International Falls has been known for years as the Icebox of the Nation, but in some circles, the northern Minnesota border town is gaining notoriety for producing radio theater.
A non-profit arts group called Icebox Radio Theater produces original audio plays that reflect life in International Falls and the group has gained a following on the Internet.
A handful of local actors gathered in the basement of an old school building in International Falls. The long, dark room has a sound recording console on one end and several microphone stands on the other. It's where Icebox Radio Theater creates its audio plays. They're in the vein of old-time radio from the 1930s and 40s. But these shows end up on the Internet, where people can download them in the form of podcasts.
On this night, the actors are recording an episode of an original series called "The Scoop Sisters."
"The Scoop Sisters" is a comedy mystery series based in the fictional town of Icebox, Minnesota. Jeff Adams is the show's creator. Adams is a playwright who moved from Oregon to International Falls in 2004; that same year he founded Icebox Radio Theater.
Adams said the town of International Falls gives him all the subject material he needs.
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"People around the country know about this town. They've heard of it, if nothing else, just from The Weather Channel," Adams said. "And there was a certain resonance there that I thought could translate into maybe a national audience.
"To me, living with this climate, living with ice roads, living with ice fishing, all these things still hold a certain fascination."
Icebox Radio Theater consists of about 30 local actors and technical folks. The group got its start on several local radio stations, which aired live performances of their stories. In 2007, the group began podcasting its weekly series episodes on its Web site. That first month only a few dozen people downloaded the shows. Now, they're available on iTunes and get downloaded about 3,000 times a month.
The organization's Web site also has a 24-hour stream of audio theater programming. Along with their own shows, the schedule also includes recordings from other radio theater groups. The offerings range from comedy and drama, to sci-fi and fantasy.
Even a few decades ago, this sort of small scale audio production might have been too expensive for a non-profit group. But the digital revolution made basic recording equipment more affordable. The International Falls group has managed to pay the rent for its studio space with local and regional grants; its received around $6,000 in grants over the past two years.
Small groups like Icebox Radio Theater are popping up across the country. Jeff Adams said it's reviving an art form that pretty much died when television came along.
"It's like a folk art movement," he said. "It's not audience driven so much, it's more producer driven, a new generation of writers and producers discovered that radio drama affords you the ability to tell any type of story you want in any sort of format. If you want to tell a story in outer space, no problem. Set the scene with music and sound effects and dialogue. You can literally go anywhere."
Along with "The Scoop Sisters" series, Icebox Radio Theater produces a series of horror-themed shows called "Frozen Frights."
And then there's Jeff Adams' favorite series, a show he created called "Dome Dog." It's based on a real person from International Falls, a Vikings season ticket holder who attends games dressed as a super hero.
Adams said he created the show after wondering what would happen if the local guy really did have super powers.
"Dome Dog has a sidekick, Mustard Girl, who's also his romantic interest," Adams said. "In a horrible cheese-related accident she was given the ability to shape-shift. His nemesis is the Packer Backer, who runs backward at high speed, and honestly, we haven't figured out yet whether it's a comedy or straight up super hero comic book stuff."
Adams' Dome Dog character got his super powers after eating 10 jumbo hot dogs at the Metrodome.
Jeff Adams' writing often centers on the unique local lifestyle and the quirks of living in an isolated community. Even though Adams is a newcomer to International Falls, locals say he's pretty good at it. Vicki Olson has a lead role in "The Scoop Sisters" series. Olson said Adams stories are a fair and often humorous portrayal of local life.
"Yes, they're accurate, and yes, they're cartoonish, but not to the point of being buffoonish," Olson said. "It's taken just a tiny bit over the edge, not enough to insult anybody, but enough for people to say, 'oh my gosh, that's so true, or that type of thing.'"
The cast of theater members includes several Canadians too. Dave Erwin of Fort Frances, Ontario is in charge of sound effects for the productions. Erwin said the group has earned notoriety with locals on both sides of the border.
"We've had stories about traveling back and forth across the border," Erwin said. "We did a show called 'Have You Anything to Declare?' a number of years ago, and ever since then I found it much easier to cross the border, because they heard about us now, and if I tell them I'm going over to work with the theater group, they usually just wave me through. That's been very helpful."
People in International Falls are proud of being the self-proclaimed Icebox of the Nation. Icebox Radio Theater founder Jeff Adams said that moniker has probably helped draw attention to the podcasts online. But Adams said he's interested in writing not just the quirky stories, but also the dramatic tales of life in far northern Minnesota.
So far, Icebox Radio Theater hasn't found a way to sustain itself financially. Producers of podcasts have generally found consumers aren't willing to pay for them. Jeff Adams said, unless that changes, the group will likely continue to rely on local and regional arts grants to stay afloat.