Once a “dream” of a Waukon resident, the first annual Spring Grove International Film Fest is now a success

Leading lady with her leading men ... Waukon resident Katie O’Regan (center) is pictured above with her father, long-time Waukon resident Francis O’Regan (left), and award-winning actor Ed Asner (right) during a get-together at Green Valley Getaway in Waukon Sunday, September 13 after celebrating the weekend-long first annual Spring Grove International Film Festival in Spring Grove, MN. Katie O’Regan “dreamed” up the film festival event as a fundraising opportunity for the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove, MN, where she serves as development director, and Asner was the featured guest of honor throughout the event after he and Katie O’Regan had met earlier this year at a movie screening in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Key to the City ... Waukon Mayor Pat Stone is pictured above presenting a Key to the City to award-winning actor Ed Asner during a get-together at Green Valley Getaway in Waukon Sunday, September 13 following a weekend celebration of the first annual Spring Grove International Film Festival in Spring Grove, MN created by Waukon resident Katie O’Regan. Asner was the featured guest throughout the festival, with Sunday being designated as “Up, Up and Away with Ed Asner Day.” Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

“Up, Up and Away with Ed Asner Day” ... Sunday, September 13 was “Up, Up and Away with Ed Asner Day” during the first annual Spring Grove International Film Festival held throughout that weekend and created by Waukon resident Katie O’Regan. Part of those festivities included a parade through the streets of Spring Grove, MN, and one of the entries in that parade was a float themed after the animated motion picture “Up,” in which Ed Asner played the voice role of main character Carl Fredricksen. Asner is pictured at right in the front dressed as Fredricksen, with O’Regan at left in the front row and several other locals also dressed as characters from the “Up” movie, which was also featured in a public showing during the film festival event. Submitted photo.

Founder Katie O’Regan of Waukon already looking ahead to 2021

Rosalie Essex: How much do you need?
Mickey Moran: Well, let me see. First of all, we’re going to use a barn that some actors used last summer and turned it into an outdoor theater. I figured if we all pitched in together - that is, for the scenery and the costumes and everything - it would run us about $287.
Rosalie Essex: Have you got it yet?
Mickey Moran: No.
Rosalie Essex: Well, you have now.
(From the 1939 film “Babes in Arms,” starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and directed by Busby Berkeley.)

by Julie Berg-Raymond

The classic Hollywood trope - parodied through the years by the phrase, Hey, kids; let’s put on a show! - of pulling together some talented people and, on a shoestring budget, producing a show in benefit of a cause, has its roots in the 1939 film starring Andy Rooney and Judy Garland, “Babes in Arms.”

When the “kid” talking about putting on a show is Waukon’s own multi-talented, indefatigable Katie O’Regan, though, the result is less a case of life imitating art than it is of life being made into art. In other words: When O’Regan had a dream last year about starting an international film festival in Spring Grove, MN to benefit and raise awareness for Giants of the Earth Heritage Center - where she is director of development - she took that classic Hollywood trope to a whole new level.

There was, yes, a barn used for outdoor theatre; and there were benefactors. But by the time the festival weekend was over the weekend of September 11-13, more than 50 films had been shown, at three local locations and online; volunteers had come together to help organize showings and set up for events, decorate the town with balloons and secure the necessary permits to host a parade; t-shirts and posters - even special-label Spring Grove soda - had been imprinted with the festival’s logo and taken home by attendees from throughout the region and the country; media representatives attending from Rochester, Minneapolis, La Crosse and elsewhere had begun to run their stories about the weekend-long event.

Oh, and one more thing: Multiple award-winning actor and the film festival’s special guest Ed Asner had met, talked and dined with locals, acted as grand marshal of the parade, performed in a staged reading of O’Regan’s original play, “The Dream Café” and received keys to the cities of Spring Grove and Waukon from their respective mayors.

“It was magical,” O’Regan said of the weekend.

Anyone who - like me - watched “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” not as re-runs but as a regular weekly program; who watched, when it was first broadcast, the television miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” - followed the next year by the history-making “Roots”; and who loved “Lou Grant” as only an editor of her high school newspaper can do, cannot help but hold Ed Asner in the highest possible regard, as an actor. He is simply one of our very best. The fact that he has been continuing to work (until a global pandemic put a halt to almost everything, including television and movie production) at almost 91 years of age is, I think, remarkable.

When I was able to sit down and talk with him before dinner Sunday night at Green Valley Getaway in Waukon, I asked him why he kept working.

“Because it’s where I get my joy,” he said.

He’d spoken about the joy he finds in working earlier that weekend - Friday evening, at Ma Cal Grove Country Club in Caledonia, MN as part of a fundraising dinner for Giants of the Earth. During a question-and-answer session with attendees, Asner was asked about “Up” - a 2009 American computer-animated film in which he voice-acted the role of an elderly widower named Carl Fredricksen who ties thousands of balloons to his house and sets out to see South America and complete a promise made to his late wife, Ellie. Outdoor screenings of “Up” were held Friday and Saturday nights at Ye Olde Gray Barn in Spring Grove, and the movie provided the theme for the “Up, Up and Away With Ed Asner Day!” parade held Sunday.

“‘Up’ was a “rewarding experience, professionally,” Asner told the attendees at Ma Cal Grove - and one, he noted, that brought his work to a whole new generation. “‘Up’ has been a phenomenal trip for me. I had a ball,” he said. “The rewards really came in after the movie came out, and people saw it.”

Speaking about when he first knew he wanted to be an actor, Asner talked about having been cast in a production of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” when he was in college. A verse drama, it portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral during the reign of Henry II in 1170.

