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Medora Musical: A Timeless Tradition Renewed

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Kaelee Wallace
Kaelee Wallace, marketing and communications director. Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Show Segments:

Medora Musical
The Medora Musical, a longstanding tradition celebrating patriotism, family, and Theodore Roosevelt, is embarking on a new chapter with its upcoming 60th season. To rejuvenate and modernize the show while maintaining its core values, representatives from Medora, with an updated production would provide a "positive, life-changing experience" for both local and visiting audiences. The inclusion of new elements is designed to ensure the show remains engaging across generations.The updates are part of a broader effort by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation to refresh its attractions.

Prairie Plates
Rick talks about pies in this edition of Prairie Plates, in front of "Pi" Day.

Sleepy Hollow Theater in Arts Park - Bismarck
In this excerpt from the Great American Folk Show: host Tom Brosseau explores Sleepy Hollow Theater in Arts Park in Bismarck, established by Susan and Stephanie Lundberg in North Dakota. Celebrating 35 years, this outdoor camp merges theater productions like 'Cinderella' and 'Jersey Boys' with educational programs for youths aged 6 to 20, fostering creativity and confidence. As it embarks on a significant renovation, Sleepy Hollow continues to inspire over 10,000 kids with the joys of art and outdoor play, solidifying its role as a vibrant community hub.

Natural North Dakota - Spring Equinox
Chuck Lura urges us to celebrate the Spring Equinox

Medora Musical - Interview Highlights:

  1. Historical Significance: Learn about Medora's location at the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, its rich history, and the transformation of the Burning Hills Amphitheater into a national-class venue.
  2. 60 Years of Tradition: Explore the Medora Musical's journey through its 60th edition, one of the longest-running outdoor productions in the nation, celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and the American West.
  3. Community Engagement: Discover the vital role the Medora Musical plays in energizing the town, driving tourism, creating job opportunities, and fostering a sense of community through volunteerism.
  4. Innovative Direction: Experience the excitement of the show's evolution under the direction of RWS Global, blending tradition with fresh perspectives, ensuring a dynamic and unforgettable experience for audiences.
  5. Diverse Talent: Delve into the intricate process of talent recruitment, involving a mix of national performers, local talents, and aspiring artists, all contributing to the magic of the Medora Musical's stage.

Medora Musical - Interview Transcription

Main Street

And it's my pleasure to bring in Kaelee Wallace. She's the marketing and communications director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. Kaelee, how are you today?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

I'm great. Thank you for having me.

Main Street

Kaelee, my family and I stumbled upon the Medora musical maybe about a decade ago. Our son was a new student at the University of Jamestown. It was called Jamestown College back in the day.

And here was this great thing we saw some billboards for. Let's go check it out. And it was wonderful.

And I would like to begin our chat about the Medora musical today by having you tell us, for those who haven't seen it or don't know about it, what is it?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Really, to start with, I think it's important to set the stage. Where is it? So Medora, North Dakota, kind of right on the western edge of North Dakota and Montana.

It is right at the base camp to the south entrance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I truly know a lot of folks within our state aren't even aware that we have a national park right in our backyard. And so it's a really special little jet just carved right out of an area of the state that I think people do not even expect.

Because when they think North Dakota, they think rolling hills or flat prairie land. And the North Dakota Badlands are truly something so special. And set the stage to the Medora musical and the Burning Hills Amphitheater where that show takes place.

The Medora musical is in its 60th edition this year. It's one of the nation's longest running outdoor productions. The quick 90 second history on the Burning Hills Amphitheater itself is that in the 1950s, a show called Old Four Eyes played there for four years.

And it was an ode to Theodore Roosevelt and his time in North Dakota and ultimately what led him to becoming the President of the United States. That show played for four years. At the time, Medora didn't have a lot going on for it.

So it kind of fizzled out simply by the show not changing, people coming and seeing it once and not wanting to make the trip back. So ultimately in 1962, that show closed and didn't reopen. By the grace of God, a wonderful businessman in North Dakota, Harold Schaefer, who is very well known for his products like Mr. Bubble and Glass Wax, Incidentally Bleak, decided that truly there's too much history here to be lost is the exact phrase that he used. He first bought the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora and second bought the Burning Hills Amphitheater. He started to fix it up and he decided we're going to put on a show. In the first year, it was called Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again, a Medora musical.

