By Tom Merchant
WALNUT GROVE — The weather was not a factor for opening weekend of the Wilder Pageant and the Family Festival. Friday evening, after a brutal week of record setting temperatures, almost as if on cue, about an hour before the Friday night performance, temperatures dropped dramatically from the high eighties down to the low seventies. It was a welcome relief for the entire cast and crew as well as the audience. The cast members commented how well the audience reacted to their performance, and the audience was not disappointed in the show.
To top things off the Walnut Grove Fire Department set off a dramatic fireworks display for the audience, cast and crew. Following the fireworks show Laura Ingalls Wilder fans milled about the set visiting with the cast and getting autographs.
Again this year pageant committee members were elated with the turnout for the first week. Friday night had 1,013 people, and Saturday night a whopping 1,780 number of people showed up for the annual event. Those numbers were nearly a third higher than last year’s opening weekend.
Saturday morning the Family Festival kicked off at 11:00 a.m. with a fun lineup of activities and entertainment for visitors .
The big event of the day was the Laura and Nellie Look-a-Like Contest. The city park was over-run with over 40 little Laura’s and Nellie’s.
Thirty nine Lauras competed in the contest, with six Nellies vying for the title. The contestants came from several states and even a province of Canada. The contest brought youngsters from Canada, North Carolina, New Jersey, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Tennessee, Illinois, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Washington.
Registration began at 1:00, and the contest started at 3:00. After receiving instructions, the little Lauras and Nellies were asked a question about the Ingalls family by Amy Van Dorsten (who plays teacher Clementina Bedal in the pageant – Van Dorsten also played Nellie Oleson before that).
Deb Saxton and Missy Erbes were the original organizers of the event which is supported by the Walnut Grove Community Club and Wilder Committee.
Contestants were interviewed by Van Dorsten and asked a question, about Walnut Grove and the Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek. Eight Lauras and six Nellies were picked by the judges to be in the final group of Lauras and Nellies.
Van Dorsten then gave the group a short script they could use to act out a portion of one of the scenes from the story. After each duo performed they were judged by Deb Saxton, cast members George Mason, Steve Jones, and Cindy Van Dorsten. After tallying up the scores, eight year old Julia Nilles of Ruthton was named the Laura Look-a-Like for 2012. She is the daughter of John and Kari Nilles. Julia is going into third grade at Russell Tyler Ruthton elementary school. She said, “I was really excited to win, but I really didn’t expect it.” She has read all of Laura’s books, and visited the Wilder Museum and the dug-out site on Plum Creek.
Eleven year old Meredith Bock is going into sixth grade at Holy Redeemer elementary school in Marshall. She is the daughter of Wally and Becky Bock of Marshall, and was chosen as the 2012 Nellie Look-A-Like for 2012. Bock also was a participant in last year’s contest as a Laura contestant.
Bock and her family were given the VIP treatment at the pageant, and Meredith took part in the dance scenes.
She has read some of the Little House books, and is on the ninth season of the Little House TV series.
She said, “I saw the pageant last year and liked the whole thing. Especially the part where Willie Oleson pushes the pie in Mrs. Oleson's face.”
Weather perfect for pageant opener