The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 8, 2012

Better with age: New theater group holding first production

Heidi Sampson
Special to The Free Press

MANKATO — For Gretchen Etzell, the only challenging question was, “What would we do this for?”

As in, how could the formation of a new theater group benefit the community?

Etzell retired as artistic director of Mankato’s Merely Players Community Theater in January 2012 after 30 years of service. She soon found herself being approached by many of her old connections who asked what would happen to the senior show Merely Players sponsored once a year.

At first, Etzell didn’t have an answer. But she came up with a perfectly good solution.

“There are so many non-profits in town that can’t get money, Etzell said. “Grants are hard, and the community is hard-pressed in many cases to give them money. I thought it would be kind of cool to do a senior show and give all of the money away.”

Not wanting to start a non-profit group herself, Etzell approached VINE Faith In Action. She asked if they would serve as fiscal agent for a new theater group -- called XYZ Live or Xtra Years of Zest -- that would be open to participants age 55 and older.

“What we are trying to do is perfect for VINE because their theme, ‘Aging to the Max,’ is exactly what we are doing,” Etzell said.

Shortly thereafter, auditions were held in New Ulm and Mankato with 32 people joining the effort. The result is “Hot Rods and Poodle Skirts -- A 50’s Revue” which opens Friday.

Leading the musical arrangement are Jerry and Carol Larson, who have been playing music together since the mid-1970s as a hobby and have pieced together the 1950s-era music featured in the show. Carol and Jerry have an interesting blend of musical perspectives as Carol was trained in concert halls and Jerry plays his music by listening. The two have been involved in theater on and off for more than 10 years, performing in Sleepy Eye, Mankato and New Ulm.

“He has a feel for creativity in figuring out how parts work and where music can flow together better, while I write and read the music from there,” Carol said.

Merry Finseth, of North Mankato, will be making her third on-stage appearance after having performed previously in two shows with Merely Players.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Finseth said. “Sue Lagow, who performed in a number of shows for Merely Players, was an inspiration for me.”

The performance was characterized as “a nostalgic revue with beloved songs and delightful comedy that keeps audiences rolling with laughter when they are not humming along to the pop hits of the 1950s.”

Also making appearances will be Lucile Ball and Elvis Presley, along with many other personalities, television shows and songs from the 50s.

Benefits from the group’s inaugural performance will go to VINE’s Capital Campaign project, in which VINE hopes to turn the old Nichols Building into an adult community center that serves as a “one-stop shop” for aging adults to improve physical health, socialize with peers, volunteer to help others, and access needed services.

In order to repurpose the 60,000 square foot building, VINE will need to reach a final goal of $4 million. The week following their premier in Mankato, XYZ Live! will perform at the New Ulm Community Theatre and give all profits to organizations in the New Ulm area.

Mike Schmitz, who has participated in 12 shows with Merely Players, says he loves the theatre because of the people.

“I really enjoy those who are in the theatre group and the format of our shows because they’re always different,” he said.

Etzell said she enjoys working with the actors who audition and encouraged anyone interested to join XYZ for future productions.

“We will show you how to do it. There’s no need to be afraid.”