Emter Family Dinner Theater

"The Best Thing That has Happened to Jamestown"

Snelgrove, Erin. "Emter Family Dinner Theater." Forum, 2 July 2000.

The lights go off. People stop talking and a momentary silence reverberates throughout the room. Slowly, a soft glow begins to dawn over the stage and six grinning performers are revealed, accordions cradled against their bodies. After a brief pause, the first note sounds. The waiting is over and the music begins.

The Emter family is accustomed to making an entrance. Roger and Renae, along with their children, Adam, 19, Angelina, 17, Alida, 16, and Abigail, 14, have entertained audiences in 30 American states, as well as Mexico and Canada, for the past five years.

They’ve played on two cruises and competed in national accordion tournaments. They also performed in Washington’s Kennedy Center and for Garrison Keillor’s public radio program “The Prairie Home Companion.”

But what is new for them is entertaining others in their own place – the Emter Family Dinner Theater in Jamestown.

They built and designed the warehouse-style theater with the big yellow awning and opened their doors in May. They perform six night a week (the theater is dark on Sunday). Plans for fall and winter are weekend performances only.

The showroom has rows of cafeteria tables set end to end, walls decorated with trophies and newspaper clippings and a small stage.

At 6 p.m., the Emter family band becomes the Emter family servers, sliding plates of steak, new potatoes and steamed vegetables in front of their guests (most of them age 50-plus). They later distribute paper cups filled with orange sherbet. The meal, prepared by two hired cooks, is standard for all; there are no substitutions. Smoking and alcohol consumption are prohibited.

As the meal winds down, the Emters wind up on stage and bring out their instruments – button accordions, keyboard, violin and saxophone. For about 90 minutes, they sing and play polkas, gospel songs and patriotic tunes such as “In the Sweet By and By” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”

Roger says the decision to open the facility was a family affair. Because Adam, Angelina and Alida are all enrolled at Jamestown College this fall, the time to stay in one place had arrived.

“With three of our kids preparing to go to college, we thought is was time to settle down,” Roger says. “That way, we could continue performing as a family.”

Ten years ago, when he first learned to play the accordion, Roger didn’t believe his music would turn into a full-time profession. He and his family live in Oregon and Washington, where he owned his own engineering business. Only after his children expressed an interest in playing the instrument did Roger think of starting a music career.

“When Adam was around 8 or 9, he decided to give the accordion a shot,” Roger says. “So we played our instruments while my wife played to keyboard. Later, the girls started played the accordion too, and before I knew it, we had an amateur band.”

The Emters played at a church and social functions for a few years, but in 1995 they moved to North Dakota, where Roger and Renae were raised. Roger sold his business a year later and the family began touring.

Because they spent a lot of time on the road, the kids were home schooled. Adam said he didn’t mind because is has allowed his to travel and study at a flexible pace.

“I don’t think any of us kids expected this (accordion playing) to turn professional, but we’re happy with it,” Adam says. “It’s definitely an unusual lifestyle.”

Angelina has branched out from performing to teaching accordion lessons to a few Jamestown residents.

Since its opening, the dinner theater has been well received by the community. Mildred Nies of Wishek, N.D., is a fan. She has known the family for years and has watched their career develop.

“The family is a group of first-class entertainers,” Nies says. “I really like their music and I’m glad their dinner theater doesn’t permit smoking.”

Jim Rexin of Jamestown has visited the theater twice since its grand opening and he thinks its “the best thing that has ever happened to Jamestown. It’s a real asset for our community.”

Roger says entertaining audiences is rewarding. It also brings the family closer together.

“We’re on a high when we’re up on stage, seeing the crowd and knowing their loving every minute of it,” Roger says.

“I hope our dinner theater continues to succeed. Maybe one day we can even incorporate our future grandchildren into the act.”

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

From left to right: Abigail, Roger, Renae, Alida, Adam, and Angelina Emter exhibit their musical prowess before guests in their dinner theater.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller