Located two hours from any larger metropolitan area, if Spencer wants the arts, the people here have to make it happen. And they have a history of taking care of themselves. In 1931, after a fire destroyed many downtown buildings, they were rebuilt quickly and rebuilt with a distinctive art deco flair. In similar fashion, local people have worked together to provide for the performing arts: a community theatre in a 1910 remodeled grocery warehouse, the Vienna Boys Choir in the 1937 High School Auditorium, or Sesame Street Live at the new Clay County Regional Events Center.
It’s 8:30 on a cold, January night, rehearsal time at the Spencer Community Theater. They’re working on the choreography for their next production: The Taffetas. It’s a musical revue that takes a nostalgic look back to the 1950s. Working with a recording to get the moves down, for the performances, they’ll dance and sing with a live band.
Community theatre here can trace its roots back to the 1930s, when some women organized private readings and little drama presentations to beat the great depression blues.
Officially organized in 1959, today the Spencer Community Theatre performs in what was a 1910 grocery warehouse. The warehouse conversion began in the early 1980s just as the farm economy began to slide. Local theatre people asked Spencer businessmen to help them get a loan.
Connie Goeken, Executive Director, Spencer Community Theatre: “I believe that it was just the right people at the right time with the right project and it caught fire and everyone had the enthusiasm at the same time, realized the value of the project, and what a great thing it would be for the community. And everybody got on board. As one of those businessmen said to me the other day ‘It was just magical.’”
That magic led to a 266-seat theater in what was the warehouse proper. An old cooler was turned into restrooms. While concessions are served out of the old vault.
And despite the farm crisis of the 1980s, they kept up the payments on the loan.
Today, the Spencer Community Theater does four main stage productions, two children’s performances and a music event each year. They’ve premiered original plays, taken productions on tour, even to Des Moines, and occasionally booked other performers. There are two full-time and five part-time employees.
The budget for the 2007 – 2008 season was a little over $278,000. Ticket sales bring in about 45% of their budget. The group gets some financial help from various government and private entities. In addition, volunteer time for the 2007 – 2008 season totaled over 29,000 hours. At minimum wage, that free effort was worth over $200,000. But they also have another rather unique revenue stream.
Almost 40% of the money here comes from costume rentals. That’s correct. The theatre group has amassed this amazing collection of about 30,000 costumes that they rent to schools and community theatre groups across the country.
Now the group is getting ready to remodel this old warehouse again. The 1.2 million dollar project will create an improved performance space.
It was spearheaded when a local couple left some money to various organizations in the community. The theatre group received about a half-a-million dollars. And they already have many other pledges of money, a lot of which will be spent with local contractors.
What might also generate some work for local companies is the effort to rejuvenate and update the old high school auditorium built in 1937.
Seating over 900, with two balconies and an orchestra pit, the auditorium is actually still functional.
Though there’s a new High School, student productions are still staged here. And some concerts are put on here by the Spencer Area Concert Association – another longtime community institution.
Martin Arthur, President, Spencer Area Concert Association: “As far as I can tell, it dates back at least to the 40s. One member mentioned that she joined the concert association when she came here after WWII as a bride.”
This season, the Association is putting on 8 concerts and has reciprocity agreements with three other communities, one in Minnesota.
The Association features Iowa, national and occasionally international performers, like the Vienna Boys Choir, which was an extra concert this season, underwritten by a grant from the Clay County Community Foundation.
While season tickets cover most of the costs, the Association has a co-sponsor for each concert, several for this one.
For an even larger space, there’s the Clay County Regional Events Center at the Fairgrounds. Opened in November, 2003, its exhibit hall can seat up to 2800 and has hosted shows from Kenny Rogers to Sesame Street Live to bull riding.
While the Events Center is new, Spencer’s support for the performing arts, for all the arts really, is not a recent bow to economic development strategies. In the beginning, people here nurtured the arts for themselves.
Locals credit that attitude to several things.
Some point to the self-sufficiency of the community, evidenced in it’s response to a fire that destroyed downtown in 1931.
Bob Rose, Executive Director, Spencer Chamber of Commerce: “In 1931 when we loose 60% of our downtown, it's just amazing that in the depths of the depression of the ‘30s that 50 or 60 properties are rebuilt within a year.”
Not only was downtown rebuilt but it was rebuilt with flair,the buildings featuring art deco styling.
The other thing that people here note is that Spencer is at least 2 hours away from any larger urban center. Geographically isolated, if people here want cultural enrichment, it’s up to them to make it happen.
Martin Arthur, President, Spencer Area Concert Association: “The first year that I was a member of the concert association I came to a concert here. It was a chamber orchestra from Moscow, Russia. They played a piece by Shostakovich and I sat in the balcony and I actually had tears in my eyes because I never thought that I would hear music like that in a place like Spencer.”
Connie Goeken, Executive Director, Spencer Community Theatre: “People wanted to do a play. I know it sounds corny but that, ‘oh let's get together and do a play’ you know that Mickey Rooney Judy Garland kind of thing, that spirit permeated these people. They said, ‘let’s make ourselves some art. Let’s do some theater. Let’s make this ourselves.’ And I think that's why it succeeded for so long because we did not do it for someone else. We did it for ourselves.”
Additional Images: Parker Historical Society of Clay County; Medlar Studio, Spencer; H.F. Strom, Jackson, MN; Rick Krebsbach, Marvin Burk Photography, Spencer; Spencer Community Theatre