TERRY DULLUM: The Dullum File — The Empire Turns 20

In a few days, a week of events will mark the first two decades of the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks. A 20th Anniversary Celebration Concert on April 21 will open the week that will also include an open mic night, a movie night and more and conclude with the Empire’s annual dinner and dance.

The Empire is such a big part of Grand Forks it seems as if it has always “been.” But it hasn’t. It must have been a struggle to open the Empire just a year after the 1997 flood. And it’s taken a lot of dedication, fundraising and just plain hard work to keep the doors open ever since, the front door and the stage door.

It hasn’t always been the Empire Arts Center. The Empire’s original life was that of a movie theater, beginning in 1919.

The last film I can remember seeing there may have been “The Wrecking Crew” in 1968. I was a college kid, home for the summer, when a friend dragged me off the street and drove me against my will — more or less — from Hillsboro, N.D., to Grand Forks to see what must have been one of the last movies in the Matt Helm series, a James Bond-like knockoff vehicle for Dean Martin. My friend was a fan of Dean Martin’s acting. Me, not so much. Let’s just say the movie wouldn’t be an Oscar contender that year.

Flash-forward a good bit and for several years running I would emcee First Night shows at the Empire on New Year’s Eve, introducing acts like the late, great local vocal group Marcoux Corner. We often did “live shots” from the Empire on First Night for WDAZ News.

In the early First Night years, ice sculpture gardens were a big deal near the Empire. I believe it was my idea to ask the ice sculptors to create an ice news desk for us, from which to broadcast live, an idea I would come to regret. Sitting at an ice desk for a half hour in subfreezing weather may look cute, but it’s not exactly pleasant for the anchor boys and girls.

A few years ago, I was asked to narrate “Peter and the Wolf” as part of a Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra children’s concert. I loved it. A few years before that, I “conducted” the symphony, having won its “Make Me a Maestro” fundraising contest.

Never one to play it very straight, for my conducting stint I concocted a “bit” in which I  ordered, had delivered and ate a pizza on the stage after having kicked off the orchestra’s version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sometimes a person can have too much fun. Or at least, just enough.

Ginny and I have been in the audience for many great shows, including concerts by Leon Russell, Maria Muldaur and John C. Reilly & Friends.

The point is I feel at home at the Empire. On the stage and in the audience. And I’m not the only one. Hundreds of performers and audiences do, too. So congratulations to the Empire staff, board, performers and audience members on its first 20 years. Here’s to 20 more and another 20 more after that.

TERRY DULLUM: The Dullum File — My Acting Career (Continued)

For most of the past couple of months of my life, much of my time and what little concentration I can muster has been taken up not with writing or speaking but rather with acting. Yup, acting.

I had a small role in the Fire Hall Theatre’s “Arsenic & Old Lace,” a 70-year-old dark comedy about two little old ladies who, as a sort of public service, poison lonely old men and then have them buried in their cellar.  Loosely based on a true story, it’s sort represents the funny side of serial killing.

Although it’s something like 70 years old, it still has amazing affects on audiences.  One audience member told a cast mate he almost peed himself watching our show.  To which Chris Gust, who played Dr. Einstein (don’t ask) replied, “Almost isn’t good enough. We can do better.”

This was not the first time I’ve trod the Fire Hall Theatre boards. Last season, as we say in the theater, I was asked to play the emcee of the “Guys on Ice” halftime show.

“Guys on Ice” is musical comedy about ice fishing in northern Wisconsin. It was (thankfully) a nonsinging “role” which for me lent itself to a bit of ad-libbing. So, I got to make fun of people in the audience, including, during one particular matinee, former UND hockey television commentator Dan Hammer.  Almost too easy.  I also got to pick on my former employer, WDAZ, and quite a lot else locally.

But for “Arsenic & Old Lace,” I had actual lines to learn and a character to try to build. I played Mr.Witherspoon, the head of Happy Dale, the institution where much of the mostly insane Brewster family is headed.

Most of the cast was made up of more than a dozen veteran actors ― and me. For years, director Pat DeMars has been hinting I should give acting a try. It took “Arsenic & Old Lace” to get me to submit. I mean, audition.

My character was not a lead. My entrance came late in Act 3.  I played the last elderly gentleman to be offered home-made elderberry wine by the Brewster sisters, laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide.”

Night after night, I had to stare down the very funny C. J. Leigh, cast as Teddy, a member of the Brewster family who happily thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. I would attempt to keep a straight face while Teddy loaded me down with a canoe paddle, canteen, suitcase and headgear for what he thought was going to be his post-White House safari to Africa. I believe C. J. tried particularly hard to break me up on closing night. For the record, I never “broke.”

I’ve been a fan of “Arsenic & Old Lace” almost as long as I can remember. Not much more than a kid of 7, I first saw a televised version of the Broadway play which starred, among others, North Dakota native and Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt Roughrider Award winner Dorothy Stickney. (Google her.) I still remember “the 13 bodies buried in the cellar” coming to life, dusting themselves off  and bowing to the audience, never having been seen until the play’s final curtain call. It’s an effect probably too expensive to stage these days anywhere but maybe Broadway should it ever be revived.

I’m pleased to be able to say our little show was a pretty big success with all 10 performances virtually sold out.

I don’t really do bucket lists, but if I did, being a small part of “Arsenic & Old Lace” would have to be on one of them.