In 1966, Moorhead college students staged a huge protest over 'The Sound of Music,' but why?

In 1966, a group of Moorhead State College students made national news when they picketed the smash hit movie released 56 years ago this month.

A group of Moorhead State College Students picketed the Moorhead Theatre demanding the theater bring in a different film after showing "The Sound of Music" for 49 straight weeks. John Tandberg is on the right side of the photo, wearing shorts with his back to the camera, Wayne McFarland is in the center with the dark jacket and B.A. Schoen is standing on the soapbox. Notice the man sitting on the other man's shoulders. He is holding a tomato to throw. Sept. 22, 1966. Photo courtesy: MSUM Archives

Tracy Briggs narrates this story:

MOORHEAD — The 1960s was a decade defined by student protests — the Vietnam war, civil rights, and in the case of some college students in Moorhead, Minnesota, “The Sound of Music".

You read that right: Moorhead State College students protested the sweet as streusel film about a nun nannying for a widower’s seven children.


Why in the world would a group of rabble rousers protest one of America’s most beloved movies? Were they opposed to whiskers on kittens, warm, woolen mittens, making dresses out of drapes or turning lonely goat herders into puppets? None of the above.

"The Sound of Music," often called "America's 1st Blockbuster" was released to major markets 56 years ago this month. It debuted in Fargo-Moorhead at the Moorhead Theatre in October of 1965 and would run straight for 53 straight weeks. Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox publicity still

“I’ve seen the picture twice. It’s a good picture,” said Moorhead State College student and Moorhead native Wayne McFarland in a 1966 interview with The Forum. “But some of us would like to see something new.”

It turns out on the day of the protest, Sept, 22, 1966, “The Sound of Music” had been playing at Moorhead’s one and only theater for 49 straight weeks — three weeks short of one year. Since the theater just had the one screen, it was literally the only show in town.

In the words of the young protesters from five decades ago: “Enough is enough!”

So McFarland and the others took the bull by the horns and decided to stage a protest to get their message out that after nearly a year with the same movie playing, it was time for a change.

The Forum caught up with McFarland recently, nearly 55 years after the protest that made national news. The State Historical Society also dug up some old WDAY news footage from the day. It has no audio, but McFarland was able to tell us what happened.


As much simmering tension as Rolf and Liesl’s relationship

In 1966, Moorhead was a quiet college town with students attending both Concordia College and Moorhead State College (now Minnesota State University Moorhead). Garrison Keillor gave a nod to the town with the name of his show “A Prairie Home Companion,” named after the Prairie Home cemetery positioned halfway between the two schools. Legend has it, to buck the strict visitation policies at the schools, when a Dragon and a Cobber wanted to see each other, they would meet their “Prairie Home Companion” in the cemetery after hours.

But you can’t just socialize in a cemetery, right? If you had a car, you could take your date anywhere. But if walking was the only thing you could do, it was best to find a campus activity, grab a treat at the Moorhead Dairy Queen or maybe a pint of beer at the Blackhawk Lounge.

And of course, you could always check out a movie right down the street at the Moorhead Theater.

But herein lies the problem, at least in 1966.

In October, 1965, the theater was given the rights to show “The Sound of Music,” but after nearly a year, the students were tiring of it. They tried to make the best of the stale movie situation.


“John Tandberg and I went one time. We were just bored," McFarland said. "And he brought a kazoo. He started playing the kazoo during the music. It got us thrown out of the theater.”

With tensions mounting, McFarland recalls what happened next.

“On a lark one day, I hopped up on a table in the cafeteria and gave a speech about ‘Let's go down and protest this. It's un-American.’” McFarland said.

Another student, Robert or "B.A." Schoen( a “real character”, according to McFarland and Tandberg) jumped right in and agreed to be a spokesperson for the group, which they decided to call POOIE — People’s Organization of Intelligent Educatees.