Long title for a show. And so in its second year was shortened to the Medora Musical. In its 60 year kind of run here, it has carried the same important tendrils.

People who have never come before or people who come every single year can look forward to live horses on stage, a big patriotic finale, a salute to Theodore Roosevelt and the lifestyle of the true American West, really great country music and moving into even more of a variety style show, as well as fireworks and huge singing and dancing. I grew up loving the Medora Musical. I'm someone who's come every single year for my entire life.

My favorite part about the show itself is that no matter who you talk to, everyone has a different favorite part of the show. The show has all these similar elements each year to really make it a variety show more than a traditional musical per se. Each of those elements are baked into the show in a new and different way each year.

So you're coming back and you're seeing similar things and favorite parts of the show. I know one of my favorite parts is the clog that happens, big dance number every year, but it's always presented differently. And I think it just makes the show really special.

We hear that nothing else like this plays in our nation. And so we're very proud of what we get to present out there in the Badlands, the 120,000 people who come and see it every year.

Main Street

Kelly, I was amazed, quite frankly, at what the amphitheater itself was. It's a cool place. It's national class.

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

I know Harold Schaefer bought the Burning Hills Amphitheater and he did a little bit of fix up. And then really in the 90s, we put in an escalator, the seven story escalator, which for North Dakota is ginormous. And just in the last two years here, we put in two huge elevators for folks who aren't able to take the escalator, but don't want to take the long walking path to make the amphitheater even more accessible for families who are coming to see the show.

But what really makes it special in Signature is it's 2,800 seats that look right out into the Badlands at an old set that kind of is old Medora and a huge stage. I occasionally get the opportunity to stand on that stage and look out at the crowd, whether I'm doing an announcement or we have an event going on, especially for the talent and more specifically the North Dakotans who become a part of the show. I think there's nothing cooler than potentially every single night performing to 2,800 people in this huge audience and the energy is just always electric.

And then you turn around and you see the most beautiful and bizarre outcrop of the Badlands and the little Missouri River. And it's truly, you're right, such a signature amphitheater and show destination, not just in our state, but again, for really the whole nation.

Main Street

We're enjoying our conversation with Kaelee Wallace. She's the Marketing and Communications Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. This is primarily a summer show.

Starts the first of June and goes through the first week of September. Is that right?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

There's a little bit of variation on those dates. In 2024, it'll open June 5th and close September 7th, but it's always kind of that first week of June. We typically start on a Wednesday and then we run through the weekend following Labor Day weekend.

Main Street

Has there been an analysis of how important this has become to Medora?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Yeah, so we don't run a, you know, really deep tried and true analysis, but we always say there's a really great measurement tool. You should be in Medora on June 4th and June 5th or September 7th and September 8th. It is truly incredible to see how with the opening of the Medora musical, the town just comes to life and the streets fill up with cars and the shops and museums and restaurants are overflowing with people who are coming to enjoy Medora and the National Park and everything that there is to offer, but so much of what drives people's trip is that capstone visit each summer to see the Medora musical.

Main Street

There are job opportunities, I'm sure, and there are probably volunteer opportunities too?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

There are. We hire about 350 employees seasonally specifically for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and there's opportunities at local businesses as well as state and national agencies, so it's a very unique and fun place to get to work. On top of that, a program that makes Medora extra special is our volunteer program.

So each year we have about 800 people who volunteer or sign up to volunteer. We take about 650 of them. It's incredible to see that we really supplement our seasonal workforce with 650 volunteers and it's folks who come out for a week at a time and do everything from greeting at the musical to wrapping silverware at Badlands Pizza Parlor to being a welcoming face as people are coming to the Harold Schaefer Heritage Center and everything in between.

We have volunteers come out for early season to get all of our shops set up. They come out for late season to help get the golf course closed up for the season. There is truly a volunteer opportunity for any interest.

Main Street

Are there housing opportunities available in Medora or is it fairly tight relative to housing?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Yeah, there are housing opportunities. Our volunteers specifically stay at the Spirit of Work Lodge, which is right next to the Life Skills Center, which is where our office and cafeteria and everything is. And then specifically for our seasonal employees, we have two locations.

So the Elkhorn Quarters is partially guest lodging, partially employee housing. And so that's also just right across from our office and we really call it the Life Skills Center Campus. And so trying to make that campus experience for our seasonal employees.

