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Swedish Ethnic Humor Play “Ole Olson” In Bismarck, 1893

4/11/2017:

Throughout human history, tragedy seems to overwhelm happiness (and humor), but overall, there has always been more laughter than tears.

One perennial form of humor is ethnic, which can be starkly of two different modes – light-hearted or mean-spirited.

Scandinavian humor abounds, for everyone laughs at “Ole and Lena” jokes. Norwegians have been the butt of ethnic jokes ever since they came to America, but have also become the pride of ND, as the state’s largest-ever ethnic group.

Always in second-place among ND’s Scandinavians were Swedish-Americans. Swedes were admired for a solid work ethic, but sometimes disparaged for not always catching on quickly to American customs.

Today’s “Datebook” looks upon Swedish humor, when on this date in 1893, the Bismarck Tribune reported that “quite a crowd” enjoyed the previous-night’s play entitled “Ole Olson.”

“Ole Olson” was the first American comedy-drama ever written with a Swedish character as its star. The plot was woven around the fictional Ole Olson, a newly-immigrated Swede, and the story followed him from first arrival through successful assimilation.

The author of the play was not even a Swede, instead he was a German-American actor and playwright named Gus Heege. After “Ole Olson,” Heege wrote two other Swedish plays – “Yon Yonson,” and “A Yenuine Yentleman.” Heege mimicked other dialects using “German, Irish, Dutch, Chinese and pretty nearly every brogue under the sun” to spark laughter among audiences. Those dialect-comedies mocked immigrants, but “Ole Olson” was not portrayed in a derogatory way. This Swedish Ole Olson was a semi-heroic figure with hilarious monologues.

Ole Olson, like many another young Swede, came to America to make his fortune. Although he had only “bane in dees kountry wan yar, femt mont[h] and sax wake,” he ultimately rode his kindness, honesty, and “true grit” to success.

Ole Olson was a bumpkin upon his arrival, wearing clothes several sizes too small. Standing pigeon-toed, audiences howled with laughter whenever he mangled the English language.

By the last act, Ole Olson replaced his immigrant clothes with a well-fitting suit and tie, symbolizing his upward mobility into a true-blue American.

The “Ole Olson” dialect-comedy show, with its good-hearted humor, returned to Bismarck occasionally – but by 1900 had faded into oblivion. Yet, in its prime, North Dakota theatergoers loved “Ole Olson” – laughing at this likeable immigrant’s awkwardness and mispronunciations – for he was such a “yolly gude Swede.”

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Ole Olson,” Bismarck Tribune, April 11, 1893, p. 3.

“Ole Olson,” Bismarck Tribune, April 4, 1893, p. 3.

“Ole Olson,” Bismarck Tribune, April 7, 1893, p. 3.

“Ole Olson,” Bismarck Tribune, April 8, 1893, p. 3.

“Heege’s New Play,” St. Paul Globe, December 29, 1894, p. 2.

“Ole Olson,” Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, January 21, 1889, p. 3.

“Ole Olson,” Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, January 5, 1889, p. 3.

“Ole Olson,” Bismarck Tribune, September 22, 1909, p. 4.

Anne-Charlotte Harvey, in Anderson, Philip J., and Dag Blanck, eds., Swedes in the Twin Cities: Immigrant Life and Minnesota's Urban Frontier (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), p. 156, 163-168, 172.