By Rachel Wisinski | Photos Courtesy of Big Foot Community Fine Arts Foundation
Big Foot High School’s 9,000-square-foot auditorium hadn’t been upgraded since the school was built in 1958, and it looked like it, says Media Communications Coordinator Sue Pruessing.
Yet it was the only area of the school that went untouched during a major renovation project in 2000.
Funding from a community referendum in 2014 changed that. The theater’s seating, lights and sound system were replaced, and it received a new rigging system and curtains as well as wheelchair accessibility. “It came back like a swan,” Pruessing says.
With the $1.4 million facelift, Big Foot High School administrators set out to maximize the auditorium’s use. “The thought at that time was, ‘Hey, it’s community-supported, we have it sitting there for concerts for the kids, but this needs to be used a lot more,’” Pruessing says.
In that light, the Big Foot Community Fine Arts Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, aims to enrich the local artistic scene through professional lectures and performances for groups of local schoolchildren by day and by paid admission for Walworth County-area residents at night.
Foundation President Becky Merwin and Pruessing – who is the vice president – give credit to former administrator Dorothy Kaufmann for conceptualizing the idea. Kauffman’s connection to the school and community sparked the vision, says foundation board member Nancy Rasmussen, who is retired from her role as a music educator in the district.
Although the nonprofit receives support from the school board, 12 dedicated members work tirelessly to book performances and secure enough funding to keep it running. “We all come to the table with our passion for the arts, which is why we’ve committed the time and dollars to make a difference,” Merwin says.
A BIG BREAK
As the foundation searched for sources of revenue to support its first season in 2016, Merwin had an idea. Screenwriter and director Joselito Seldera had recently filmed scenes for “End of Fall” near Merwin’s house. Seldera, a Big Foot High School graduate, produced the film over a 13-day period in Walworth County.
With such a local connection, Pruessing says, the nonprofit got lucky. Seldera agreed to preview the film in the school’s new auditorium, and he graciously allowed the foundation to keep all the money raised. “It was great,” Pruessing says. “The kids got an experience from someone who became successful and came out of Big Foot, and it gave us quite a launch to help with our programming.”
From there, the Big Foot Community Fine Arts Foundation has hosted everything from “An Evening with Teddy Roosevelt” — featuring impersonator Adam Lindquist — to The Hornheads, an internationally acclaimed a cappella jazz group that has performed or recorded with the likes of Prince, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett and more.
Big Foot’s new auditorium not only impressed The Hornheads’ Michael B. Nelson, but he was also moved by the area’s commitment to the arts. “It’s nice to receive support in a really small community like that, and it was nice to be able to interact with young up-and-coming musicians,” says Nelson, who serves as the group’s leader, composer, arranger and trombonist.
Through the program, Big Foot High School’s band students participated in a master class with the world renown musicians before learning and performing a piece Nelson wrote – “Intermission” – in front of a crowded auditorium that evening.
Nelson pointed to the foundation’s dedication to providing an educational component as a key in developing young minds. “It’s paying it forward, in a way, giving the kids who are really into the arts and music a close-up view of the industry, and hopefully inspiration,” Nelson says.
A WORLD OF TALENT
Performances generally are booked about a year in advance, so Big Foot Community Fine Arts Foundation board members already are looking at selections for the 2019-20 lineup. When choosing new acts, the group searches for diversity and breadth across all art forms. Additionally, price, availability, public interest and educational elements all factor into the decision.
“We search for ways to make this the most meaningful experience for everyone,” says Rasmussen. For example, during this past season kids in fourth grade attended “An Evening with Teddy Roosevelt,” whereas high school students learned about climate change, sailing and more from David Thoreson, whose crew became the first group of American sailors to transit the Northwest Passage from east to west.
During its third season, the Big Foot Community Fine Arts Foundation will host a Winston Churchill impersonator; musical group The Marlins, who perform popular hits from the 1960s to 1980s; the comedic ice-fishing musical “Guys on Ice;” the Chicago Philharmonic; and the Jazz Consortium Big Band.
“We have a little bit of paradise right here,” Pruessing says. “That’s nothing against Chicago or Milwaukee, but we’re able to bring professional performances like that all right here in Walworth.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Aside from ticket sales, the Big Foot Community Fine Arts Foundation relies on corporate sponsors and individual donations for funding, Pruessing says. “It’s getting better and better,” she says. “We had to raise awareness of what we’re doing.”
“Schools are the heart of the community,” Rasmussen adds, “and we’re making that outreach to the community, and the community is responding by coming in. It’s an understanding of support at all levels.”
Corporate sponsors include Scherrer Construction, which completed the theater renovations; First National Bank and Trust; and the Rauland Agency, for which Merwin is a real estate agent. The Walworth-Fontana Rotary Foundation and Big Foot Lions Club also have made sizeable donations. However, individual gifts make up the majority of monetary support.
Each season costs the foundation between $8,000 and $10,000 for five performances. Acts come from a broad area, including surrounding states such as Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois.
“Just because it’s an auditorium in a school doesn’t mean it’s not quality,” Pruessing says. “It’s top-of-the-line entertainment you would see at any performing arts center.”
MORE THAN ENTERTAINMENT
Big Foot performances mostly take place from September to May, so they don’t have to compete with popular summer arts festivals and events. However, the nonprofit has a bit of a different goal, as well: emphasizing a focus on the students.
Closing the gap between generations is important, according to Pruessing. She recalls growing up visiting museums and attending concerts frequently, and says that’s not always happening today. “It’s fulfilling to say, ‘OK, there’s something we can bring right here to our own backyard,’” she says. “The adults are great, concerts at night are great, but the biggest fulfillment is offering this to students.”
“Life is so much more enriched by the arts,” Pruessing adds. “Life is great, but you add the arts and it’s so much more.”