May Merriment in Northfield

Originally Published in the May 2007 Entertainment Guide

Ah, May! In the early years of the last century, the sounds of music echoed from Manitou Heights down to Lyman Lakes as Northfielders pursued springtime revelries centered at the colleges. In his first year as musical director, F. Melius Christiansen organized the first St. Olaf College Music Festival held May 17-18, 1904. The Northfield News touted the fact that all railroads in the Midwest were granting reduced fare rates to festival goers. The paper promoted Northfield as being one of the most picturesque, healthful towns in the Northwest, with one of the best drainage systems and having the “best and most up-to-date residences.” The conclusion: “Those who contemplate a change cannot do better than to inquire into the advantages of Northfield and its surroundings as a place of residence.”

Who wouldn’t want to live in a town where in two days you could see the St. Olaf Choral Union and Danz’s Symphony Orchestra of Minneapolis give performances of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation,” enjoy a faculty recital, band and chorus concerts and join a crowd of 2,000 to “vociferously cheer” at a baseball game between St. Olaf and Luther College? The Northfield News reported, “This occasion was the first the citizens of Northfield and vicinity ever had to hear as large a chorus, accompanied by an orchestra, of any repute. It was a feat for the musicians and from the first strains of the introductory, the audience was held almost spellbound…To Mr. Christiansen belongs the praise of the whole music festival.” (This festival continues today, although it now occurs later in the year.)

Three Carleton stu-dents, dressed as but-terflies, celebrated the coming of spring at Carleton College’s May Fete festival of 1925. The theme of this fete, held at Lyman Lakes, was “The Enchanted Flute.” Among the other dancers were grass-hoppers, peacocks, elves and fairies. Image courtesy of Carleton College archives.

Carleton was not about to leave the laurels of May to St. Olaf. Starting on May 22, 1909, and lasting through 1963, a May Fete was held at Carleton which was said to have attracted more visitors to Carleton than any other event. An ice cream social in 1907 evolved into May Fete, which was first celebrated with marches, dancing around a May pole, glee club singing, ice cream and the crowning of the May queen. In 1911, the play “As You Like It” was performed by women on the lawn of Gridley Hall and in 1915, dancing and pantomime to the theme of “The Story of the Crocus” were added. The pageant moved to Lyman Lakes in 1918 and in 1924 the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was featured as 125 girls in “fluffy white” danced a snowflake ballet in the finale. The May Fete even included a horse show from 1933 on.

Carleton was also the scene of a momentous event on May 6, 1948, when “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” by the renowned German playwright Bertolt Brecht, was given its world premiere at the Nourse Little Theater.The director, Carleton drama instructor Henry Goodman, had been a student of Eric Bentley, who was Brecht’s friend and translator of his plays. Bentley had just finished translating “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which had not been per-formed before in any language. Carleton archivist Eric Hillemann says, “Bentley suggested that Goodman take it on at Carleton, and Goodman jumped at the opportunity.”

Alvis Lee Tinnin, the first African-American to earn a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College (1949), appeared as Adzak in the premiere production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” at Carleton’s Little Nourse Theater in May, 1948. Image courtesy of Carleton College Archives.

Hillemann also notes that this produc-tion was significant because Alvis Lee Tinnin, Carleton class of 1949, played the lead role of Azdak and was the first African-American to earn a bachelor’s degree at Carleton. Tinnin also played Azdak in Bentley’s production near Philadelphia during summer break in 1948. (Tinnin would later become a French professor at the University of Redlands in California from 1969-1990. He died in 2004.)

Play ball! This cry has also echoed through the story of May in Northfield’s history. The first baseball game between St. Olaf and Carleton was played on May 14, 1887, and by 1892 some St. Olaf faculty members were complaining at a Trustees’ meeting of “too much baseball playing” on the hill. One of the town’s first baseball games was on May 3, 1895, when Northfield defeated Mankato. And on May 4, 1948, the very same week as the Brecht premiere, 50 spectators crowded into the Surge Electric Shop at 508 Division St. to marvel at the first
“remarkably clear” television reception in Northfield. A baseball game being played in the Twin Cities was shown on KSTP-TV. The Shop invited everybody to “daily television parties.”

We can’t forget one other event on a past May entertainment calendar. From May 19-23, 1972, The Grand Theater showed the movie, “The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid,” starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall. The headline for the Northfield News review read, “Compared with Fascinating Facts, Raid Film Misses the Mark.” Alas. But that movie assures that the name of Northfield is glorified wherever second-rate videos (featuring first-rate actors) are rented to the public.

Information for this story was found in the archives of the Northfield Historical Society, Carleton and St. Olaf colleges.

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