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‘On bonus time:’ A magical Medora legend

by Cally Peterson

The Burning Hills Singers perform a number for a June 2019 act of the Medora Musical.
Photos by NDAREC/Liza Kessel

“I was supposed to have died twice,” says Bill Sorensen, co-host of the Medora Musical and a Badlands summer staple.

A throat cancer survivor who underwent seven heart bypasses, Sorensen has beaten the medical odds. Doctors – on more than one occasion – have told Sorensen that his life expectancy was less than two years.

“I’m on bonus time,” he says. “Every day is a good day.”

But it seems, on bonus time or not, Sorensen has lived his entire life by that notion.
 

A MAGICAL CAREER
Growing up in Bismarck, “I wanted to be a magician,” Sorensen says of his childhood dreams. And he’s achieved that, performing magic shows as a side gig throughout his life, including on the Burning Hills Amphitheatre stage.

Sorensen has also owned or launched 16 businesses, most of which were “good and fun,” he says. He was a Bismarck city commissioner for over two decades, served three terms as Bismarck mayor and two as a state legislator, and even managed world boxing champion and Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Virgil “Quicksilver” Hill.
 

Bill Sorensen co-hosts the Medora Musical for a final time in 2019.

“I don’t even like boxing,” Sorensen says with a laugh. “Virgil would tell people, ‘Bill has the distinction of being the only manager in boxing who doesn’t like boxing!’”

Hill confirms this with a chuckle, pointing out that Sorensen’s experience in the political arena prepared him for the boxing arena. “(Bill) was suited perfectly for boxing!” he says.

“Bill was instrumental in just about every fight I had in North Dakota,” Hill goes on. “I love (Bill) with all of my heart and my being. Without him, there would not be a Virgil Hill. That is my guy, forever.”

And Sorensen wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it. “There was never a day where I’ve said, ‘Oh, no! I’ve got to go to work,’” he recalls.

“I’ve done some really crazy things” in my career, Sorensen admits. But least crazy of them all, if evidenced by the passion in his voice and misty blue eyes, is his role – his place – in Medora.

“Medora is my happy place,” Sorensen says. “I love Medora.”

Sorensen was introduced to the Medora community in 1976, when he took part in a show that coincided with America’s bicentennial celebration. You could say the romance of Sorensen’s life began then, just as Theodore Roosevelt said of his experience in the North Dakota Badlands nearly 100 years before. Sorensen’s first summer in Medora offered a “change of pace.” He was hooked.

Since then, he’s been involved with the 4-M Revue variety show, the Medora Gospel Brunch and the Magical Medora Christmas tour. Sorensen has also served as co-host of the Medora Musical since 2013, missing the 2016 season to stage 4 throat cancer.

“You’re not taking the vocal cords,” Sorensen insisted to his doctor when the suggestion was made.

This summer, the now cancer-free Sorensen takes his pun-tastic humor, quick wit and marvelously eloquent tongue-twisting diction to the Medora Musical stage a final time, where he’ll split hosting duties with Chet Wollan. It’s the same stage he’s shared many times with Emily Wolter, fondly known in Medora as the “Queen of the West.”

“Bill is an incredible performer,” Wolter says. “He loves to make other people happy.”

“You hear him tell the same joke 10 times, and you laugh every time!” exclaims Ed Schafer, former North Dakota governor and chair of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.
 

HERITAGE, FAMILY AND FAITH
The 69-year-old performer’s passion for Medora and the Badlands is obvious. It rivals that of other notables like the “father of modern Medora,” Harold Schafer, who founded the Gold Seal Company and is Ed Schafer’s late father, and Roosevelt, who famously said he never would have become president if not for his time spent in North Dakota.

What makes Medora special, Sorensen describes, is the heritage and focus on family and faith.

“Medora has always kept that,” he says. “Family traditions and heritage are important.”

“Bill fits the model of Medora, which is family entertainment,” says Schafer, who has known the Sorensen family since his youth. “Bill’s magic and his show and his character – all of that just fits with the culture that we try to develop and keep in Medora. His contribution really has been to solidify that, I think.”

“(Bill) raised his kids out there (in Medora). His whole life has been revolving around that every summer,” Hill says.

But there’s a broader family Sorensen feels a part of – the Medora family.

“In Medora, we always use the pronoun ‘we.’ People have pride that Medora is theirs,” he says.

Over the course of Sorensen’s 5,000-plus lifetime performances, he’s developed a lot of relationships and met many people.

“Every single day (in Medora) is a reunion. I see people that I haven’t seen in forever. I go back a ways,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been very fortunate to have met a lot of people.”

“I mean, the guy’s talking to anyone in the street, anybody that’s walking down, he’s like, ‘Welcome to Medora.’ All the kids that work there, he’s encouraging them and slapping them on the back and laughing with them and telling them jokes,” Schafer says. “It’s just been a perpetuation of that personality, and that culture of Medora, that’s just been magnificent.”
 

The final act of the Medora Musical is a showstopper, complete with fireworks and a lighted Medora display.

‘I’LL STILL BE AROUND’
Sorensen credits his upbringing in North Dakota and “being open to things presented” for much of the opportunities he’s had.

He references the famous words of Roosevelt, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

So, what does Medora look like without Bill Sorensen?

Sorensen pauses for a moment, wearing the emotion on his face like a heavy load.

“Medora is just fine without Bill Sorensen,” he responds. “But Bill Sorensen without Medora, that I’m not sure.”

Fans can still catch Sorensen in many venues across the region for Magical Medora Christmas performances and, in the summer months, at the Medora Gospel Brunch and Medora’s Old Town Hall Theater. Show dates are also set in July and September for the return of “Bill Sorensen and Friends” to the Old Town Hall’s Sorensen Stage, which was named in Sorensen’s honor in 2017.

“I’ll still be around,” he promises.
 

Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at cpeterson@ndarec.com.