Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fargo Film Fest: A great reason to see the historic Fargo Theatre

Feature & photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Inside the Fargo Theatre.
The Oscars are tonight, and the weather is perfect for snuggling into a theater with a warm tub of popcorn. If you've always wanted to see some of the lesser-known nominees, such as animated shorts, you can do it this week during the 11th Fargo Film Festival March 1-5.

The event takes the Fargo Theatre's usual focus on independent flicks and broadens it to a five-day event packed with documentaries, short films, animated films, foreign entries, talks with movie makers, and a two-minute movie contest that's especially popular with film students.

Among the standouts:

  • "The Gruffalo" which was getting good Oscar buzz. The festival has a solid reputation for snagging good animated candidates, including last year's Oscar-nominated "Secret of the Kels."
  • "Made in India," an eye-opening look at medical tourism and the newer trend of infertile couples seeking more affordable surrogates among impoverished Indian mothers.
  • "A Lutefisk Western" and "Lutefisk Wars." How can you not be curious? If that doesn't seem local enough with the area's strong Scandinavian heritage, there also are films inspired by a local roller derby and several entries with Native American experiences and filmmakers.

The Wurlitzer's sound effects keyboard.
Movie theater nostalgia

If you can't make it for the festival, make it a goal to see the theater some other time. There are few places that tug at a person's nostalgia quite like restored movie houses. Fargo Theatre's blazing neon marquee makes it the flashy diva of the downtown cityscape.

For older generations, it brings back memories of the early 1900s with its Art Deco design and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ that gets cranked up for pre-show entertainment on weekends.

Chainsaw Marge
For younger generations, it feels hip and quirky with an enthusiastic staff that mans the counter with fresh popcorn and retro candies. There's just a great vibe here.

Chainsaw Marge from "Fargo"
Anyone who needs inspiration and assurance that non-mainstream movie-makers can climb to the top only has to climb to the second floor of the Fargo Theatre. That's the home of a chainsaw-carved rendition of "Marge" from the Coen Brothers' cult-classic "Fargo." The town may never live down the warped reputation it left (despite most of it being filmed in Minnesota). The twisted 1996 comedy did bring national attention to the town with the world premiere at the newly restored Fargo Theatre.

Pre- or post-show treats at Nichole's Fine Pastry.
"Fargo" nabbed two Oscars and five additional nominations. The theater keeps reeling in the Oscar-nominated films, whether it's Colin Firth in last winter's "A Single Man" or the more off-beat entries of the film fest.

A theater from the golden-age of movies--rather than a shopping-mall complex--feels like the right place to savor cinema magic.

More about the film fest and Fargo:
"Grab popcorn and parka for Fargo Film Fest," Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Fargo highlights:
"Go far in Fargo," Midwest Living magazine, 2010.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Top attractions for a Rapid City, S.D., getaway

Ronald Reagan stands among the 40 life-sized presidential statues on Rapid City street corners.
A presidential getaway: More than Mount Rushmore

Photos & feature by Lisa Meyers McClintick

In honor of President's Day, here's a look at Rapid City, S.D., the longtime gateway to Mount Rushmore and newly dubbed City of Presidents.

You can admire four of the nation's most influential presidents looming large at Mount Rushmore or pose with life-size versions of every American president in Rapid City's downtown. The city's bronze collection of presidential statues was completed last year and features every one but current President Obama.

You can see John F. Kennedy walking his son, John Jr., Thomas Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence, and Jimmy Carter waving a cheery hello kitty-corner from Ronald Reagan in full ranch attire. Fans of Ronald Reagan celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth earlier this month.

Prairie Edge and its bead collection

Top things to do  
in Rapid City, SD

1. Admire the Smithsonian-worthy talent at Prairie Edge Gallery, which blends amazing Native American artwork with an Indian trading post, upscale gift boutique, gallery and bookstore with one of the country's best collections of Native American music and literature. Best little secret here: A lofted museum showcases a stunning collection of Venetian glass beads.

Firehouse Brewery
2. Grab a drink or meal at Firehouse Brewery's outdoor courtyard, where they fire up live music, warm torches and take full advantage of a great location in the midst of downtown Rapid City's shops and restaurants.

Alex Johnson lobby
3. Check out The Journey, a great introduction to all things South Dakotan, from the Native American tale of creation and a simulated dinosaur dig camp to Old West towns and tipis.

