Much like a basic game of Follow the Leader, Roger Nielsen followed the footsteps of his paternal predecessors — and became a leader himself. Naturally.
Nielsen, with his wife Ann, has spent his lifetime as a Solvang promoter, supporter and businessman, picking up the mantle from dad Axel, and his grandfather, Marcus, the latter of whom founded what would eventually become Nielsen’s Market, way back in 1912.
“Roger’s brother was the artistic one in the family,” explained Ann.
“But Roger has always been about business. His parents had what used to be the general store – in Solvang – and I remember his mom telling me they would finish their work day and then come home to make dinner.”
“Axel would often come home and ask, ‘Where’s Roger?’ – and Roger’s mom would say, ‘Oh my gosh, I must have left him in the warehouse at the store again!’" said Ann, who met and lived with Roger’s parents for a long time before ever meeting Roger, who was in the Army.
“Business is his love,” said Ann. "It’s just in his blood.”
Also in Roger’s blood, it seems, is a strong sense of community giving.
“Over the years,” he said, “I have volunteered for lots and lots of things.”
“They have all made a huge difference,” Ann said proudly.
“But it is so hard for me to single out anything,” continued Roger. “I’ve just been busy living my life, I suppose.”
Ann, who is Norwegian, was the “First” Maid for the 1961 Danish Days festival. She remembers hers and Roger’s reaction to news of their lifetime achievement award as being “kind of blurry.”
“Our first thought was sort of, ‘What?!’, she said, “and I really feel that Roger deserves the credit – but we do both appreciate it, very much. It’s nice.”
As much as Ann skillfully diverts attention from her own efforts spent on community giving, it was both Nielsens who were instrumental in bringing one of Solvang’s treasured landmarks to life.
“Of all the things we have done,” recalled Roger, “the one that was most fun for us was our little Theaterfest project.”
“I was Danish Days chairman (1971), and Ann and I said, ‘what could we bring to Danish Days that no one else has done?’”
With trademark ingenuity and influence, the Nielsens quickly launched into action and transformed the vision into reality.
Roger pitched the idea to Donovan Marley, who was at the time artistic director for the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts program at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.
William Shakespeare’s own Prince of Denmark (Hamlet) was chosen as the play for the special Danish Days program, and the Nielsens and others smoothly guided the project in for a happy landing, concluding with construction of a temporary stage in Fredensborg Canyon in Solvang.
The 1971 production for Danish Days was a huge success, thus hatching the follow-up idea to build Solvang Festival Theater, the beloved, permanent outdoor venue, which stands today on Second Street.
“Roger has only ever been interested in joining organizations and efforts which benefit someone – or this community," Ann said.
“He’s never been very interested in socializing for socializing’s sake.”
“In other words," she mused, “he always wanted his time to be for the good of something or someone else. It had to have a purpose behind it.”
Thoughtful, generous and purposeful, the Nielsens just seem to have, above all, a knack for turning ideas into reality through keen focus.
In his usual, self-effacing way, Roger said, “I just try to remember to put one foot in front of the other.
“It seems to have worked out well for me.”