Odd, obscure, historic, humorous, random and/or relevant items from the archives of the Duluth News Tribune. Duluth News Tribune and Herald file photos are copyright Duluth News Tribune; direct questions to akrueger(at)duluthnews.com.
I’m reposting some information I first shared here three years ago, about Duluth’s first television station, WFTV. Why? Because WFTV’s first home, the Palladio Building in downtown Duluth, is about to be razed to make way for the new Maurices corporate headquarters. You can read a story about the demolition here, and read much more about the Palladio Building here, on the Zenith City Online website.
Back to WFTV, here’s an article about the station that I wrote in 2011…
WFTV newscaster Gordon Paymar (right) goes through a test show on June 4, 1953, three days before the station – Duluth’s first – started broadcasting. Running the cameras are Lee Butkiewicz (left) and Fred Badecker. (News Tribune file photo)
LIGHT OF DULUTH’S FIRST TV STATION FADED QUICKLY
By Andrew Krueger, News Tribune, June 2, 2011
It arrived with great fanfare, ushering in a technological and entertainment revolution in the Twin Ports.
But little more than a year later, it was left in the dust by more powerful upstarts, and relegated to being a largely forgotten footnote in local history.
Fifty-eight years ago next Tuesday, at 2 in the afternoon, WFTV Channel 38 started broadcasting as Duluth’s first television station.
“The opening program will mark the start of a new form of mass communication in the Head of the Lakes area,” the News Tribune reported on June 5, 1953, two days before the first broadcast. “It will make available to this area a type of broadcasting which up to now has been received on a catch-as-catch-can basis from the Twin Cities.”
From the beginning, WFTV faced an uphill battle as an ultra-high frequency (UHF, i.e., high channel number) station in an era when few existed.
Up to that time, anyone in Duluth with a TV set would have tried to snag occasional signals from distant VHF (i.e., lower channel number) stations in the Twin Cities. In the days leading up to WFTV’s first broadcast, local stores placed many ads in the News Tribune touting TV sets and antennas that could pick up the new UHF signal.
WFTV, owned by Great Plains Television Properties, took out its own full-page ad on June 5, introducing the station and its staff. “This is it,” the station proclaimed. “The big event is here. The hard work and months of planning are now completed. The excitement is now at its highest.”
The first show was something called “WFTV Opening Salute,” the specifics of which were not described in news accounts of the time. Next up was Billy Graham, followed later in the afternoon by footage of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, held the week before.
Early network shows on the station included “I Love Lucy,” “Flash Gordon,” “The Web,” “Dragnet” and “Philco TV Playhouse.”
WFTV produced local news, sports and weather programs, initially hosted by Robert Potter, Gordon Paymar, Bill Kirby and Ernest Orchard. According to contemporary news stories, WFTV also had local women’s programs produced by Elizabeth “Libby” Smith; commentary from Wallace W. Hankins; entertainment from Famous, a country-western singer; and a “kiddie program” conducted by Earl Henton – who later went on to a long career at KDAL / KDLH.
WFTV’s first studios were in space shared with WEBC radio at Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West – a building that today houses Beacon Bank and other offices. In March 1954, WFTV moved to studios at Superior Street and Third Avenue East.
WFTV enjoyed a monopoly in the market for the better part of a year, but by early 1954 two new stations – KDAL Channel 3 and WDSM Channel 6 – signed on. Not only did they snag some of the top network programming from WFTV, but as VHF stations, they were more powerful and easier to receive. We know those two stations today as KDLH and KBJR, respectively.
WFTV lingered on for several more months, but on Friday, July 9, 1954, the Duluth newspapers carried word that the city’s pioneering television station would cease broadcasting that Sunday at 10 p.m.
“We find the market unprofitable,” general manager C.G. Alexander told the Duluth Herald, “and rather than spend more money, the best thing is to call it quits.”
And so on July 11, 1954, WFTV’s days in Duluth came to an end. The station that brought the Twin Ports into the age of television faded to black.
