The Medora Musical kicked off its 55th season Friday night – “kicked off” is the right term. The show offers lots of high-stepping and straight-shooting that delivers entertainment as well as insight into the so-called “American Dream.”
From the appearance of elk on the skyline just before the show begins to the presentation of colors at the end, the musical is a kind of hymn of praise and possibility -- hymn literally, since gospel music is a big part of the program.
Taken whole, the show is lighthearted and toe-tapping, uplifting, with emphasis on family values and economic opportunity, all flavored with cornpone humor, which is sometimes suggestive but “never dirty.” There are a couple of shoot-em-ups and vignettes of “amazing people who sought their futures in these Badlands,” as the program says.
Two groups get special attention, and so do two people.
The groups are veterans who are asked to stand, and kids who are invited onto the stage, where they get to meet Sheriff Teddy.
The individuals are Theodore Roosevelt, president and namesake of the national park less than a mile from the Burning Hills Amphitheater where the show is performed, and the other is Harold Schafer, the self-made millionaire who essentially bought up Medora and made it into a tourism destination.
Liberties are taken with history. There were more Harvard athletes in the Rough Riders than there were Badlands cowboys, for example. There were some exaggerations. Medora de Mores, namesake of the town, was presented as a writer, artist, hostess, excellent rider and crack shot – the “total woman.” There were some omissions; no mention was made of native people.
But you don’t need all the facts in order to make the message clear.
I first saw the show in 1971, when I was a cub reporter at the Dickinson Press, the local daily. This year’s opening coincided with a joint convention of the newspaper associations in North and South Dakota. I’ve been to many shows in between – at least a dozen, and I’ve enjoyed every one.
This year’s show was more political than usual. The theme was “Be Legendary,” and the host credited “our governor” for the title.
The phrase is used by North Dakota’s Tourism Division. It replaced “North Dakota Legendary,” a slogan the state had used for 15 years. The change wasn’t greeted enthusiastically when Gov. Doug Burgum introduced it in October. The Herald was lukewarm, too. Its editorial said, “We neither strongly dislike nor rousingly applaud” the new logo.
The change isn’t subtle, although it involves the addition of just one word. The old slogan emphasized history while the new one emphasizes possibility. It’s the Horatio Alger story – the Schafer story -- all over again.
The show included a plug for the proposed Roosevelt presidential library and museum. This is Burgum’s idea, too, although the funding formula is a legislative innovation: $50 million to operate the center after private donors have ponied up $100 million to build it.
A pending referral of the state funding wasn’t mentioned.
A frisson of excitement arises among political junkies at this point.
The appropriation was passed with an emergency clause (requiring more than two-thirds of the votes in both houses), which means that it is technically “referral proof.” But the governor is required to ask for the money, which involves a loan from the Bank of North Dakota. If he does so before the next statewide election, the primary in June next year, he could be criticized. He could call a special election. Just the same, he could be criticized. This amounts to an elaborate trap for Burgum.
Perhaps the petitioners are right-wing kooks, as critics have said, and don’t have the savvy to spring the trap. Perhaps they won’t get the signatures required by the deadline -- 13,452 by midnight on July 25. But I doubt it.
The suggestion strikes me as similar to the remark of a legislator who told farmers to “go home and slop the hogs” a century ago. It doesn’t matter that the remark might never have been made, or that it was made in another context. Farm activists were energized and the state’s history was changed. That’s legendary.
Roosevelt – the man and the legend – are being re-examined. At least three books about him have been released this year, one of them a novel called “The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King” by Jerome Charyn.
At the same time, the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University – in line for some of the library money to complete digitization of Roosevelt’s papers – has suggested a tour of Roosevelt sites in North Dakota. Prove that you’ve visited their list of nine in 2019 and get a copy of “Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota Badlands/An Historic Guide” by Clay Jenkinson.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.