Bobby Aro, 1984

August 12, 1984

Bobby Aro sings a ballad at Elde’s Supper Club, located between Duluth and Esko, on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

Bobby Aro: Old-time music like they love it

By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune & Herald

Old-time music has a friend in Bobby Aro.

He recorded his biggest personal hit, for instance, in his sauna. The song was “Highway No. 7.” Aro claims it has sold a million copies in the 26 years since he wrote and recorded it in the soundproof building in his backyard.

He has the last surviving polka radio program in the Twin Ports, “Bobby Aro’s Old-Time Dance Party” at 5 p.m. Saturdays on WDSM-AM 710. He also helps out host Pentti Mahonen with “The Finnish American Program” at 9:45 a.m. Sundays on WEVE-AM 1300 in Eveleth. And he’s a country music deejay on Virginia’s WHLB-AM 1400 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturdays.

He’s probably best known as a live performer. He and his band the Ranch-Aros play regularly throughout northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They perform Sunday nights at Elde’s Supper Club at 9949 W. Old Highway 61.

Not surprisingly, this region’s Finnish-Americans and loves of old-time dance music love him. He sprinkles Finnish in the midst of English-language songs, in a hybrid he calls “Finn-glish.”

“I play this kind of junk because I like it,” he said during a break at Elde’s last Sunday night. “I don’t get into the ‘thickness’ of it.” Meaning, the self-consciously “ethnic” aspects of it. “The lines between people, like blacks and whites, are dissolving. That’s the way I’ve always felt music should be too. Besides, we play a little of everything. Whatever gets people dancing.”

Bobby Aro performs at Elde’s Supper Club on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

He’s a lively performer for his age, which he says with a sidelong glance is “50-ish.” At Elde’s, he opened with “Tiny Bubbles” and sung part of it in Hawaiian (one of six languages he uses in the act, including Slovenian, Polish, German and Finnish).

His vocal style is Dean Martin-like in the way he slurs his diction slightly and sidles up next to a note before hitting it properly. His range is surprising; he hit high notes in the vintage rocker “Chantilly Lace” easily and clearly, before swooping down in a gravelly growl for the “Oh baby that’s a-what I like!” line. People jitterbugged and twisted to that one.

The diversity of the material was surprising, even for a performer who could be called a “variety” music act. “Cheryl Moana Marie.” “Cab Driver.” “Okie From Muskogee.” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” complete with an “ee yi ee yi yo!” call and response with the audience. “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” with the final “have you ever been blue” refrain changed to “did you vote for Ben Boo?” He cackled then, the high “Heh! Heh! Heh!” that serves as his laugh. A bit of scat singing to “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.” A spritely schottische here. A couple polkas there. A waltz arrangement of “Que Sera Sera.” To stop one song he shouted “Hi-yo Silver, away!”

He’s a master of the medley.

“This one’s for Patty Chmielewski,” he said, “wherever she may be.” He leaped into “I’ve Got A Polish Girlfriend.” Then: “This one’s for your governor,” and segued into “Moja Dekla.” Then: “This one’s for Rudy Miskulin, wherever he may be,” and it was into “Ya Sam Majko.”

Couples dance to the music of Bobby Aro at Elde’s Supper Club near Duluth on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

The crowd at Elde’s was full of loyal “regulars” that come from as far away as Two Harbors and Nashwauk. It’s a convivial atmosphere, made even more pleasant by the free appetizers served during Aro’s break. This night, it was corn on the cob. And owners Earl and Darlene Elde make sure pots of coffee appear on tables before closing time.

“We’ve come here every night since Bobby started here,” said Helen Olsen of Barnum. “It’s the best exercise we can get.”

“If you can’t dance to Bobby’s music, you can’t dance,” said her husband Harold. “Besides, if you don’t come here you got nothing else to talk about all week.”

“There’s lots of romances that have blossomed here,” said Mary Johnson of Hibbing. “See that woman in the red blouse? She just found herself a boyfriend here two weeks ago and now they’re dancing together.”

Bobby Aro (right) gets help in broadcasting his “Old-Time Dance Party” from disc jockey Tim Michaels at radio station WDSM-AM 710 in June 1984. It was the last surviving polka radio program in the Northland at that time. (John Rott / News-Tribune & Herald)

Aro was trying a Julio Iglesias-like accent on “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

“Sure I try the new stuff.” he said later. “You have to keep current. We play dances, clubs, weddings – anybody that’s got $5 keeps you going. That, and because I don’t know nothing else.”

