When people talk about the theater, they are often referring to the elegant buildings on Broadway and other metropolitan places of affluence, where people dress in their finest attire and may pay hundreds of dollars for a single ticket. This is not something that most rural North Dakotans are apt to do. Alfred G. Arvold, a college professor, advocated for something much different.

He envisioned a place where common, rural people could get together to watch local residents put on plays, sometimes scripted by local residents. This form of theater was implemented in many rural communities in North Dakota and other rural states. Arvold-inspired theaters may have lacked the elegance and production versatility of large metropolitan theaters, but they usually satisfied the needs and desires of the patrons who attended the productions staged in these theaters.

Arvold arrived in Fargo in 1907 to teach English and speech at the North Dakota Agricultural college (NDAC), now North Dakota State University. In a short period of time, he coordinated a number of theatrical productions and other entertainment offerings. Within his first five years at the college, Arvold had nurtured a very vibrant drama club, produced and directed a number of plays, created a college-based circus for the Fargo community, and instituted lyceum programs that brought featured entertainers and speakers to the campus.

Not only was Arvold busy with drama activities on campus, but he was also involved in the early years of national organizations. According to Zena Trinka in her book "North Dakota of Today," Arvold participated in the Drama League of America, the American Pageantry Association and the National Board of Motion Picture Censorship of New York.

The Drama League was founded in 1910 to alert members of the best plays available and “to ensure the continuity of professional theater by educating the audiences.” In 1911, the Drama League began publishing a monthly magazine called The Drama, and several articles written by Arvold were published in the magazine.

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The National Board of Motion Picture Censorship of New York was created in 1909 to “endorse films of merit” and to alert the city’s mayor and the general public of “controversial films.” In 1916, “to avoid the controversial word ‘censorship,’ the organization changed its name to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.”

Alfred G. Arvold. Special to The Forum
Alfred G. Arvold. Special to The Forum

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Early in 1913, Arvold organized an “NDAC Student Life Train” to tour North Dakota for the purpose of promoting the Land Grant mission of NDAC. Seventy students, along with NDAC President John Worst and his wife, made the tour. The 30-town entourage consisted of the school’s cadet band, orchestra, drama club, various singing groups, the Crack Rifle Team and other students who promoted and exhibited different aspects of their schools.

Young home economic students prepared meals and engineering students assisted with the operation of the train. Stops were made along the way to demonstrate some of the features of the college that could exhibit some of the activities that prospective students could take part in if they enrolled at NDAC. The group appeared before a session of the state Legislature on Abraham Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 14. “The train was hailed as the first of its kind in America.” Because of its success, Arvold now had a tool in place when he was ready to promote the development of theaters in rural communities.

During the first few years that Arvold was at NDAC, the college did not have a theater, and the plays he produced and directed were staged in theaters or the opera house in downtown Fargo. Eventually, he discovered that there was a chapel available for his use on the second floor of Old Main, and with a lot of work, it could be turned into a small theater with a seating capacity of 200 people.

In 1913, the North Dakota Legislature allocated $3,000 to expand the seating for at least 100 more people. When the renovation and transformation was completed, Arvold was pleased, and on Feb. 10, 1914, he named it the Little Country Theater (LCT). This would serve as his theater laboratory, and he realized this simple structure could be replicated throughout the state in many rural communities.

In the attic of Old Main, Arvold found more unused space which he converted into what he called the “Lincoln Log Cabin.” This area was “used for discussing plays, meetings for various campus and community organizations, gatherings after LCT and lyceum performances, and storage and production preparations.”

By securing other available space in Old Main, Arvold created more rooms to be used in conjunction with the LCT. One of the rooms was a Package Lending Library that was available to towns around the state in planning for plays, pageants or other community activities. There were copies of scripts for productions of varying scale and size that were accessible by mail to the towns around the state.

With the opening of the LCT on campus in 1914, Arvold now had a well-working model of what rural communities could do to bring theatrical performances to their towns. It was his belief that not only were cultural events available, but more importantly, it would bring the people of the community together. He also concluded that drama “was an instrument for the enlightenment” for the people.

To get the word out, Arvold began writing articles about the purpose and success of the LCT in The Drama, and other magazines that received widespread circulation. Soon, many major national publications began publishing articles about the LCT starting with House Beautiful in November 1915, followed by McCall's in June 1916, and later by Ladies Home Journal, the New York Journal, and Theatre Arts Monthly.

By the summer of 1916, it was reported that “420 rural communities” had made applications to Arnold to become involved in the LCT project and that “2,500 people took part as actors and entertainers last year” in theater productions. Arvold soon received invitations to speak at major universities about the rural theater movement, and he spent several weeks in 1930 in Europe traveling to almost all of the major countries conferring with major theater figures about the LCT movement.

One of the major NDAC projects of 1929 that Arvold organized was Covered Wagon Days held in El Zagal Park in Fargo. Arvold was an active Shriner, having joined the El Zagal Shrine in Fargo in 1908. He rose through the ranks, and in July 1944, was elected imperial potentate of the Mystic Shrine for North America. He was the second North Dakotan to be elected imperial potentate for North America. The first was Frank Treat, also from Fargo, and it was Treat who inducted Arvold into the Shrine in 1908.

Because of Arvold’s connections with major theatrical movers and shakers around the country, a number of Arvold’s former students were hired to work in the theater industry. One of them was his son Mason Arvold, who became active in theater in New York City as a scenic coordinator. Among the Broadway hit shows that Mason worked on were "Call Me Madam," "Wonderful Town" and "No, No Nanette."

Alfred G. Arvold remained at NDAC until his retirement in January 1953. According to an article by Catherine Jelsing in NDSU Magazine, that retirement was less than amicable. Arvold died on April 16, 1957, and in 1995, some of his former students got together and established an endowment to fund the Alfred G. Arvold Scholarship.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.