CSPS Sokol Hall Theater
Musical productions and festivals
From its beginnings in 1879, Sokol productions and festivals not only provided entertainment and distractions from challenges of daily life, but also a means for volunteers to support their several organizations that found home in their beloved hall.
It is documented that the first hall of 1879 was a schoolhouse moved onto the property, and that the first project was to build a stage onto it. The early founders then were able to develop productions in their native "Bohemian" or Czech language since that was the predominant group of the surrounding neighborhood. Of course, a second outlet was the pub on the first floor run by Vaclav Picha.
Aside from productions out of the 200+ community plays in Czech language published in Prague (1880 - 1930), musical performances, productions and reviews were produced at the hall. Antonín Jurka, until his family's departure in 1900 to New York, was a central figure. The first documented in the archives was a celebration of a Antonín Dvořák's visit, accompanied to St. Paul by his wife, Anna, and his secretary, Josef Kovařík of Spillville, Iowa. (Kovařík was also the future brother-in-law of John Pesek of 529 Michigan Street.) The Maestro, as some called him, was a classical artist/composer near the status of Brahms, Bach or Beethoven. He was the greatest living Bohemian at the time, and perhaps since. Dvořák had just completed his greatest work, Symphony No. 9 (Tthe New World) several months before in New York and was summering with his family to relieve his homesickness for Bohemia in Spillville, Iowa where essentially everyone spoke Czech. The trip to St. Paul was highlighted by a triumphant gathering in his honor at the C.S.P.S. Hall. It was said that Dvořák was not a social person, and that he endured occasions of the large crowds he drew. There were 300 persons crowded into the C.S.P.S. Hall that evening. Dvořák and his wife were introduced by Jurka, there were more introductions and fêting, but most of all there was music, featuring local violin virtuoso Emil Straka.
It was difficult for Cech and Slavic immigrants to pass on their deep love for their native language (despite Saturday morning classes at the Jefferson School) but not so their love for music, dance, theater, and the spoken word, especially poetry. These cultural activities were based both in the home, church and social halls, and incorporated into gatherings and events. The Cech saying, “Co Čech, to muzikant” (If Cech, then a musician) was no idle boast. John Pesek in a 1937 article in the West End Call recalled that “There, being a number of musicians, Sunday gatherings were enlivened with music, and Sunday picnics with bands playing at (St. Paul's West End) Shades’ and Banholzer parks.” Perhaps Cechs won arguments with Germans over who composed the Beer Barrel Polka (J Vejvoda’s Skoda Lásky), and the Blue Skirt Waltz (V Blaha’s Sukynda) even though in Czech the skirt is red!
To this day, social occasions at the Czech Hall conclude with folk songs, and a group meets weekly on Tuesday mornings to formally continue the tradition. In 1976, as first and second generations began retirement, the love of folk singing formally organized into Tuesday morning sessions that at times even included exercise! The leadership, musicology, and piano is provided by Georgiana Smolek Delogi, who well remembers playing for her father and mother at home. She now waits to inspire the next generation to take up the songbooks.
The C.S.P.S. Hall celebrated its status as an National Register Historic site in 1979 with a Czech Chamber Music Festival in conjunction with the Schubert Club. Seven concerts were given including one that required a nine-foot Grand piano for pianist Richard Zgodova.
In October 2010, a piano recital "Slavonic Selections" was performed by prodigy William Yang. William has appeared in young artist concerts and most recently at the Polish Festival featuring Chopin, and who appeared to be a slight, sheepish, soft spoken nine-year-old began the evening by attacking six selections by Frédéric Chopin. William does not sit on his piano stool, but rather leans against it in order to reach the piano’s foot pedals. One in attendance said that his fingers fluttered and flew over the keys much like the wings of the hummingbird. It was an amazing performance. After the intermission that featured Czech kolache (pastries) and Slovak walnut potica (rolled dessert), the second half began with the mastery of Denis Evstuhin—quite a contrast with his six-foot-four frame. With a scant day’s notice, Denis mastered our program on his return from Warsaw, Poland where he was invited to compete in the five-year Chopin competition, and is on tour in Eastern Europe. Denis began with Chopin, and proceeded to a delightful piece by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, Souvenir from Sketches. The first surprise followed: Denis was joined by his wife in two well-known four-hand compositions by Antonín Dvořák. Two pieces by Ignacy Paderewski were then followed by the highlight of the evening, Ferencz (Franz) Liszt and a furious rendition of his Rhapsodie Espagnole/Spanish Rhapsody. This piece is known as a piece only the most expert can play since it requires a wide finger span and tests a pianist's keyboard prowess to a very high degree. The powerful piece not only reverberated through the walls of this, the oldest theater in the State of Minnesota, but also the crowd. At its conclusion, a stunned audience rose as one to their feet to salute a terrific performance.