Kootenai Karacters: remembering the past & looking forward

By Moira Blazi


As almost all locals know, one of the highlights of Libby’s annual Nordicfest celebrations are the Kootenai Karacters wacky and hilarious melodramas. They seem to get better every year, but Melodramas are just part of what the Karacters have given to this community.

According to longtime  member Cynthia Curtiss, the Kootenai Karacters began way back in 1985, when, “the Nordicfest organizers approached Donna Black to do a vaudeville review for Nordicfest,” Curtiss recalled.

Out of that, a fledgling theater troupe formed including original members, Brenda Swanson, Lee Chandler, and Lynn Larson, and, although Curtiss herself was not part of that first show,  a few years later, in 1994, she joined the troupe with the original Production of Dogs Breath Devereaux, directed by Lynn Larsen.

“I didn’t start out as the villainess, she told The Montanan, I was a nurse in that first play,” but she soon found she was a natural for the role of villain, one of the standard characters in any melodrama, along with the hero, the heroine, and usually a sheriff, detective or other do-gooder who is always hot on Curtiss’s trail.

Known for outrageous puns and lively slapstick, the Melodramas became a yearly treat, and Karacter Steve Lethrud loved it. “I started going to the melodramas in the early 90’s,” he said. “It is my kind of humor.”

Lethrud soon got involved, big-time, when then school superintendent Mr. Maki asked him to “help build a theater.” The Kootenai Karacters  had been performing in the middle school gym, and the old bowling ally on Mineral Ave., which has since been torn down “The Little Theater, now the K.W. Maki Theater was just a big storage room. We built a sloping floor with tresses that had to be set at a five degree angle, and got the seats from the Motherlode theater in Butte,” Lethrud said. He soon became the set designer and builder for the group, and almost always joined the fun onstage as well.

Over the years,  many stepped up to fill the director’s chair, recalled Curtiss. “After Donna Black, Jeri Murphy directed some shows and, I  directed a couple, including Café Espresso,for which Shanda Jennings auditioned and got a small part. I had little kids at home at the time, and I didn’t want to take on the directors role.” Luckily,  Jennings did, and the following year, beginning with The Great Ice Cream Scheme in 2004, she remained the director and driving force behind the Karacters until her untimely death in 2013.

“As a director, Shanda was delightful, crazy, encouraging and very assertive,” said Lethrud. Knowing Curtiss’s well known ability to immerse the audience in her character, Jennings told her, ”If the audience was not responding, to just go for it.” Besides producing a melodrama every year, the Karacters, under Jennings direction, created several memorable haunted houses, musicals, and cameo appearances at countless community events, including the yearly Festival of Trees Gala at the Memorial Center. “When Shanda was in charge of the Memorial Center, that place kept busy,” said Lethrud. They produced a hilarious, series of video commercials for local businesses featuring Mr. and Mrs. Libby America, and established the Karacters’ presence as trolls in every Logger Days and Nordicfest parade, a tradition that is still going strong.

During Jennings’ tenure as director, Amy Smart added her acting talents and beautiful high soprano voice to the group with the musical Nunsense Jamboree.

“I remember doing Nunsense Jamboree,” resaid Smart. “Shanda could tap-dance across the stage holding trays in both hands, she was fabulous. Shanda had a vision, and she loved to perform. She was always able to direct us to perform our very best.”

In 2013, the Karacters took a year or so off, but their talent and enthusiasm would not lie dormant for long, so in the summer of 2014, Smart stepped up to direct a reprise of DK Molar for Nordicfest, beginning the most recent string of successful Melodramas: Cornfield of Dreams, Ballad of Gopher Gap, and Granny Smyth (or she was the apple of his pie), performed for Nordicfest 2018.

Smart brings decades of stage experience to the task, beginning with years of participation in Missoula Children’s Theatre productions as a child. In high school, she performed in “serious plays,” under the direction of long-time drama coach Sarah Barrack. In 2010, she landed the part of Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical the Musical, performed at the Memorial Center, directed by Kalispell director, Rebecca Shaffer. The following year, Smart starred in Whitefish Repertory’s production of The King and I, as Lady Thiang, also directed by Shaffer. In addition to her work with the Kootenai Karacters, Smart has been a long-time member of The Treasure Tones and worked with Sheri Hand as assistant director for the Troy school’s productions of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and, this year’s upcoming Check Please.

From the very beginning, the Kootenai Karacters have volunteered all of their talent and time and donated all monetary proceeds to a  scholarship for local performing arts students. Now, they are expanding their vision. “We are morphing our mission,” Smart told The Montanian, “Working with Libby’s band director, Matt Krantz, speech and drama coach, Kim Lee, and choir director, Lorraine Braun, we are creating a booster plan for the arts. We are currently discussing becoming financial support for the things Libby youth are actually doing right now,” she added.

The Kootenai Karacters are going strong, with a full crew of fun-loving, talented individuals including; treasurer Trish Emmert, secretary Sindy Filler, co-VPs Lethrud and Curtiss, and president Smart. Featuring the talents of JoAnn Armstrong, Brianna Fuller, Tami Reatz, Rich Burns, Scott Thompson, Conner James, Saryn Wilkinson, Brian Bell, Rob and Shelly Orr, Jolee Cutsforth, Jane Conkel and Jen Huitron, and many others over the years,  they are currently planning an ambitious production of the beloved musical, The Music Man, pending title approval.

This group is truly a local treasure. For more information on what they are up to call, 293-1028.

Steve Lethrud, Amy Smart, and Cynthia Curtiss Photo courtesy of Moira Blazi, The Montanian.