Betty Boop Festival in Wisconsin Rapids

July 30, 2010

Have you ever visited Wisconsin Rapids?  I have not, but I plan to go there next weekend.  A jewelry artist from Wisconsin Rapids sent me an invitation and  information about  Betty Boop Festival.  I  grew up in Europe where we loved Betty, but have to admit that I am guilty of not knowing that Myron “Grim” Natwick, original top animator of Betty Boop at Fleischer Studios in 1930 was Wisconsin Rapids native son!

The organizers of Netwick’s celebration invited  artists, vendors, retailers, etc. to rent a booth during  Aug 7 & 8 events – an outdoor venue in downtown Wisconsin Rapids, and an indoor venue at Hotel Mead.

I will copy
  the announcement I have received:

“Betty Boop Festival, August 5 -8, 2010, is a four day celebration of animation art and history in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, honoring hometown native son Grim Natwick who was original top animator of Betty Boop at Fleischer Studios in 1930.  Events include: Grim Natwick Art Exhibit from ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archives; Animation Film Festival featuring Wisconsin filmmakers, Nina Paley, and Betty Boop films; Nina Paley Art Exhibit and Meet the Artist events; Betty Boop Bash dance; Betty Boop Revue song and dance with Broadway star Tom Berklund; Motorcycle Shine, Show & Ride; Arts & Collectibles Show and Presentations; Dedication of Grim Natwick State of Wisconsin Historical Marker, and more!  Vendor and Artists booths are available to rent at two locations, Aug. 7-8; forms and details can be found at 
> Mark your calendar for a boop-oop-a-doop great time and help spread the word: 



The Muse Theater in La Crosse

July 30, 2010

Few weeks ago I went with my daughter to see “Angry Housewives”, a musical comedy presented by The Muse Theater in La Crosse (Music & Book by Chad Henry; 
Lyrics & Book by A.M. Collins; Direction by Vicki Elwood and Music Direction by Beth Lakmann).

The talented cast did an excellent job and the patrons left delighted.

The theater is located in the old, renovated former North Presbyterian Church building, at the corner of Logan and Avon Street on La Crosse’s North Side.   The building itself is a piece of art worth visiting.  Founders of The Muse Theater are Vicki and Don Elwood, who bought the old church about 8 years ago and spent six years renovating the building.  Now Vicky produces, acts, directs, and runs the theater with help of her husband Don.

If you plan to visit La Crosse during this weekend you might be lucky to get last tickets for one of the shows of “Angry Housewives,” a light musical comedy, perfect for making your summer evening even more pleasant.

For more details check:



Virtual Touring

July 30, 2010

I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for architectural walking tours and my preference for the in-person experience. Nonetheless, online tours can be a helpful resource especially as they become more sophisticated in presentation.

As someone who has visited La Crosse only briefly, and then spent my time mostly downtown, it was a revelation. The district includes some impressive examples of domestic architecture and I was especially taken by the number of Prairie Style houses. Many are by Percy Dwight Bentley, a La Crosse architect with whom I am familiar, and several are by Otto Merman, a name new to me.

Percy Dwight Bentley's house for Ben and Jessie Ott in La Crosse dates from 1923, making it a late example of the Prairie Style.

For example, I recently took a virtual tour of the Cass-King Residential District in La Crosse. The upsides of online tours include the level of detail, the chance to see historical images, and moving at my own pace. The downsides are that there is no context for the settings of individual buildings and I will not catch nuances that emerge when standing in front of a place.

Perhaps I am biased because I give walking tours myself for the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. Still, the virtual tour has its place. Having visited La Crosse on the Web, I am more likely to drive there and check out the Cass-King District in person so I can satisfy my curiosity and fill the gaps that the virtual tour can’t provide.

Next stop on the Web: Madeline Island!

–Michael Bridgeman


Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

July 26, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Spanning more than 32, 000 acres, Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater Cattail Marsh in the U.S. It is one of the most popular wetlands viewing destinations for Wisconsin and Midwestern birders. The low-lying hills of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge offer great views of prairie and wetlands, fine nature walks, and a floating boardwalk allows access to the marsh and its bounty of wildlife.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

The Horicon National Wildlife Refuge is the federally maintained section of the marsh; there is no park fee. It is the largest freshwater Cattail Marsh in the country and birders revere this area as an attractive destination during the migration periods when more than 250 species pass through. Geese, herons, teals, grebes, and even pelicans arrive in droves to wander its habitat, search for sustenance, nest, and create more than a bit of truly remarkable sound. This birding hot spot is best to visit in the spring or fall during migration season, when the refuge is rife with significant voyaging waterfowl.

