Premiere shines light on Luverne

LUVERNE - Every town has its heroes. But something changes when your hometown heroes thrust the community into the national spotlight. Everybody brings their cameras. Last night, this town hosted the world premiere of the highly anticipated Ken B...

LUVERNE - Every town has its heroes. But something changes when your hometown heroes thrust the community into the national spotlight.

Everybody brings their cameras.

Last night, this town hosted the world premiere of the highly anticipated Ken Burns film "The War," a massive Word War II documentary. An early evening downpour forced cancellation of the red carpet walk, a parade and a cover shoot for Newsweek magazine. It didn't dampen the enthusiasm. And commemorative Budweiser beer cans were still handed out.

Burns arrived at the premiere, shown in the newly restored historic Palace Theatre on Main Street, in a vintage car. As he signed his name to the premiere poster, flashes from a handful of professional cameras and dozens of personal digital ones dotted the night.

"This is so cool," one gentleman said to me and then giggled. "There's your Christmas card," a woman said. Parents stood their children on the street garbage receptacles so they could get a better view of celebrity.


When Burns set out to tell the story of the world's most significant event, he sought out those who could tell it best. He wanted to bear witness to what actually happened. So he ignored the historians, the experts and turned his cameras on the ordinary men and women who had lived it.

"This isn't about the tyranny of the bold-faced names," he told students during a high school assembly Thursday. "These ordinary people are the real heroes."

Five of those real heroes have ties to my hometown.

The 14-hour documentary, produced by Burns and Lynn Novick, will air on PBS stations starting Sept. 23. The film tells the story of World War II from the perspective of four American towns: Luverne; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Waterbury, Conn.

"It will make Luverne a star in some ways," said Ben Vander Kooi, city attorney and one of the premiere's organizers.

That's no small feat for a town of about 4,500 people. Half the time people ask me how far it is from Rochester. When it's not hosting red-carpet events, Luverne is best known for a celebration where people toss buffalo chips into porcelain toilets. Every July the community's businesses sponsor Hot Dog Night, where you can enjoy free all-you-can-eat hot dogs with all the fixings.

In many ways, Luverne's part in the film could have been filled by any one of the thousands of small Midwestern farming communities. As Burns said, behind every town is a community with a story. When you tap into those stories, ordinary people become extraordinary.

Burns was first attracted to this southwestern Minnesota town by the tale of Luverne native Quentin Aanenson, a fighter pilot in World War II featured in a previous PBS documentary.


Research unearthed the columns of Al McIntosh, former publisher and editor of the local newspaper. His columns, which Burns calls the greatest archival discovery of his career, chronicle in simple, heartfelt language how the war affected people in town. Actor Tom Hanks reads some of his columns in the documentary.

And maybe it's also a bit of nostalgia. Luverne still looks much like it did in 1940. A photo featured in "The War" shows the Palace marquee and the hotel across the street - just like they are today. Only the interiors have changed. The theater recently underwent a $1 million renovation. The hotel is a private residence.

Being featured in a documentary by a celebrated filmmaker doesn't happen often to towns like Luverne. When it does, people show up just to see what's going on.

"A once-in-a-lifetime event - for little, old Luverne anyway," a church friend says to me right before Burns pulls up.

Theron Feikema and his cousin Darci Pop ate at the nearby Pizza Ranch before wandering out to the closed-off Main Street to watch Rock County residents dressed in fancy dresses and black suits.

"It's a big deal for any town, especially for one like ours," Feikema said.

Charles Wilson stood outside the Palace taking photos of friends and relatives attending the premiere event. He said the excitement surrounding the premiere has brought the community together. "The oneness of war-time is being relived through this," he said.

His wife, Naomi, was 6 when the war started, and she remembers some of the unity Luverne experienced during wartime. Even she and her classmates helped with the war effort and collected milkweed seeds for flotation devices.


In a couple of weeks, Luverne's streets will echo with the booming bass of drums as area high schools compete in the annual marching band competition. The town will still buzz about Thursday's events and residents will eagerly await the start of the documentary.

For a couple of weeks, at least, the town will be on the worldwide map.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534 or

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