It Wasn’t Always Like This: The Stage At Island Park

Written by: Marisa Jackels

Photos by Hillary Ehlen and courtesy of FMCT

If you’re new to Fargo, there’s something you should know: It wasn’t always like this. We take for granted the bustling city center that downtown has become — filled with trendy restaurants, farmers markets and charming buildings — but not all that long ago, the landscape was quite different.

In partnership with our friends at Tellwell and Kilbourne Group, this month, we wrap up an eight-part series that has told the story of Downtown Fargo’s transformation by focusing on the pivotal projects and historic renovations that have paved the way for what the neighborhood has become.

RELATED: It Wasn’t Always Like This: Gasper’s School Of Dance

A Local Arts Treasure

Amidst the bustle of Fourth Street South in Downtown Fargo, there’s a standalone building that’s been catching the eye of passersby for years.

The Stage at Island Park pavilion is a bright hexagon of tall windows that shines like a lighthouse from the trees. It can take on many looks — for Valentine’s Day, the lights gleam red. On Christmas, red and green. During parties, it’s seen filled with men and women dressed to the nines, and summer camp fills the space with curious kids. When a Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre show is taking place onstage, the pavilion is alive with glittering lights and guests.

No matter the occasion, it’s a clear sign to those driving by: There’s something magical happening here.

“As soon as you walk in the door, you can tell this is someplace special,” says the theatre’s executive director, Eloise Breikjern.

The Stage at Island Park

But it wasn’t always this way. When the pavilion was first constructed, it was an open-air wooden gazebo built with the intention of integrating with the surrounding Island Park. While this was pleasant during the summer, it was unable to be used as an active space for most of the year.

“I remember when there were birds in the top of it, and you’d have to kind of watch when you walked in, depending on what season it was,” Breikjern recalls with a laugh.

During this time, the FMCT board was developing a long-term plan to continue the growth of the community theatre, and an important early step was to turn the gazebo entrance into something that could be used year-round.

“We wanted it to become a cornerstone of our facility,” says Rick Stenseth, fundraising director and wearer-of-many-hats at the theatre for more than three decades.

It was just the type of project that Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s late mother, would have loved. Throughout her life, Katherine was a passionate arts advocate and nurtured a love of the arts in her children. As part of her legacy, Katherine created the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Trust as a vehicle to further her commitment to investing in philanthropic endeavors in the FM community.

1940's Radio House at The Stage at Island Park

Gov. Burgum found the FMCT mission in alignment with his mother’s commitment to the arts and brought the project for consideration by the family members who manage the trust. But he didn’t just want to provide a monetary investment to FMCT; he wanted it to be strategic. When he looked at the pavilion plans , he knew it would be a meaningful renovation to draw more traffic to The Stage.

“(Burgum) wants to see growth,” Stenseth says. “He doesn’t want to just put a new coat of paint on. He looked at all the different things we wanted to do, and this was his first choice, to draw attention to our organization and our location and help us reach our long-term goals.”

The final product, the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Pavilion, was finished in 2011. It wasn’t long before its presence began to attract more attention to the theatre.

“We get a lot of people coming in who say, ‘I didn’t even know this place was here,'” Stenseth says. “And one of the things that made them stop was seeing the pavilion.”

The Stage: A Cultural Kickstarter

The idea for a community theater, which is now one of FM’s oldest landmarks, was sparked in 1941, the brainchild of a group of city leaders who wanted to ignite the local arts scene.

“There was no art in the community,” Stenseth says. “Many of the galleries and school programs now, they didn’t exist then. Community members were looking for a way to involve art in the community.”

The Stage at Island Park

In 1963, the first theatre building was put together at no cost to the community. Labor was provided by labor unions, and materials were donated by local businesses.

“It was kind of like a barn-raising,” Stenseth says. “It became even more of a community place.”

It’s a foundation that has influenced the connection between the community and the theater from then until now, 70 years later.

“That’s amazing for a community theater to stay intact that long,” says Breikjern, who sees it as a testament to the community and the commitment to growing the local arts scene.

Adam Pankow, artistic director at FMCT, has seen this hold true throughout his life growing up in Fargo-Moorhead.

“It’s actually a little unfathomable that a community as modestly sized as this is able to support so much art and really quality art as well, whether it’s visual or performance,” Pankow says. “This town is truly a cultural oasis.”

White Christmas at The Stage at Island Park

Pankow performed in his first theater production at age 12 on the FMCT stage, falling in love with theater and the theater community, particularly its unique ability as an art form to both entertain guests and challenge their thinking. Now, as artistic director, he is continuing the magic of theater in the upcoming year — a full one, with ten shows planned for the 2018 season.

But you’ll find more than thought-provoking shows on the stage. As a community theater, the pavilion is often filled with other events such as 1 Million Cups, parties, educational classes, even weddings. It’s filled with the life of a community, and that’s exactly the way it should be, Breikjern says.

“When you come in this building, it’s your friends and neighbors who are here,” she says. “So come visit us. Come through the doors, and see what it’s all about.”

The Stage at Island Park

333 4th St. S, Fargo

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