A young musician who played for the Fargo-Moorhead Community Orchestra was so talented that he became a guest conductor of that ensemble at the age of 15.
Dave Schickele later became an established musician, composer, and movie actor, director and producer. After his death in 1999, award-winning director Rob Nilsson dedicated three movies that he produced in Schickele’s honor.
David George Schickele was born on March 20, 1937, in Ames, Iowa, to Rainer and Elizabeth (Wilcox) Schickele. Rainer was an agricultural economics professor at Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, in Ames, where David attended grade school. In 1945, the family moved to Washington, D.C., when Rainer became an instructor at George Washington University.
In 1946, Rainer accepted the position of chairman of the Agricultural Sciences Department at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) in Fargo. David’s brother, Peter, who was two years older than him, was very close to his younger sibling and nicknamed him Wald.
Shortly after relocating to Fargo, the two brothers “constructed a theater in their basement, created shows, taped their own musical performances, and shot films,” and they charged a penny admission for their performances. At the age of 9, David began taking lessons on the violin and soon he joined with Peter, who played the clarinet, on musical duets. Peter then formed a band called Jerky Jems and His Balmy Brothers, which featured the two Schickele brothers and two other young musicians.
While in their early teens, in pursuit of becoming members of the F-M Orchestra, Peter switched from the clarinet to the bassoon and David switched from the violin to the viola. The brothers excelled in all of the musical programs at Fargo Central High School, and David also participated heavily in the theater arts.
On Aug. 30, 1953, they got together with their good friend, Ernest Lloyd, and comedically rearranged Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Coffee Cantata," which they then played and recorded. They named this parodic composition the "Sanka Cantata" and attributed the music to P.D.Q. Bach, a fictitious son of Johann Bach. Twelve years later, Peter used P.D.Q. Bach as his alter ego and expanded his compositions.
David graduated from Fargo Central in 1954 and followed after Peter who had enrolled at Swarthmore (Pa.) College in 1952. Both of the Schickele brothers were heavily involved in music at Swarthmore, but unlike his brother who majored in music, David received his degree in English literature. He graduated in 1958 and then traveled to Sienna, Italy, after receiving a scholarship to study at the prestigious Chigiana Musical Academy, a school that had recently graduated noted conductors like John Williams and Zubin Mehta.
Besides the invaluable musical training he received at the academy, David also had the opportunity to spend some time with his parents, since his father was working for the United Nations and was stationed in Rome, Italy. After completing his coursework, David returned to the U.S. and “worked as a freelance violinist in New York,” playing primarily at Radio City Music Hall. He also toured with the Robert Shaw Chorale and apprenticed with several filmmakers to learn about producing and directing movies.
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10924, creating the Peace Corps. On Sept. 21, Congress authorized the Peace Corps Act, and David was one of the original Americans to join that organization.
Later that year, after a brief training period, David was sent to Africa to teach English at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Nigeria had been an English colony, gaining its independence in 1960, and the university was created later that year. When David arrived in 1961, many of the school’s students were suspicious of the Peace Corps volunteers since they didn’t understand their motive. Because the school was new, it was seriously lacking in many areas, and David found it a challenge to teach literature without any books.
At first, he spent much of his free time traveling on his motorbike to visit other Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria, and one of them was Rob Nilsson, who taught school in Okeagbe. As it turned out, David and Nilsson shared a lot in common. Nilsson was also from the Upper Midwest, having been born and raised in Wisconsin. They were both interested in making movies, and both also had North Dakota roots. Nilsson’s maternal grandfather was Frithiof Holmboe, who had been the North Dakota state filmmaker, producing tourism films for the state's Department of Immigration.
After completing his service with the Peace Corps, David returned to the U.S. with plans of making a movie about the Peace Corps experience, hyping it as a recruitment tool. He convinced his good friend and fellow volunteer in Nigeria, Roger Landrum, to assist him in the movie. They returned to Nigeria and contacted four of their former students to appear in the motion picture. David wrote, directed and produced the film and titled it "Give Me a Riddle," and it was released in 1966. However, the Peace Corps “never really used it because the film was perhaps too honest a representation of a (Peace Corps volunteer's) life overseas and the agency couldn’t handle it.”
Having made his first movie, David knew that his friend Nilsson would be an excellent director and contacted him about a group called Cine Manifest that was preparing to produce movies. Nilsson joined the group and David assisted him in producing his first commercial film, "The Country Mouse," a short released in 1968.
David’s next project was planned to be a “lighthearted comedy” about a whimsical Nigerian in the U.S., played by Paul Okpokam. Midway through filming the movie, Okpokam was arrested “for participating in a student demonstration, and deported back to Nigeria. Being resourceful, David finished the film “by documenting what he felt was an unjust action of the State Department.” The movie was released as "Bushman" in 1971, and it was awarded “the best first feature at the Chicago International Film Festival."
In 1978, Nilsson, along with John Hanson, from McClusky, N.D., decided to make a movie about the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, called "Northern Lights." Ozzie Ahlers, along with David, composed the music, and this duo, along with two other musicians, played the music on the soundtrack.
In 1984 and in 1987, Nilsson convinced David to act in two of his movies, and from 1988 to 1995, David became a character actor in a host of major television motion pictures. In 1992, he wrote and produced his last film, "Tuscarora," which was released in 1992.
David Schickele died on Oct. 31, 1999, after a four-year bout with cancer.
David may be gone, but he certainly isn’t forgotten. In the motion picture industry alone, he wrote, directed, produced and acted in many films and also composed music and played the violin for others. He composed and recorded “about 90 songs from 1972 to 1998, which were organized into five volumes under the label Waldsongs."
Rob Nilsson dedicated three movies in David’s honor, and in 2006, he cast Nighttrain Schickele, David’s son, in his first movie. Later this year, Nilsson will release the movie "Arid Cut" that has Nighttrain in the lead role.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.