Curtain raises on Schmeckfest in Freeman after three-year absence
Musical, meal return to Freeman in 2023 following COVID-19 cancellations
FREEMAN, S.D. — Director Kris Carlson observed the Pioneer Hall stage earlier this week as actors prepared for a scene during a practice for the Schmeckfest musical “State Fair.” There are only a few days left to go before opening night, and someone nearby asks if she is nervous or excited.
“Yes,” Carlson replied with a laugh.
That’s a fair reply, considering it has been three years since the last musical, one of the longest running staples of the Schmeckfest event that has been held in Freeman since 1959, was staged. The three-day event has, as its heart, a traditional German communal meal featuring dishes from the heritage of the three Mennonite groups that settled in southeastern South Dakota — Low German, Hutters and Schweitzers — and a celebration of all things representing their German-Russian heritage.
The musical stage production was added in 1967 and had been held every year since until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all of Schmeckfest for three years straight.
Now the cast and crew were ready to return to the stage with a production of “State Fair,” a musical from the catalog of the famed duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, who penned such other classics as “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I” and “Oklahoma!”
It will also be the first time the classic has been performed on the Schmeckfest stage, and Carlson said she was hoping the performances, which began Thursday night and will wrap up Saturday, signal a return to entertaining highs the Schmeckfest musical has delivered for over 50 years.
“It’s a killer cast. It’s maybe the best orchestra that’s ever been assembled under this roof, which is saying something,” Carlson said. “The show has been so much fun, and people are going to absolutely love it. It’s fast-moving, it’s shorter than we’ve often done, and it’s so funny. I didn’t even realize how funny it’s going to be.”
The musical itself revolves around the adventures of the Frake family and their adventures at the Iowa State Fair, and it features a robust combination of humor, romance and music set in a post-World War II middle America. The 1996 Broadway production of the musical was nominated for a pair of Tony Awards.
Carlson said she hoped the show would be a throwback to what some consider the glory days of the Schmeckfest musicals, a time when community players staged performances of some of the biggest Broadway hits ever written. She said it was starting to feel that way as the show came together earlier this week.
“On any given night here (during practice), it feels like maybe the 1990s. It’s just like it always was. It kind of feels like it always did,” Carlson said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it shut down public gatherings on nearly every scale nationwide, including Schmeckfest. The 2020 Schmeckfest production of “Matilda The Musical” was canceled at the very last minute following weeks of practice and preparation. The same musical was canceled a second time in 2021, and then a third time last year. Those repeated cancelations were not easy for the cast and crew who had labored to bring the show to life.
“There were tears,” said Sonja Waltner, who plays Frakes family matriarch Melissa Frake in “State Fair” and was also a cast member in the stalled “Matilda The Musical” production. “We were just a week away from opening night, exactly a week before opening night, and we were ready and had been practicing for so long, and it was so much fun to see the young kids on stage and working with them. It was going to be such a great musical.”
Waltner, 60, has been a mainstay on the Schmeckfest stage for at least 20 musicals over the years, she said. Having the rug pulled out from under them after having put so much work into the production hit hard.
“Opening night is the most exciting. Building up and building up and learning parts and getting everything down. That first night is so exciting when you have an audience,” Waltner said. “When we shut down a week out? We were devastated.”
The pandemic stopped all of Schmeckfest in its tracks. Along with the musical, the traditional meal and the various food and craft demonstrations were also put on hold. Organizers preserved some of the experience by offering Schmeckfest food staples like its famous sausage through an order and pick-up system, but the whole of the experience was drastically altered due to the pandemic.
Now it’s back in full force, and while there have been some changes made to the organizational and leadership structure of the festival, visitors to Schmeckfest are again able to eat authentic ethnic food and take in a professional-level musical while helping Freeman Academy, the longtime host and beneficiary of the festival.
Next door to Pioneer Hall in Sterling Hall, craft and food preparation demonstrations were underway Friday afternoon. Visitors to the festival mingled among the booths and later would move back to Pioneer Hall for both the full meal and the musical, which was scheduled to kick off its second night on stage that evening.
Norman Hofer, a Freeman resident and local historian, was talking with visitors at a table among the booths. He said the Freeman community lost something when Schmeckfest was put on hold. The event serves as a family reunion of sorts, where family and friends see each, sometimes for the first time in years.
“Just exactly what I am witnessing here. Certainly the food, certainly the museum, certainly the musical production — I’m not into that but I’m so glad that it’s back. But it’s about making connections. Family connections, friend connections, classmate connections," Hofer said. "These tables I think are the best part of Schmeckfest because you’re sitting across from friends. Friends from California, friends from Nebraska, friends from North Dakota.”
He was worried that a three-year break could spell the end of the festivities. But the crowd on hand Friday afternoon gave him hope.
“My biggest worry was that when this COVID thing slowed down that there won’t be enough memories or drive to start it up again. That did worry me. Because they struggle now with getting enough personnel to maintain the meal,” Hofer said. “It’s always been that way but it’s getting harder because we’re an older community. The demand is there, that’s not the issue, it is the personnel. After two years, are they going to get this going again? And I think they’re well on their way to doing it.”
John Pfahl, of Omaha, Neb., was in line to buy the popular sausage rings and loaded up the back of his scooter to overflowing. He had visited Schmeckfest years ago and fell in love with the food, and he was delighted to receive a postcard in the mail announcing the festival’s return.
“Years ago, we had a hell of time buying all of this stuff. And then all of a sudden it stopped. And then I got a card in the mail that said Schmeckfest. And I said, 'I’m on my way,'” Pfahl said. “I love that sausage, otherwise I have to go clear up to North Dakota to get it, and it’s not as good as this. And I’ve got to give at least six of them away.”
As signs of life returned to Schmeckfest, organizers and volunteers shared the excitement of a festival reborn and vital again. Whether it be the traditional meal, the demonstration or the every-popular musical production, the curtain was again being raised in Freeman.
Back in Pioneer Hall, Carlson and the stage crew were ready to pack the house for the second performance of the weekend, and the mood was electric. After all, the show must go on.
“I am almost physically ill with excitement,” Carlson said.