4. Savor dinner at one of the new upscale eateries, such as Tally's Silver Spoon. Look for Dakota fare, such as pheasant or bison.

Dinner at Tally's
5. If you like something quirky, check out the Art Alley between St. Joseph and Main Streets. It's graffiti gone wild and the one place I did see President Obama. He was in the company of Garfield (the cat, not the president) and Homer Simpson. You never know who will show up here.

6. Soak up history and atmosphere in the Alex Johnson Hotel lobby. The rooms have gone through a complete renovation, but in the lobby and ballroom, it still feels like past presidents will walk through the door and make themselves at home in the big leather chairs.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Minnesota's trumpeter swan season

Swans dancing and prancing at Park Rapids. Photo by Marianne Diericks.
 Winter's the best time to watch trumpeter swans

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Photo by Marianne Diericks
February ranks as one of the best months for viewing trumpeter swans, one of Minnesota’s most graceful and beautiful creatures. They’ve gathered by the thousands along Mississippi River in Monticello since resident Sheila Lawrence (dubbed “the swan lady”) began feeding them.

That, along with Department of Natural Resources efforts, has helped the swans make a steady and rather astonishing comeback. When I last wrote about them in 2004, there were an estimated 1,350 trumpeter swans in the state. There are now about 5,500.
Deane Park on the Fish Hook River, Park Rapids. Photo by Rik Meyers.
Trumpeter swans weigh up to 35 pounds, stand up to 5 feet tall, and measure up to 8 feet wing tip to wing tip.
One of the nation's largest birds was almost extinct by the late 1800s as people used everything from the swans' hide to feathers. There were no trumpeter swans left in Minnesota until swan restoration programs began more than 30 years ago.

Where to watch wintering swans
Warm water discharged from the nuclear power plant keeps a stretch of the Mississippi River open in Monticello, which has long been the Midwest’s biggest gathering spot for trumpeters. With the swans' comeback, they’re showing up in new locations with open water during winter’s cold snaps.

One of their new gathering places is Deane Park in Park Rapids, about two hours north of St. Cloud. About 50-60 of the birds are spending the winter where the Fish Hook Lake meets the Fish Hook River. Residents bring regular donations of feed.

Crow Wing River. Photo by Rik Meyers.
It’s a handy location with close to 400 lakes in the area. That makes it easy for swans to head out and find their own lake for nesting and raising their young. It’s much harder to spot them in the summer behind high reeds and lakeside shrubs, but keep an eye out on Itasca State Park’s wildlife drive. You might get lucky.

Honking swans & showing off
  Winter rules as best time to enjoy the spectacle of swans—especially for photographers who can catch the birds in large groups swimming among ice chunks and drifting through fog.

Mid-winter is courtship season—think bar scene for birds. Expect incessant honking, like nature’s version of a traffic jam. Males posture and flap their giant wings to look tough and impress future mates.

Fish Hook River. Photos by Rik Meyers.
 It’s almost meditative, too, to stand and watch the ever-changing formations
and behaviors. One group will effortlessly merge and paddle
into a perfectly straight line. Others will form circles and exuberantly
bob their heads and honk as if swapping gossip they can’t wait
to share.

“You can almost tell what they’re saying to each other,” said Sheila Lawrence, Monticello's swan lady.
“It’s just so much fun to watch them. It’s like watching a soap opera.”

Swan-watching tips
  •  Best viewing times are often 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Keep an eye on the sky when traveling Interstate 94 near Monticello. You may catch swans flying overhead.
  • By mid-March, swans are often on their way to nesting grounds.
  • In Monticello, park visitors are expected to stay behind the fence. Trumpeter swans spook easily and are skittish because they cannot maneuver their large bodies well.
  • Swans are easy to see and enjoy without any special equipment, but binoculars are still nice to have.
  • For more information on swans in general, go to
Update April 27, 2011

Sheila Lawrence, Monticello's beloved "Swan Lady," died from cancer on April 2. The community is collecting funds to help feed the swans next winter in her absence. Donations may be sent to:

Monticello Trumpeter Swan Fund 
C/O US Bank Monticello Office 
307 Pine Street
Monticello, MN 55362.

Read more about Sheila and her beautiful Minnesota legacy.