“Getting on that stage and saying those magic words which I still remember - “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain … The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason” - that’s when I knew I was going to be an actor.”

He also praised another acting experience - which he called his “big break-away from comedy into drama” following his Emmy Award-winning role as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In 1976, he portrayed Axel Jordache in the television mini-series, “Rich Man, Poor Man.” He received another Emmy Award for that performance.

“My heart belongs to ‘Rich Man, Poor Man,’” he said. “Thank God for the producer, who believed in me. I never thought the director would want me back, because we fought. But the next year was ‘Roots,’ and the director wanted me back for it.” (He would receive yet another Emmy Award for his performance in that miniseries).

When asked which character was his favorite on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Asner didn’t miss a beat. “Ted. Ted Knight (who portrayed Ted Baxter) was the funniest man I knew, up until that time. And then he was eventually replaced by Will Ferrell” - with whom, by the way, Asner worked, in the 2003 Christmas comedy, “Elf.” Of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as a whole, Asner recalled with particular fondness the episode wherein “Chuckles the Clown” dies - and Mary dissolves into a fit of uncontrollable and inappropriate laughter at the funeral, after having expressed shocked irritation with her co-workers for their dark jokes throughout the week leading up to the funeral.

“For years, we all said that was our favorite script,” Asner said. “It was beautifully written.”

Asner said he’d “borrowed heavily from my brothers to create the bombast of the comedic ‘Lou Grant.’” Then, when he was preparing to play the same role but this time in the newsroom drama named for the same character, Asner said, “I adapted and I went into myself more deeply than I had with the comedic Lou Grant.”

Sunday afternoon, after acting as grand marshal in the parade and receiving a key to Spring Grove from Mayor Sarah Schroeder, Asner joined a cast of actors at Ye Olde Gray Barn for a staged reading of O’Regan’s original play, “The Dream Café.”

“Ed was so amazing while reading the part of Marcello in the play,” O’Regan said. “He embodied the character. Everyone on the stage was impeccable.”

That night, Asner and his daughter, Liza, who had accompanied him to Spring Grove, joined O’Regan - along with her father, Francis; her brother, Kenny, of Cresco; and her aunt, Joanne Liddiard, of Waukon - and a few invited guests - for dinner at Green Valley Getaway. Also in attendance were Waukon Mayor Pat Stone and Waukon Economic Development Director Ardie Kuhse. Mayor Stone presented Asner with a key to the city.

“We didn’t get to stop in every place we wanted to,” O’Regan posted on social media later in the week, when reflecting on the festival and Asner’s visit. “We were happily delayed by fans who wanted to talk with him in person. We wanted to go to The American Legion in Spring Grove. Ed told me to ‘thank your color guard who marched in our parade.’ It meant everything to him.”

O’Regan is working on a film version of “The Dream Café,” and Asner has agreed to be a part of the project. She is working with all of this year’s filmmakers on Zoom talk-backs, and will launch the Spring Grove International Film Festival Web Series in October. She also has set a date for next year’s Spring Grove International Film Festival - August 27-29, 2021; it will involve screenings in four different cities: Spring Grove, Caledonia, La Crosse and Waukon.

When I talked with him before dinner Sunday night, I asked Asner why he decided to come to the Spring Grove International Film Festival. “Because of Katie O’Regan,” he told me. “She takes on quite a lot for herself, and she surmounts problems.” They’d met through a mutual friend, director and actor Brian Connors - whose film, “Senior Entourage” was shown during the festival and includes Asner in its cast.

I’m guessing he also likes her spunk.

His most famous comedic line to the contrary notwithstanding, Ed Asner actually loves spunk. And Katie O’Regan certainly has it to spare.

“I truly want to thank Karen and Jim Gray,” O’Regan noted. “And Mike and Diane Schmidt, Mary Ann and Dan Thurmer, Greg Wennes, Karen and Scott Bingham, Judy Tollefsrud, Carol Sundet-Meeker, Lee Grippen, Joan Lewis, Thomas Trehus, Bree Murphy, Karen Folstad, Olaf and Josh Johnson, Megan Miller, Rebecca Splittstoesser and so many more.”

A long-time actor, dancer, producer and director, Katie O’Regan is originally from this area; but her love of the arts and education has taken her career from Iowa to New York City, Chicago, Miami, Milwaukee and Door County. She has written eight plays and two musicals and directed and produced more than 75 staged productions in communities across the country and on stages from The Past Theater in Milwaukee to the off-Broadway St. Marks Theater (in October 2019). She also is founder and artistic director of Sacred Noise Society, Inc. - which she has described as being dedicated to “offering opportunities to diverse artists and educators for inter-disciplinary collaboration in art” and to helping “foster the creative process within individuals and groups among the young and the old alike.”

O’Regan currently lives in Waukon, in the house in which the late, long-time editor of The Waukon Standard, Dick Schilling, lived - with her dad, Francis O’Regan of Waukon, being Schilling’s high school classmate. She is director of development at Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove.

Giants of the Earth Heritage Center is located at 163 West Main Street, in Spring Grove. Founded in 2009, Giants of the Earth is a non-profit historical society that empowers individuals, families and communities with a sense of meaning through its many cultural and historical programs.

The organization serves people of all nationalities and backgrounds, and celebrates the heritage of the Driftless Region. For more information, including information about participating in the “Summer of Family” program - where families with roots in the Driftless Region can have their stories told while relatives are here to tell them, go online to giantsoftheearth.org.

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