Arts community rallies around Backus Auditorium

The arts community on both sides of the border is prepared to fight to keep the Alexander Baker-Backus School complex in International Falls open, protecting the largest auditorium in the area.
More than 100 people gathered at Falls High School on Monday night for a public hearing before the Independent School District #361 board. Due to budget cuts, the board has proposed closing AB-Backus on June 30 in an effort to save $100,000 in annual operating expenses.
At the meeting, acting superintendent Allen Rasmussen said the meeting was a legal requirement when the board closed buildings for school purposes.
Future uses of the building were to be discussed at a later meeting.
Carole Mackintosh was among the Fort Frances residents who attended Monday’s meeting to show her support for keeping the Backus Auditorium open.
“You’d never build another facility like that in this day and age,” she said of the roughly 1,000-seat facility. “Nobody wants to see it go. The community benefits on both sides [of the border].
“Every single artist or group that has ever had in town said that they are astounded by the stage, its quality, and size,” Mackintosh added.
“My husband joked that you can do ‘Aida’ on the stage of Backus and have real elephants it’s so big.”
Katherine Williams, director of the Borderland Community Orchestra, also was disheartened at the possibility the region could lose Backus Auditorium.
“It’s one of the largest facilities in the whole [area]. At Christmas, we had it overflowing with Handel’s ‘Messiah,’” Williams said yesterday morning.
“We’d be severely limited in our productions at the Townshend Theatre [here in Fort Frances] it’s is so small, and we would be limited in the groups we would be able to bring into the district,” she argued.
In fact, Williams said the orchestra already is outgrowing a number of venues it performs in now and that Backus Auditorium is the only one members feel comfortable in.
Plus, she also would be upset to lose the nine-foot grand piano that, because of cost, would be irreplaceable if it were gone.
“It’s got class, everything you want it to be acoustically, and the space is huge. It is perfect for us and yet we want to get rid of it?” she asked.
“It would be very tragic if that ever happens.”
In an effort to keep the school complex and the auditorium open, a grassroots group called “Citizens for Backus-AB” has been formed. Speaking on behalf of the group, Kay Arnold told the school board Monday night that they are interested in purchasing the building.
“At such time as the board decides to divest itself of this facility, we stand ready to take charge,” she told the board.
“We realize this is the last and best opportunity to preserve a facility that should have lasting value in International Falls and the area,” she added.
“It is both historic and irreplaceable.”
Arnold said a number of people, on both sides of the border, already have made donations to save the facility. An executive committee also has been formed to come up with fundraising plans and a means to keep the complex operating if the purchase is successful.
Mackintosh said she was relieved to see this citizen group form to help protect the much-loved auditorium.
“A lot of people on both sides of the river are keen to help,” she said after the meeting. “I’m really optimistic with this new ‘Citizens to Save Backus’ group . . . I just have to wait and see.”