He was born in Leonidas, a village outside Eveleth. His earliest musical memories are of his grandfather playing violin and coronet and leading a band that a steel company had organized for its workers. The boy learned violin at an early age. Later came guitar, keyboards and drums. He left to attend radio school in Chicago and worked in Texas shortly after World War II.

“That’s where I got onto country music,” he said. “They were big on that Western Swing. I’m still a country music deejay, really. I’ve been preaching that stuff since it was called hillbilly music. You know how it changed into what it is today? Eddie Arnold and Ray Price made it palatable to everybody. Now you know what it’s come to? They’ve gone too far. People like Dolly (Parton) and Kenny Rogers – that’s not even country music. I don’t ever play that. I play the old stuff and people love it. But then, if a guy’s banging on a garbage can, I don’t knock him. Music is a tough way to make a living.”

Arvo Koponen and Elizabeth Palo of Cotton take a break from dancing to enjoy the performance of the Ranch-Aros at Elde’s Supper Club near Duluth in August 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

He worked in radio, early television and nightclubs in Chicago before returning to northern Minnesota to work for the old Arrowhead Radio Network. He’s spent the last three decades at several Iron Range radio stations and makes his home in Zim. Today the Ranch-Aros are made up of his sons Casey of Zim on guitar and Mike of Eveleth on drums.

“I introduce them as my brothers because we’re all looking at the same girls,” Aro said. “Uh heh! Heh! Heh!”

His proudest professional moment came three years ago, when he did a concert in Finland. Unknown to him, he was something of a cult figure in that country because of his four “Finn-glish” albums. They love his numbers like “Kapakka in the Kaupunki,” “Suomalainen Gals” and “Donald Maki Song.” The latter is a remake of “Old MacDonald.”

“This won’t buy me a cup of coffee here, but I’ve got front pages of newspapers and magazines from over there with my name all over them. They were askin’ for songs of mine that I didn’t even remember, so I had them sing it to me. What a feeling, hey?”

Yet he doesn’t plan to return.

“I’ve got a winning streak going,” he said. “I don’t want to go back and ruin it.”

For the future, he’ll continue his radio and live performing. Maybe lead a few tour groups to Nashville, as he has in the past.

“I clipped a little thing out of the paper once,” he said. “It was in the gossip column, you know, where stars are doing this and that. Rod Steiger said, ‘The truth of success is longevity.’ I like that one. I had it in my wallet for a long time.”

Couples trot out a schottische to the music of Bobby Aro and his Ranch-Aros at Elde’s Supper Club near Duluth on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

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Here are a couple of YouTube videos with music by Bobby Aro:

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Bobby Aro suffered a heart attack during a performance in Mountain Iron in December 1988; he underwent triple-bypass surgery and returned to the stage and radio several months later. Here are a couple photos that ran with a story in the News-Tribune in October 1989:

Bobby Aro makes a selection for his WDSM-AM radio show from a stack of records he keeps close at hand on Oct. 2, 1989. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

Bobby Aro at the microphone during a break in his WDSM-AM 710 radio show in October 1989. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

Bobby Aro died on Jan. 19, 1996 at age 69.

WDSE-TV, PBS Channel 8 in Duluth, created a documentary on Bobby Aro that will be airing on Sunday, June 1 at 7 p.m., and again on Thursday, June 5 at 8 p.m.

Do you remember watching or listening to Bobby Aro? Share your memories by posting a comment.

Duluth TV personality Jack McKenna dies at age 91

We received word from KUWS radio’s Mike Simonson, on the Radio Superior Facebook page, that longtime Twin Ports radio and TV personality Jack McKenna died Sunday, Dec. 8 at age 91.

Jack McKenna does a weathercast at WDIO-TV in 1977, the same year he was chosen favorite TV personality by Twin Ports residents. (News Tribune file photo)

McKenna spent time as a weathercaster at WDIO-TV in the 1960s and 1970s, took some jobs elsewhere in the country and returned to Duluth as a weathercaster and news host at KBJR-TV in the 1980s.

He played the character “Captain Q” on a Duluth children’s TV show, and the News Tribune files report that he also played “Professor Fantastic” on a late-night horror movie show on WDIO.

McKenna also was an alumnus of Denfeld High School, and a good recap of his career can be found on their website.

Jack McKenna portrays the kids TV show character “Captain Q” in the early 1960s. (News Tribune file photo)

In more recent years, McKenna took part in the Radio Superior vintage radio program on KUWS.

I talked with him briefly a few weeks ago when writing an obituary for fellow Duluth TV veteran Dick Wallack. McKenna had had health issues in recent years, but his mind was sharp when we discussed the time he and Wallack spent working together.