As clever and determined as nuns stealing spark plugs

So that Thursday afternoon, between 150 and 200 MSC students marched the 1 mile from campus to the theater. They carried signs which read:

  • Turn off the Sound
  • Let Julie retire gracefully
  • Don’t get caught in the Von Trapp


One of the organizers, student B.A. Schoen, shouted out "We're being deprived of cowboy shows and where are the gangsters in Moorhead," in reaction to "The Sound of Music" monopolizing the only theater in town. Schoen and the other organizers said the protest was "just for fun." Photo courtesy: Red River Scene

Schoen wore a suit and stood on a soapbox in front of the theater encouraging the crowd to shout slogans including:

  • Down with the Sound!
  • 2-4-6-8, we don’t want to stagnate!
  • Pooey on Julie!

Tandberg says Schoen made some unusual arguments.

“He said the movie was a communist plot,” Tandberg said with a chuckle. “Mom is the center of American culture, and who could measure up compared to Julie Andrews?”

Schoen egged the crowd on, demanding new movies with cowboys and gangsters.

“This is a non-violent demonstration, demanding we bring violence back to town!” Schoen said with tongue firmly planted in cheek.


“I thought it was great fun, you know,” McFarland recalls.

But he started to get concerned when he remembers the theater manager came out and accused them of being hippies who needed to get jobs and haircuts. McFarland says some in the crowd brought rotten tomatoes to throw. He knew they needed to deescalate the situation, so they started walking through the small crowd telling them to remember this was all in fun.

Student Wayne McFarland remembers Moorhead Theater manager Palmer Johnson told the crowd if they watched "The Sound of Music," they probably didn't walk away disappointed and as long as it was making money it would keep plyaing. He seemed to have some fun with the protest and said, he "couldn't buy publicity like this." Photo courtesy: Red River Scene

“I thought, if this turns into a riot, I’m the guy who gave the speech,” McFarland said. “So we told everybody to calm down. “‘Let's go to the Blackhawk. The beer is cold. Come on!’”

McFarland said the protest didn’t last more than an hour, and theater manager Palmer Johnson’s “get a job” comments might have also been in jest. Stories from The Forum and the Red River Scene newspaper both say he commented that “I couldn’t buy better publicity.”

Was the protest as successful as the Von Trapps climbing over that mountain?

You might say the protest was a good example of "Minnesota nice." According to The Forum, McFarland even encouraged the crowd to thank Johnson for letting them demonstrate in front of the theater before they marched away that day. However, it did make national news with stories in “Life” magazine and “The New York Times.” But did it work to put an end to the Von Trapp’s domination of Moorhead entertainment?

Maybe, but probably not. The show ran another four weeks, closing after 53 weeks in town.


Johnson even joked that the protesters should have waited to hold the protest a few weeks later.

“They could have come here to celebrate our year anniversary. I would have even passed out cake,” Johnson told The Forum.

SOM -Moorhead Theater goes down.jpg
The Moorhead Theater and the Blackhawk Lounge were among those businesses torn down due to urban renewal in 1973. The Moorhead Center Mall, particuarly The Thai Orchid is close to where the theatre once stood. Photo courtesy: Clay County Archives

What happened to the main characters?

What happened next? “The Sound of Music” left town, and the Moorhead Theater once again showed movies with gangsters and cowboys until the theater, the Blackhawk Lounge and other businesses on the block were torn down in March of 1973 during urban renewal. The Thai Orchid in the Moorhead Center Mall is probably closest to where the theater once stood, according to Clay county archivist Mark Peihl.

As for the main instigators of the wild rebellion, they’ve all gone on to become respectable, successful members of society.

Tandberg was the longtime registrar of his alma mater — Minnesota State University Moorhead, B.A. Schoen went back home to New York, where he retired from British Petroleum and won multiple awards for his work with educational institutions and school boards, and Wayne McFarland is in Colorado Springs where he owns a software company and is promoting a book about his many adventures, “Tales from the Day.”

article6912968.ece What do you think of "The Sound of Music?" What do you think of "The Sound of Music?" It's one of my all-time favorites! I watch it as much as I can. It's pretty good. But I don't make an extra effort to see it. I'm not a fan. Can we protest it again?

Other stories by Tracy Briggs:

60 years ago this month the U.S. lost its entire National Figure Skating Team and a Fargo skater lost his partner

Fargo-Moorhead was once home to the largest indoor ice arena in the nation serving one of the oldest figure skating clubs

Stranded in his car for 3 days in 50 below zero weather, a 16-year-old North Dakotan faced multiple amputations. Where is Bennett Stebleton now?

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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