WFTV program director Robert Potter (standing) and assistant chief engineer Douglas Cole monitor a test show production on June 4, 1953 at the station’s studio’s in downtown Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)
First day of programming
The schedule for the first day of broadcasting on Duluth’s WFTV Channel 38 on June 7, 1953, as printed in that day’s News Tribune:
9 a.m. Test pattern
2 p.m. WFTV Opening Salute
3 p.m. Billy Graham
3:15 p.m. TV Matinee
4 p.m. Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
5:30 p.m. First Presbyterian Church
6:30 p.m. Front Page Detective and Between Acts
7 p.m. Toast of the Town
8 p.m. TV Playhouse
9 p.m. Boston Blackie
9:30 p.m. Hollywood Half Hour
10 p.m. News in View
10:15 p.m. WFTV Weather Man
10:20 p.m. Sports Spindle
10:30 p.m. WFTV Theater
Call letters live on
While WFTV went off the air in Duluth in 1954, its call letters found new life in the 1960s when they were picked up by an Orlando, Fla., television station – where they remain to this day.
WFTV assistant program director Gordon Paymar (left) and women’s director Elizabeth M. Smith, as seen in a station ad in the News-Tribune on June 5, 1953.
The staff of Duluth’s WFTV at the time the station went on the air, according to a station ad in the News Tribune:
James C. Cole, manager
Robert Potter, program director
Gordon Paymar, assistant program director
Ernest Orchard, public service director
Elizabeth M. Smith, women’s director
Norman Gill, chief engineer
Douglas Cole, assistant chief engineer
Theodore Steinberger, engineer
Roger Elm, engineer
Lee Butkiewicz, engineer
Fred Badecker, engineer
Elgie Mae Carter, traffic director
Harvey Wick, film procurement director
Tony Marta, account representative
Thomas Fiege, account representative
Mildred Reed, secretary
WFTV Channel 38, Duluth’s first TV station, shared studio space with WEBC Radio in a building at the corner of Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West, in what was later called the Palladio Building. This view is from the mid-1950s. (News Tribune file photo)
Here’s the full text of an article about WFTV that ran in the News Tribune on June 5, 1953, two days before it started broadcasting:
TV in Duluth starts Sunday
Television broadcasting will get under way in Duluth at 2 p.m. Sunday when WFTV goes on the air over Channel 38.
The opening program will mark the start of a new form of mass communication in the Head of the Lakes area. It will make available to this area a type of broadcasting which up to now has been received on a catch-as-catch-can basis from the Twin Cities.
Actually, WFTV has been on the air for a number of days already, but with a test pattern only. The test pattern has been on the air to give TV owners a chance to adjust their sets to receive UHF, the ultra-high frequency wave length on which WFTV will broadcast. That test pattern will continue on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule until the opening broadcast.
NO SHADOW AREAS
Before the test pattern went on the air, there was wide difference of opinion on whether there would be “shadow” areas at the Head of the Lakes into which the TV picture would not reach. WFTV officials said last night that so far, extensive testing has established no complete shadow areas in Duluth. They said they now have TV sets receiving the test pattern in all parts of the Duluth-Superior area.
The pattern also has been received all along the South Shore as far as Ironwood, Mich., and along the North Shore as far as Grand Marais.
The test pattern was run primarily to enable conversion of VHF sets to the UHF band. Most of the sets in Duluth prior to the coming of WFTV were adjusted only for the VHF type of broadcasting emanating from the Twin Cities.
Although it has been established that the TV picture will be received in most parts of the area, there is considerable experimenting going on yet with antennas. In some places the bow-tie antenna, or some version of it, is working best. Some owners are receiving the UHF signal clearly on their old antennas, and in a few cases the signal has come in with only an inside antenna Some isolated areas have had difficulty adjusting sets.
WFTV’s regular broadcast schedule will include programs daily from 2 to 11 p.m. Sunday’s program, however, will run until midnight.
Among features planned Sunday are opening ceremonies at 2 p.m. The coronation will be shown from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
The station will carry a number of network as well as local shows, according to James C. Cole, station manager. Network shows will be carried on film, as there is no direct wire or microwave link between WFTV and the TV networks.
However, Cole said, the Duluth audience will see many of the network shows at the same time as other parts of the nation. He said most of that type of shows are prepared in advance on films and released simultaneously all over the country.
