fargo Events. West Fargo Events is a nonprofit connected to the City of West Fargo.

West Fargo Events manages major concerts, community theatre, bull riding, and Cruise Nights, with the goal of making West Fargo a great place, “trying to impact the quality of life of our residents” and the surrounding region. Amundsen emphasized that most of the events are free. The venues are The Essential Health Plaza at The Lights, the POW/MIA Plaza, and occasionally the West Fargo Sports arena. Amundsen highlights Cruise Nights as a staple: “a spectacular event that has run well for so long – people keep coming to it.” He also wants people to be aware of the “celebration of being a kid,” Kidchella, Saturday, August 7 with the music headliner Koo Koo Kangaroo. The day is focused on kids’ activities, singing, dancing, arts, and crafts. Free tickets will be available at the West Fargo Street Fair and at Bell Bank beginning June 20.

Adam Pankow says that Stage West had their first production last summer, the musical Rock of Ages held at the Essentia Health Plaza. The Stage West shows come out of a community theatre approach with every show being open to anyone to audition. Coming up is the musical “Don’t Hug Me,” which is Minnesota-based with “a lot of you betchas,” according to Pankow. This is happening at the POW/MIA Plaza in West Fargo June 22-27. July 29-31 and August 2-4, they have the musical “Legally Blonde” at the Essentia Health Plaza. Pankow says, “our primary objective is to make the city of West Fargo a much more artful place.”




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