The scenic park road is a 3-mile loop of prairie and marsh, and flora and fauna. It offers three connected loops of no difficulty and 4.3 miles combined miles of trails. If you are looking for a short visit to the marsh, head to the Egret Trail and floating boardwalk right near the trailhead. If you are looking for a longer hike, start from the Red Fox Hiking Trail across the road from the lot entrance. Maps are posted here. About 200 feet into the prairie, the trail forks after a short boardwalk over a low-level area and wends through open prairie showing a profusion of wildflowers.

Wildlife at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

If you are lucky you may spot some of the elusive and wary creatures teeming in the marsh, including Forster’s Terns, Muskrats, Northern Leopard Frogs, White Pelicans, Great Egrets, American Coots, Tree Swallows, and Pied-Billed Grebes.

Horicon Birding

Early mornings and late afternoons are generally the most likely times of the day to see wildlife. A pair of binoculars is helpful, but not essential. Even if you do not see an animal, you may see signs of its presence, such as tracks, scat, or feathers. Listen and you will hear a symphony of eclectic and unique sounds.

Across the highway from the park entrance is the privately owned and volunteer-operated Marsh Haven Nature Center, which offers a short trail, a small museum, and 30-foot observation tower. Admission to the museum is $1.

The Other Wright Women

July 26, 2010

By Joan Fischer

For all that we hear about the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life—a steamy subject that, 50 years after his death, still inspires works of fiction (Loving Frank, The Women)—we almost never learn about two indomitable spirits who not only influenced Wright, but also earned his admiration and deep affection.

Jane Lloyd Jones. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Ellen (“Nell”) and Jane (“Jenny”) Lloyd Jones, Wright’s mother’s sisters, are better known simply as “the Aunts,” which is how Wright himself referred to them. They founded Hillside Home School, a freewheeling, “learn by doing” elementary through high school that reflected their own liberal Unitarian upbringing. They ran the school during its entire existence, from 1887 to 1915.

Eventually the Hillside building (designed by their famous nephew, whose own sons Lloyd and John became students there) was repurposed to serve as a school/studio for Wright’s architecture students. It is located on the Taliesin grounds and is open to tourists. And it is there that many people first hear about the Aunts.

On a recent tour I was lucky enough to have a guide who was quite taken with the Aunts and provided more information about them than I had heard on previous visits. I followed up with a brief Q&A with Taliesin staff historian Keiran Murphy.

Ellen Lloyd Jones. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

What made these two women so unusual for their time?

Simply, there is the fact that they never married and had positions of authority before even starting the Hillside Home School. Jane had been director of kindergarten-training schools in Minnesota; and Ellen had been the head of the history department at River Falls State Normal School in Wisconsin. The fact that they served as the principals at the Hillside Home School from the very beginning had to be very unusual.

I think Jane’s background helps explain part of their outlook on education: they believed in using education to teach the “basics” (and college prep courses), but also to raise fully empathetic and well-developed human beings who were engaged in the natural world around them. Science classes were held outdoors, on the grounds and in the gardens.

According to one former teacher, Mary Ellen Chase, there were no “rules” to speak of. The Aunts’ attitude was that the older students teach the younger ones deportment and responsibility, which is part of the “learning by doing” that we sometimes mention on tour.

The Aunts hired Chase in 1910 for her first job. Their interview with her is telling. “They surprised me by not asking anything about what I knew in the subjects for which they needed a teacher,” Chase wrote in her book, A Goodly Fellowship (Macmillan Company, New York City, 1939). “They wanted to know instead if I liked the country, if children amused and interested me, if I liked and could take long walks, if I knew anything about birds and common flowers.”

What was Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with the Aunts like after he became famous?

They remained incredibly proud of him and generally had a good relationship with him. The fact that they allowed him to design their “Home Building” (at 19), then took the chance and allowed him to design the unusual Romeo & Juliet windmill tower, then the radical Hillside Home School building, are testaments to their feelings toward him.

After he bought the buildings and land, Wright was supposed to support them financially, but wasn’t good at it. The Aunts spent years trying to (a) get the money out of Wright that he promised them, and (b) begging to come back to Hillside.