Jack McKenna in 1970. (News Tribune file photo)

Several video clips of McKenna exist on YouTube, including….

McKenna as part of the WDIO news team in a 1973 newscast (I’ve included two of the five clips below – the ones that feature McKenna most prominently; find the rest here):

McKenna giving the weather on a 1986 KBJR newscast:

McKenna giving the weather on a KBJR newscast with Barbara Reyelts in 1988:

McKenna in character as Captain Q (this clip starts with footage of Ray Paulsen as Mr. Toot; Captain Q comes in the second half):

There aren’t many Twin Ports TV pioneers left… share your memories of Jack McKenna and other early Duluth TV personalities by posting a comment.

Some new old Duluth TV news clips

Every so often I take a spin through YouTube to see if any old clips from Duluth TV stations have been posted – newscasts, commercials, etc. On my latest visit, I found these three brief clips from 1991, showing the openings of the newscasts for KDLH, KBJR and WDIO:

Wish we could have a few more minutes of each of those clips… but still interesting to see.

There are a number of old Duluth TV news clips posted to YouTube, and over the years we’ve featured several in the Attic. Here are links to a few of those posts:

Complete 1973 WDIO newscast

Clip of 1985 WDIO newscast, and 1970s WDIO holiday promos 

KBJR newscast from 1990

KBJR newscast from 1975

Here are a few more Duluth TV news clips – stay tuned to the end of the first one for a report from a familiar Duluth TV name, on 1980s youth trends…

KQDS / Fox 21 hasn’t been around as long as the other three stations, of course. But here’s one “from the archives” clip, of the original opening music to the 9 p.m. newscast:

And finally, this assemblage of KBJR clips from 1989, with a lot of familiar faces:

Thanks to those who posted the clips to YouTube over the years. Share your Duluth TV memories by posting a comment.

Happy 72nd birthday, Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan – then Bobby Zimmerman – as a sophomore in the Hibbing High School yearbook, circa 1957. (News-Tribune file photo)

Today, May 24, 2013, is the 72nd birthday of Northland native and music icon Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth in 1941 and raised on the Iron Range, in Hibbing.

Two years ago, on the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday, I posted a collection of text and photos of Dylan from the News Tribune files. If you have not yet seen that – or even if you have – you can find the post here.

Downtown Duluth’s Sunnyside Cafe, 1981

October 13, 1981

Here’s a story from the Duluth Herald files from 1981, profiling an old-fashioned downtown Duluth cafe and its proprietors. It’s kind of a long article, but it’s a pretty fun, charming story with some memorable anecdotes. Enjoy…

Art Rode mans the counter at the Sunnyside Cafe in downtown Duluth in October 1981. (Joey McLeister / Duluth Herald)

Cafe owners keep their Sunnyside up

By Lynnell Mickelsen, Duluth Herald

At 6:15 a.m. there are four regulars in the cafe, people who drove past McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s, Sambos and the 7-11 to get to this place. The waiter knows their names and their orders. He also knows their fishing stories, hunting stories, idiot boss stories and their political views. The cook knows all of this plus their dietary restrictions. This morning she tells a regular she will boil his eggs instead of fry them because his doctor has repeatedly told him to lose weight. “It will save you 55 calories,” she says.

The Sunnyside Cafe, 214 E. Superior St., has nine stools, four booths, no chrome and no cute names on the menu. It’s open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Owners Art and Marion Rode are also the waiters, cooks, dishwashers, busboys, buyers and bookkeepers. They have been in the restaurant business for nearly 40 years.

They have, in other words, a 30-year jump on Egg McMuffins, which came out in 1972 and sparked the Great Breakfast War among the fast-food franchises. McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Sambos and the others compete fiercely among themselves for the breakfast crowd. They can deliver the food faster and cheaper than the Rodes, although this suggestion raises a chorus of protest from Sunnyside regulars.

“They can’t give you ham that comes off the hog,” says one.

“They fire the waitresses so often … they don’t know what the hell they’re doing and it takes forever,” says another.

“They don’t even know what hash browns are,” says another.

Even so, the franchises seem to be winning and the Rodes’ nine-stool cafe and other ma and pa operations appear to be a fading phenomenon, dying off by attrition, because no businessman in his right mind would try to start one now.

