A Unique Collaboration of Leads to “Jesse” in 1976

Originally Published in the September 2009 Entertainment Guide

The Northfield Arts Guild will kick off celebrations of its 50th anniversary at the Aug. 15 performance of William Shakespeare’s classic popular play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This is also a celebration of the 10th year of holding a summer show in Central Park.

Scene from the 1976 show, “Jesse.” The robbery scene in Northfield.

The Arts Guild had its genesis in the summer of 1959 when a group of around 50 Northfielders came together to present Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness,” directed by Ralph Haugen at St. Olaf. That fall several artists began offering drawing and painting classes. By the time the group voted to buy the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church building at 411 W. Third St. as its home base in 1961, the Northfield  Arts Guild was already a comprehensive arts organization with classes in visual arts, dance, music, theater and creative writing. In 1979, NAG moved to the Old City Hall at 304 Division St., leaving the former church free solely for NAG theater events.

Musicals had been produced at NAG since 1965, but gathered renewed energy when the Northfield Musical Theater (NMT) was formed in 1974 under the guidance of Myrna Johnson, Marie Sathrum, Sue Shepard and Dick Cantwell. The new musical theater program benefited from the professional talents of Vern Sutton of the University of Minnesota, who starred in and directed many shows from 1974 to 1983.

Among the celebratory events of NAG’s golden anniversary are the return of two musical productions written specifically for the organization: the melodrama “Jesse,” first presented during the 1976 bicentennial year, and “Donata’s Gift” from December 1998. “Donata’s Gift” was an adaptation of an Italian tale, with book and lyrics by Christine Kallman and music by Dan Kallman, who also served as musical director.

“Jesse” came about because of Johnson’s association with the Stagecoach, a summer theater near Shakopee, which was run by the University of Minnesota. In 1967, Johnson was a member of the company and acted with Sutton, who was then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Bob Moulton, a professor at the University of Minnesota, was the director.

Myrna Johnson as Kate of Kate Clark’s “Fancy House” with her “wild girls”’ in the 1976 "Jesse" show.

When Johnson became aware of a play that Moulton and his wife, Maggie, had written about Jesse James, which had been performed at the Stagecoach, she felt it would be a perfect fit for Northfield for the bicentennial year of 1976, which was also the 100th anniversary of the James-Younger bank raid. It would also be a change of pace from traditional musicals for the Northfield Musical Theater group. Grants-in-aid from the Minnesota State Legislature, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Minnesota Bicentennial Commissions allowed for reworking of the script for “Jesse” by the professionals to turn it into a full-fledged musical melodrama.

Staging of “Jesse” was by Moulton, a theater professor at the University of Minnesota who was also a dancer, actor, choreographer and director. Sutton wrote lyrics for the songs and assisted with staging. Sutton was a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Music from 1967 to 2003 and director of the Opera Theater for 30 years. A versatile singer and actor, he was also a frequent guest on  Garrison Keillor’s radio show, “Prairie Home Companion.” The music was written by William Huckaby, who was music director of the Western Opera Theater, the touring company of the San Francisco Opera. Northfield’s own Donna Paulsen expanded Huckaby’s melody line into an orchestrated score under a grant for the 1986 production. Paulsen has played the piano and been musical director through all of the shows (1976, 1977, 1986, 1994, 2001 and again this year). Johnson served as production manager for the 1976 show and has directed all subsequent stagings of “Jesse,” including the current one. Johnson was artistic theater director of the Northfield Arts Guild for 37 years until 1996 and is the NAG archivist.

Johnson explained that since Sutton had been participating in the Northfield Musical Theater since 1974, he was well-acquainted with potential cast members for “Jesse” and could tailor roles for certain individuals. The 1976 show had an “amazing cast,” said Johnson. For example, Charlie Black owned the role of Jesse James up until this year’s production and the late Don Parker was an “outstanding Bob Ford, a sleazy, greasy kind of villain that is hard to find.” Johnson herself played Kate, proprietress of Kate Clark’s Fancy House, alongside “wild girls who made the Wild West wild,” including NMT regulars Marie Sathrum and Sue Shepard.

Charlie Black (left) as Jesse James and Jim Bird as Frank James in the 1976 show of "Jesse."

In a review of the first show in the Northfield News of Sept. 16, 1976, Maggie Lee wrote that “Jesse” is a “fast-moving, exceedingly entertaining experience. And even though you’ve never heard the music before, it seems as though the songs are old friends.” Charles Black is “perfect in a melodramatic role of a bad boy of the middle border, tempted beyond his capacity to resist revenge against high-born sinners who have done his family and his cause wrong.” Jesse’s wife, Zee, was portrayed by Emily Schmit of the Minnesota Opera Studio and Judy Brandt played Bob Ford’s nefarious sister, Cindy. Jim Bird was Frank James and Gordon Forbes was Clyde Wagstaff, a Pinkerton agent determined to bring Jesse to justice. The premiere featured chuck wagon food with seating on hay bales, souvenirs and the arrival of the James-Younger Gang on horseback.

A Sept. 9 Northfield News article said that although “Jesse” is based on historical fact, the creators of the show “are also avowedly interested in fostering an image of Jesse James which is larger than life. They feel that by now any treatment of Jesse must deal with the mythical proportions he has assumed and they’ve done all they could in the music, lyrics and dramatic action to do so. They have also incorporated a hearty dose of the national and regional lore that make a tale like Jesse’s worth hearing when it is well told.”

“Jesse” is a well-told tale, created expressly for the Northfield Arts Guild by a unique collaboration of talented individuals back in 1976. The 50th anniversary year of the founding of the Northfield Arts Guild is, in Johnson’s words, “an appropriate time to do this show because it’s such an integral part of our theater’s history.”

And, she added, “It’s a fun show. It’s good for the audience and fantastic for anyone who’s in it, too.”

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