Counting our stars

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2011 - 7:15 PM

Call it grade inflation: Minnesotans will go to great lengths to claim the famous as one of our own -- whether they deserve it or not.

Actress Winona Ryder

Photo: Peter Kramer, Associated Press - Ap

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Minnesotans are not known for being clingy -- with one notable exception. We absolutely, positively cast our Upper Midwest reserve to the wind when it comes to claiming celebrities as our own.

Born in Minnesota? You're one of us forever, Vince Vaughn -- the latest inductee into the Minnesota Walk of Fame, even though he spent only a titch of time here as an infant.

Married a local lass or lad? Welcome to the clan, Tiny Tim and Dear Abby (Pauline Phillips/Abigail Van Buren).

Spent a few years studying or working here? You're Minnesotans through and through, Amy Adams and Billy Graham.

The joke used to be that we would glom onto any semi-famous person who had a layover at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as "Minnesota's own." Blessedly, Larry Craig -- the former Idaho senator who was charged with lewd conduct in a restroom at the airport in 2007 -- disavowed us of that notion, but a celebrity's Minnesota tenure needn't last much longer than that.

"When we found out that the Gianni Versace killer was here for, like, 10 minutes, people got really excited," said comedian Lizz Winstead, a St. Paul native. "This was a mass murderer. What's this all about?"

Hey, at least Andrew Cunanan was here longer than the James-Younger Gang, whose misbegotten visit to Northfield in 1876 is a source of everlasting pride to many Minnesotans.

Most of the luminaries whom we embrace are not criminals, of course. Some of them have become politicians, including a pro wrestler/actor who became governor (Jesse Ventura) and an erstwhile comedian turned U.S. senator (Al Franken).

Indeed, thanks in part to the indiscriminate nature of our grasping and clasping, the Minnesota connection cuts a swath wider than Lake Superior. From wiseacre comedians (Louie Anderson, Mitch Hedberg) to serious newsmen (Harry Reasoner, Eric Sevareid), from preening wrestlers (Ric Flair, the Gagne gang) to Supreme Court justices (Pierce Butler, Warren Burger), we have countless notables in our warm, slightly weird embrace.

Maybe, for once, we were ahead of the curve, a celebrity-crazed culture well before that became the norm throughout the land.

Ginormous group hug

Some of the famous people whom Minnesotans claim as their own have varying views of our rock-ribbed grip on them and other celebs.

"I think it's a midsized-state thing," said former CNN and ABC newsman Aaron Brown, a Hopkins native. "I don't think New Yorkers would do that. California people could care less. I do think people here in Arizona [where he now teaches] would do that. It's kind of an insecurity of who we are and, 'See, we really are important because Judy Garland lived here.'"

Comic Anderson agreed.

"We get tired of playing second fiddle to these cities we can hold our own with," said Anderson, a Minneapolis native now living in Las Vegas. "I think it's the nature of Minnesotans to want to say something good about where they're from."

Winstead, the "Daily Show" creator who lives in New York, called it "some perverted form of state-ism where people forget how wonderful the Boundary Waters and all these lakes are. This is not a Minnesota thing as much as a weird American fascination with celebrity."

Novelist Charles Baxter, who spent 30 years in Michigan before moving back to his native Twin Cities, calls it "a village mentality."

"People in a particular locale imagine that there's something distinct about them that they're proud of, and so they're happy to perceive those qualities in others," he said. "I think it's fairly strong everywhere, though maybe more prevalent if you're geographically more isolated."

Or might it just be that this particular part of Flyover Land truly is a hotbed of creativity? Joel Hodgson, who spawned the cult favorite "Mystery Science Theater 3000" while living in the Twin Cities, certainly believes so.

"It's extraordinary for a city of that size to produce that much talent," said Hodgson, now based in Los Angeles. "I remember not believing that Prince was from Minnesota, with the whole dance music thing with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That was unbelievable, that this urban black music came from there."

Fleeting or formative?

Many in the fated-to-be-famous field departed at a young age because their families decided to move. Others, especially those seeking a career in music or movies, had little choice but to migrate to the coasts at a certain age.

And although few of them have lived their entire lives here -- even the quintessential Minnesotan, Garrison Keillor, fled for a bit -- many did spend their formative years as denizens of our fair state. Quite often, they took more than a little of their homeland with them.

"Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz bolted St. Paul for California in his 20s but to the end retained "that Midwestern reserve," said his widow, Jean Schulz.

"The things that he talked about were all very 1920s, '30s Midwestern things, making a pond in the back yard, the school play-lot," she said. "And he wasn't searching; he wasn't always restless. People in California are often restless. He had a close-to-home-and-hearth thing from where he grew up."

Even Bob Dylan, who skedaddled East at 20, has acknowledged ties to his Iron Range homeland.

"There is a lot of Indian spirit," he said in a 1966 interview. "The earth there is unusual, filled with ore. So there is something happening that is hard to define. There is a magnetic attraction there. Maybe thousands and thousands of years ago, some planet bumped into the land there.

"There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest. Very subtle, very strong, and that is where I grew up."

But in many cases, our ardor is unrequited. Persistent interview requests to actors Vaughn and Winona Ryder -- who was named after the Minnesota town where she was born -- were summarily rejected, even though both actually have new movies to promote.

Well, take this:

"The weird clawing of Vince Vaughn, I don't get," Winstead said. "These people didn't make their mark here. Instead of a Pillsbury who really built something here, we reward people who left, even if they just passed through and used the bathroom at the Greyhound station."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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    • Henry Fonda, actor, attended the University of Minnesota.

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    • Robert Mondavi, winemaker, born in Virginia.

    • Jane Russell, actress and sex symbol, born in Bemidji.

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