Today Bev Halbeisen Blanich lives across the street from El Zagal Bowl. “I still call it the bowl,” she says, even though the Shriners turned it into a nine-hole golf course years ago. From her living room window, she can look out and remem- ber that first, flashy introduction to A.G. Arvold, general director of speech and theatre at NDSU.
As a member of the class of 1945, Blanich knew Arvold could be heavy handed and demanding, and at times “a little weird,” but she also found him a wonderful teacher and sup- portive mentor. Plus, he was famous. She’d seen the book of plays George Bernard Shaw presented to Arvold when he vis- ited England in 1930. Shaw had inscribed the volume to “the minister of fine arts to the country communities of America.” So, like many other alumni, Blanich felt horrible when the university forced their beloved teacher to retire. The poorly handled transition cast 70-year-old Arvold and 37-year-old Frederick G. Walsh against one another. Walsh was highly- qualified, a war veteran with three master’s degrees and a doctorate in theatre, but when he first presented himself for duty, Arvold looked him hard in the eye and said, “Don’t unpack your bag, young man. I’m going to have you fired.”
Arvold never recovered from his unceremonious unseating, and Walsh – haunted by Arvold’s 45-year dynasty and national reputation – struggled to escape the legend’s shadow. Had they met under different circumstances, the two might have become friends or, at least, respectful colleagues. Both were creative, tenacious and supremely con- fident human beings. Both believed in
theatre of the people, by the people and for the people. Both made an indelible mark on dramatic arts on campus and across the state. They were the kings of theatre in North Dakota from 1907 to 1978.
NDSU President John H. Worst hired Arvold in 1907 because he saw his fledging land-grant college not just as a place to train good farmers and teachers. He wanted to make farm life and its labors a “business to be envied,” and knew one way to do that was by involving students in the arts. Arvold embraced the idea of theatre as diversion from life’s daily toil. He figured the greater the spectacle, the more peo- ple would be drawn to the transformative experience.
Arvold was never short of big ideas. Just a few months after he arrived on campus, he persuaded most of the student body to volunteer for his Cyclone Circus. On a chill March day, his costumed performers slogged the three miles of unpaved road to Fargo and back in a pre-performance parade, then gave
two shows featuring fiery dragons, polar bears, sea serpents and more. Featured acts included the “blood-curdling dip of death” and “The Resurrection – not one of the shocking details left out.”
Arvold based his “cheerful country life laboratory” in Old Main, the turreted administration building in the center of campus. A former chapel on the second floor became the theatre, where he prepared his young protégés to put on festivals, plays and pageants in their own hometowns. For his office, Arvold chose a circular room in Old Main’s clock tower. He filled his inner sanctum with favorite books on magic, ballet, opera and anthropology and covered the walls with photographs signed by the world-class performers he enticed to appear in NDSU’s Lyceum series.
The demands of running his “humanizing agency” meant he had to rely on a cadre of assistants to execute the many class plays, commencement programs and club cabarets staged each year. But every spring and summer break, Arvold was front and center as he and his student actors toured up to 40 towns, presenting modest one-acts and assessing com-
Wa l s h
In 1913 the state Legislature allo- cated $3,000 to expand and improve Arvold’s theatre. Christened the Little Country Theatre on February 10, 1914, the refurbished auditorium fea- tured a 17-foot stage, with no wings to speak of, and seating for 350. Its most impressive architectural feature was six magnificent stained-glass win- dows, which Arvold convinced local
community groups to donate. Perfectly reflecting Arvold’s interests, they featured classic playwrights – Goethe, Ibsen and Shakespeare – as well as Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty and Justin Morrill, author of the act that created land-grant universities.
He’d been in the national press before, but in 1916 McCall’s Magazine made Arvold the talk of housewives all across America. Framed in soap-opera-like narrative, the three-page article extolled Arvold’s Little Country Theatre Package Library, a free lending library that made plays and skits available to people across the state. With titles like “Grandma Keeler gets Grandpa Keeler Ready for Church” and “Training a Wife,” these pieces weren’t high art, but rural audiences couldn’t get enough of them. Arvold was pleased to see the article accompanied by several photos, including one of him checking in dozens of scripts and sending them out again.