I was delighted to once again this year get to do the Walnut Grove and De Smet pageants back to back. This is the second time I’ve been able to do
that and I highly recommend it. All of the pageants are such different experiences and I really recommend that if you go as far as seeing one during pageant time that while you are in the Walnut Grove – De Smet area that you do both.
Planning to do Walnut Grove
If you’re planning on going to the Walnut Grove pageant (Walnut Grove and De Smet coordinate pageants the first three weekends in July, but Walnut Grove no longer does a Sunday performance), I’d recommend that you start planning now. Early reservations are the key for both hotel stays (there aren’t any motels or even bed and breakfasts in Walnut Grove proper so getting a reservation close by requires early action) and seats at the pageant.
Take Your Seat
At the Walnut
Grove pageant the reserved seats are color coded and numbered folding chairs. Personally I really like to sit down front and so try to order as early as possible. I also prefer to try to buy a second seat especially if I’m with a group. The chairs are welded together so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room and having an empty chair to add to the space, hold your stuff, etc. is well worth the cost of an extra ticket.
Reserved seating stretches up the hill to the technical booth and beyond that is unreserved seating (chairs not provided) which spills out over the rest of the hillside so if you prefer to bring lawn chairs or a blanket you can. Personally I feel the reserved seats are the best option by far, but I have known people who bought reserved seats to abandon them for a blanket on the hillside so I guess to each his own.
The pageant doesn’t start until 9 PM and makes full use of the gathering darkness in several special effects. You can usually get in the grounds around 7 pm. There is a concession stand
(think sporting event type food, hot dogs, popcorn, etc.) if you want supper there. Otherwise keep it in mind for a snack and eat in town either at one of the restaurants or the Pageant Supper which is served in the community building near the Wilder Museum and is an annual fundraiser for various groups in town.
Before the Curtain Goes Up
Sometimes they have a celebrity from the TV show signing autographs and giving a speech before the pageant starts. They always have a group called the Pageant Singers perform. You can also visit with your fellow Laura fans. I like to get there early and soak up the atmosphere, but locals have told me you don’t have to go until practically the last minute. If you do come later and either there is a speaker or the Pageant Singers, please go up and around and don’t
walk in front of the stage. It’s really pretty rude to block people’s view and it truly isn’t that far around the stage or wait until a lull, although lots of people seem to walk in front anyway.
I think this year’s production was really a tighter production than the last couple I’ve seen so definite kudos go to the actors, the director, and the support staff. Performances were sharper, the pace of the production was better, and they added several new special effects including using real lighted torches in their efforts to fight off the plague of grasshoppers. Really the only place I had a problem with the pace was during one of my favorite sequences where they actually build a church on stage. The last step is to have someone climb up the church tower and plant a cross on the top. It’s a significant moment of accomplishment for the town and normally the person stays up there a minute for everyone to pause, take a beat, and bask in a job well done. This time I didn’t even have to time to snap a photo before he started down again and I don’t think he could have gotten down much faster with a fireman’s pole.
May I Have This Dance?
I was also impressed by how much dancing was included this time. Normally I say that dancing is the first thing cut from most community productions of musicals (and there was enough music and dancing this time that it bordered on a musical, even if the songs didn’t advance story as in a true musical). The dancing is the first thing cut because many more people are under the delusion they can sing than under the delusion they can dance. However, this pageant not only did many characters dance, the vast majority danced very well. I was definitely impressed. They even fit it naturally into the story except for one dance solo where Laura seemed to suddenly know what appeared to be Irish step dancing. I was also impressed with the comic timing of several of the supporting characters who rang belly laughs out of what are by now pretty old bits to most of the audience.
I should explain that originally the pageant was written by Walnut Grove resident James
Merchant. It was a poignant piece called Fragments of a Dream and featured Caroline Ingalls (Ma) as the main view point looking back on how the golden dream they had for Walnut Grove being the land of milk and honey and been broken, with some comic relief mixed in. Since that original production, most productions of the pageant, for some reason felt the need to tinker with the script, to add things and change it around. The biggest change was making the narrator an adult Laura instead of Ma. Frankly, while I understand their thinking, I don’t think it really worked as well with the story. Other bits and pieces and scenes were added or moved around. For example, for awhile they included the family’s move to Burr Oak, Iowa in between the two stays in Walnut Grove. This time while some of those additions remained and a few more were added, they stripped back some of the accumulated jetsam from past years and restored more of the clear vision of the original work. While Laura remained as narrator, Caroline had a couple of key speeches restored that were either missing or downplayed in the most recent productions I’ve seen. They really add emotional depth to the piece and I greatly appreciated the restoration.
They Recreate the PHOTO!
Probably the best light hearted touch was that they reproduced the famous photo of the three sisters. They recreated the dresses from the photo and put the characters in them for several major scenes in the second half of the play and featured the recreated photo in the pageant program. Carrie’s dress was exactly perfect. I think the might have taken the sepia tone of the material as it appears in the photo of Mary and Laura’s dresses a mite too literally, the style of Mary and Laura’s dresses were also absolutely perfect. I think it was truly a brilliant thing to have done and enjoyed it very much. I hope they put that photo front and center. I think it would catch the eye of every true Laura fan and I applaud them for having this brilliant idea.
UPDATED January 8, 2016: I really didn’t have much to update this time. I added my current signature block. Broke a couple of paragraphs and added some section headings.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+,LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.