A view from the stage area to the Opera Hall seating area. A wall inside the former Big Store (now the public library) elevator was signed by Agnes Severson in 1954 and then by her granddaughter Wendy Sarazyn 50 years later in 2014. The entire cast and director of the play, “His Night Out,” signed an Opera Hall stage wall on May 23, 1917.

If these walls could talk...

Opera Hall stage area filled with century-old signatures

The Society for the Preservation of Minneota's Heritage (SPMH) that recently formed a new group has been continually discovering new and interesting relics within in the 118-year-old Opera Hall above the library.
A walk up the steps to the stage on the west end of the Opera Hall is like a walk back in time. On nearly every wall within the stage area are signatures; many of them former Minneota High School students who participated in stage productions of long ago.
On one section high on the back wall is written: "1925 BB team" with the names of seven of the Minneota High School boys basketball players signed in cursive and circled for posterity sake.
There are some production playbills, as well as drawings, special sayings such as "One for all and all for one”, and expressions from various plays and musicals.
Some students likely climbed a ladder to scribe their names high on the walls. Some of the names have been painted over as new sets were designed. Even some of the set designs are signed on the back.
A few of the names are more current when the community band performed on stage a few years ago.
The names hold special meaning as you stand on the antiquated floorboards and peer out into where the Opera Hall seating section would have been. Those penciling in their names in the 1920s and previous to that are no longer with us.
The stage performances weren't the only thing that the Opera Hall was used for in the early years. Following the construction of the famous Big Store building in 1901, the Opera Hall on the floor above opened on Oct. 29, 1902 with a Grand Opening formal ball.
A story printed in the 1902 Minneota Mascot read: "Ever since O. G. Anderson & Co. began the building of their new store and Opera Hall, the young people of this vicinity have looked forward to the opening ball.“They expected the ball even long before the firm decided to give it, and last Tuesday, showed their appreciation by attending this formal opening of the Anderson Opera house at least 500 strong.
Rigs loaded with young people began to arrive at about six o’clock in the evening and after that it was simply one continual stream of carriages into town for several hours. They came from all over. Marshall, Cottonwood, Ghent, Taunton, all sent large delegations. The Cottonwood band attended in a body and, with the Minneota band, helped to make things rather lively the early part of the evening."
The last dance ended at 3:05 in the morning. Both the Minneota and Cottonwood cornet bands played concerts prior to the dance.
In the years to come, the opera hall was used as much as six nights a week for many years for such things as basketball games, musical presentations and roller skating parties.
That is one of the reasons why the SPMH was resurrected. Local historical Daren Gislason had been trying to fly solo in terms of retaining the group that was established in 1978 as a way of preserving local heritage. But Gislason recently noted that he would like to pass the torch, although his valuable knowledge will continue to be tapped by the organization.
"Daren knows so many people and is aware of so much history here," said SPMH President Wendy Sarazyn. "We will need his help in a lot of ways."
Sarazyn admitted that her love of local history piqued her interest is reorganizing the original SPMH group.
"I love this building and I love the historical things here," she said. "We need a lot of volunteers to help us go through and organize and records a lot of the things we have in here."
The group is currently pondering a timeline for organizational meetings. Besides Sarazyn, Gary Buysse is the vice president Sandy Josephson is secretary/treasurer.
Even Sarazyn, also a member of the Friends of the Library, has her name written in pencil on a wall inside the elevator. And the spot she picked to sign her name holds special meeting.
A new elevator is currently being constructed that will allow visitors to travel to the Opera Hall of the top floor without climbing the original steps that lead from the south side of the building. The original Big Store elevator was used until 2014.
When Sarazyn used the elevator one day while working at the library she began reading some of the names written on the walls.
To her surprise, she noticed a familiar name written in pencil in small letters, seemingly hidden from view along one edge. The date following the name read "Aug. '54."
"It was my grandmother, Agnes Severson, who used to work at the Big Store," Sarazyn. "So I signed my name (Wendy Severson Sarazyn) below hers and dated it (Dec. 2014)."
It's those types of historical names and items that the local SPMH group is attempting to preserve because of their vast value to the community's heritage.
The old stage is still in good condition, rich with names of former actors and actresses carved in the wall.
For most of the year, this virtual storehouse of Minneota history remains closed, buried to the younger generations.
The Big Store went out of business in 1972 with a massive clearance sale that fall. It is now home to the public library, while the Opera Hall has been used as a historical reference area.

NOTE: The SPMH is still seeking volunteers for sorting and to inventory items, or anyone who wants to join the SPMH. Contact Wendy Sarazyn at 507-531-7958 or Sandy Josephson at 320-815-7829.

A playbill from 1927 is affixed to one of the stage walls in the Opera Hall. Mascot photo by Scott Thoma

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