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Musical memories: McKenzie family has been a part of Detroit Lakes choirs and musicals for over 25 years

Matt and Nancy McKenzie and their children Isaiah, Caleb, Thomas and Malia have all been a part of the high school choirs and fall musicals at Detroit Lakes High School during Kathy Larson's 34-year tenure with the district, and all six plan to sing as part of her two-day, musical retirement celebration this weekend.

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The McKenzie family, including (from left) Matt, Thomas, Malia, Isaiah, Nancy and Caleb (not pictured) are all scheduled to perform as part of Detroit Lakes High School vocal music instructor Kathy Larson's retirement bash this weekend, Aug. 13-14.
Vicki Gerdes / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — Matt and Nancy McKenzie have music in their blood. The two 1994 Detroit Lakes High School alums have both been singing almost as long as they could talk, and their four children have followed in their musical footsteps.

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Detroit Lakes High School vocal music instructor Kathy Larson, center, with the McKenzie family (minus Thomas, who was unable to attend) at the last DLHS choir concert of 2022.
Contributed / Nancy McKenzie

"I've been singing with my sisters and mom for as long as I can remember," says Nancy McKenzie. "Matt and I started dating while we were in ninth grade choir."

Matt, meanwhile, started taking voice lessons when he was in fifth grade, though he's been singing since he was five years old.

"I was singing with Dee and the Country Boys (a local country band) when I was in kindergarten," he said.

Kathy Larson was their choir director throughout high school, as well as director of the DLHS fall musical and the school's biannual Madrigal Dinners; in their senior year, Matt and Nancy played the roles of king and court jester in the Madrigal Dinner.


"We were both in several musicals where Kathy was the director," Nancy said, adding that being a part of DLHS choirs, fall musicals and madrigal dinners became a tradition for their children as well — right up until Larson's retirement this spring.

"Isaiah (their oldest son) was forced to be in ninth grade choir by his parents," Nancy said jokingly, but he quickly acquired a passion for both music and musical theater, participating in the Laker Singers choral ensemble as well as the DLHS fall musicals "Urinetown," "Aida," "The Little Mermaid" and "Disney's High School Musical." He participated in two DLHS Madrigal Dinners — being cast as the king during his senior year — and went on to sing with his college choir as well.

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The McKenzie family, including Matt, Nancy, twins Thomas and Caleb, Malia and Isaiah, gathered outside Detroit Lakes Middle School's George Simson Auditorium following a 2016 performance of "The Little Mermaid."
Contributed / Nancy McKenzie

"We're a pretty musical family," said Isaiah, adding that he and his siblings have always "fit well" with the musical theater-loving crowd, as have his parents.

"All our children have also sang solos and duets in church (at Community Alliance in Detroit Lakes) since they were 3-5 years old," Nancy added.

Twins Caleb and Thomas were cast in the Larson-led, DLHS summer musical "All Shook Up," in 2015, which began their musical theater journey. They went on to participate in "Aida," "Disney's High School Musical" and "The Little Mermaid" — where they played the roles of Ursula's eels, Flotsam and Jetsam — as well as "Mamma Mia" and "Mary Poppins." In the latter, Caleb had his largest role, playing Bert, Mary's favorite companion.

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Three members of the McKenzie family, Caleb (who played the featured role of Pepper), Thomas and Malia all appeared in the 2019 Detroit Lakes High School fall musical, "Mamma Mia!"
Contributed / Nancy McKenzie

The twins also participated in two Madrigal Dinners together, and were part of choir and Laker Singers throughout high school.

Now about to enter his junior year in college, Thomas is majoring in the humanities, with an emphasis on counseling, but still enjoys performing with his college choir.

Caleb, who is majoring in vocal music education at college, also spent much of his high school years assisting Larson with the other choirs.


"Most of us were in two or three different choirs at a time with Kathy," noted the McKenzies' youngest daughter, Malia, who just graduated from DLHS this spring.

Though she admits that she's been singing since she was just three years old, Malia waited a few more years before joining her brothers in the summer musical, "All Shook Up," when she was just about to enter sixth grade.

Since then, she has gone on to perform in "Aida," "The Little Mermaid," "Disney's High School Musical," "Mary Poppins," "Mamma Mia," and "Songs for a New World."

In the latter, which was held in the spring of 2021 instead of the fall, due to pandemic restrictions, she was a featured dancer as well as played several roles. Then, in her senior year, she was cast in the featured role of Katherine Plumber for the fall musical, "Newsies," and also served as choreographer for the production.

Malia recalled that back when she was cast in her first musical, she had asked Larson if she could continue to be her director up until she graduated — which she just did this spring.

She added that she first began taking voice lessons from Larson when she was in third grade, and continued to be involved in choir and Laker Singers up until she graduated.

"She's really good at what she does — she's amazing," Malia said.

"She really has the ability to pull the best out of people, and make them do better than they think they can," said Matt.


"She knows how to push her students in a way that gets them to perform very, very well, but without breaking them," Isaiah said. "She really shows that she cares about her students deeply."

To show their appreciation, all six of the McKenzies plan to take part in this coming weekend's two-day celebration of Larson's retirement.

A two-day retirement celebration for longtime Detroit Lakes Public Schools vocal music instructor — and muslcal theater director — Kathy Larson is planned for this coming weekend, Aug. 13-14. A Saturday evening cabaret and retirement reception will be held Aug. 13 at the Historic Holmes Theatre, with a mass choir concert to take place the next day, Sunday, Aug. 14 at Holy Rosary Catholic Church.

"All four of the kids are singing in the cabaret show, 'A Career in Revue,' on Saturday, and the six of us plan to be in the choir on Sunday too," said Nancy.

Tickets for Saturday's cabaret show, which starts at 7 p.m. on the main stage of the Historic Holmes Theatre, are for sale via the theater's website, dlccc.org/holmes-theatre.html . The cost is $25 each, with the proceeds going to help create a new endowed scholarship in Larson's name, via the Detroit Lakes Dollars for Scholars program.

The cabaret show on Saturday evening will be followed by a choir concert, "If Music Be the Food of Love, Sing On," which is set to take place Sunday, Aug. 14 at 3 p.m. in the sanctuary of Detroit Lakes' Holy Rosary Catholic Church. Admission to this show is a free will offering, with the proceeds going toward the scholarship fund. Those who would like to contribute directly to the Larson scholarship fund can do so via the website, detroitlakes.dollarsforscholars.org (use the "Click to Donate" link, and follow the prompts to make a donation in Larson's name).

A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at vgerdes@dlnewspapers.com.
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