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Finding Minnesota: Grumpy Old Men Festival

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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WABASHA, Minn. (WCCO) — You can go anywhere in this state and find examples of Minnesota Nice, but movie audiences have also had a look at our grumpier side.

The film Grumpy Old Men debuted in theaters in 1993, featuring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as two long-time rivals and neighbors in Wabasha, Minn. Twenty years later, the real Wabasha still embraces the movie and its own crabby characters.

This is the time of year when nearly anyone can start to get a little bit surly. The icy chill and the biting winds do take their toll. But that’s OK around Wabasha, because grumpiness is part of what made the city famous.

“Yeah, we have several grumpy old men here in our congregation,” said Rev. Jim Clausen, pastor of Wabasha’s United Church of Christ, finding several examples on the church’s photo board. “We’ve got Floyd and we’ve got Roger and we’ve got Tom.”

In fact, one day a year, the cantankerous and the crotchety are all honored in Wabasha with their own day of “flannel, fishing and fun.” It’s the annual Grumpy Old Men Festival, now in its 20th year.

“It just creates all this pride and enthusiasm,” said Sharon Kennebeck, who has won the Ann-Margret lookalike contest for the past eight or nine years.

“Sharon and I enter it every year,” said Linda Hough, who has won the Sophia Loren lookalike title for the past several years. “There are plenty of grumpy men in Wabasha but we love them all.”

The idea is to get those grumpy old men smiling again before the day is over.

Joan Aitken’s annual contribution is her chocolate bundt cake and Busy Day Hot Dish.

“We have the tater tots, we have hamburger, we have mixed vegetables,” she said while filling up plates for visitors.

It’s been this way since 1993 when the first Grumpy Old Men movie came out. It doesn’t matter that virtually none of the movie was shot in Wabasha. The city is quite proud of the film.

“Well, these guys are lovable characters,” said Clausen, “and unlike the movie Fargo, they aren’t involved in any dastardly crimes.”

For the record, most of the exterior scenes were shot in St. Paul, Faribault, Rockford and Red Wing, while the scenes inside the characters’ homes were filmed at Paisley Park in Chanhassen. The Minnesota Film and TV Board donated a few props to the Wabasha-Kellogg Chamber, such as a fireplace, chairs and replicas of the fishing rod used by Matthau’s character.

“This is an autographed photo from Jack Lemmon,” said Chelsea Lockrem, event coordinator for the Chamber and CVB, “just saying ‘To all my friends in Wabasha, my very best wishes always.’ We also have both scripts, from the first and second movie.”

The 20th annual Grumpy Old Men Festival is Saturday, Feb. 23, starting with a Grumpy Breakfast at the American Legion. There’s also a chili cook-off, ice fishing contest and minnow races, among other events.

The Grumpy Plunge into the Mississippi River raises money for the Wabasha Rotary and Great River Homes, which provides services for the developmentally disabled.

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