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Cali Owings, Published July 20 2013

Lights, camera, action: MSUM's Straw Hat Players celebrate 50 years

MOORHEAD – Summer is a busy time for Minnesota State University’s Straw Hat Players. In just ten weeks, the small production company puts on as many as eight different shows.

It’s a formidable experience for young performers, several of its alumni said. Though many things have changed since the players’ first season in 1963, the experience is fundamentally the same year after year.

Alumni of the program returned to Moorhead this weekend to celebrate the Straw Hat Players’ 50th anniversary and congratulate two of their most distinguished alumni.

The weekend’s activities highlighted the recent award-winning work of two MSUM alums. Jim Erickson won an Academy Award this year for set direction on Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and Bill Hulstrom earned a 2013 Emmy for art direction for “The Young and the Restless.”

“In many ways, it started here,” Erickson said.

Erickson said his experience in college taught him to “work hard and love what you do.”

That’s been the case for the tight-knit group of summer players since their opening season 50 years ago.

Unique program

In 1963, Delmar Hansen, the longtime director of theater at MSUM, took over the Falls Summer Theatre at Fergus Falls (Minn.) Junior College and the group performed three “one-act, avant-garde plays.” The project moved to Weld Hall auditorium in Moorhead in 1965, and the company took the name Straw Hat Players.

The intensive summer program is unique because members of the company are paid, and it usually features a cast of current students, recent alumni, high school students and professionals.

Hulstrom said the rigor of the summer program helped prepare him for the set work he now does for “The Young and the Restless.”

Performing eight different shows over the course of the summer means quickly transitioning sets from one production to the next, something Hulstrom said he does daily when he often works with 10 sets a day.

Sense of belonging

During the reunion Saturday, alumni had the chance to reminisce about their college performances as they walked through an exhibit dedicated to 50 years of the Straw Hat Players. Many alumni reflected on their time as Straw Hatters fondly, though it was a lot of work.

“Doc Hansen said he liked jocks. He could yell at us and we wouldn’t cry,” recalled Robert “B.A.” Schoen, a MSUM wrestler who performed with the players in the late ’60s.

Schoen traveled to Moorhead from Baldwin, N.Y. for the reunion.

“These are things that have a big influence in your life,” he said.

Erickson echoed that thought during a speech Saturday. He said the theater “gave us a sense that we belonged somewhere.”

With a new crop of young players every year, the alumni agreed they were glad to see the theater providing a similar experience to new performers. They saw the 2013 Straw Hat Players in action Friday night during a performance of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“The details have changed, but the experience is the same,” Schoen said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599