And then we also have Ferris Hall, which is kind of right in downtown near the Cowboy Hall of Fame. And so two locations that we're able to house all of our seasonal employees in.

Main Street

The show, I think, may be a little different this year. At least that's maybe what I have taken out from some things I've read about the Medora Musical. It's under the direction of a new company called RWS Global.

And I'm wondering, Kaelee, how then are their traditions preserved, yet balancing innovation here with presenting kind of a new show?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Yeah, so it has been pretty big news for us knowing that in our kind of 59-60 year history, we've had two producers of the Medora Musical. And so a big change in our world. But I actually was just in New York City last week on March 4th with about 30 friends, former and current board members of TRMF, employees who went out to New York to RWS Global studio.

And we actually saw a workshop presentation of the 2024 show. And so first time in our history, we have experienced a workshop of the show, especially two months plus before the show will even open in Medora. And I can truly say the energy from that workshop presentation can be felt and heard from every person who was able to attend that show opportunity.

And so RWS, although they are located in New York, they're people similar to the people who come to Medora and make Medora such an important part of their life. Their employees have similar experiences in small parks in Ohio or Illinois or, for example, the choreographer Sarah, she grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and performed at Hershey Park and actually met her husband there. And so similar to a lot of the Medora stories that we hear through our employees and performers, just happening in different areas.

And so there are a few things that happened at that workshop. We were truly reassured that the people that are hired and on the team to put together the Medora musical understands those core values, faith, family, freedom, big patriotic numbers, really celebrating Theodore Roosevelt, Harold Schaefer, and the Medora history in American West. That truly came through very deeply in the show that they presented to us.

We also fully realized that they understand how to put on just a knockout show. And so I'm so excited for what they put together. And their workshop rehearsal was eight days long.

And what we saw after those eight days was incredible. The show had a great storyline and flow. The songs were incredibly fun.

The dance numbers were huge. And I'm excited to see them come to life on the Burning Hills Amphitheater stage. And so what they did in eight days was truly incredible.

And I can only imagine what will come together in the four weeks of onsite rehearsal that they have in lead up for opening on June 5th.

Main Street

This is national talent that comes to the Medora musical. How do you recruit that talent?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Yeah, it is absolutely a mix of national talent, new performers, returning performers, and local kids who have grown up coming to the show and have dreamed of being in it. And so we actually have shared our first cast announcement, which is going to be wonderful. Joe Wiegand, who is our resident Theodore Roosevelt repriser, and we are so lucky to have him living full time in Medora.

And his TR talents have taken him all across the world performing for presidents at the White House and always part of Theodore Roosevelt's birthday celebration in Oyster Bay. And he is an absolutely wonderful performer of Theodore Roosevelt. So having him bring that character to life on stage this next summer is going to be so, so fun.

But then recruiting our additional talent, part of the reason that we ultimately went with RWS is they have a very clearly defined what they call talent pipeline, where they have about 8,000 performers in their audience base. And these casting directors build relationships with the performers and really begin to learn what talent are you most interested in featuring. So are you a huge dancer, and eventually you want to be part of the Rockettes, which they do some casting for?

Or are you a singer, actor, and you want to be on cruise ships and headline those? And they work through with these performers what their goals are, and then really start to piece together. We think the Medora Musical would be so perfect for you because it falls in with your skill set.

It's a community that you're looking for. And we think it'll greatly help in growing your skill on your kind of performer pipeline continuation. And so the talent that we saw in the workshop was fantastic.

They were all incredible. And I know a handful of them are very interested in also coming to Medora this summer, which was exciting to hear. But other than that, we actually just wrapped up our audition tours.

So we had auditions in Pigeon Forge, Fargo, and Bismarck. And so that's kind of more of the effort to find who are these local performers who aren't as familiar with RWS and are really just so interested in being in the Medora Musical. And so they had some great success in Bismarck and Fargo.

And I really look forward to, in kind of the next month and a half here, being able to start announcing who will be in that 2020 forecast.

Main Street

It's quite a commitment. They stay all summer long.

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

They do. So they arrive kind of the top of May, and they stay through September 7th. And so it is, in the performer world, a very long contract, truly.

And it's, I think, so fun. And I always hear from performers that Medora typically becomes kind of their home away from home, knowing that when you're performing, you're never really laying down roots. But being in Medora for that length of time kind of gives them an opportunity to have a home base, almost.

