Pipestone's Hiawatha Pageant to close after 60 yearsby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
After 60 years as a regional summertime attraction, the Song of Hiawatha Pageant in Pipestone is ending. Residents of the southwest Minnesota city have decided next summer will be the final performance of what's become a tradition. The epic play is not alone in having problems -- a number of other outdoor theater presentations around the country have also closed.
Pipestone, Minn. — The pageant grounds on the north side of Pipestone are covered with snow. The applause for the performers has long since faded.
"I can visualize exactly how beautiful it is all summer long," says Mick Myers. "And to me it's beautiful even now, covered in snow."
Mick Myers heads the Pipestone Chamber of Commerce. He's also a member of the Hiawatha Club, which stages the pageant.
He's looking over a small ice-covered lake, flanked by evergreen trees and a sheer rock cliff. All of these natural features are incorporated into the production. The audience sits on a nearby hillside. The actors, ticket takers, sound and light crew and concessionaires all are community volunteers.
"This pine tree in front of us, that was planted as a memorial to one of the guys that worked in sound, that was one of the original people. Homer Martens was his name," says Myers.
This theater of memories will see one final staging of the Longfellow poem. Last fall the Hiawatha Club voted to end production after years of declining attendance.
More than half a million people have seen the Song of Hiawatha Pageant since it began in 1948.
The love story based on Indian legend was a natural choice of material. The red pipestone quarry mentioned in Longfellow's poem likely was based on the real pipestone rock facings located just north of the pageant grounds.
Mick Myers says the decision to end the summertime play was difficult. He says some people at the meeting cried. But he thinks the final emotion in the drama will be one of pride.
"The sadness is kind of over," says Myers. "Now we know we're not going to be doing it. It's unfortunate. But I think everybody's happy, because we did a good job."
That sort of summing up is something a number of communities have come to terms with in recent years.
In Kentucky, an outdoor play based on the life of Daniel Boone was ended. In Indiana, it was a performance about Abraham Lincoln's early years.
Rob Fox, director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina, says attendance for the summertime productions has been declining nationwide the past decade.
"During the late '90s there was some decline in the attendance numbers for outdoor drama," says Fox. "And then from 2002 to 2004 we saw a fairly drastic decline in attendance."
There are many reasons for the drop. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, tourism of all types declined. Movies, video games and other forms of at-home entertainment kept people away.
Pipestone's Mick Myers says in his region there was additional competition.
"Casinos. They've been tough on our market," says Myers.
The struggle for entertainment dollars is something other outdoor plays face. Forty miles from Pipestone, the community of Walnut Grove stages an annual summertime drama called the Wilder Pageant. Based on the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, the play draws on her experiences in the Walnut Grove area.
Pageant chair Errol Steffen says the author's continued popularity keeps the crowds coming.
"The series of books that Laura wrote, they're just a constant source of school material for school kids and ongoing interest because of that," says Steffen. "We're very fortunate to have the Laura Ingalls Wilder connection here."
Steffen says attendance for the Wilder Pageant has been fairly steady in recent years.
At Pipestone, officials plan to end Hiawatha on a high note. They're hoping for big crowds by enticing in the people who've always meant to come, but have never actually made it.
Mick Myers says advertising contains the phrase "60th and final year." Tickets go on sale Jan. 2, 2008.
- All Things Considered, 12/31/2007, 5:19 p.m.