Marion Rode, a cook with more nearly 40 years of experience, wraps up a sandwich to go at the Sunnyside Cafe in October 1981. Five days a week from this window, she watches the sunrise over Lake Superior. (Joey McLeister / Duluth Herald)

The Rodes, however, don’t think about the future of breakfast cafes. For one thing, they have to get up too early to be philosophical. They arrives at the cafe at 5:15 a.m. in order to have coffee ready and the stove hot for people who, either by neurosis or necessity, east breakfast at 6. They have risen so early for so long that even on weekends, back home in Duluth Heights, they are often up at 5 a.m., drinking coffee.

Getting up early is hardly glamorous, but it has its compensations. The cafe’s back kitchen window looks out over Lake Superior and, over the years, the Rodes have watched one superb sunrise after another.

“We watch it move with the season,” Marion says, cracking two eggs into a cast-iron frying pan. The sunrise moves from the left side of the window across to the right and, for three weeks in December, disappears behind the wall of the Muffler Clinic before emerging and switching directions. They watch the storms brew up over the lake and, in the winter, they say the spray from the surf nearly hits the window.

At 6:30 a.m., a regular, his limbs shortened by dwarfism, swaggers into the cafe. Before the man is two feet inside, Art orders a cheese sandwich to go and Marion is reaching for the bread. Art and the man banter over the counter.

“He’s always giving me grief,” the man says to another customer as Art walks back to the kitchen. “Someday I’m going step on him.”

“What’s that?” Art asks, coming back.

“You’re always giving me grief,” the man repeats happily.

“Bacon and eggs,” Art calls into the kitchen. Another regular has just walked in. Art has been serving breakfast to some people for 20 years, watching them go from scrawny to paunchy. Marion remembers changing the diapers on a man. (“I don’t bring it up because it would embarrass him to tears.”) Regulars need to order only if they are feeling talkative; otherwise, Art can do it automatically.

It’s one of the few automatic processes in the place. Outside of an electric mixer and the cafe’s technological hub, a Bunnomatic coffee maker, this is a restaurant devoid of gizmos and shortcuts. There is no microwave. No pastry steamers. No Cuisanart. No dishwasher. Two years ago they unplugged the Hamilton Beach blender because it was too distracting.

As Art points out, it came down to a matter of priorities: by the time he made someone a milkshake, he could have served three people meatloaf.

“That machine,” Art says, pointing to the forsaken mixer, still sitting on the shelf, “kept us from doing the work we were meant to do.”

A close-up view of the Sunnyside Cafe menu from the photo above. Click on the photo for a larger view.

The same spirit carries over to the kitchen. “Nothing here is artificial,” Marion declares. In the fall, they bring in apples from the tree in their back yard and make pies.

Marion got her start in the restaurant business in 1942, in a place where the Radisson now stands. It was during the war, the shipyards were busy and they served 1,000 people a day. She made $14 a week and worked with a crew of veteran cooks. “Real old-timers,” she says. “I mean, they were purists. One lady used to save up lard and make the soap herself.”

Marion saved her money, and after the war started a place of her own. Art was one of her customers. “I was hard-boiled then,” she says. “One day I was throwing a drunk out of the place and he landed on Art.”

Art was out of the service, working at the Duluth airport. He had no known aspirations for the restaurant business until the drunk fell on him and he fell for Marion. But he has taken to it well. A smooth breakfast-bartender, he pours coffee with an instinctive, generous hand. A well-informed man, he doesn’t read the newspaper because, by noon, the entire paper has usually been read aloud to him, interspersed with editorial comment and unpublished details. He knew by 6:15 a.m. that Egypt’s Anwar Sadat had been shot.

Art comes back into the kitchen. He and Marion are trying unsuccessfully to remember the last names of veteran customers. The highest price on the menu is $2.95 and people don’t write checks. The only last names they know are for the doctors at the medical center who apparently never had first names.

The Rodes ran a cafe in the 500 block of West Superior Street in downtown Duluth for many years before urban renewal forced them out. This photo was taken in about 1954; Art Rode is behind the counter.

Marion glances up at the wall that separates the kitchen from the dining area. Someone’s waiting to pay the bill,” she says.

Art disappears. The cash register rings.

“You get to be able to feel that kind of stuff in your bones,” Marion says, shaping a meatloaf with her hands. She is a well-fed cook, the kind who “never eats” and must diet subsequently. She reads cookbooks “like novels” but doesn’t use them in the kitchen.

“When I was a girl, I wanted to be a research doctor. I wanted to find the cure for cancer. Never got enough education.” She now tests out various theories of the cause of cancer and finds them wanting. For example, she says she served bacon every morning to an attorney who not only did not succumb to cancer, but lived to 95 and died in his bed.

There are five calendars in the kitchen: odd decoration for a woman supposedly without a sense of time. Marion is vague on the years, vague on her age. Art, on the other hand, is 62, and can tell you the deer season starts in “four weeks and two days.” Every year they close for three weeks during deer season, but, by the third week, they are both restless to come back.

They don’t want to retire, but have heard the building will be sold in two years to make space for access across a planned freeway. “Urban renewal,” Art says, shaking his head. The Rodes have never sold quiche lorraine and their restaurants have never survived urban renewal. Urban renewal, according to Art, forced them out of their old restaurant about 12 years ago.

“We could never start up again today. Never. Too many health regulations,” Marion says. She sweeps her arm across the kitchen, pointing at the wooden shelves and countertops. “Now everything has to be stainless steel. Counters and booths have to be so far off the floor. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. You can’t be too careful. Eat off a low counter and it might kill you.”

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The shelves behind the counter in the first photo stocked Snickers, Milky Way and 3 Musketeers candy bars, among other items.

The Sunnyside Cafe closed by the mid-1980s, and a few years later its building was gone. As alluded to in the second-to-last paragraph of the story, it’s now the location of an access point to Lake Place Park, next door to Perry Framing.

Art Rode died in August 2000 at age 80. Marion Rode died in July 2001 at age 89.

Do you remember the Sunnyside Cafe? Share your memories by posting a comment. Direct questions about the Attic to akrueger(at)duluthnews.com.

Heartland Band and country music in the Northland, 1982

March 4, 1982

The Heartland Band, a Northland country music group, as seen in February 1982 – clockwise from lower left: Mark Russell, Steve Johnson, Al Oikari, Greg Brown, Jack Purcell and Craig Erickson. (News Tribune file photo)

Heartland Band lifts area’s country music profile

By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune staff writer

Maybe it’s just that its audiences are so polite. Why else would country music’s profile be so low in this area?

After all, it may well be the most popular kind of music between Pine City and the Canadian border. Consider: It’s big news when a rock act like Loverboy sells out Duluth Arena, but routine when the Staler Brothers do it (or Kenny Rogers, although these days he’s about as genuinely country as Ralph Lauren).

Country radio stations like Hibbing’s WKKQ-AM and Duluth’s WDSM-AM have been enjoying very healthy ratings in the local market for a good while now, with no signs of slipping.

Finally, there’s the recent experience of Jim Nostrant at WKLK, Cloquet’s country radio. His station and half a dozen others around the state recently sponsored a country talent search. Each region’s winner has been chosen and the state finals will be in Cloquet’s middle school gymnasium at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

“We for sure had the most entries of any region in the state,” Nostrant said.

“Some of the other contests had like 13 entrants. We had 42, and after the cutoff time something like another 50 wanted to sign up.”

The contest had to be conducted over two Sunday afternoons, rather than the orginally planned one. Its site, the Register bar in Scanlon, was filled with upwards of 400 people each day, Nostrant said. The would-be stars wanted a shot at $50,000, a televised performance in Nashville and a recording and bookings contract. That’s the top prize in the national competition, sponsored by Wrangler Jeans.

The local entrants ranged from a 7-year-old singer to a 67-year-old former logger who played the harmonica and guitar. The winner was the Heartland Band, a sextet formed specifically for the contest.

“We’d been talking about getting together anyway,” said organizer Greg Brown of Carlton. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity. I’d worked with a lot of these guys before.”

Brown supplies vocals and plays guitar and fiddle. The rest of the lineup is Steve Johnson or Grand Marais, guitar and vocals; Al Oikari of Grand Marais, piano, guitar and vocals; Craig Erickson of Cloquet, bass and vocals; Mark Russell of Duluth, steel guitar; and Jack Purcell of Cloquet on drums.

The band’s sound is highlighted by its harmonies and instrumental variety, according to Brown. It won its chance at the state championship by doing an old Cajun tune, “Diggy Liggy Lo,” as a warmup, and Rusty Weir’s “Don’t it Make You Wanna Dance” as its to-be-judged song.

The winner of Friday night’s state finals gets $1,000, a trip to Nashville, an appearance on a televised show with Ray Price and a chance at the top prize, performing on the show and the above-mentioned 50 grand and recording and booking contracts. Tickets to the state finals will cost $6.50. “But some of the other states, I know, are charging eight bucks,” Nostrant said.

And all the talent won’t be homegrown. Nashville’s Legarde Twins will perform and emcee, and Texan swing band Texas Tradition will play backup to solo acts who want accompaniment.

