Ed Asner, the most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, will be in Spring Grove, Minn., Friday, Sept. 11 through Sunday, Sept. 13, as special guest at the first annual Spring Grove International Film Festival, presented by Giants of the Earth Heritage Center and Sacred Noise Society, Inc.

Asner, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, “is primarily known for his role as Lou Grant during the 1970s and early 1980s, on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off series Lou Grant, making him one of the few television actors to portray the same character in both a comedy and a drama” (Wikipedia).

Asner has won seven Emmy Awards – five for his portrayal of “Lou Grant,” three of which were for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and two of which were for Lou Grant; one for his performance in the television mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man; and one for his performance in the television mini-series, Roots.

First, the obvious question: How did it happen that Ed Asner is coming to Spring Grove – a town of less than 1,500 people in a quiet corner of Southeastern Minnesota -- for its first-ever international film festival? In order to answer that question, a little information about the festival’s founder and artistic director, Katie O’Regan, is in order.

About the founder
A long-time actor, dancer, producer and director, O’Regan is originally from this area and graduated from Turkey Valley High School. Her love of the arts and education has taken her career from Iowa to New York City, Chicago, Miami, Milwaukee and Door County. She has written eight plays and two musicals and directed and produced more than 75 staged productions in communities across the country and on stages from The Past Theater in Milwaukee to the off-Broadway St. Marks Theater (in October 2019). She currently lives in Waukon and works as director of development at Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove.

O’Regan also is founder and artistic director of Sacred Noise Society, Inc. – a mission, she writes on the organization’s website, she was given in a dream. She has elsewhere described the non-profit organization’s purpose as being dedicated to “offering opportunities to diverse artists and educators for inter-disciplinary collaboration in art” and to helping “foster the creative process within individuals and groups among the young and the old alike.”

Giants of the Earth
Clearly a person who takes her dreams seriously, O’Regan says the idea for the Spring Grove International Film Festival came to her in the same way. Having recently been hired by Giants of the Earth Heritage Center as its first-ever development director, O’Regan had been asking herself how she could best bring her talents to the organization – how, in her words, she could best serve.

“I wanted to serve the wonderful board of people who created Giants of the Earth with their own time and sweat and money,” O’Regan says. “I am grateful that they believed in me, so I was deeply contemplating how I could bring attention to the wonderful organization they created.”

O’Regan says she remembers the morning she woke up with the idea for the film festival.

“It was the day after Christmas,” she says. “I remember seeing in my dream the big, beautiful, yellow Heritage House on Main Street; the lit-up marquee of the Cinema, with the words, ‘Film Festival’; and a picture of people coming from all over – to see the beautiful part of the world we live in, the Driftless Region. I saw a parade in my dream, and then I created the Festival.”

That morning, O’Regan recalls, the realization came to her: “Spring Grove was born to have a film festival -- with all the creative people there, and with the heart people have put into the arts there,” she says.

She decided she was going to do this.

“I went on Film Freeway, which is the largest center for film fests in the world – it’s where the Sundance Film Festival started. I got an account, created a film festival and got it published and accepted,” she says. In January, she posted an announcement on Facebook, soliciting submissions: “I know we’re supposed to do this,” she noted in her posting.

Making connections
Brian Connors -- an actor and director from New York City now living and working in L.A. -- is a Facebook friend of hers and saw the post. “I love what you’re doing with this,” he wrote in a message. “I have an independent film – do you want to see it?”

“I asked who was in it, and he gave me the list of stars in the show and I asked him to send it,” O’Regan recalls. (The film, “Senior Entourage,” is described as “a wild, wacky ‘Mockumentary’ comedy featuring a zany, multi-racial cast ranging in age from 9 to 90” on the online movie and TV database, IMBD. “It’s ‘Seinfeld’ for seniors.” The movie stars Ed Asner, Helen Reddy, Charlie Robinson, Marion Ross and Mark Rydell.)

“I watched the film and then we talked on the phone,” O’Regan says. “I told Brian, ‘I love it – it’s so quirky, and so brilliant.’ I said, ‘You should come to Spring Grove.’”

