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Willow River Players disband after 17 years

Actors from “Fiddler on the Roof” raise their glasses during a rehearsal of the song “To Life.” (File photo)

Since 1996, the Willow River Players have provided entertainment for people throughout the community and the area with its renditions of The Wizard of Oz, Fiddler on the Roof and many other classic plays and musicals.

However, the final vote of the active members was cast in November to disband the group for good.

“The organization has been struggling for several years to make the organization thrive again,” Willow River Players President Chad Leonard said. “It really fell to the shoulders of a few people to select the shows, hunt for a place to perform, getting the backstage crew, ensuring we had the actors to appear for auditions. The issue was not necessarily a financial decision; we had issues getting people to volunteer.”

The Players last show, Annie Get Your Gun, was performed in August in the New Richmond High School auditorium. The group also performed Ole and Lena’s Wedding earlier in 2013.

The Willow River Players, a nonprofit theater organization, was run by a group of local residents who were interested in putting on shows for adults to enjoy. According to Leonard, the pickings were slim when it came to entertainment for adults in the late 1990s, so the multitude of shows the Players put on since its advent in 1996 went a long way to fill that void.

“Since the organization was formed, over 40 shows have been produced for the community,” Leonard said. “On top of those, in 2001, the organization started performing a free holiday concert for the community as a ‘give back’ show. The organization also collected food for the local food shelf.”

When it came to putting on their shows, the Players performed wherever they could find the space, including such places as Suzanna’s, KC Hall, the American Legion Hall, Ready Randy’s and the St. Croix ArtBarn in Osceola.

“Prior to the new high school being built the group exclusively performed in the old high school Little Theater,” Leonard said. “The Little Theater has since been turned into a classroom, which left only the new high school as an option to continue to work with Community Education. The organization performed only three shows in the new high school auditorium.”

Some of Leonard’s most memorable moments with the Willow River Players was putting on shows like Smokey Joe’s Cafe, South Pacific, and the Wizard of Oz. He also enjoyed being able to give back and help students get the chance to be on stage.

“In the early 2000s, the organization was involved with the school district to provide support to produce shows with the students,” Leonard said. “This was a great opportunity to provide the students with the opportunity to get on stage, even if at that time there was not staff within the district to make that happen.”

At its peak of involvement, the Players had around 30 members from all over the area taking part in any given show.

“Over the years, the organization has had involvement from people from all over the St. Croix Valley from Hager City to Stillwater to Turtle Lake to Spring Valley,” Leonard said. “In recent years, many of the actors came from areas outside of New Richmond.”

However, with their numbers seeing a severe decline in the last few years, the group has averaged around 10 members per production.

“The group finally asked a few critical questions: Are we still having fun? What will happen if we didn’t exist?,” Leonard said about the groups final decision to disband. “We have been asking these questions for three years and have now answered these questions, which led to the decision to dissolve.”

Disbanding the group was hard for all of its members, but, as president, Leonard knew that it was the best choice even if he didn’t like making it.

“This was not an easy decision to make or, as the president, to drive the organization to do. It makes me very sad to know that the organization will no longer exist,” Leonard said. “When I first came to town in the the early 2000s, I needed something to do and to get involved with the community. This was the one thing that I thought would be enjoyable. It led me to some great people and great relationships have been formed because of the organization.”

Even though there might not be a chance for the Players to make a comeback, Leonard is hoping the group will be able to live on through its Carla S. Kelley Scholarship. The Players are in the process of working with the New Richmond Community Foundation to continue the scholarship even after the group has disbanded.

“Even though we weren’t able to stay together as a group, our members will go on to other area theater groups,” Leonard said. “There are several other theater groups in the area, two of which are in New Richmond — The SPACE and the Old Gem Theater. There are several others in the surrounding area.”

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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