August 26: the sublime and the absurd, with corncobs
2012/08/26 § 3 Comments
At the end of this month in 1892 the original Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota was open for business; every end-of-August in recent decades has been a significant time for its annual redecoration.
The very first Corn Palace, a little wooden castle, was constructed to celebrate agriculture in the wee, twelve-year-old town of 3,000 souls. As the central cultural icon in Mitchell, it was given even greater attention when the hamlet tried to replace Pierre as the state capital and thought an improved Corn Palace would cinch the deal (it didn’t). But by then the festival had really taken off. In 1919 when a bigger Palace was required to accommodate increasing crowds organizers hired the fabulous Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp, specially noteworthy for their Jazz Age theatres (here’s one of their lobbies–that’s a LOBBY, mind you), to design the new palais de maïs. The imaginative pair did not disappoint, serving up a boisterous domed design so busy that it would make St. Basil’s blush. Still, it did not quench the taste for the exotic among Mitchellers (Mitchellites?), who got a new one that was all bristly with minarets and onion domes, but even that wasn’t enough: it needed decoration.
Beginning in August, each year the exterior of the Palace is redecorated with the eponymous grain (recently to the tune of $130K). Upwards of thirteen different colors of corn are used in thematic murals. It’s not individual kernels glued up like tesserae; no, it’s the whole cob they stick up there. In good Byzantine fashion, the murals are designed by a single artist and fabricated by a corps of workers; clearly this is a coveted job: except for a six-year stretch, only three people have held the position in the time since 1948.
The significance of the changing mural themes reveals not only an interesting historical narrative but surely a fascinating editorial direction. In the early decades the themes tended toward the fantastic nature of the Palace itself: Indian designs, Egyptian and Oriental motifs prevail. In 1916 the murals made an unusually serious statement with their “Military-Patriotic” theme (featuring cannons); in 1917 they were the same (except ambulances replaced the cannons). Rather than portraying soup kitchens and brokers falling out of skyscraper windows, in 1929 the murals celebrated Mitchell’s 50th anniversary. A series of images through the 1940s reveal a certain Palace intrigue: a “humorous” take on the New Deal in 1935; “America First” in 1940, “Allied Victory” in both 1942 and 1943, generic “War Theme” in 1944 and 1945. In the ’60s the Palace took a Janus view with several nostalgic and historic themes punctuated by 1969’s “Space Age.” (How great must it have been to see Soyuz and Apollo articulated in the world’s biggest craft project?) Sadly, the recent decades have been neither so inspiring nor exciting, although the Muse would like to know what “Millennium Corn” (for 2000 and 2001) was all about.
Parallel to the themes, the entertainments within tell a certain story about the character of the Corn Palace. In early years, John Philip Sousa’s Band delighted the crowds; in the ’40s-’60s it was Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Welk (four times!), Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Patti Page, Andy Williams. By the ’90s the organizers had decided to go as country as you would expect (Oakridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Charlie Daniels Band, Trisha Yearwood), but someone else must have taken the helm as evidenced in the presence of the Village People in 1997 and Britney Spears and Backstreet Boyz tribute acts in 2000.
To say this is South Dakota’s answer to the Ise Grand Shrine might be an exaggeration, but this thing just begs for such hyperbole. Truly it is an accomplishment for something this campy to put one in mind of a famed Shinto temple, as well as the fifth-century splendors of Ravenna and St. Basil’s domes, not to mention, to turn the head of a Muse.
Image: the Corn Palace in 1919, designed by Rapp & Rapp (from this source)