Among the shows the station will carry will be such drama features as Dragnet, The Web, I Love Lucy; drama featuring Robert Montgomery; and such kiddie serials as Flash Gordon and Rocket to the Moon. Other features will include Arthur Godfrey, Groucho Marx, the Hit Parade, Toast of the Town, the Dennis Day show and Philco TV Playhouse.
Also on film will be the “Telenews,” the daily highlights of newsreel films. “Live” shows will be produced locally and will include news, interviews, music and the demonstration type of programs.
WFTV will share two hours of its broadcast schedule with Arrowhead Television Network, an affiliate of WEBC radio. WFTV studio and tower facilities were leased from WEBC in exchange for the two hours of air time. The ATN organization will be on the air daily from 3 to 4 p.m. and from 5:30 to 6 and 6:30 to 7 p.m. The two organizations will operate independently.
And here’s is a copy of the complete TV schedule for WFTV, along with Twin Cities stations KSTP and WCCO, from June 8, 1953 (as with all the images here, click on it for a larger version):
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)
Here are a couple of YouTube videos with music by Bobby Aro:
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.
A copy of the poster for the Winter Dance Party concert that was held on Jan. 31, 1959, from an ad in the Duluth News Tribune at the time. (News Tribune file image)
Before it died, the music lived in Duluth.
Fifty-five years ago today (Jan. 31), on a cold Saturday night in 1959, the Winter Dance Party tour featuring Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens played the Duluth Armory.
Two nights later, they were gone, the victims of a plane crash in a snowy Iowa cornfield.
“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” the late Lew Latto, local promoter and master of ceremonies for that show, told the News Tribune in 2009. “When I read in the newspaper … that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”
Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup perform during the Winter Dance Party concert at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo by Colleen Bowen)
The text above is taken from a story written by the News Tribune’s Kevin Pates for the 50th anniversary of the concert and the subsequent crash, Here’s the full story from Jan. 25, 2009:
BEFORE THE MUSIC DIED, IT LIVED IN DULUTH
Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune
The one wish Lew Latto has from that cold Saturday night in 1959 is that he’d had a camera. He took no pictures at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31 as a troupe of rock ’n’ roll entertainers put on a Winter Dance Party show for about 2,000 fans — a performance that takes a place of honor in Duluth entertainment lore.
Latto, then a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth freshman, was the local promoter and master of ceremonies. He had no way of knowing history was right around the corner.
The Day the Music Died was 48 hours away for Buddy Holly , 22, of Lubbock, Texas; J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, of Beaumont, Texas; and Ritchie Valens, 17, of Pacoima, Calif.
“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” Latto, 69, said recently from his winter home in Hallandale Beach, Fla. “I spent most of the time on the side of the stage and had the chance to talk quite a bit with Ritchie Valens.
“When I read in the newspaper three days later that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”
Fifty years ago, on Feb. 2, 1959, the Winter Dance Party reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where 1,300 youngsters showed up. It was the 11th stop on a tour that began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and had become a tedious, bitterly frigid bus excursion. Holly rented a plane to get to the next destination, 440 miles away for a concert the next day in Moorhead, Minn. They were to land in Fargo, N.D.
Just after midnight on Feb. 3, Holly, Richardson, Valens and pilot Roger Peterson, 21, boarded a 12-year-old single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza at an airport in nearby Mason City, Iowa. Peterson, a rookie, wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield eight miles from the Surf Ballroom. Everyone aboard was killed.
The Duluth Armory, built on London Road in 1915, decommissioned and given to the city in 1978 and now mothballed in hopes of renovation, is no longer a performance venue. But the building will be the site of a 50th anniversary Winter Dance Party gathering for about a half-hour starting at noon Saturday. Fans will be able to look into the Armory but not go inside, said Susan Phillips, president of the nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center. The entrance is at 13th Avenue East and Jefferson Street.
Buddy Holly performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)
Dan Heikkinen, 40, of Cloquet is a Buddy Hollyphile. He grew up a Beatles fan and then heard that his favorite band was influenced by Holly and his group, The Crickets. The Beatles sang “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “Think It Over,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “It’s So Easy,” “Raining In My Heart,” “Reminiscing,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and “Everyday,” and recorded “Words of Love.”
Heikkinen had a new favorite band and has since become a Holly historian. He’s helped organize re-creations of the Winter Dance Party in Duluth in the past decade, helps select a Winter Dance Party Scholarship winner for a Minnesota high school student with a musical background, and almost never misses the annual Winter Dance Party celebration at the Surf Ballroom. He’ll drive the 290 miles there this week with his brother, Scott Heikkinen, 51, of Hermantown and brother-in-law, Terry Purcell, 56, of Esko.
“I read biographies about Buddy and then went and bought some of his music at the old Carlson Books and Records [in Duluth],” said Heikkinen, store manager at Super One in Two Harbors. “I put those records on at home and thought: ‘This guy is fantastic.’ He was ahead of his time. To know that he played right here, in Duluth, well that’s a pretty big deal.
“Going to the Surf is like being in a time machine. It’s like walking back into the 1950s with people wearing poodle skirts and letter jackets. It’s an amazing place.”
Latto was hired at WDSM Radio in 1958 after his senior year at Duluth Denfeld. He played the Top 40 format of the day from 4-6 p.m., labeling it the Nifty 50. As a young entrepreneur, he fronted music shows at the Armory, including acts like Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee, and a Summer Dance Party stop on July 11, 1958, when Holly first played in town and stayed overnight at the Hotel Duluth.
For the Jan. 31, 1959, show at the Armory, Latto put posters up in music stores like Mickey’s Melody Lane at Third Avenue West and First Street. Fans paid $1.25 to $2 that night and General Artists Corp., a rag-tag outfit that booked the tour, was promised $1,000 or 50 percent of the gross receipts. Because of the large crowd, Latto estimates the payout for the performers was about $2,000, while he split his half with the National Guard.
A bus carrying the approximately 12-person group traveled 370 miles from Fort Dodge, Iowa, after a Jan. 30 concert, arriving in Duluth just before the 9 p.m. performance. The bus left shortly after the dance ended at midnight. Also on the tour were singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, and musicians including guitarists Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup.
“Compared to some acts, Holly and his group had a refined presentation. Everyone was dressed in sport jackets and acted like gentlemen,” said Latto, now an owner of radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids, and still employed by WDSM as a freelance talk show host, on weekdays from 7-9 a.m.
Latto has great memories from 1959, just no memorabilia. In the past two years, a Los Angeles entrepreneur offered $20,000 for a promotional poster from the Duluth performance, but Latto says there are none as far as he knows. They were discarded after the dance.
Photos, however, have surfaced from that night — black-and-white shots taken by teenagers Sharon Johnson and Colleen Bowen, which can be viewed at www.buddyhollyonline.com.
The Winter Dance Party moved to Green Bay on Feb. 1, ultimately by train after difficulty with its school bus because of wind-chill temperatures of 40 below zero. Then it was on to Clear Lake and a meeting with destiny.
– end –
J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)
The News Tribune’s Kevin Pates also wrote a story about the event on Jan. 30, 1999, for the 40th anniversary:
RELIVING THE LEGEND
Kevin Pates, News Tribune
Three days after leaving Duluth, Buddy Holly and three others boarded a plane after midnight in Mason City, Iowa.
Holly, 22, had chartered a flight to Fargo, N.D., for the next stop of the 1959 Winter Dance Party: Moorhead, Minn. Also on the single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza were entertainers J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson, 28; Ritchie Valens, 17; and pilot Roger Peterson, 21.
Peterson wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota on Feb. 3, 1959. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield. Everyone aboard was killed.
Rock ‘n’ roll’s fatality list had its first superstar.
The news of Holly’s death was a blow to America’s teen-agers, including those in Duluth, where he had performed Jan. 31 at the National Guard Armory on London Road.
“We had a chance to see him, just as he was getting started, and then he was gone. It was like `Oh my God. He was just here.’ It was devastating,” said Yvonne Pavelich, 54, a bartender at Duluth’s Radisson Hotel. She was a 14-year-old Washington Junior High freshman when she attended the Armory dance. “The next day at school the boys wore black armbands and the girls had black ribbons in their hair.”
