This year I finished up my LauraPalooza trip with a brief stop in De Smet, South Dakota. Any stay in De Smet is too brief in my opinion (in fact I’ve
started a new game with my mother when she starts to complain about something, I ask her “You know where that doesn’t happen?” and she actually guessed I was going to say De Smet the very first time I did it). This really was a flying visit just over 24 hours. I breezed into town (to use a good Rose phrase from Faces at the Window) and was just barely late for my meeting with a camera crew (watch this space for more on that) and after they were finished with me ended up spending a good chunk of time at the Ingalls Homestead catching up with many old friends both on the Homestead
staff and LauraPalooza people coming through. After the conference, it was nice to be able to just sit and enjoy the prairie winds and the clip clop clip clop of the horses hooves.
After getting checked in at the hotel and hitting Subway for supper (I really wanted Dairy Queen, but there was a super long line I didn’t want to spend time waiting in, so I settled for Subway sandwich and the best iced tea in De Smet). Then I retreated to my motel room and I worked some more on the paper that was due that night that I thought I’d have finished before this (I did get it sent in before the Midnight deadline – got an A-) and then headed out to the pageant grounds.
As I mentioned in my post about the Walnut Grove pageant this year, I’ve long advised people if they were doing one pageant Walnut Grove-De Smet pageant, to do the other one too. They are such different experiences and so close geographically that once you’ve made the investment to get to one, it’s just sort of silly not to go that little extra to do both.
If you’re planning on going to the De Smet 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. This is primarily due to Walnut Grove where 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. In De Smet itself early reservations are not that important. There are two hotels and an assortment of bed
and breakfasts both in town and close by, I have still known the town to be fully booked, but usually even a week or two notice will get you a room somewhere, guaranteeing you get a room at the particular place you want might require earlier action, particularly if you want to stay at one of the bed and breakfasts. There is no reserved seating for the pageant. Instead cement blocks and boards form benches. I strongly recommend bringing along lawn chairs and you are invited to set them up in the large gaps between the rows of benches so you can get good seats right down front with them. Before the pageant visit the What-Not Gift Shop which always has some unusual souvenirs (the pin I have that was replica of the one Almanzo gave Laura for Christmas one year was purchased there), snag a wagon ride with your ticket that they give you at the gate
( I’ve done it as a adult, but it’s really set up for children physically, I’d leave it to them and give a kid your ticket for an extra ride), check out the incredible collection of antique farm equipment (back near the gate), get your photo taken at the photo board (thank you pageant people for changing the angle of the board, the last 2 times it’s been against the sunset and impossible to get a good photo there, this time they turned it so the sun wasn’t a problem), and be sure to get a bag of popcorn at the concession stand (this year they also added Long Winter snow cones which were just inspired).
This year was a different experience for a couple of reasons. The weather this year left the pageant grounds almost bug free, a remarkable accomplishment with the Big Slough right there and probably mainly due to the earlier start time and
the extremely dry weather this year. It was also the warmest I’ve ever been at a pageant. I changed into sweat pants like normal and took along my sweatshirt and blanket, but I really didn’t need them. Instead of getting chilled I was actually hot throughout the performance which was definitely a new experience. It was also strange because with the new earlier start time and the relatively short length, the sun hadn’t finished setting when the show ended. This was definitely a different experience because normally I love to sit there and look up and see the stars. I missed that. I could see how it would be easier on people with little kids, but I wish it could have gone at least a little longer (split the difference at the half hour?). Unlike Walnut Grove that uses the darkness as a definite part of its special effects pallet, the darkness isn’t nearly as important to De Smet, but I think it does add something to the sense of intimacy and eavesdropping on the Ingalls Family which I’ve always felt was truly the hallmark of the De Smet pageant and I can’t help but wish it went at least a little while after dark.
For those of you that haven’t heard the pageant this time was The Long Winter. So good gripping stuff right there. They have announced that where previously if they liked a script they might keep it the same for 2 or even 3 years, now they are going to regularly flip through the books (a different one each year in order, skipping The First Four Years which didn’t do very well as a pageant) in hopes of making it easier for families to plan to come and see them all. Certainly a worthy ambition and one I hope will bring increased attendance. I’m also pleased to report that their collaboration with theater professionals is definitely continuing to show for the better. I’d say it was a better overall performance than the last time I saw The Long Winter. Performances were good, the pace and plot were good. There wasn’t much gratuitously stuck in and nothing that stood out like a soar thumb (in one year’s show “Laura” wore short sleeves and a scooped neck all the way through the winter). This was the show they started the pageant with (based on the Hallmark radio show script) and I have postcards from the 1970s with them pulling similar props out of a similar barrel, so they are very familiar with this story.
