North Dakota man was the father of the community theater boom in rural America
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Arnold G. Arvold.
The New York Times hailed North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC) professor A.G. Arvold as “the man who started the rural stage movement.” Famed Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote that Arvold was “the minister of fine arts to the country communities of America.”
Arvold had developed a worldwide reputation and was a good friend of many national figures in the entertainment industry, but his primary focus was on the development and cultivation of the theater in rural communities, particularly in North Dakota. Because of Arvold’s creative mind, entrepreneurial skills, hard work and enthusiastic support and encouragement, “hundreds of communities in North Dakota established their own theatrical enterprises.”
It was Arvold’s belief that “there are literally millions of people in country communities whose abilities, which existed along various lines, have been hidden, simply because they have never had an opportunity to give expression to their talents.” To address this, Arnold developed what he called the “Little Country Theater” (LTC) in 1914. Through its existence, he encouraged rural people to write, produce and perform in their own communities.
By doing this, he believed it would help rural people “find themselves.” Arvold reasoned that most rural people lived rather mundane lives and working on theatrical projects would give them purpose, bring communities together and may actually help them solve some of their problems.
Alfred Gilmeiden Arnold was born Jan. 15, 1882, in Whitewater, Wis., to Louis and Caroline “Carrie” (Erickson) Arvold. Whitewater, a town of nearly 4,000 people, was able to bring in different forms of entertainment, and the young Arvold was fascinated by almost all of it. He loved the theater, opera and ballet and had a special affinity for the circus.
One observation that he made at an early age was that performers had the ability to lift people’s spirits. The lives of many of the patrons of these performances may have been filled with day-to-day drudgery and heartaches, but while the performers were the focus of their attention, most people in the crowd were entertained.
Arvold graduated from Whitewater High School in 1901, and then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he became active in the theatrical productions. At that time, the University of Wisconsin was a very progressive institution and it stressed the philosophy that college professors should apply their research to improve the “health, quality of life, environment, and agriculture of all of the citizens in the state.” This philosophy was stressed by both the president of the university and Gov. Bob LaFollette, and it was called the “Wisconsin Idea.”
This philosophy obviously made a lasting impact on Arvold. He received his B.A. in 1905, and was hired to be a high school English teacher in Eau Claire, Wis. While there, Arvold developed a highly regarded theater program at the school where he taught, became a noted Chautauqua orator, fell in love with the woman he later married, and became involved in the Masons and Republican politics.
Meanwhile, NDAC in Fargo was continuing to grow and the college president, John Worst, gave his approval for the founding of the Dramatic Club in January 1907 and named Professor Edward Keene as chairman to oversee the club. The eager club members decided to put on the play "Captain Racket," which was performed at the Grand Theatre in downtown Fargo on June 6.
It became obvious that there was a desire by many students to have drama activities on campus, but the college did not have anyone to conduct or oversee those activities on the faculty. Keene already was busy with many other duties and could not continue in that role. He was the head of the mechanical arts program, and was also saddled with overseeing the military training program, the Engineering Club, and the Alpha Mu (later the Theta Chi) social fraternity.
Worst believed NDAC was an excellent institution “to train good farmers and teachers,” but “he wanted to make farm life a business, to be envied, and knew one way to do that was by involving students in the arts.” He reasoned that offering drama classes and drama-related activities would be one of the keys to doing that.
To fill the position of a drama-capable instructor, the administration wanted someone who was creative, innovative, committed, trusted, had a track record in implementing drama programs, and had good communication skills. Although Arvold only held a bachelor's degree, the fact that he had accomplished amazing things with the theater arts program in Eau Claire convinced the administration at NDAC that he was the man for the job.
Arvold was offered the position of teaching oratory/speech and English at NDAC. Arvold accepted the offer and, after turning in his resignation at the high school in Eau Claire and his part-time job as telegraph editor of the Eau Claire Daily Leader newspaper, he arrived in Fargo in September 1907.
“For his office, Arvold chose a circular room in Old Main’s watch tower.” Along with teaching his classes, Arvold took over supervision of the Drama Club and renamed it the Edwin Booth Dramatic Club, which had been the name of the dramatic club at the University of Wisconsin. He limited membership to 15 students. In order to qualify, the students needed to be upper classmen with at least a C average, and they also had to commit to participating in plays — with a major role in at least one play.
The first play Arvold directed was "The Professor’s Predicament," and it was staged at the Fargo Opera House in February 1908. Arvold’s next major project was promotion of what he called the Cyclone Circus, which was held on March 7, 1908. The circus was composed of a parade through downtown Fargo, consisting of floats, a marching band and carriages of college faculty members. This was followed by entertainment at the Armory that featured tumblers, wrestling bouts, a Dixie quartette, a German band and numerous sideshows. The whole event was considered an “immense success.”
1908 was an exciting political year for Arvold. President Theodore Roosevelt declined to run for another term as the Republican candidate and his vice-President, William Howard Taft, was the favored candidate. However, one of his serious challengers was Bob LaFollette, who had been Arvold’s governor in Wisconsin. When Taft became the official candidate after the primary election, Arvold enthusiastically supported him. Newspapers reported that in October, Arvold was giving campaign speeches for Taft and other Republican candidates.
On March 4, 1909, the night of Taft’s presidential inauguration, a banquet called The Big Feed was held on campus, with Arvold serving as toastmaster and general manager. Five hundred people, “among them leading Fargo citizens,” attended the banquet.
In 1910, Arvold began his lyceum series called The Citizen’s Lecture Course. About six times each year, he would bring to the campus noted performers or speakers. Because of Arvold’s enthusiastic and persuasive appeal, he was able to convince these people to share their wisdom and talent with students and faculty at NDAC.
The story of Alfred G. Arvold will be continued next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.