Main Street

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is now about two years away from opening its doors. Has that already influenced the Medora Musical?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

It has definitely had us really working in line with the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library team to help determine how we best will support each other in the Medora guest experience. And it has been included in the Medora Musical a few years now, with just generating excitement for that huge offering that will be coming right to our backyard. And I think one of the most exciting things with the musical is that anyone who goes up to the show this summer and next summer will get to see the construction that's happening right across the parking lot, knowing that the Burning Hills Amphitheater and the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will kind of co-exist in that space on top of the Butte and share a parking area.

And it's really going to become a fun kind of epicenter for unique, positive, life-changing experiences.

Main Street

How do you decide what to charge for tickets and tell us what we should expect when we want to buy tickets?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Yeah, so to start with, the best place to get information on tickets and to purchase them is at, the quickest and easiest place. And so we really look at pricing, I would say, similar to anywhere else. What were we doing last year?

Then there's consideration for is there a two, three, four percent increase simply in line with inflation and keeping up with the economy. But we are truly mindful of knowing that vacations become expensive for families when you're adding on lodging and food and additional activities. And so it is very fun to get to share this year that kids go free to half of the shows that we have this summer.

And so kids are classified as everyone 17 and under and they go free every Sunday and Wednesday, June 5th through June 19th, knowing that kicking off your summer with a visit to Medora is one of the best ways to start your summer. July 4th is one of our kids free days this year, knowing that the 4th of July especially can be an expensive vacation day for families and Medora wants to be one of the most family affordable places to celebrate the nation's birthday. And then also our 530 Saturday performances.

There's four of those throughout the summer that kids 17 and under are free to knowing that some families like that earlier showtime, especially if they're coming from the central time zone.

Main Street

Many of your shows sell out and they sell out somewhat early. Is there pressure to do more with the musical, would you say?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

I would say we are really finding the balance of what works for us. We do get some full houses. With COVID, we've really pivoted to double shows on Saturdays and Sundays, almost every weekend through July, August, and a few in June and September.

And although it offered really great opportunities for families to see a show at the time that they preferred or get kind of the best seats in the house, it really did, first of all, bring down the experience because at a 530 show, you're not able to see the fireworks and the ghost ride with the horses up on the buttes and a few of those things. And when you have an amphitheater of 1,000 people versus an amphitheater of 2,500 people, the energy in that space is so vastly different. And we think shows are better when you get to experience them with more people.

And so I would say we did take a little bit of a risk this year to cut back from what has historically been about 12 or 15 double show days to just six. So we know that we've cut our inventory, but we are excited in welcoming larger houses to see the show, knowing that the experience for everyone, the performers, the employees who are getting to work, and the guests who are coming to see the show really just grows exponentially when we get more people together to experience this great North Dakota performance and show together.

Main Street

Kelly, before I let you go, give us the sense of who comes to the Medora musical. Is it 62% North Dakotans and the rest from all over the country and the world? Or what are your demographics there?

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Yeah, Craig, you were almost scary spot on. It's about 60% from North Dakota. We see about another 20% from our regional market.

So Minnesota is very large. South Dakota, Montana, down into Wyoming, as well as some of our Canadian friends from the North. And then that final 20% is really made up of the whole nation and the world.

And largely those travelers are bucket list travelers who are trying to mark off every state or national park travelers who stumble upon the Medora musical because they came to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But that's really the breakout. And for reference, 60% of North Dakotans leaves us at about less than 10% of North Dakota's population that comes to see the Medora musical.

And so one of my personal goals, knowing how much I love the show and how much of a celebration of North Dakota and our nation it is, I would love to see that 10% of North Dakotans coming really grow. And so I think the breakout's great, 60% North Dakotans. But overall, knowing that 10% of the total population of North Dakota comes, I want to continue to see that grow, knowing that we are getting people from our state out to experience this really wonderful show that's put on right in their backyard.

Main Street

Kaelee, if you'll allow me, I'll jump on your bandwagon. It's well worth it. Kaelee Wallace, she's the Marketing and Communications Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, talking today about the Medora musical. Kaelee, thanks for joining us.

Kaelee Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation

Thanks for having me, Craig.

NOTE: The transcript and show descriptions have been generated with AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.