Bemidji is a mecca for the arts, harboring talented musicians, actors, poets, writers, artists and other creative souls. It’s possible that would be the case even if it was not a college town, but Bemidji State University certainly enhances the community’s creative and entertaining status.
“It was immediately obvious to me that the arts are so strong here because of the university,” said Lori Forshee-Donnay, executive director of the Watermark Art Center. “I look at the Community Theater, the Chorale, the Symphony,... we are all here because of the university, and we have grown out of that. It’s almost like a little startup company. So there’s this amazing resource, and out of that came these different organizations that branch out into the community.”
Beverly Everett, conductor and musical director of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra, also paid tribute to the university.
“One of the great blessings of my time in Bemidji has been getting to know and work with the students and faculty of the BSU Music Department,” Everett said. “Many of the kids have gone on to do absolutely outstanding things in their careers, and the faculty are some of the most respected and highly accomplished in their fields. I consider them deeply valued colleagues and friends, and feel that they have made me a better musician through their talents and influences.”
In addition to providing talent for community organizations like the Symphony, BSU offers many of its own cultural programs, concerts and events.
“We’d be just another small town if it wasn’t for Bemidji State,” said Fulton Gallagher, retired professor of music who still teaches vocal lessons at the university.
Gallagher, who served under every BSU president since C.R. Sattgast, was instrumental in creating the longstanding annual Opera Night event to fruition.
“My first year I did ‘Call Me Madam,’ a musical at the high school,” Gallagher said. “We also did scenes from ‘Carmen’ just to sort of get things rolling. We’ve done Opera Night since 1978. Our first performance was at the old Radisson South in Bloomington. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, I believe it was, wrote an article the next day that said, ‘Bemidji brings culture to the Twin Cities.’”
Long before the Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex was built, concerts and theater productions were performed at other campus sites. Former English professor Bea Knodel remembers Louis Marchand putting on theater productions on third floor of Deputy Hall.
“It was in a room that didn’t have curtains, or any way to put up curtains,” she recalled, “and the stage was maybe a foot high. It was like a little platform. And he gave wonderful plays in that space.”
The college also has been a venue for national and regional acts. Garrison Keillor brought “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show to campus, and student organizations booked acts like John Denver, Jim Croce and the Cowsills in the late 1960s and early ’70s. One BSU Homecoming event featured Lee Greenwood.
Bemidji City Councilman Ron Johnson said stars like Mel Tillis, Charlie Pride, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and the Statler Brothers also performed on campus. Sellout crowds of 3,200 people packed the Glas for Johnny Cash and the Carter Family and two of the Statler Brothers shows.
“I rented the John Glas Fieldhouse, because it was the only facility in town that could accommodate a large concert,” Johnson said.
Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, said the economic impact of Bemidji State is only part of the story.
“The other part is the cultural aspect,” Hengel said. “Part of the reason people like to live in Bemidji is the arts and the culture that we have here, and some of that comes directly because we’re a college town, and the fact that we have a faculty and a student body that is gifted, and cares about the arts and culture.”