No hugs here

Phil Olson would never sign his love letters to Minnesota with "hugs and kisses."

That's because those love letters come in a series of plays that began with "Don't Hug Me," moved to "A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol" and now "A Don't Hug Me County Fair," which opens Sept. 16 at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview.

Obviously, there's a theme at work here. And it's been a highly successful theme for Olson, a Minnesota native who now lives in Los Angeles.

"There's  something about regional humor that people love," said Olson.

Each of the "Don't Hug Me" plays takes place in the northern Minnesota town of Bunyan Bay. They involve the same set of characters: Gunner and Clara Johnson, who own a bar and restaurant; their beautiful-but-no-too-bright waitress Bernice, and Bernice's various suitors, as well as other folks who wander in from the cold.


The shows are peppered with songs written by Olson and his brother, Paul, a physician in Edina.

"I loved 'Pump Boys & Dinettes' and I wanted to do a 'Pump Boys & Dinettes' in a world I know, and that's Minnesota," Olson said.

Playwriting is a second career for Olson, who was a businessman in New York when he decided to relocate to the West Coast. That, oddly enough, is where he discovered Bunyan Bay.

"James Joyce once wrote that he could only write about Ireland when he left Ireland," Olson said. "There's something to that. I moved to L.A. to write screen plays. They say write what you know. I just happened to know Minnesota."

Critics and audiences in California fell in love with Olson's Minnesota characters and plays.  "One of them said it's a love letter to Minnesota," Olson recalled.

The characters, although based on people Olson met on family vacations in northern Minnesota, are not Minnesota stereotypes — and that might be the secret of the "Don't Hug Me" success.

"These aren't inside jokes and that's why it works in New Mexico and Texas and Florida and New Jersey," Olson said. "The themes are universal. The characters get into situations you can relate to. People tell me they fall in love with the characters and root for them."

In "A Don't Hug Me County Fair," Bernice enters the fair's annual Miss Walleye Queen contest.


"She sees this as a stepping stone," Olson said. Then Clara, feeling neglected by Gunner, decides to enter as well. At the last minute, they're joined by Gunner's twin-sister, Trigger, "That's when things get ugly," Olson said. Especially since Trigger bears more than a passing resemblance to Gunner.

The beauty pageant includes some unusual competitions, including pontoon wear instead of swim wear.

The cast of the original "Don't Hug Me" has reunited for this show: Bonni Allen, Doug Anderson, Michael Lee, Emily Trempe and Ross Young. Songs include "Pontoon Ladies," "I'm Just a Pretty Forest Ranger" and "My Campfire is Burnin' for You."

And at the end of the show, everyone engages in a group … almost-hug.

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