National Park and Badlands Association board wanted to stage a pageant commemorating Theodore Roosevelt’s love of western North Dakota – he knew he had to have the job.
And so it came to pass, in the summer of 1958 – 40 miles from the nearest town – “Old Four Eyes” sold out 32 of 33 performances in a 2,000-seat amphitheatre built into the side of a Badlands’ butte. Eventually, after three years of rewrites, Walsh could nearly claim the script as his own. The show would run a total of six years, before being dropped in favor of an extravagant variety show known as the Medora Musical. The thought of tap dancers and dog acts being favored over legitimate historical drama boiled Walsh’s blood. Bitterly disappointed, he came to think of “Old Four Eyes” as “both the zenith and the nadir” of his career. Although his artistic vision was abandoned, Walsh’s Burning Hills Amphitheatre remains.
No less a mover and shaker on campus, Walsh quickly updated the curriculum and created the university’s first bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in speech and drama. Next he tackled the theatre itself. It took him more than a decade, but in 1968 – with the help of a generous donor and plenty of political savvy – Walsh got what he wanted, a new building. That summer of 1968, when incom- ing freshman Steve Stark arrived at Old Main for his official campus visit, he could see Walsh had no interest in showing him the original Little Country Theatre. “He barely opened the door and didn’t even turn on the lights,” Stark says. “He was more excited about Askanase Hall.”
Once Walsh got the kinks worked out of his new theatre, he started looking for a new project. Just like Arvold decades before him, Walsh turned his gaze on the hinterlands, saw an unmet need, and created the Prairie Stage. Between 1971 and
1976, Walsh dispatched a 16-member troupe to as many as 10 North Dakota communities each summer. The repertoire included three shows, including one for children. During the day the actors taught drama to local high school students.
Walsh himself designed the Prairie Stage tent and the com- plex wood egg-crating system that supported the stage and seating area. Michael J. Olsen, a 1973 graduate of NDSU, remembers the dry run in Fargo. It took the actors, who doubled as the technical crew, days to get it all assembled. “But Fred hung with it, and you know we got better and better. Part of the key was, in those first couple of weeks, the cast accidentally lost a few pieces of the egg crating along the way,” which considerably speeded the setup time, Olsen says. “I would guess he was mystified as to where those pieces might have gone.”
Walsh retired from NDSU in 1978. While passing the Little Country Theatre torch wasn’t as painful for him as it had been for Arvold, giving up the limelight wasn’t easy. He never stopped being creative and always had a one-act play or some other project in the works. Olsen and Stark say he mellowed with age, becoming – or at least trying to become
a delightful old curmudgeon.
Given some artistic license, the real-life drama of Arvold and Walsh could have a happy ending. Set in the great cos- mos, the two directors cordially trade stories in front of a stone fireplace. Of course, they’re trying to top each other’s tales, but in the dramatic moment when Walsh shares the phi- losophy that’s guided his every effort, Arvold smiles and says he strived to do the same: “to make theatre, not a means of earning a living, but the means of a way of living a life.”