In seven years of producing "Rhythm of the Rails," Jody Crowe has never done the same show twice. That's partly because with a cast of dozens of actors, singers, dancers, and just plain goofballs, something crazy is bound to happen every night. Especially when you sell peanuts to the crowd and encourage them to pelt the villains on the stage.
Additionally, Crowe finds new nuggets of Brainerd history to explore every year in his annual outdoor vaudeville variety show at 303 Front St.. The show continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and July 24-26, with 7:30 p.m. kids' shows on Thursdays featuring Squeak the Clown.
"The goal is to create awareness of Brainerd's history as a really interesting Old West town," Crowe said as he geared up for opening night Thursday. "We had bars, brothels, fights, murders."
A group of performers in early 20th century garb performed a song.
Crowe is originally from Grand Rapids, but he fell in love with the Brainerd lakes area when he moved here in 1994. Starting in 1997, the early "Rhythm" shows were unwieldy collections of songs and skits with little to connect them, but in recent years Crowe has worked in a bit of story.
This year, Crowe -- who sings in the show with his quartet, the Harmony Engineers -- wanted to explore the orphan train phenomenon of the early 1900s. In the opening scene, orphans from New York arrive in Brainerd on a train and local families take their pick of the litter. Sister Justina Beiganek, an orphan train rider who is now 91, will speak before Thursday's show.
A sister and brother worried about being separated as their orphan train moved through the Midwest to Brainerd.
"Rhythm of the Rails" has been a labor of love. In recent years, Crowe has recruited several family members to help out: Mother Josephine is a costume mender, sister Lilah is the director, wife JoLynn is a helper, son Jace, 13, is an actor, and cousin Regina Hill is a costume designer.
All proceeds from ticket sales go toward funding the show, which will be in its downtown location for the last time this year. Plans are in the works to move the show to This Old Farm with the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues next summer.
The crowd settled for an evening of vaudeville entertainment Thursday at "Rhythm of the Rails" downtown.
Peter Johnson played a farmer looking to find a farmhand.
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