Although I question the need to have an old Laura be the narrator in every pageant (which seems to have developed in the last few years) and
would hope if they were going to put her in they would flesh it out a little bit – was I the only one wanting an older Almanzo to show up and pester her and for her to be a little bit more of a character and not just a voice if she is going to be there? – I have to say she was the most effective I’ve seen yet in a De Smet production. For one thing they anchored old Laura in one place (the loft above Pa’s Store building) and kept her there. When her voice started we always knew where to look (instead of having to look all over the large set to figure out where she had popped up this time) and she was clearly remembering and writing the story which was a big plus over when she is just doing random things like dragging out a needlework project and showing up at seemingly random at different points on stage. This time old Laura was anchored by a purpose and a physical location which both helped the flow of the production.
The thing that probably sticks out the most in this production was the representation of the blizzard snows by dancers in white dresses who danced in dropped scarves to represent the drifts and left. It’s been a couple of months since July and I still haven’t decided if I liked them or not yet. It was definitely a physical representation that would be hard to do any other way. I definitely did like that when the spring came they danced back out and picked them up again. It made a nice cycle, but it was so different than the rest of the production, kind of like if the ballet dream sequence in Oklahoma, but instead of one big bit of different, it was broken up into parts and scattered throughout the show, that I just can’t make up my mind whether it was truly a help or hurt the suspended disbelief. Likewise the Christmas songs at the beginning to try to set the mood for winter were a nice idea, but I think it would have been better to include the words to 1 or 2 and do a general sing along rather than pull people out of the audience and I think I’d pick songs more on the snow angle, rather than on the religious side. Another thing I really liked was that they pulled kids out of the audience for one scene where they had school. Outfitted with sunbonnets and straw hats they weren’t nearly as completely costumed as the rest of the cast, but I loved the involvement. I’m sure it was something that the kids themselves will never forget and everyone loved the scene, plus it made for a realistic sized crowd without having to have that many more kids make and keep a months long commitment. It was a great idea, well executed.
I’ve seen big improvements over all in the pageant and I’m excited to see what they do next. It’s hard to remember how recently it was that the cast mimed to a audio recording and the cast and crew get better and better each year.
After the pageant I returned to my room, electronically turned in the paper, and turned in for a good night’s sleep. I make it a point to not burn daylight by staying in my hotel room when in a Laura homesite town and while I wasn’t up quite with the birds this time, I still was up early enough to run an errand before meeting Connie over at the Prairie Manor for breakfast. Thanks Jenny for the happiest breakfast in the world. a pancake man. After a lovely time there visiting, I went over to the Memorial Society. Everyone I talked to pointed out the Memorial Society had made changes in the program and I wanted to check them out for myself.
The Memorial Society has actually made quite a few changes in the last few years, some I’m really glad about (I think the yearly display of artifacts is great and while I’d rather actually go upstairs in the Surveyors House, the mirror is actually a pretty clever logistic compromise, and I’m glad to see a lot more use of documents in their displays and signage which are very interesting and rarely seen elsewhere) and some I’m not so glad about (ripping out a really well done and period appropriate one-room school restoration for an OK hands on discovery center, getting rid of furniture actually owned and used by Rose in favor of blank periodish generic bedrooms in the upstairs of the Third Street house). The major change this time is throughout the route of the tour they have added in hands on stations, these are similar things to the hands on activities that were situation around town last year for their pageant 40th anniversary event. It extends the length of the tour, but I think it’s definitely worth it, especially for making it meaningful for the kids. Adults were encouraged to try the hands on stations too. It wasn’t as a completely different experience as some of the people I talked to led me to believe, these were more add ons rather than a different overall tact or style of tour, but I think the responses I heard reflect how much of a tactile experience even adult Laura fans want and how much being repressed into not touching anything really bothers them. The changes have made a big, positive impression on many fans. If you’ve visited this year, I’d like to hear your impressions of the changes.
After the Memorial Society tour and spending some more time with the temporary exhibit, I headed over to the Loftus Store which always has something new and different and I got my favorite new T-shirt of the trip there (which is actually usual several of my all time favorite shirts are from the Loftus Store). One more stop at the De Smet News and I paid up my yearly subscription (I love having real business in town, it makes me feel much more a part of it rather than a visitor). Then one more swing by the Subway for another to go glass of the best iced tea in De Smet and I was on my way home with one last stop at the ponds outside of town which Connie had pointed out to me were heavily filled with muskrat houses this year. They really were and I’m pleased with the photos I got, look for them when I get my Laura breeds and species program put together.