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Happy Days in Albert Lea

March 11, 2008 - Kevin Sweeney
When I was studying journalism in college, back in the days when cutting and pasting was done with scissors and rubber cement, we spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of jobs would be available for us. Nobody ever mentioned "blogging." It hadn't been invented yet.

"Blog" was the sound guys used to make after overindulging at a college keg party. After a few too many beers, one would head behind the bushes and go "Blog… BLOG… BLOOOOGGGG."

And yet, here I am, writing a blog. Sort of regurgitating some things I see in the news.

I saw one item on the state AP wire today that brought some pleasant memories. The City of Albert Lea is going to rename the Albert Lea Civic Theatre. It will be known as the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center.

Marion Ross is one of the two most famous natives of that bastion of Scandinavianism on the southern Minnesota prairie. She and her family moved away when she was in junior high, and she went on to an acting career. Her most famous role was as Marian Cunningham on "Happy Days."

It is very appropriate that the theater be named after Marion Ross. I was working at the Albert Lea Tribune when the theater was built in a vast remodeling project. That was back in the days of the Federal Revenue Sharing program, when the federal government just gave money to cities to do with as they pleased, even as they ran budget deficits year after year.

As the program came to a close, Albert Lea city fathers had about $400,000 to spend. They didn't want to spend it on continuing expenses or regular operations, because once it ran out they'd have to raise taxes to keep operations going. They wanted to do a big, one-time project. So they took a rundown downtown building that had been a small burlesque stage and one-time movie theater. The Masonic Lodge was on the third floor of the building, but they had accessibility issues with no elevator.

The city partnered with the vibrant Albert Lea Community Theatre organization, which pledged $85,000 for curtains and lights, and remodeled the theater. The city gutted it, from the third floor down to the basement, and built a beautiful, small theater, giving the community theater a home, and putting in an elevator for the Masons upstairs.

Shortly after it opened, Albert Lea Mayor O.H. "Buzz" Hagen got the bright idea of inviting Marion Ross, the city's long-lost daughter, to come to Albert Lea to appear in a play in the new theater. Surprisingly, she agreed. She had been doing a summer stock production of "Chapter Two" somewhere in Texas, and she said she'd do it if she could bring her leading man. Two local actors were cast in the two supporting roles, and it was directed by Mike Brindisi, currently the artistic director at the Chanhassen Dinner Theaters, but then the managing director of ACT.

It was a great homecoming. I got to interview Marion, who is a wonderfully kind, fun and interesting person. She was truly pleased to be back in a home town she admitted she couldn't wait to get out of when she was young, and truly happy to see her many old friends. It was a wonderful, magical production that had people smiling for a long time.

So now we come to the point of this blog. Gee, wouldn't it be great if New Ulm had a wonderful spot for the performing arts? Federal Revenue Sharing is long gone, but an investment in a performing arts center is a wonderful idea. There is a lot of interest in the theater in this town. Let's keep our minds open and who knows what kind of opportunities might present themselves.

Oh, and the other most famous person from Albert Lea? Eddie Cochran, the young rock ’n roll star of the 1950s, who died at age 21 in a taxi crash while on tour in England in 1960, but not before giving us that early rock classic, "Summertime Blues."


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