The Lubbock, Texas, songwriter, who played guitar, sang with a trademark hiccup-style and wore black, horn-rimmed glasses was like no one before him.
In the 40 years since the crash, Holly has become recognized as the founder of the first modern rock band. He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His life has been portrayed in a 1978 movie. His face is on a U.S. postage stamp.
On Sunday, the Winter Dance Party will live again, 40 years to the day after it stopped in Duluth. An anniversary tour is hitting 11 towns in 11 days. Because Duluth’s National Guard Armory is no longer a performance site, the party is at the Holiday Inn’s Great Lakes Ballroom.
Niki Sullivan, a member of Holly’s band the Crickets, and Ernie Valens, nephew of Ritchie Valens, will be among those performing here.
John Mueller will portray Holly. He’s played the rock ‘n’ roll legend for the past 4 1/2 years, first in a production called “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and more recently in the play “Buddy.”
“I hope what comes across is the pure joy I get from his very straightforward, innocent music. I try not to make it a caricature and I don’t even like the word impression. I would say my performance is 50 percent me and 50 percent Buddy Holly,” Mueller, 36, said from a tour stop in Montevideo, Minn.
Sullivan has seen many Holly impersonators, but says Mueller is unique.
“John is a clone of Buddy Holly. I’m not kidding,” said Sullivan, who was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over Buddy’s death, but I’m getting a chance to relive my past every time I see John perform.”
Second time in Duluth
In 1959, Lew Latto was a 19-year-old top-40 disc jockey-entrepreneur at Duluth’s WDSM. The University of Minnesota-Duluth freshman acted as booking agent and master of ceremonies for musical acts coming to Duluth.
The Crickets, with Holly, first played the Armory on July 11, 1958, as part of a Summer Dance Party. To finance the Winter Dance Party stop on Jan. 31, 1959, Latto got an advance on his WDSM paycheck.
The largest crowd for any of Latto’s events — about 2,000 — paid $1.75 to $2 that winter night. The package of entertainers, which also had singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, earned about $1,000.
Teens came to Armory dances to listen to music, meet friends and dance, said Duluth News-Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan, 59, who was at the Winter Dance Party as a UMD sophomore.
“The girls were screaming over Holly and I remember thinking `What has he got? He looks geeky,’ ” said Heffernan.
Holly’s appeal was obvious to some fans, like Hibbing’s Bob Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan. He was a 17-year-old high school senior and budding musician when he came to the Winter Dance Party. Dylan has credited Holly with being an influence in his music.
Latto knew Holly was onto something.
“There’s no doubt that had he lived, he would’ve been one of the top rock performers of his era. I look at Holly’s effect on music like what James Dean was to movies,” said Latto, 59, who now owns radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids and has a weekday talk show on WEBC.
Duluthian Darrell Paulson was a drummer in his own group, the Rock and Roll 5. The band was on the same bill with Holly in 1958 at the Armory and Paulson later worked for stars like Gene Vincent, Marty Robbins, Skeeter Davis and Brenda Lee. He met and talked with Holly again, in Canada, while with Vincent.
“I’ve worked with other big shooters, but Holly was very personable, very kind. All of his musicians carried themselves as professionals. They were very concerned about the kind of music they were making,” said Paulson, 60, who still owns two drum sets, and is now in the food sales business.
Ritchie Valens performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)
Holly’s burning star
Holly’s meteoric rise was just that — a brief three-year recording career. He had three albums and just one No. 1 hit (“That’ll Be the Day” in 1957) before his death.
The band that recorded many of the Crickets’ studio albums was Holly, drummer Jerry Allison, bass player Joe B. Mauldin and rhythm guitar player Sullivan.
Demanding travel and recording schedules, and problems with business manager-producer Norman Petty led to changes in the group.
Sullivan says he never regretted leaving the Crickets in 1957 yet enjoyed his time with the group and its leader.
“Buddy was a good, old Christian boy, who knew what he wanted and how to get it. His burning desire was to be an entertainer and he got there and became a legend,” said Sullivan, 61, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and still receives royalty checks for his association with the Crickets.
Holly left the Crickets and Petty in 1958. He married and moved to New York to begin a solo career that October.