Wright wrote extensively about the Aunts, their school, and the buildings he designed for them—as well as their financial travails—in his autobiography. Reads one such passage:

Bankruptcy threatened the Hillside Home School where for twenty-seven years “the Aunts” had mothered some forty to sixty boys and girls, aged seven to seventeen—preparing their forty to sixty boys and girls for college by keeping a staff of thirteen teachers in residence besides themselves. They had done a pioneer work in home-school co-education. The Hillside Home School was perhaps the first—certainly one of the first—co-educational home schools in our country.

Eventually the Aunts did both die at the Hillside Home School site that they had sorely wanted to get back to, Jane in 1917 and Ellen in 1919.

* * * *

Hillside serves as a school to this day. Students of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees there May through October (the rest of the year the students are at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona).

For more information, visit Taliesin Preservation, Inc. and Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

Hillside Home School. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.


Your family needs you.

July 17, 2010

Let’s have a chat. 

A serious chat about a fun subject.

Let’s talk about entertaining ourselves – something we should A) do often, and B) diversify.

If we look back a generation or two, people were very good at entertaining themselves and, most impressively, they had just a fraction of the outlets we have on our doorsteps today.  Those same generations-past were good at  entertaining themselves withOUT any external assistance.

They could sit on a porch and hum a tune or just rock back-and-forth allowing their imagination to provide the spark. 

Conversation was also a quality pastime – with the accent on ‘quality’ – because it wasn’t frivolous chattering on a cell phone, Facebook, Twitter and email (moderation is the key) – it was meaningful face-to-face conversation about life and personal pursuits.  We were good at it.

Back to entertainment.

Today, we depend on television and motion pictures, for the most part, to provide our daily intake of ‘entertainment’.  They grab us and hold us tight – programs designed to shock, excite, scare and fascinate – with commercial breaks-to-match.  I watch some television and movies, although I choose not to go to theaters, in fear of being distracted by a discourteous neighbor….so I wait for the DVD.  But I also value the presence of quality music, theatre and art as a complement to my entertainment diet – thanks, in large part, to parents who made certain their kids had an appreciation for the existence of live performance – the kind where you are actually in a seat to watch and listen to a concert, play or event.

And I’m here today to encourage all of you – young, old, married, single, parents, families – to support the existence of artistic pursuit in or near where you live. 

It’s healthy to participate as a player – and just as healthy to enjoy as an audience member.  It’s called living a well-rounded life.  It does wonders for the confidence of young people knowing their parents value learning-through-experience, exposing the family to comedic and dramatic theatre, music, visual and stage arts of all kinds, amateur and professional. 

So, look for opportunities to surprise the family with quality entertainment.  Read the Entertainment Section of your local or regional newspaper, go online to search for events that broaden your perspective, develop an appetite for being entertained – and let’s not forget the importance of entertaining ourselves through music, art, writing, hobbies, education and more.

Take your family out to be entertained, and, believe me, you will see your children blossom before your very eyes – in ways no weekly television series or special-effects-laden motion picture can.

Just by being here at Portal Wisconsin, you have taken a step.

I’m looking forward to seeing you out and about….and let’s talk about it now and then.

Send me your revelations…and I’ll pass them along.  We’ll have a network in no time.  You can find me at  Be sure to identify yourself as a respondent from Portal Wisconsin.

Stay cool.

Opera for everyone

July 8, 2010

By Brian Hinrichs, Portal guest blogger

The Onion recently published a headline that, predictably, made me chuckle: “Nation’s Boyfriends Dreading ‘Free Event in the Park’ Season.” Yes, it is indeed “Free Event in the Park season,” but personally, that’s what makes it my favorite season.

You see, I work for Madison Opera, and every year our staff and production team works hard to put on Opera in the Park (Saturday, July 17, 2010 in Garner Park), our free event in the park that has become a Madison summer tradition.

Maestro John DeMain conducts a previous Opera in the Park event.

Throughout Madison Opera’s mainstage season in Overture Hall, we encounter the tragic lives of historical heroines and the buffoonery of classic clowns. We laugh, we cry and we hop on the wonderful roller-coaster ride that is opera (both producing it, and experiencing it) because there is nothing else in the performing arts quite like it. The lavish sets, the costumes, the music, the drama, the beauty of the unamplified voice: it all combines for a uniquely powerful experience.

