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20 years of 'you betcha': 'Fargo's' effect on Fargo

FARGO - It was March 8, 1996, when the Coen brothers' powerful dark comedy "Fargo" first hit theaters and, in the 20 years since, the city that lent the film its name has proven just how powerful it is.Highly regarded by critics and fans since it...


FARGO - It was March 8, 1996, when the Coen brothers' powerful dark comedy "Fargo" first hit theaters and, in the 20 years since, the city that lent the film its name has proven just how powerful it is.

Highly regarded by critics and fans since its release, "Fargo" garnered seven Academy Award nominations and catapulted woodchippers and ice scrapers into the national consciousness.

Interactive: Would ‘Brainerd’ have been as memorable as ‘Fargo?’

We maybe didn't realize it at the time, but Fargo, the city, has reaped the benefits of having its name on a lot of people's lips.

'A heckuva party'


Some locals took issue with the movie's exaggerated accents and a depiction of the Upper Midwest that didn't fit with reality.

Others, however, saw an opportunity to make the most of the spotlight.

Margie Bailly, who was development director for the Fargo Theatre when the film was released and would later serve as the theater's executive director, was one of them.

"(That movie) has literally woven its way through my entire career, and in a wonderful way," Bailly says. She was part of a push to premiere the film at the theater and throw a party to "hype up the cultural hyperbole the film had created."

That included hotdish and overalls, Bailly says, and having Fargo native Kristin Rudrud, who had a role in "Fargo," as a guest of honor.

Securing the premiere took a little elbow grease, she adds, but the theater ended up hosting the regional premiere on March 21, 1996.

Tickets for the premiere went quickly. "I swear there was fisticuffs," Bailly says. "It was amazing."

"Even for the people who didn't like the movie, it was a heckuva party," she adds.


The Associated Press picked up on how Fargo did "Fargo" and soon Bailly was on the phone with morning talk shows across the country.

When a flood hit the Red River Valley the following spring, many of those same media outlets were calling Bailly to check in because, she says, she was the only person in Fargo they knew.

Fargo? You betcha

This spark of interest began to kindle just as the city of Fargo was putting together a plan to develop its downtown core and, in 1999, passed a series of Renaissance Zone incentives designed to kickstart new development. In March 2004, the Los Angeles Times caught note of this phenomenon and ran a story titled "Fargo Hip? You Betcha."

Bailly says this attention was coming whether the movie came out or not. But the film certainly helped and "made it a lot more fun."

"Fargo became this mystical place," she says. "That curiosity brought people here."

Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, also thinks Fargo was on its own path. He points to the Renaissance Zone, the opening of the Hotel Donaldson and the renovation of the Northern School Supply building into a facility for North Dakota State University by developer Doug Burgum as signals of Fargo's turnaround.


None of that had to do with "Fargo," Johnson says, but he says the movie gave Fargo "a jump start."

"The notoriety of having that movie made it a little bit easier," Johnson says, and national recognition came "a little bit faster."

Johnson definitely sees the difference when he travels and tells people he lives in Fargo. Their first response, of course, usually has to do with the movie. For someone doing Johnson's job-selling the Fargo area as a destination-that's the opening he needs.

"You can't buy that kind of publicity or that kind of branding," he says, comparing the film to ESPN's GameDay broadcasts in terms of exposure. "There's no dollar figure you can put on that."

'This is a true story'

Twenty years on from its release, Fargo continues to bustle, with low unemployment, a diversified economy and a regular slot on livability lists. "Fargo" has morphed into a successful FX TV series that shows no sign of stopping after two critically acclaimed seasons.

"Fargo Rock City" author and former Forum reporter Chuck Klosterman, who wrote a (mostly positive) review of "Fargo" for The Forum in 1996, says the TV show shows the movie's lasting cultural legacy.

"I would argue that it's a better product than the film," he says, "and the second season was about as good as television gets."

Klosterman says that he, like many, initially found the depiction of Fargo "irritating," but since living and working in Ohio and New York, he finds it a bit more accurate.

He says the movie is part of a narrow window of understanding that the rest of the world has of Fargo and the region. There's the oil boom, the cold, NDSU football and "Fargo."

"This is the lens through which people understand a whole region, and on balance it's not that bad," Klosterman says.

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