AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel
The entertainment story of our times is that sports and showbiz execs are slowly starting to learn that to go woke quite often means going broke. Making the game or the show a vehicle for progressive politics turns off any audience but true believers. A focus on our common life as a country and an appreciation for our history means success. That thought never seemed truer when I took in a marvel called The Medora Musical on my summer vacation, a live patriotic extravaganza performing nightly against the scenic backdrop of North Dakota’s Badlands. The execs in New York and L.A. could learn a thing or three about what still sells from tiny Medora, as a brief round-up of the follies of the last six months shows.
After Major League Baseball moved the planned 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver because of voting reform bills in Georgia that the league claimed, along with Democratic politicians and their media adjuncts, were “voter suppression,” the summer fixture achieved its second-lowest ratings ever with only 8.24 million viewers tuning in—this despite the Japanese hitting-and-pitching sensation Shohei Ohtani’s presence. The uber-woke NBA similarly had a disastrous finals series, ending up with slightly better numbers than 2020 because of a strong final game. But that masked the fact that the first few games often did not reach 10 million viewers.
In crossing over to non-sports entertainment, we can first note that left-wing basketball star LeBron James’s movie Space Jam bombed big-time at the box office. Perhaps it would have been different had King James followed Michael Jordan, the original blockbuster Space Jam star, in refraining from jamming his own liberal politics on his fans because “Republicans buy sneakers.” (Jordan later said that line was a joke, but it’s not clear he didn’t mean it.) Netflix, whose content has been trending from progressive politics to the lurid semi-child-pornographic Cuties, lost nearly a half-million American subscribers in the second quarter of 2021, according to a report in Breitbart. In fact, all of the entertainment industry is suffering from its own insufferable need to curse and offend the deplorables at every turn. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the four major awards shows lost a collective 35 million viewers in 2021. The Oscars had their lowest television audience in history, but they were not alone. Almost all the awards shows tanked this year.
I wouldn’t know about that last bit because—like most of the country!—I haven’t been watching these shows for years. I don’t look to actors and athletes for political views.
But I still like to be entertained. So when a friend said that if I were passing through North Dakota this summer I had to see The Medora Musical, I jumped at the chance. The musical both tells the history of a place that is part of American history and it is part of that history.
At the far western side of North Dakota, the town of Medora (population: 112) was established by the Marquis of Dorés in 1883 and named after his wife, Medora von Hoffman. The French aristocrat set up the town and a meatpacking plant in order to ship meat to Chicago via the Northern Pacific Railway. It gained its fame, however, from an American president. A young Teddy Roosevelt, who had visited the Badlands in 1883 to hunt bison, returned the next year in the wake of the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day. He set up a ranch called Elkhorn just north of Medora and kept it up for four years until the brutal winter of 1886-87 killed his cattle and he returned to New York.
TR had not initially impressed the cowboys and ranchers of the west nor did he always please them, but due to his attempt to learn their ways and his advocacy for them and for sensible policies in the Dakota Territory, he certainly earned the respect of the region. When he returned as President Roosevelt on a whistle-stop tour in 1903, this respect had grown. He recalled that “the entire population of the Badlands down to the smallest baby had gathered to meet me… They all felt I was their man, their old friend; and even if they had been hostile to me in the old days when we were divided by the sinister bickering and jealousies and hatreds of all frontier communities, they now firmly believed they had always been my staunch friends. . . .” And indeed, that year the Medora town hotel changed its name to the Rough Riders Hotel.
Fifty years later, enter Harold Schafer (1912-2001). The president of the Gold Seal Company, which gave us Mr. Bubble, Glass Wax, and a number of other popular products, the North Dakota native wanted to preserve the history of the old West and TR. His first order of business was to take over and renovate the nearly-ruined Rough Riders Hotel in 1962, whose previous owners had won it in a card game. Next, he took over the Burning Hills Amphitheater, built in 1958 for the purpose of presenting a stage play about Roosevelt called Old Four Eyes. After that show had run for five seasons, it had been replaced by a new show called Teddy Roosevelt’s Life in North Dakota. Schafer decided that this show, a dud, needed to be replaced and so contacted Sheehan Productions of Minneapolis to develop a new show, with the demands that it be kid-friendly, have Teddy Roosevelt’s name appear in the title, and include a big patriotic ending.
The result, an upbeat variety show with Vaudevillian elements, debuted on July 1, 1965, and was titled Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again: A Medora Musical. Schafer apparently relented on the name demand, for the show was soon known simply as the The Medora Musical. On the other two demands, however, there are no exceptions. The show, eventually taken over by The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation founded by Schafer in 1986, did and continues to cast top-notch performers for its house band, The Coal Diggers, and its troupe of singer-dancers, the Burning Hills Singers.
Proof of that might be that two of that first 1965 season’s cast members went on to fame elsewhere. Michon Peacock went on to appear in the original Chicago musical and was involved in the development of A Chorus Line. David Solberg, known professionally as David Soul, went on to appear in Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force and, most famously, was Detective Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson on the cop show Starsky and Hutch. In a slightly different genre, another early singer named Tom Netherton was scooped up by another North Dakota entertainer and went on to appear in 151 episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show. And Schafer’s son, Ed, took over stuntman duties in 1967 after the producers decided Hollywood stuntmen were too expensive. Though his showbiz career was short, he later became governor of North Dakota and eventually U. S. Secretary of Agriculture.
When we saw the show last week, we were a bit worried that the cloudy-but-no-rain weather forecast might not have been so accurate. The dark clouds around show time at 7:30 PM were incredibly beautiful as we sat in the outdoor theater perched high on the side of Burning Gulch, but they did not portend a full ticket’s worth of show. God and Teddy Roosevelt must have been watching out for us, however, because though it sprinkled off-and-on, the show did—as it must—go on.
After meeting the band, the first act began with what the program titled “Our National Anthem.” I noticed a lot of members of the audience saluting while most of the rest had their hands over their hearts. Those saluting veterans were recognized during the show by the hosts, “Cowboy” Chet Wollan and “Calamity” Annie Freres. With plenty of cornpone humor, covers of country and pop songs and great dancing from the Burning Hills Singers, and a lot of North Dakota pride, the act ended with “The Story of Medora and the Couples Who Created Her”—focusing on the Marquis and Medora, TR, and finally Harold Schafer and his wife Sheila, a former theater student who had been involved with her husband from the beginning of the show.
The center of the second act is a featured touring performer. Though this summer had included a magician, juggler, and comedian, we were happy to have seen the first night of The Chicago Boyz, a touring acrobatic team whose youngest performer that night was an eleven-year-old. My five-year-old daughter thought the “back flips” were the highlight of the show. The older kids preferred the penultimate number: “Dare Greatly!”—a musical presentation of TR’s Charge of San Juan Hill set to “The Greatest Show” from the 2017 movie musical The Greatest Showman. This was indicative of what’s great about The Medora Musical. It draws on the best music of older times and new, showing that patriotism isn’t a thing of the past.
Nor does it have to be staid. “I Was Born Free—Let Freedom Ring!” was the final number and featured horseback riders with flags and a fireworks display. While the ratings for woke entertainment are going out with a whimper, The Medora Musical shows that love of our country and its history, and an attention to what unites us as Americans, makes for a show that doesn’t go out—but does conclude with a bang.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.