Twenty years ago, authors/humorists, Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, the creators and writers of the award-winning book, Growing Up Lutheran, and 10 other Scandinaivan-American heart-warming humor books, teamed up with Twin Cities based production company, Troupe America, Inc. and it’s Executive Producer Curt Wollan to turn their material/writings into a new musical comedy entitled Church Basement Ladies.
Martin and Nelson, who met in 1964 during Freshman week at Augsburg College in Minneapolis became life-long friends and business partners who co-authored books, and were in high demand as speakers/performers throughout the country, billing themselves as 100 percent Norwegian/Lutheran Farm Girls. Martin grew up on a farm near Hillsboro, North Dakota, and Nelson, who unexpectedly passed away in March of 2021, was originally from Evansville, Minnesota. Their churches were their second homes.
Wollan had wanted to create a show that celebrated the under-appreciated, hard-working, dedicated, ladies who tirelessly worked in the church kitchen−cooking, creating, and arranging the food and coffee for weddings, funerals, youth gatherings, and pot luck suppers for the masses. These ladies are our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbor ladies. Martin and Nelson had written the stories that were ripe for the stage. For Wollan, Martin, and Nelson, it was a love affair in the making, a Cinderella story in that “the shoe fit perfectly.”
Producer/Director Curt Wollan commissioned the creative writing team of Jim Stowell, one of Minnesota’s favorite storytellers, and Jessica Zuehlke, a performance arts educator, to develop the book using Martin and Nelson’s writings as the inspiration for the musical. This husband and wife duo collaborated with composer/ songwriter, Drew Jansen,—well-known for his original, and creative lyrics and words in the popular homegrown hit musical, How To Talk Minnesotan The Musical.
Church Basement Ladies is a celebration of the church basement kitchen and the stalwart, stable, sturdy, ladies who live and breathe the church basement protocol while attempting to solve the problems of a rural Minnesota church. It’s 1964 when their world and their beloved church are about to go through some major changes. The ladies are in perpetual motion as they attempt to stave off one disaster after another, and the actions between the church basement ladies and the pastor creates “holy hilarity” as one watches them share and debate recipes, instruct the young, talk about hotflashes, and keep the Pastor on due course while thoroughly enjoying, (and tolerating) each other. These 4 ladies, with 4 different personalities create the perfect recipe for the “perfect storm.” From the elderly matriarch of the kitchen whose ideas are “cemented in the past,” to the nervous bride-to-be who wants to break out of the mold, to the wife of a farmer who sometimes uses inappropriate actions and words, to the break-down of the “stable” one of the ladies, chaos and comedy, heavily sprinkled with touching moments, is in abundance throughout the production. Audiences begin to see the Church year unfold from below the “House of God,” as they witness these ladies aptly handle a record-breaking Christmas dinner, the funeral of a dear friend, a Hawaiian-themed Easter fundraiser, and a steamingly hot July wedding.
The original production of Church Basement Ladies opened at the Plymouth Playhouse in Minneapolis, and was performed to more than 250,000 patrons, in 1123 performances during its two and one half year run! The success of the show has been beyond phenomenal. Enthusiastic patrons, who come from all faiths and religions, echo the same sentiment when commenting on the show “those same ladies live in my church basement, and I can even tell you their names.” Director Wollan said, “I know these ‘Steel Magnolias’ of the church. My mother was not only one of them, but her church actually named their new kitchen stove, ‘Lorraine’, in her honor.” These ladies needed to be honored, these ladies needed to be recognized, and the creation of the Church Basement Ladies fulfilled those needs. As Martin Luther wrote, “This is most certainly true!”
The upcoming twentieth anniversary national tour of Church Basement Ladies is choreographed by Wendy Short Hays, with set design, and lighting design by Scott Herbst, costume design by Katrina Benedict, and musical direction by Dennis Curley.