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Arts and culture roundup 2023: Circus, the Smithsonian and a landmark play’s last curtain call

The Last Supper, a scene from "American Passion Play." The production's final season opens Saturday at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, concluding its 100-year history.
Courtesy of
American Passion Play
The Last Supper is a a scene from "American Passion Play." The production's final season took place this spring at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, concluding its 100-year history.

By all accounts, it was a jam-packed year for arts and culture in Bloomington-Normal.

As many arts organizations continued to rebuild from the pandemic, others pushed to build new audiences and opportunities. Young people contributed to the community’s creative output, as one century-old institution looks to stay current — and another one closed.

At WGLT, we think broadly about the creative capacity of this community and embrace arts and culture in all forms. As theater companies roiled nationwide, we asked what it would take to support a full-time, year-round professional theater in the Twin Cities. For our Welcome Home series, geared toward Bloomington-Normal’s newest neighbors, we unpacked the Downtown and Uptown art scenes and McLean County’s storied circus history.

Here is a summary of some of our favorite arts stories from 2023.

American Passion Play’s last curtain call: A 100-year-old Easter tradition in Bloomington came to an end in March with the final performances of Delmar Darrah’s “American Passion Play.” Darrah, an influential figure in the Twin Cities, built the Scottish Rite Temple [now the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts] expressly for his long-winded theatrical depiction of Jesus’ ministry and the Passion of the Christ. “This ministry has had its beginning and its end,” said Bob Trefzger, who first participated in the “American Passion Play” in 1965 and played Judas in the final season. “When people see the play this year, we hope they will take this additional message that they are to go — as well as us — and make disciples of all nations,” he said.

Survivor Love Letters: Kylie Ashton Maurer moved her “Survivor Love Letters” gallery to the Coffeehouse in Uptown Normal this year, commemorating Sexual Assault Awareness Month with an interactive art instillation inviting survivors to contribute testimony and other creative ephemera. The result was a powerful love bomb of paper hearts, original artworks and impactful stories encouraging truth-telling, healing conversations and connections.

 Oversized figurines, including a woman's foot and a pale hand, sit on pedestals. Behind time is a large historical timeline printed on white walls.
Lauren Warnecke
The American Giants Museum opened in Atlanta this summer.

Atlanta's giant boost to tourism: Atlanta’s downtown centerpiece is a giant statue of Paul Bunyon with a hot dog. That’s not a typo; although the statue does, indeed, resemble that mythical lumberjack. Once stationed at Bunyon’s hot dogs in Cicero, the roadside attraction kicked off something of an obsession with enormous fiberglass statues in the town, realized as the now-open American Giants Museum. Just down the street, Atlanta cut the ribbon on another attraction this summer in anticipation of the Route 66 Centennial, memorializing a mine shaft that never struck coal — but found plenty of water.

Guys and planes: On any given Wednesday, some of the Prairie Aviation Museum's 30-or-so active members arrive at a nondescript tan building on Empire Street tucked between Central Illinois Regional Airport and an empty hanger once used by State Farm. They come for what they call their “weekly meeting.” Many are military veterans; most are men of a certain age looking for fellowship and fun during retirement. Their common bond is a love of aviation. We visited for a preview of Open Cockpit Days, a powerful experience for enthusiasts, veterans, kids — anyone, really.

The Smithsonian in Chatsworth: A tiny town 50 miles northwest of Bloomington-Normal got some major props this fall when a Smithsonian Museum exhibit arrived thanks to the Museums on Main Street program partnered with Illinois Humanities. Chatsworth and neighboring town Fairbury were recognized for their innovation — not the first thing you think of in post-industrial, rural America, right? Think again. Mary Catherine Carter of Central Illinois Community Connection talked to WGLT about how she uses the arts and a storefront in downtown Chatsworth to connect and invigorate small central Illinois towns.

Circus performers entertain a crowd in Uptown Normal
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Uptown Normal is known for its big weekend events and festivals, where the streets are shut down to make room for pedestrians, vendors, and entertainment. That includes Sweet Corn Circus every August.

Circus Week: It was a big year for the Greatest Show on Earth, which launched a brand new, 50-city, cross-country tour this September. Bloomington-Normal got an exclusive sneak-peek in August at the Circus Historical Society’s annual convention — returning to the Twin Cities for the first time in over a decade. The keynote, by Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld, offered tidbits and insights about the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, a brand his father purchased from the Ringling family in 1967. The week capped with a rousing Sweet Corn circus, merging circus past and present in the heart of Uptown Normal.

Exploring the Ethnogothic: Around Halloween, scholars Stanford Carpenter and Eric Wesselmann stopped by the WGLT studios to chat horror. They taught an honors course at Illinois State University this fall about the Ethnogothic, a term coined by Carpenter and others positioning horror as a tool for understanding how people of different races and backgrounds process fearful situations. In a wide-ranging conversation on slasher flicks like "Candyman," Blaxploitation and, inevitably, Pam Grier, this one ranks high among this reporter’s favorites of the year.

A festive party of actors in early 20th-century European costumes. Two men do-si-do linking arms and drinking shots of vodka
Community Players Theatre
Nick Benson, center, plays Lazar Wolf, a middle-aged bachelor for whom Tevya has promised Tzeitel as his bride.

"Maybe that's why we always wear our hats": Days after the Hamas attack on Israel that sparked a bloody war overseas, dramaturg Morgan Rondinelli discussed her role dissecting the historical and cultural contexts of Ashkenazi Jews in Community Players’ production of "Fiddler on the Roof." She talked about the profound “urge and tension” experienced by Jewish Americans— particularly in Christian-majority communities — as they navigate multiple identities at once.

Where's the music?!?

We had so much great stuff on the music front this year, we couldn't squeeze it all into one round-up! Here are our 2023 musical highlights.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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