The final tour
Holly’s motivation was to grow as a rock innovator, producer and artist but he lacked the money. He reluctantly agreed to headline the 1959 Winter Dance Party put together by General Artists Corp.
“More than anything, Buddy went on the tour as a favor to GAC. They felt they needed a bigger attraction, so they really urged Buddy to help them out,” his widow, Maria Elena, said in the 1975 biography “Remembering Buddy.”
Holly needed a new touring band and got Carl Bunch on drums, former Cricket Tommy Allsup on guitar and Lubbock disc jockey Waylon Jennings, 21, on bass.
The GAC tour chartered a bus that proved to be a lemon on the icy, snowy roads of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. It broke down several times the first week.
The Dance Party began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and the 11th stop was Feb. 2 in Clear Lake, where 1,300 fans showed up.
Weary from travel, Holly chartered the 12-year-old Beechcraft for a 3 1/2-hour flight to Fargo. Allsup and Jennings were to join him, yet legend has it that an ailing Big Bopper talked Jennings into trading places and Valens won a coin flip for Allsup’s seat.
When the plane didn’t arrive, a search began. When the tour bus reached Moorhead at noon, Allsup was first into the hotel and the news was on the lobby television. The desk clerk relayed the details.
High schooler Bobby Vee, 15, and his band, The Shadows, made their professional debut that night in Moorhead, filling in for Holly. The tour went on, finishing Feb. 15.
The music does matter
Paul Anka had written “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” specifically for Holly. It turned out to be Holly’s last studio track, released Jan. 5, 1959, and ultimately reached No. 13 on the Billboard charts.
Certainly, Holly and his music have mattered. While record sale totals aren’t available, an MCA Records spokesman said Holly’s albums continue to consistently sell well. His records have influenced rockers from the Beatles to Elton John to Linda Ronstadt.
It’s estimated that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper combined to sell more than 10 million records in the 12 months leading up to the Winter Dance Party.
Dennis Farland, who works for the Maytag Co. in Newton, Iowa, took time off to put the 40th anniversary tour together.
“It’s been far beyond my expectations. It has been phenomenal,” Farland, 54, said from a tour stop in Eau Claire, Wis. “I’m pretty passionate about the music, but even so, I think this is a magical show.”
– end –
Dion and the Belmonts performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)
As noted above, one of those in attendance at the Duluth Armory show was a young Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing – later to be known to the world as Bob Dylan. In February 1998, when he won the Grammy for Album of the Year for “Time Out of Mind,” Dylan mentioned the concert in his acceptance speech:
Were you at any of the Winter Dance Party concerts in 1959? Share your memories by posting a comment.
Flames erupt from the upper windows and roof of the Chinese Lantern shortly after 7 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1994 as firefighters pour water into the three-story structure from their hoses and aerial trucks. Twelve units and up to 50 firefighters were at the scene in downtown Duluth. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the landmark Chinese Lantern restaurant in downtown Duluth. The fire on Jan. 16, 1994, burned “one of the places – like the Aerial Bridge, like Glensheen – that comes to mind when people think of Duluth,” the News Tribune reported the next day.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the fire story that appeared in the Jan. 17 DNT:
“The Chinese Lantern, a landmark supper club popular among Northland residents and visitors for 30 years, caved into a shambles of scorches timbers and ice in little more than three hours early Sunday.
Up to 50 firefighters were called out in 18-below weather at 5:45 a.m., battling a downtown Duluth fire of unknown origin that started in the kitchen and quickly burst through the rooftop in a wall of flames that threatened the lives of a dozen firefighters inside. …
Owner Wing Ying Huie opened the Chinese Lantern in 1964 at the Superior Street level of the Palladio Building, immediately behind the structure that burned. He was following a Huie family tradition of serving authentic Chinese specialties that began when his father, Joe Huie, opened a restaurant near the entrance of Canal Park in the early 1900s.”
Jan. 17, 1994: Workers remove heavy items from the wreckage of the Chinese Lantern a day after a fire destroyed the downtown Duluth restaurant. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)
After the fire, the building was repaired and a half-dozen bars and/or restaurants tried to make a go of it at that location: Blue Water Bar & Grill. Bella Vita Ristorante. Champps Americana. Duluth Athletic Club Bar & Grill. Score Sports Bar & Grill. R Bar. None lasted for the long haul.