In response, Connors told her they were doing a screening event in L.A. with the film and he invited her to attend -- so she did (flying out on her own dime). As if it weren’t enough fun just to sit in a small cinema-house in Hollywood and watch an indie film directed by someone she knew and with the leading cast members in attendance, things were about to get better.

After the screening, while introducing an audience “talk-back” with the cast, Connors stood up and said, “We have someone very special in the audience -- Katie O’Regan came here all the way from Spring Grove, Minnesota!” He called her up to stand with the cast in front of the audience and told the attendees she was organizing a film festival in Spring Grove, during which “Senior Entourage” would be screened.

“As soon as I came up, Ed (Asner) commented so everyone could hear, ‘Katie O’Regan – that’s a beautiful stage name!’ I turned to him and smiled, and said, ‘Mr. Asner, that’s my real name.’”

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that this is as good as it gets – some sweet-natured repartee with one of the most beloved actors of a generation, in a little cinema house in Hollywood – but it still gets better. After the talk-back, Connors told O’Regan that he and the cast were going out for some dinner and asked her if she’d like to come along. They all went to a Chinese restaurant – “the high-end kind where they cook the meal in front of you and the chef shows off,” O’Regan laughs. “It was elegant and cool and everyone wanted to talk to Ed.”

Ed mostly wanted to talk to the woman, a fellow actor, who’d come “all the way from Spring Grove, Minnesota” to attend a screening of “Senior Entourage” and who was going to include it in this new film festival she was in the process of creating.

Common bonds
“Ed asked if he could sit down by me,” O’Regan recalls. “He said, ‘So – you are a thespian.’ And then we talked about the craft and techniques of acting. He’s just so funny and kind and masculine and brave. He’s a great family man, and he’s as sharp as ever (at 90).”

As the evening came to an end, O’Regan recalls, “he gave me a big kiss on the cheek. And then I’m back in Waukon and Spring Grove, and Brian messages me: ‘Ed Asner really loves you!’”

Not one to waste time or ignore a gift, O’Regan called Connors and asked him if he could help her get in touch with Asner; she wanted to invite him to her new film festival. He gave her the number for Asner’s daughter, Liza.

“I called his daughter and asked if they could come -- and they said yes,” O’Regan recalls.

O’Regan would later discover she and Asner have more in common than their passion for theatre and the arts. The topic never came up in their dinner conversation that night in L.A.; but after returning home and reading more about the actor she learned he is a strong advocate for autism spectrum research, having both a son and a grandson who are on the spectrum.

Including a category for films about autism was important to O’Regan when she was first conceiving of and designing the Spring Grove International Film Festival. “I have worked in theatre with kids on the autism spectrum and I love their creativity,” she says. “And a board member at Sacred Noise Society -- one of my oldest and dearest friends -- is Patricia Fenton, a master teacher of people on the spectrum.”

Paying attention
Carl Jung, the founder of analytic psychology, coined the term “synchronicities” to describe something he referred to as “meaningful coincidences” – occurrences with no causal relationship that seem nevertheless to be meaningfully related. He theorized that, like dreams and intuition, these synchronicities can provide guidance in peoples’ lives – if they’re paying attention.

The story behind how it happened that one of the most honored and beloved actors of a generation is coming to the Spring Grove International Film Festival – indeed, the story of the film festival, itself – is in many ways a story about a woman, an artist, who pays attention -- to what Jung might have called synchronicities, and what she calls “sacred noise.”

“It’s our inner creative voice,” O’Regan says. “The quiet whisper that says, ‘do this.”

About the Film Festival
The Spring Grove International Film Festival will feature over 40 movies, including shorts, and will include films in an eclectic variety of categories – from historical family documentary, feature films, Norwegian films and films by Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin filmmakers, to films about autism, action films, butterfly films and dance films.

Festival films will be shown at three locations: Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, Spring Grove Cinema and Ye Olde Opera House.

Passes for the Friday and Saturday films are $25 each; a pass is good for all films, and includes live talks with filmmakers.