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Do you remember the Heartland Band? Does anyone know if they advanced to the national competition? What other long-ago local bands should we search for in the News Tribune archives? Share your memories and suggestions by posting a comment.

Velvet Sam serenades Duluth, 1980

Dec. 28, 1980

Michael Aguirre, alias Velvet Sam, performs a song-gram for Tom Pratchios (left) as Scott Campbell watches on Dec. 18, 1980. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

This music man turns songs into gifts

By Ann Glumac, News-Tribune staff

Guitar slung over his shoulder, music stand in hand, Velvet Sam heralded his arrival at Natchio’s Restaurant in Duluth by shouting for the owner: “Is there a Mr. Tom Pratchios in the house?”

Pratchios smiled as Sam — alias Michael Aguirre — set up the music stand before him. He laughed as Sam began singing the personalized song-gram chronicling — humorously — Pratchios’ life story. He was laughing, crying and kissing friends when Sam ended the song.

Pratchios’ friends ordered the “Unforgettable Gift Delivered Anywhere” from Velvet Sam’s Song-Grams, an enterprise begun a month ago by Aguirre, 27, and his wife Kitty, 22, of 17 W. Oxford St., Duluth. They have since delivered about 10 song-grams for $21.50 each, plus mileage.

Practhios’ reaction isn’t unusual, Sam said. “People just sit there in awe. It’s such a surprise. All of a sudden, their past is being revealed to all those people, but it’s a happy embarrassment.”

Song-grams can be written for any occasion — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, thank-yous and I-love-yous, Sam said. The recipient of the song-gram receives a copy of the lyrics, also.

When a prospective sender calls, Kitty Aguirre said, they sell themselves as well as the song-grams. “We get the people into it and get information out of them,” she said. “We really dig to get neat things, but they’re all meant with love.”

The recipient’s history becomes the subject of the four- to five-verse song Sam takes about two hours to write. “The songs have a country flair because country music is fun, jumpy music,” Sam said. He forms a mental image of the person before he writes, picturing what the person looks like and even what kind of clothes the person wears.

Velvet Sam does his thing at a birthday party for Tammi Marshall at Duluth’s Town Crier Restaurant on Feb. 11, 1985. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

A song-gram delivered to a UMD medical student during a lecture detailed the student’s habit of eating in his sleep — information provided by the student’s wife. Pratchios’ message included incidents from his military career.

Many of the songs contain “connotative adult humor,” which Sam said he grew to appreciate while writing comical songs for a Los Angeles television show.

“A lot of people have been helping us,” Kitty said, including an artist friend who designed the logo for the song paper. “They wanted to make sure we weren’t just talking. They wanted to see it happen in Duluth.”

“We have so much fun with it,” Kitty said. “I like the laughing while writing the songs and the anticipation because you know it’s a good song.”

Sam likes the reactions. After several years of playing original music in nightclubs with smatterings of applause, he enjoys being the center of attention, even if it’s only for five minutes.

“This is like a five-minute concert and you get a standing ovation every time,” Sam said. “You feel like you wrote a Top 10 song in the country. You have the number one song in that room at that moment. You leave, and you can still hear the people laughing.”

Sam’s wardrobe includes a tuxedo, a messenger’s uniform, and his cowboy outfit. He’s hoping to make enough money to buy an array of costumes to fit any occasion.

The customer chooses the costume. But, Kitty said, he or she must choose some costume — “Sam won’t strip.”

Sam won’t sing a nasty song-gram, either, he said. “I wouldn’t want to insult anybody or hurt anybody’s feelings. These are all sent with love.”

He’ll travel long distances to deliver the song-grams, although the customer must pay mileage costs. Long-distance song-grams are also offered at a lower rate, with the customer paying the telephone costs.

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Michael Aguirre continued to perform as Velvet Sam in Duluth through at least the mid-1980s. He’s the father of pro snowboarders Mason and Molly Aguirre. The family moved from Duluth to California in 2001.

Share your stories and memories by posting a comment.

Photos of Paul Wellstone in the Northland

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, marks the 10th anniversary of the plane crash near Eveleth that took the life of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife Sheila, and six others. Read the News Tribune’s coverage of the anniversary here.

