Paul Bunyan Playhouse to open season
Imagine Professor Harold Hill coming to Bemidji, rather than River City, and selling a karaoke system instead of a boys' band.
Throw in a little "How to Speak Minnesotan" and the recipe develops for "Don't Hug Me," the opening production of the 2006 Paul Bunyan Playhouse season.
The original cast performance of Phil Olson's 2004 musical romantic comedy will open at 8 p.m. today. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $12 for youth 18 and younger. Call the box office at 751-7270 for details and reservations. "Don't Hug Me" runs through June 24 under the direction of Zach Curtis, artistic director.
The Chief Theatre curtain rises on the Bunyan Bay Bar, Gunner Johnson, proprietor. It's the coldest day of winter, and Gunner, played by Ross Taylor, wants to sell the business and move to Florida.
His wife, Clara, played by Bonnie Allen, is a former Winter Carnival Bunyan Queen. She wants to stay and continue running the bar.
Bernice Lundstrom, the waitress, played by Emily Trempe, wants to pursue a singing career. Her fiancé, Kanute Gunderson, played by Beau Hayes, wants her to stay home.
Those are the conflicts when fast-talking, slick salesman, Aarvid Gisselsen, played by Michael Lee, swoops into town promising to bring them romance and excitement in the form of the Lifestyle System 562 karaoke machine.
The musical features songs, such as "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town," "My Smorgasbord of Love," and "I Wanna Go to the Mall of America."
The set is itself a visual feast complete with dusty stuffed animals, including a coyote and a buck outside the LumberJacks' and LumberJills' restroom. (The mount also serves as a holder for the toilet plunger.) The Wheaties box with the 1987 Twins World's Series team photo, a Summit, Leinenkugel and Grain Belt signs and wall plaques advising customers to "Have a Crappie Day" are also part of the North Country décor.
"Bunyan Bay is somewhere between Bemidji and Thunder Bay," said Olson in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "It's a fictional town. It's like Lake Wobegon."
However, except for the North Country touches, "Don't Hug Me" could be set in any small town. "It's about relationships," he said. "It just takes place in a little town in northern Minnesota."
Olson wrote the book and lyrics for the songs and his brother, Paul Olson, wrote the music. Olson said they are also collaborating on a sequel to come out in December: "Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol."
As for the set, Olson said he walked by the Leinie Lounge in the Minneapolis Airport and knew exactly what he wanted the Bunyan Bay Bar to look like.
Olson said he spent many summer vacations in Bemidji staying with his family at Ruttgers Birchmont Lodge. He remembers taking the boat out on Lake Bemidji for walleye fishing. Olson told a story about his father, Phil Olson Sr., in Bemidji. He came to play in the Birchmont Golf Tournament and won four times during the 1940s.
"That was before my time," Olson said.
However, he said, one year his father won, spectators held a Calcutta and the bettor who had wagered on Phil Olson Sr. gave him $500 of his winnings. A good thing, too, Olson said, because his father needed the money to complete medical school.
Olson will attend the June 23 performance of his play at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. He said he looks forward to renewing his acquaintance with the area.
"I love Bemidji," he said. "It was fun going up there every summer."