Ticketed event
Asner will attend a private, ticketed event Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Ma Cal Grove Country Club in Caledonia, Minn. The dress-up evening will include a bar, hors d’oeuvres and dessert.

Two hundred tickets will be sold at $125 apiece to benefit Giants of the Earth Heritage Center. Tickets go on sale Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 12 p.m. and can be purchased online at giantsoftheearth.org or by calling 917-456-6967, though online reservations are recommended.

Outdoor film screenings
“Up,” the 2009 animated film in which Asner voice-acted the lead role of curmudgeonly Carl Fredericksen, will be screened Friday and Saturday nights at Gray’s Barn outdoor theatre, 502 East Main Street, at 9 p.m. Sept. 11 and 8:30 p.m. Sept. 12. Prize for the best “Up” character costume will be awarded Saturday night.

Suggested donation is $10 per person or $20 per car, to benefit Giants of the Earth Heritage Center. Attendees are asked to be mindful of social distancing, and to bring lawn chairs and/or blankets.

Sunday is designated “Up, Up and Away with Ed Asner Day” and will feature a parade at 12:30 p.m., in lieu of films. The VFW color guard from three area posts will march in the parade, as will Asner – accompanied by a character named “Russell,” a young Wilderness Explorer who unwittingly ends up on the adventure of a lifetime with “Carl”/Asner, in “Up.” Greg Wennes will serve as parade announcer.

Spring Grove ‘Ed Asner’ pop
Beginning the second week in August and continuing throughout the festival, bottles of Spring Grove “Ed Asner” Soda Pop will be available for $3 per bottle or $15 per six-pack. O’Regan bought 200 cases of the soda pop and designed special labels in honor of the actor, as a fundraiser for Giants of the Earth Heritage Center. The special-label soda pop also is available for order -- with delivery extra -- if other venues would like to purchase it and have it available.

Spring Grove “Ed Asner” Soda Pop will be offered in two flavors -- strawberry and, with a nod to an important element of the storyline in “Up,” grape.

In a whimsical embrace of that storyline – In the film, “Carl’s” late wife and childhood sweetheart, “Ellie,” had given him a grape soda pop-top/badge when they were young, and he wore it all his life as a symbol of the love they shared – Vicky at the City Club in Waukon has created an honorary Ed Asner cocktail for the festival: Vodka and grape (strawberry works, too) Spring Grove “Ed Asner” soda pop, with lime. “It’s the ‘Ed Asner’ -- like the ‘Arnold Palmer,’ only better,” O’Regan laughs.

The City Club will be serving the eponymous cocktail starting in mid-August. Also available will be a cocktail called “Ellie’s Honeymoon,” made with grape vodka and grape soda.

COVID-19 precautions and online alternative
The Spring Grove International Film Festival will observe Minnesota state regulations as regards COVID-19 recommendations, including social distancing and the encouraging of mask-wearing among attendees. Only 30 people will be allowed per screening at the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, and Spring Grove Cinema will operate at 25 percent capacity. Both the parade and the outdoor screenings will observe social distancing guidelines.

The festival also will take place online, kicking off at the same time as the Festival in Spring Grove. Tickets can be purchased for $25 each to watch films online that have been chosen by the Festival, with access to the films from Sept. 11 to Sept. 25.

Many, though not all, of the films being shown at the Festival will be available online. Special content – including interviews with filmmakers – will be available only to online Festival ticket holders. The online Festival does not include access to the Friday night ticketed event.

Further info
For information about lodging or camping opportunities in the area, visit springgrovemn.com. For more information about purchasing tickets to the Film Festival, go to giantsoftheearth.org.

Giants of the Earth Heritage Center is located at 163 West Main Street, in Spring Grove. Founded in 2009, Giants of the Earth is a non-profit historical society that empowers individuals, families and communities with a sense of meaning through its many cultural and historical programs.

The organization serves people of all nationalities and backgrounds, and celebrates the heritage of the Driftless Region. For more information, including information about participating in the “Summer of Family” program – where families with roots in the Driftless Region can have their stories told while relatives are here to tell them, go to giantsoftheearth.org.

A full schedule of films, times and locations will be published in an upcoming edition of Driftless Journal.