At Opera in the Park, we get to highlight the best parts of this magical art form for an audience of thousands, and yes, they get to experience it for free! It’s a thrilling night, one the nation’s boyfriends need not dread at all.

Opera in the Park started nine years ago, and each year since it has grown exponentially. It’s a concert of opera and Broadway hits, featuring some of today’s brightest American opera singers alongside the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro John DeMain. The program offers something for everyone, with excerpts from our upcoming productions of The Marriage of Figaro, The Threepenny Opera, and La Traviata, in addition to a Stephen Sondheim birthday tribute, selections from The Sound of Music, celebrating its 50th anniversary and much more.

This year’s guest soloists are sopranos Anya Matanovic and Barbara Shirvis, tenor Rodrick Dixon, and baritone Stephen Powell. Ms. Matanovic is a rising star in the opera world, with recent engagements at Seattle Opera and the New Israeli Opera, while Ms. Shirvis is in demand around the country both on the operatic and concert stages (she performs the title role in Tosca with the Minnesota Orchestra following Opera in the Park). Mr. Dixon is well known in many genres, from his role in the original Broadway cast of Ragtime to appearances with the Los Angeles Opera to his PBS specials with the opera/gospel crossover group, “The Tenors Cook, Dixon, and Young.” Mr. Powell leads a continent-spanning career, with The Wall Street Journal hailing his “rich, lyric baritone, commanding presence and thoughtful musicianship.”

Opera in the Park has grown exponentially in the past nine years.

All of this talent will be on display on Saturday, July 17th in Garner Park at 8 p.m. Come early, bring a picnic, and get a taste of Madison Opera: you don’t want to miss the highlight of “Free Event in the Park season!”

For more information on Opera in the Park, visit

Doin’ just fine.

July 2, 2010

I’ve had the luxury of living in large metropolitan areas – namely Milwaukee and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

While there, I made sure I utilized all the wonderful amenities afforded to those living among many others.  I was impressed with the facilities and even more impressed with the progressive stance on entertainment and the arts.  It seemed there was always something to do and somewhere to go; stages and galleries where performers and artists did their stuff.

When I opted to return to four distinct seasons – and chose the less-than-urban setting of Western Wisconsin, I wondered how my appetite for all things cultural and refined would be satisfied.  I was a bit nervous that my artistic libido might shrivel and go into certain dormancy.

Now, twenty years later, I continue to marvel at how unfounded my fears should have been and how quickly they were allayed.  Y’see, Western and Northwestern Wisconsin are very nicely seasoned with some of the most imaginative and resourceful people and venues I’ve had the pleasure of patronizing…and I’ve taken it upon myself to do everything I can to see that everyone residing within our caste known as the ‘rank-and-file’ accepts, visits and supports them.

Here are just some of the innovators: Eau Claire Theater Guild, Eau Claire Children’s Theater,  Menomonie Theater Guild, Old Gem Theater, Theatre in the Woods, Red Barn Theatre, Northern Star Theatre, Fanny Hill Dinner Theater, St. Croix Festival Theatre, Northern Lakes Center for the Arts, Phipps Center for the Arts, Willow River Players, Heyde Center for the Arts, River Falls Community Theater, Big River Theater, The Space Center for Creativity, Great River Road Theater, Cumberland ETC, Black River Arts Alliance, Falls Players, Barron Spotlighters, as well as several wonderful venues contained on college campuses from Eau Claire to River Falls to Rice Lake.  Why, there is as much talent and artistic energy here as there is fertile land and recreation.  Musicians – really good musicians – abound.  Artists practicing in every possible medium are found on side roads and city streets alike.  Writers and poets use their surroundings to inspire them and actors may train elsewhere, but can find a whole lot of stage time at places in which they may have been raised.  This place has an appeal for many that is irresistible.

So, as you go through life in your big city neighborhood or suburb, partaking of a plethora of marvelous museums, theater districts, coffee houses, arenas, civic centers and glorious galleries –  wondering how the heck anyone can really live in or on one of the small towns or rural routes of Western and Northwestern Wisconsin, save your sympathy for the people on the Gulf.  I’ve been able to live among the masses – and, here, I’m able mix culture with fresh air.  In coming ‘blogisodes’, I hope to turn the spotlight on specific examples of that good fortune.  In the meantime, enjoy July and try to slow down summer a bit, will ya?  Thanks.

Al Ross