Final Goodman show marks new era on the Iron Range

This year, the Goodman Auditorium in Virginia, Minnesota, will become a memory. A new era arises.

The merger of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert districts produced Rock Ridge High School and its modern state-of-the-art auditorium. The new school replaces a lot of storied architecture in these towns, including one of the classic high school theaters built on the Mesabi Iron Range a century ago.

Built in 1917 and later named for Dr. Charles and Esther Goodman, the Goodman Auditorium represents an important part of Virginia’s past. Charles Goodman was one of the town’s first doctors, who volunteered for service in World War I only to be sent home to coordinate the response to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Esther was an accomplished musician and humanitarian. Together, they contributed much of their time and money to serving the poor and building the community arts scene.

Though the auditorium hosted countless professional and educational performances over the decades, it had begun to show its age more recently. These kinds of theaters represented the best of the best in their day, but were built for a time before electric amplification. Maintaining the ornate features of these halls requires millions of dollars that some schools and communities were unable or unwilling to spend. In Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert, voters opted to build a consolidated high school with a new auditorium.

“These buildings were built for certain purposes that no longer exist,” said Betsy Olivanti, leader of a community development group called Revive Virginia. “We wondered, how then do we say goodbye with appropriate reverence before moving into the new performing arts space?”

Olivanti, her son, local theater director Dominick Olivanti, and Rock Ridge music instructor Sheila Wilcox organized a special “A Farewell to Goodman Auditorium” program at 7 p.m. on May 20. Grant funding helped turn the event into much more than a funeral.

The Goodman farewell performance will feature the world premiere of an original symphony about the Iron Range by the composer, Dr. René Clausen. The Mesabi Symphony Orchestra and Rock Ridge High School Orchestra will perform the work, entitled “The Sleeping Giant.” Regional choirs, including Virginia High School student and alumni vocalists, will provide the chorus. 

Four movements comprise the piece. The first, “The Land Awakens” evokes the movement of glaciers that created the region’s lakes, swamps and iron deposits. Next, “The Settling Years,” symbolizes the humans who lived on the Iron Range, reprising musical phrases from many different folk traditions. “The Mines” comes next, conjures the industrial sounds of iron mining. The symphony concludes with the fourth movement, “Forging A New Way Forward.”

Dominick Olivanti said they asked Dr. Clausen to create “The Sleeping Giant” to commemorate the event beyond the life of the building itself.

“It’s something that will stand the test of time,” he said. “It’s written down and it will go into the record of music that can be performed again.

He believes it’s a fitting tribute to the Range.

“It’s us,” he continued. “It’s all the people who live work and play here. We deserve this. Hundreds of thousands of people who have lived here before mining was even a thing. How many people have lived and benefited from the resources this region provides? This is to commemorate and honor the people who made this region what it is today.”

Past, present and future will share the stage this month. The Rock Ridge auditorium will be officially inaugurated in a grand opening ceremony at 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 11. The new high school is located at 1403 Progress Parkway, just north of Eveleth off of Highway 53.

Nine days later, on Saturday, May 20, the Farewell to the Goodman Auditorium Show happens at Virginia High School. Tickets cost $20 and may be purchased through the Mesabi Symphony Orchestra at their website,

Any stage veteran knows that the curtain that closes a show is the same one that opens the next show. The future of the Iron Range will look different than its past, but the show must go on.

“Until we start controlling the narrative about moving forward everyone will stay mired in the past and what used to be,” said Betsy Olivanti. “My focus has always been about honoring our past but moving forward. We have to imagine our region, our schools, our culture moving forward.”

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, May 6, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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