Jeg er så glad…to be Norwegian!
The Church Basement Ladies celebrate 3,000 performances at the Plymouth Playhouse
St. Paul, Minn.
Setting: a Norwegian Lutheran Church basement kitchen. The walls are painted mint green and the windows, covered with pastel print curtains, give a glimpse of the world outside. A serving window opens onto the fellowship hall.
Welcome to the domain of “the Church Basement Ladies,” the subject of a series of original musicals that has been delighting audiences across the country for 11 years. The franchise is inspired by two 100% Norwegian-Lutheran farm girls, Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, authors of a number of Scandinavian-American humor books including the bestseller Growing up Lutheran. Drawing from the peculiarities of Scandinavian heritage, the shows celebrate everything from lutefisk dinners to reading for the minister to the appropriateness of serving Italian lasagna at a funeral lunch.
Since 2005, six different installments of Church Basement Ladies have premiered at the Plymouth Playhouse in Plymouth, Minnesota: a Christmas version, Away in the Basement; a centennial celebration, The Last (Potluck) Supper; and the latest in the series, Rise Up, O Men. The shows also tour nationally and have been licensed in all contiguous 48 states and Canada.
As the company prepared to celebrate their 3,000th performance at the Plymouth Playhouse, scriptwriter Greta Grosch sat down with her 100% Norwegian-American mother, Rosalie Grangaard Grosch, to talk about the shows.
Greta: The shows take place in the 50s and 60s in rural Minn. You grew up in a Norwegian Lutheran Church in Iowa. What about these shows reminds you of your past?
Rosalie: The church suppers. The funeral food. The chatter in the kitchen.
G: In A Mighty Fortress (Is Our Basement) our young character, Beverly, is studying for confirmation. Did you have to “read for the minister”?
R: We didn’t call it that, but yes, we did have to stand in front of the congregation. And we had to memorize hymns. I’m grateful for that. It’s something to hold on to as I’ve gotten older. They’ve changed some of the words, but I stick to the ones I memorized.
G: Can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
R: Change can be hard for some of us. In the first show, the Widow Snustad talks about that. She says, “Everyone seems to like it but me.” It’s an ongoing problem. When I was growing up, hanging on to your culture was important. Change represented something scary.
G: Like guitars in the sanctuary… Speaking of change, the first five shows celebrated the women. When I was working on Rise Up, O Men, people said, “I don’t know what you’ll have to write about. Norwegian men don’t talk. And they would never be in the kitchen.”
R: They talk about their tractors, and the weather, and their wives. But you’re right about them not being in the kitchen. I remember when the men started to help with the funeral lunches. It was a shock.
G: Any favorite songs?
R: I like the song Mavis sings in the Christmas version, “I’m just not Mary Material.”
G: Mavis is an able-bodied farm wife who always got stuck playing a shepherd or a wise man in the Sunday School Christmas program…
R: One of my favorite songs is the closing song from The Last (Potluck) Supper. It sings of hope.
G: It’s 1979 and after 100 years they have to close their small country church. Karin, wife of the John Deere dealer, sings, “From each other our strength is drawn, when together as one, we move on.” That show was hard for some of our audience members.
R: They’ve probably been through it. For many of us, the church was the core of our community. Our ancestors were buried in the cemetery. When you close the church it’s like a betrayal. Who will take care of them?
G: Why are you so proud of your Norwegian heritage?
R: It shaped me. When I was a child, it was important to my parents to retain certain traditions—the foods, the celebrations. They spoke Norwegian to one another at home. My parents, and my church, instilled a real pride in me to be Norwegian. When I went back to Norway, walked where my ancestors came from, saw our family name on the buildings—it felt like coming home. This was God’s country. Growing up I was told Norwegian was the best thing to be!
G: And then you went and married a Swede/German.
R: At least he’s Lutheran.
G: Why do you think the shows are so popular?
R: People want to remember their culture, their heritage, and for many of us the traditions were kept by the women of the basement. I think people want to know where they came from. … I do wonder if the next generation is as proud of their heritage as we were. … Even the Norwegians in Norway are losing some of their old traditions. They don’t have lutefisk for Christmas. They have pork and sauerkraut.
G: Some of us are trying to hang on to the culture: the Sons of Norway; the churches that still host lutefisk dinners; the readers of The Norwegian American. We even sing “Jeg er så glad” at the end of the Christmas show!
R: And I appreciate that.
For more info on the shows, visit churchbasementladiesonstage.com.
Since 1989 Greta has worked as a writer and performer. An original cast member of Church Basement Ladies, she scripted the last five versions in the series. Greta also writes The Medora Musical, is a voice over and commercial artist, travels the country as a motivational speaker, and is a founding member of The Looney Lutherans. For more info visit gretagrosch.com.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.