Here’s a selection of News Tribune file photos from Wellstone’s many trips to the Northland, leading up to his election to the Senate in 1990 and in the years that followed:

Democrat Paul Wellstone ratchets up his U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz during a stop at the Duluth Labor Temple on June 9, 1989. (John Rott / News-Tribune)

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Senator-elect Paul Wellstone reacts to the approval of the crowd during a standing-room-only town hall meeting at the Marshall School cafeteria in Duluth on Dec. 5, 1990. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

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As Sen. Paul Wellstone jokes with locals at Maggie’s, a popular restaurant in Nashwauk, on April 5, 1991, owner Margaret Breuling looks on and smiles. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone greets people who gathered for the opening of his office in Virginia, Minn., on April 5, 1991. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., speaks at a rally at the Duluth Labor Temple on London Road on April 13, 1991. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone answers questions from the audience during a meeting about health-care issues on Feb. 13, 1992, at Duluth Central High School. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone addresses DFL delegates from across Minnesota on June 5, 1992, the first day of the state DFL convention at the DECC, Interpreting was Kim Olson of Minneapolis. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

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Marilyn Pribyl of Chaska and Terry Selle of Bloomington listen as Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., pauses to chat with them during a stop at Grandma’s Restaurant in Duluth on Jan. 15, 1994. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone addresses a gathering of people in low-income situations during a news conference Nov. 21, 1995, at Emerson School in Duluth. The event was held to bring attention to the plight of low-income people in need of housing assistance. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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Aimee McIntyre (left) and Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., share a laugh during a rally for Wellstone at the Federal Building in Duluth on July 1, 1996. Supporters wore shirts with red targets and the words: “Proud to be a Republican Target.” (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone speaks to the crowd gathered at a rally at the DECC’s Pioneer Hall in Duluth on the morning of Oct. 23, 1996, as Vice President Al Gore applauds in the background. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone answers a question from a student in the audience during the Democracy in Action forum April 9, 1999, at the College of St. Scholastica. More than 600 students from the three high schools in Duluth attended the forum, which gave them an opportunity to challenge and ask questions of elected officals. Listening to Wellstone on stage are state Sen. Sam Solon and Duluth Mayor Gary Doty. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone speaks to a crowd of about 100 gathered Sunday at the entrance of ME International in Duluth on Oct. 31, 1999. Wellstone voiced his support of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1028 strike that has been in effect since August. (Renee Knoeber / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone visits Denfeld High School in Duluth on Nov. 16, 2000. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

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Sen. Paul Wellstone meets with a full auditorium of Denfeld High School students on Nov. 16, 2000, at the school. Wellstone took questions and comments from students regarding the recent election and the issues surrounding it. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

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U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone greets members of the Duluth Denfeld singing groups Solid Gold and Steppin’ Up on Nov. 16, 2000, during a visit to the school. Wellstone engaged the students in a town hall-style meeting, discussing the previous week’s presidential election. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

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Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton talk in Superior on March 9, 2001, with employees of Partridge River Inc., the company whose Hoyt Lakes plant was destroyed by fire earlier that month. The meeting took place at Partridge River’s Superior facility. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Superior Street before the I-35 tunnels, 1983

Here’s a photo of East Superior Street from Oct. 10, 1983, right before construction of the Interstate 35 tunnels in the vicinity of the Fitger’s Brewery complex and Leif Erikson Park:

Scattered among the many buildings that were demolished for the extension of I-35 eastward from downtown to 26th Avenue East, you can see the buildings that survived – Fitger’s just visible at lower right, the Portland Malt Shoppe, Sir Benedict’s, the Kitchi Gammi Club and more. Click on the photo for a larger view.

Also visible is an odd diagonal street cutting across the lower half of the image. That was one-block-long Washington Avenue, which was mostly swallowed up by the freeway construction:

What perhaps could be called a small nub of Washington Avenue still exists today, angling off First Street at Seventh Avenue East next to Expert Tire, leading to the back alley.

The Expert Tire building, visible at left center above, has an angled edge along Washington Avenue – it retains that shape to this day, though the street that caused it to be built that way has been gone now for more than 25 years.

Here are a couple more views of that area from October 1983. This first shot was taken the same day as the photo above, Oct. 10 (click on the photo for a larger view); all photos with this post were taken by the News Tribune’s Charles Curtis:

And this photo was taken later in the month, on Oct. 25, 1983, looking southwest along Superior Street from in front of Sir Benedict’s as buildings were razed for the pending freeway construction:

Here’s a related past Attic post, on efforts to preserve the Fitger’s Brewery complex as the freeway plans were created: Saving Fitger’s from the wrecking ball

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Superior church’s steeple comes crashing down, 1982

September 2, 1982

The steeple of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church lies damaged at Birch Avenue and North 14th Street in Superior on Thursday, Sept. 2, 1982. The 38-foot steeple was being lifted from the soon-to-be-demolished church when a crane tipped, sending the steeple crashing to the ground. (Jack Renudlich / News-Tribune)

Steeple falls prey to crane

By Larry Oakes, News-Tribune staff writer (appeared in paper on Sept. 3, 1982)

“My reaction was just plain fright. Everything was coming along beautifully, and all at once it swung and started to crash down through the wiring.”

