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Pioneer Previews: Leaving his mark: Dick Lueben made difference in Bemidji Community Theater

This afternoon many of us will gather together for a final tribute to Richard (Dick) Lueben at Cease Funeral Home.

People will come together from all walks of life to talk about how Dick contributed to them and their organizations: long time treasurer of Bemidji Community Theater, the Bemidji Snow Mobile Club, The Paul Bunyan Vintage Car Club, Lake Bemidji Homeowners Association, one of the founding members of the Headwaters Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to name just a few of Dick's interests.

Bemidji Community Theater folks can be proud that they do not need to say, "If only, if only we had let Dick know how much we appreciated his efforts."

For last summer, on Aug. 25, BCT declared Dick Lueben Day at the annual membership picnic and others who appeared in or worked backstage for the year's theater presentations. BCT also let Dick in on a big secret, for years to come a graduating senior from a local high school will receive the Dick Lueben Scholarship Award for excellence in theater as administered by the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

It was a well kept secret for Mary Knox Johnson sent emails to members and asked for some memories of Dick for a book she was assembling for him and no one "let the cat out of the bag."

Dick, by the way, was not fond of cats!

Some people wrote vignettes of how Dick was always there to design a set, pick up a hammer, sweetly cajole, strong arm or guilt-out a non-compliant techie or actor and generally keep the upcoming production on track.

In the early days of BCT, audiences were small and sometimes almost non-existent. As Gerald Manley recalled, "During those early days of BCT, when we performed on the stage of J.W. Smith Elementary School, Dick reported getting a call from someone who wanted to know what time the play started. Dick replied, 'What time can you get here?'"

Polly Keith Scotland, another longtime BCT member and former actor, spoke of Dick's sense of humor. "And when I was in a play, Dick was in the wings...watching, commenting, waiting and laughing (with his) infectious smile. I love Dick's sense of humor when making requests."

Of course, one of the most memorable of Dick's stories was of Elaine Hazard waiting in the wings to go on, wearing an overcoat over her nightgown because the building was unheated and it was winter. There are so many stories that people can relate after Dick's almost 30 years with Bemidji Community Theater and Gregg Wilimek told of his first encounter with him. It's was Dick's first show with BCT as a new member and the play was Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap" in 1983 at the J.W. Smith Auditorium.

It was the first play that called for a real set and the guys, Dick and Gregg, went about building the set with 2x4s and they learned as they went along. It turned out to be a "pretty cool English manor home interior," recalled Gregg. Soon after that venture, BCT received a grant "that brought theatre professionals to Bemidji to instruct us in various aspects of theater craft, including set building, acting and directing...we all learned so much," wrote Mary Anne Wilimek.

Anyone who knows Dick will attest to him commenting regularly on the sets on the stage of productions in various venues. "You should have seen the set I made for "Music Man." it was much better than this one."

A young actor from that show, Brett Cease, remembered that Dick's laughter from the dark theater during rehearsals when the cast really "nailed" a part in the show was very encouraging. And Terry Thomas spoke of how her job was to monitor the alleyway from the basement of Frostbite to the theater entrance at the Chief Theater. It was a very cold spring and Terry dressed appropriately for her job as watchperson. "Dick always managed to see the needs of the theater," said Terry, "and (he) sought people to fill those holes."

Dick was always the first person there, the last to leave and had much to say during a meeting. If direction signs needed to be placed, Dick would not only have some from previous times, he would show up early and "plant" them. Ever the conscientious treasurer, Dick would be at the theater at the end of each performance to collect the day's receipts for deposit the next day. In all his years as treasurer BCT never had a check returned for "insufficient funds."

The present board president of BCT, Ernie Rall, recalled Dick was never one to pass up an opportunity. One day Rall read an ad in the Pioneer about a director's workshop that was to be offered by BCT. He called the contact name, Dick Lueben, and "within the hour, Dick was at my door with the information including a sign-up sheet, copies of a few playbill tabloids from previous shows and a short history of BCT. I was impressed with the effort Dick made to recruit a new member."

But directing seemed to be Dick's fervent interest and he managed to assemble casts for some of the most obscure shows. In 2003, he decided that Bemidji audiences needed to see "L'l Abner" with comic strip characters by Al Capp, and brought together a stellar cast which included Kevin Cease as Earthquake McGoon, Kirk Karstens as General Bullmoose, Dwight Lewis as Eagle Eye Fleagle, Gerry Manley as Pappy Yokum and Charlie Parsons as Senator Jack Phougbound.

Comments from the senator follow: "After representing you and my other constituents for nearly 30 years, it has come to my attention that you might step down from your active role in rabble rousing and thriving on thespian skills. Just let me say that you should bask in the glow of a flood of warm welcoming memories to mark the occasion."

Dick often talked about his deep desire to direct a Gilbert and Sullivan musical with no interest in the project by several boards. It seems that the board had a change of heart in 2006 when they agreed to let Dick produce and direct a show because he promised BCT that they would not lose money on the project.

Once again, Dick was able to gather a cast that included Linnea Engelstad Lindstrom, Brian Donovan, Sara Breeze, Don Zieman and some members of the Bemidji Chorale for an outstanding production of "The Gondoliers." Karen Bradley was the musical director and the cast rehearsed for many weeks preparing for opening night.

A backdrop of a dock in Venice complete with gondolas was painted by Mary Therese Peterson and some of the Rogers Family played chorus roles. As fate would have it, Dick fell ill and was unable to continue to direct the play. But the play went on and the cast acknowledged Dick on opening night.

"I will never forget the look on Dick's face; there was pride, humility, and joy, and the realization of a job well done," said Karen Bradley.

This afternoon, many of us will acknowledge Dick's dedication to a job well done whether in theater or civic duties. We will miss seeing his vintage red Mustang convertible at the parades with Dick at the wheel, wearing his black driving cap atop a stock of white hair; various dignitaries from town riding in the rear. Someone else will be welcoming the campers to the BCT melodramas at the state park, but no one else will have that grin while asking for a "free will donation" to help cover costs.

Dick was a man who could evoke many emotions from people and some of us thought of him as an eccentric character with a big heart and a deep devotion to BCT.

He has left an indelible mark on the fabric of this community.