Northern Louisiana

The play’s the thing
Seventy-six years ago the city of Monroe was blessed enough to have an amateur drama club that met regularly to perform readings from Shakespeare’s plays.
Three years later, the Little Theatre of Monroe was born when the group met at the Hotel Monroe, wrote a charter and set the dues at $1 per annum.
The following three decades would find this creative little cache of drama-lovers traveling through Monroe like gypsies, looking for any space that would allow them to vent their creative expression. Locations along the way included Ouachita Parish Junior College, where the University of Louisiana at Monroe is now housed, and the group finally nested in a broken-down barrack at Selman Field in 1949. Although the city of Monroe leased it to the gutsy little troupers for $1 a year, their leader, Clifford M. Strauss, could see the greasepaint on the wall. The barracks were in serious disrepair, and the Monroe community was made up of avid fans of the theater group: It seemed a community cause was the ticket to launch a drive and build a legitimate, permanent home for the troupe. And so, it began.
The Lamy Lane site was donated by the Columbia Gas System, and the land was soon cleared and filled by Ouachita Gravel. The building, designed by Paul Stewart and with Ford, Bacon and Davis providing the steel, was completed in April 1961. The season opened with Damn Yankees, featuring cast members clad in uniforms actually acquired from the Bronx Bombers themselves. The group was the first community theater in the nation to receive the rights to produce the Broadway smash Bye Bye Birdie, thanks to a local boy who made good –– Slade Brown who produced it on Broadway. The company was also the first Little Theatre group to produce the off-Broadway hit Steel Magnolias, courtesy of a theater patron who knew playwright and Natchitoches native Robert Harling.
Throughout the ‘60s, Monroe theatergoers were thrilled by performances of Camelot, The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Membership to the theater soared, and its cup overflowed with volunteers. Graced with exceptional local talent, the productions were usually acclaimed. By the mid-1980s, Strauss Theatre Director Chris Ringham planted a little offshoot that grew, known as The Young Troupe, a children’s Little Theatre. By 1991, the theater-loving community of Monroe once again came forward to help build the Strauss Youth Center for the Performing Arts. This past January, young thespians participated in auditions for an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
In March of this year, the Strauss Little Theatre will stage a production of the gospel play Smoke on the Mountain, a story written by Connie Ray. The play chronicles the story of a North Carolinian gospel and bluegrass family as they perform at a rural Baptist church service. Interspersed with music that expresses that old-time religion are the family members’ individual testimonies of God’s love. The play was a huge success in New York, and its original director, Alan Bailey, described it as something that shows the funny side of the South without making fun of it, all the while testifying to a merciful, loving God. Audience members have a role as the congregation, and interaction abounds.
For tickets or more information, contact the Strauss Theatre Box Office at (318) 323-6681.

Blue angel
The ancestors of Minden are of German stock; they traveled there in the 19th century to build a Utopian community. One score and two years ago, with the same vision of creating beauty, Chris Broussard used her own money, sans any help from the state or federal government, to both found and manage Minden’s first after-school enrichment program, The Children’s Center. Her goal in beginning one of the few privately owned institutions that promoted the arts in Minden was to foster children’s involvement both in the arts and in the culture of their North Louisiana region. Her proactive foresight filled a huge gap that yawned in their school curriculum, and her efforts prevail richly today.
Broussard is also the founder of the Cultural Crossroads of Minden and sold her own personal business in 2007 so she could devote herself full-time to concerns of the organization. It isn’t surprising that this longtime advocate for both children and the arts was among eight statewide recipients of the Angel Award given out by Blue Cross/Blue Shield last November. Acting as chairman of the board of Cultural Crossroads, a nonprofit arts agency, she is also the founder and force behind the annual Spring Arts Festival that will turn 15 when the vernal equinox greets the Bayou State this year. The Angel Award granted $20,000 to be used to upgrade the Moess Center for the Arts & City Farm (also known as “The Farm”). This creative “farm,” which bears the motto, “Where We Grow Culture,” is a 4-acre homestead donated nine years ago by Broussard’s good buddy and co-founder, Zenobia West.
Working with local art galleries, Broussard and The Farm help promote exhibits of local artists’ paintings, sculptures and photographs. The work of a family team –– Kerry Ellington, a sculptor, and his daughter, Kim, an emerging artist –– were recently featured at Easley’s Fine Art and Photography in Minden.
“Cultural Crossroads played a big part in my development,” says the elder Ellington.
Minden gallery owner Kerry Easley is thrilled to expose the fine talent of Minden to the outside world.
Cultural Crossroads has the support of the local police jury, the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Webster Parish Tourist Commission. Broussard and her artistic crew are gearing up to prepare for The Farm’s next big bash, the 2009 Spring Arts Festival that will be held in Minden from April 23-25, 2009.
Broussard strives to help others realize the creativity within their own minds. Once realized, the beauty of their expressions gives a little Utopia back to us, as well.

Blackberry wine
In spring, when fence posts, ditches, hills and fields in Louisiana are tangled with blackberry brambles pregnant with the sweet tartness of their succulent purple fruit, it’s time to indulge in that time-honored country art of making homemade wine. After you’re home with a pail filled with fruit that looks like edible amethysts, here’s a charming recipe courtesy of Minden’s Cultural Crossroads that you might like to try:
“Blackberry Wine” by Mrs. L.M. Ardis as compiled by Lavinia Eagan in 1936 and submitted by Dr. Philip Cook.
“Wash and crush fresh-picked berries, and put in a stone jar. To 1 gallon of berries, pour 1 quart of boiling water. Let stand until next morning; then strain, and return to the stone jar, adding 9 cups of sugar, and let stand for nine mornings, skimming off the foam each morning and stirring well.
“Then, from time to time, add a little more sugar if needed. When fermentation has stopped, strain, and pour into bottles, placing the corks in lightly until all effervescence has ceased. Then cork tightly, and seal.
“As is true when preserving jams, relishes or jellies, make sure your wine bottles are processed and sanitized. Stirring homemade wine before bottling removes any CO2.”