The exasperated speaker was Sophie Butler, 68, of 24-B Hayes court, Superior. She had come Thursday to St. Stanislaus Catholic Church and School in Superior to pay her last respects to her former church, which is scheduled to be razed.

However, the church’s 38-foot steeple was going to be salvaged for use as a beach house. Butler and her husband, Joe, 68, watched as a crane began lifting the steeple from the building.

The couple, longtime members of the church as Birch Avenue and North 14th Street, were taking snapshots and reminiscing. It was about 10:15 a.m.

Seconds later, the feelings of nostalgia turned to horror when the crane, holding the suspended steeple about 30 feet above the ground, tipped, sending the steeple crashing to the ground.

“He lifted it off and everything seemed OK,” said Max Taubert, 29, of 3310 Minnesota Ave., Duluth. “But it came down kind of fast once it started. There was no stopping it. It only took about four seconds.”

Taubert had wanted to convert the carved, metal-faced steeple into a beach house.

“There was a lot of scurrying around,” said Cliff Anderson, whose company, Anderson Sand& Gravel, will demolish the church. Anderson, of 5565 Arrowhead Road, Duluth, sold the steeple to Taubert, who hired Lakehead Constructors of Superior to remove it.

“The crane either broke through the asphalt or the boom started to bend,” Anderson, 40, said. “It made one hell of a lot of noise,” he said, removing a toothpick from his mouth. “Like steel crashing into brick — one of those sounds you don’t hear too often.”

A construction worker is dwarfed by a twisted crane lying in front of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church at 1414 Birch Ave. in Superior on Sept. 2, 1982. No injuries were reported when the crane tipped over and the steeple crashed to the ground. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

Witnesses said that as the crane tipped, the boom crashed into the entry of the brick building.

Tim Bernard, 35, of Superior, owner of Lakehead, estimated repair to the crane will run from $25,000 to $30,000. “It will be usable,” Bernard said. “We’ll have to cut the boom and get it off the building. Then it will have to be repaired.”

“I would say the outrigger (a support leg) went into the ground,” he said. “It sure wasn’t the weight.”

Taubert said he will probably be out about $1,000, “mostly for the crane time.”

“I’ve already got more into it than it’s worth,” he said. “I had the option of insuring it before I took it off, but it was $1,000 deductible.”

When the boom toppled, it knocked out some adjacent electric and phone lines, resulting in a power outage in that section of Superior for two hours. Residents were without power in an area bounded by North 12th and Belknap streets on the north and south, and the Soo Line tracks and Catlin Avenue on the east and west, said Dick Kennedy, a Superior Water, Light & Power Co. official. Power was restored by 12:30 p.m., Kennedy said.

Wisconsin Telephone Company representative Kendall Nelson said the accident affected only two phone customers.

The steeple of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Superior crashed to the ground after a crane toppled on Sept. 2, 1982. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

The 67-year-old church currently awaits the wrecking ball. It was closed because of a shortage of priests and teachers in the Superior Diocese, Joe Butler said.

The school was shut down in 1968 because sisters were in short supply and no money was available to hire lay teachers. When the cornerstone was laid in 1915 the church boasted 450 families in its membership. By 1982, that number shrank to 150, according to Joe Butler, who was president of the church council.

“All my life I was in the parish,” Butler recalled, his eyes fixed. “I was baptized here, married here, my mother and father both had funeral services here.

Sophie Butler watched the cleanup operation from a yard across the street. “It’s a weird feeling because we were parishioners for so long.”

Across the street workers had started the lopsided crane and were feeding out cable that was still hooked to the steeple. What was left of the structure snapped and creaked slightly as it settled to the ground.

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As you may have noted, the steeple-crane accident happened almost exactly 30 years ago, on Sept. 2, 1982. Less than a week later, crews moved ahead with the razing of the main church building. Here are some photos of that:

A wrecking ball crashes into the remainder of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church at 1414 Birch Ave. in Superior on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 1982. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

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Florence Bozinski (left), Sandy Anderson (center) and Sandy’s son Wayne, 11, all of Superior, watch as crews demolish St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Superior on Sept. 8, 1982. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

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Cliff Anderson (foreground) and Ron Johnson, both of Duluth, watch as St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Superior is razed on Sept. 8, 1982. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

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