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Mary Divine, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published December 16 2012

Residents of Minnesota town strip for friend in need

MARINE ON ST. CROIX, Minn. — Polar explorer Ann Bancroft stands in a dog sled behind Scissors, her red-haired malamute, wearing a hat, beaver-fur mittens, mukluks and seemingly nothing else.

Filmmaker Gayle Knutson films a scene of a villain tying a young maiden to a railroad track, an old-fashioned 16mm film camera strategically held in front of her, er, swimsuit area.

And the owner of the Marine General Store poses behind the cash register with a head of cabbage.

Meet Miss November 2013, Miss January 2013 and Miss March 2013. They are among the Scandia and Marine on St. Croix residents featured in the 2013-2014 fundraising calendar called "Scandia/Marine Au Naturel, Again."

The calendar showcases not nubile young women but nearly nude middle-age men and women posing discreetly behind the items of their trades: bags of money, llamas, a railroad lantern, a case of beer and a counter of chocolates.

Last year's calendar raised nearly $20,000 for local business owner Toni Poletes, who is battling Stage IV breast cancer.

Inspired by the British movie "Calendar Girls," in which members of a prim and proper ladies' social club pose nude for a fundraiser, professional photographer Verna Pitts and graphic artist Jeni O'Brien decided in 2006 to produce their own calendar to raise money for Jenna Lynn, a young woman from Scandia who was battling a rare form of bone cancer. Jenna died in 2008; she was 18.

Pitts and O'Brien teamed up again last year to help Poletes, one of the owners of Ostlund's Marine Garage in Marine on St. Croix. Poletes is struggling to pay medical bills after she hit the maximum for her insurance in March.

Poletes is a town icon, said Rob Pruden, personal banking officer for the Security State Bank of Marine, aka Mr. November 2014, who poses for the calendar inside the bank's safe.

"Toni has been delightful, fun and strong through all this," Pruden said. "I can't imagine anyone saying 'No.' There were so many people who were willing to join in that they had to do an extended calendar."

Everybody wants to help Poletes, said Knutson, the filmmaker. "She's just an inspiration to everybody who meets her," she said. "She dearly loves people. I think she's a pivotal person. She makes people want to gather around her to help, and that's a good thing for a small community, too. Not only are we helping her; we're helping ourselves."

Knutson said she came up with the idea of directing a Dudley Do-Right shot after realizing that the "double humps" of the old-fashioned camera "looked like a strapless formal."

"I called Verna and said 'I have this idea, but I don't know if there's time,' and they were just getting ready to shoot," Knutson said. She borrowed the 16mm camera from Cinequipt of Minneapolis, which rents and sells production gear to filmmakers.

Dudley Do-Right was the eponymous hero of a segment on "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" that parodied early 20th-century melodrama and silent film. Knutson's husband, Jim Maher, plays Snidely Whiplash; Wendy Cright, O'Brien's sister, plays Nell Fenwick, Do-Right's girlfriend.

All are seemingly naked, some more than others.

"I was wearing Spanx; that's what I had for a bottom," Knutson said. "Verna said, 'Oh, I've got this tube top that is flesh-colored, and I'll bring that.' The thing is, she only brought one, so Wendy got that. It was no biggie. I said, 'I'll just whip my top off. I don't think anybody can see me.' I did it quick and got behind that camera. The sun had heated the camera up enough so it was pretty warm back there."

Adrian Franssen, owner of Scandia Olde Towne Liquor, is Mr. June 2013 in his third calendar appearance. Back, too, is Teger, his Yorkshire terrier.

"They keep asking us, so they must like us," said Franssen, who poses with Teger on top of a case of beer in front of his midsection. "I sell them and sign them for my customers, and Teger puts her little paw print there too."

Poletes is a blessing to the close-knit Scandia-Marine community, Franssen said. "She is always there when somebody needs to talk about anything," he said. "She understands so much. She's so outgoing to everybody."

Poletes, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, said she is grateful for the residents of Marine and Scandia, especially those who have volunteered with the calendar project.

"They have all stood behind me this whole time and have helped me raise money to pay these enormous bills," she said. "They have cooked meals for me and, most importantly, have stopped by the garage to see how I am doing."

She said working at the garage has been her outlet for coping with her terminal status. "It keeps me busy and connected," she said.

Poletes and John Ostlund, her fiance and business co-owner, are featured in a photo at the front of the calendar, Ostlund with his arms wrapped around her. "He's kissing me on the head," she said. "I'm just looking out like I normally do. It's so beautiful."

But one of her favorite photos is for December 2014, the final month of the calendar. It shows seven local women who gathered outside the garage to bare their tops. Six have their backs to the camera; the woman in the middle of the line is facing forward, holding a sign that says it all:

"Toni, we've got your back!"