SPRING GROVE, Minn. – Ed Asner already has a special place in Minnesotans’ hearts, thanks to his role as cantankerous news director Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Now he’ll also be remembered by this picturesque town in the southeastern corner of the state as the visitor who helped bring Main Street back to life.

The 90-year-old Emmy winner served as honorary guest for the inaugural edition of the Spring Grove International Film Festival, which went forward this past weekend despite the pandemic.

For four nights, Asner fulfilled his duties, and then some, promoting his new mockumentary “Senior Entourage,” which co-stars Minnesota native Marion Ross and Helen Reddy; serenading guests with a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” at a nearby saloon; participating in a reading of a play by festival organizer Katie O’Regan; and leading a parade festooned with balloons, a nod to his role in the 2009 animated Pixar hit “Up.”

“I wasn’t doing anything else. It’s not like anyone is offering me any acting roles,” Asner said Sunday morning, sitting pantless in his hotel room after polishing his daily dose of 15 pills. “You kind of go stir crazy after a while, you know what I mean?”

Asner’s decision to fly halfway across the country persuaded other folks from Los Angeles to also keep their commitment, including “Entourage” executive producer Dean Jamali who so enjoyed the rolling landscape and fresh air that he extended his Friday morning run an extra 4 miles.

“Back in L.A., there’s a lot of pressure and tension,” said “Entourage” director Brian Connors, who donned overalls to participate in the Sunday reading, performed in a barn on the edge of town.

Connors, who had never before visited the Gopher State, relished the chance to pull over his rental car to purchase an apple from a roadside stand. “It’s different here. It’s relaxing. People are friendly.”

Not that O’Regan and her team didn’t have to make adjustments. The local movie theater, which opened for the first time since March, blocked off every other row to maintain social distancing. Plans to have the local high school band play the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme were scrapped. Participants were encouraged to enjoy the festival’s slate of 50 films virtually from the safety of their homes.

Most screenings drew less than a dozen in-person fans, and wine-and-cheese gatherings were sparsely attended. But some filmmakers braved the conditions, if only to be able to chat about their craft without having to bond on Zoom.

M.r. Fitzgerald, whose film “The Wolf” was shown several times, said some of her friends canceled plans to join her two days before opening night. She herself was prepared to turn around and head back to the family farm in Hancock, Minn., if she didn’t feel safe.

But the 31-year-old was relieved to see other attendees were donning masks and swapping elbow bumps for handshakes.

“It has a family reunion feel to it,” she said while digging into an egg bake breakfast with her mom at a B&B in nearby Caledonia. “Then you remember that you’ve never met these people in your entire life.”

If any place was going to throw a party while much of the country remains in lockdown, it might as well be Spring Grove.

Houston County, home of this town of 1,700 people, has reported only 92 coronavirus cases and no deaths. It’s also got an artistic streak, which it displays with live musicals every summer and an active community theater.

“It’s nice to have the lights back on and smell the popcorn,” said Aimee Murphy, owner of the Spring Grove Cinema, which usually hosts foreign films once a month.

Murphy and other townsfolk give the lion’s share of the credit for the party to O’Regan, who moved back to the Midwest a few years ago after a decade in New York City. In her role as the director of development at Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, she took on everything from curating the schedule to shooing Asner to bed Saturday night so he’d get some rest.

Canceling was never a consideration.

“When things are at their worst, that’s when you need to celebrate,” she said, popping M&Ms in the middle of Saturday afternoon, her first meal of the day. “People need some cheer.”

On Sunday morning, she could barely keep herself from twirling across a Caledonia coffee shop. “Isn’t this the perfect day for a parade?” she said, raising her arms in the air. “Thank you, God.”

In the hotel next door, Asner wasn’t quite as spirited.

“Why would I like a parade?” he groused as his daughter prepared his wardrobe. “You have to force a smile on your face all the time.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that the grumpiness is part of his shtick. In a matter of minutes, he was sharing tales from his “MTM” days, gushing about his “Elf” co-star Will Ferrell and ripping into Donald Trump, oblivious to the yard signs across the region showing support of the president.

He fully committed to his role as the parade’s MVP, the first time he can remember taking on those duties since he and his wife led ceremonies at the St. Paul Winter Carnival during the second season of his legendary sitcom.

While perched in the back of a truck driven by O’Regan’s dad — he had new tires installed just for the occasion — he bellowed “hiyas” to spectators who, when they weren’t swatting away bees and sipping specially commissioned Ed Asner Soda, leapt out of their lawn chairs to snap countless pictures.

“I’ve got the key to the city!” he roared over the music while O’Regan and friends, dressed as “Up” characters, surrounded him. “You’re all under arrest.”

 

@nealjustin