In late 2011, it was announced that the Minnesota WorkForce Center, Duluth Workforce Development and partner agencies would move into the entire vacant building, ending – for now – any attempts to try yet another restaurant at that location.
Share your memories of the Chinese Lantern – or any other long-gone Duluth restaurant – by posting a comment.
The Spalding was the subject of several previous Attic posts, with a number of old photos. You can find them here, here, here and here.
Local authors and historians Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton featured the Spalding in their 2012 book “Lost Duluth.” You can find that information – and much more about Duluth history – at Zenith City Online.
Do you remember the Spalding? Do you have some memorabilia from the old hotel? Share your stories and memories by posting a comment.
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.
Comedian Louie Anderson, in character as Duluth psychotherapist Louie Lundgren, in a CBS publicity photo for “The Louie Show” from January 1996. (Cliff Lipson / CBS / News Tribune file)
There’s been some discussion over on Perfect Duluth Day recently about “The Louie Show,” a short-lived 1996 CBS sitcom set in Duluth and starring Minnesota-raised comedian Louie Anderson.
I dove into the archives here at the News Tribune and present here what may be the most extensive collection of Louie Show-related content ever assembled online. While the show’s handful of episodes aired in early 1996, the story in Duluth started back on March 9, 1995, when word of the prospective sitcom made the front page of the News Tribune under the headline “Pilot episode of Anderson sitcom will be filmed in Duluth” (with all of these, click on the image for a larger version):
Well…. the “pilot episode filmed in Duluth” part didn’t happen. What did happen was a film crew shot scenes in Duluth for an opening to the show, on April 30-May 1, 1995. The sequence featured the News Tribune; here’s an account from the May 2, 1995, News Tribune, headlined ” ‘Louie Show’ offers momentary fame to Duluth paper boy”:
Here are the photos that ran with the story:
Jason Koskinen, Duluth News-Tribune carrier and actor in the opening scenes of an upcoming Louie Anderson sitcom, is seen in Duluth on May 1, 1995. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)
Jason Koskinen, 15, of Duluth walks through his role as a paper boy for the opening scene of “The Louie Show,” on Fifth Street East in Duluth on May 1, 1995. A sophomore at Marshall School, Koskinen had done some modeling and just a bit of acting which helped him get the part. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)
The articles above are images, not text, because they predate the News Tribune’s electronic archive by just a few months. I was able to find them on (and take photos of) microfilm thanks to some other clues. There may have been additional stories about “The Louie Show” in summer or fall 1995, but the next one I could find is from the Eh? column on Dec. 12, 1995:
‘Louie Show’ update
There’s still no word on when a based-in-Duluth sitcom starring comedian Louie Anderson will hit the airwaves, but producers have asked for more local footage.
And so, a film crew from Duluth’s Parthe Film & Video Production will brave the winter winds today to shoot more scenes in and around Duluth that will be folded into “The Louie Show.”
Filming is scheduled around the house at 1601 E. Fifth St. this afternoon. The Victorian-style duplex owned by Jane Koskinen was chosen last spring as Louie’s house — at least for the purposes of the show’s opening credits.
Shukovsky/English Entertainment Co., the show’s producer, hasn’t been given an airdate for the show. CBS — the network that picked up the show as a mid-season replacement — also is keeping mum as to when the show might air.
On Jan. 11, 1996, the News Tribune reported big news – an air date for “The Louie Show”:
LOOK FOR `LOUIE’ JAN. 31
Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer
Duluth and “The Louie Show” will go national this month.
CBS announced Wednesday that the set-in-Duluth sitcom featuring Minnesota comedian Louie Anderson would begin airing at 7:30 Wednesday nights starting Jan. 31.
Louie climbs into the prime-time lineup over the corpse of “Bless This House,” a comedy starring Andrew (formerly “Dice”) Clay that was canceled after finishing 75th out of 92 shows in last week’s Nielsen ratings.
Six episodes of the show featuring Anderson as a Duluth psychotherapist have been filmed and will run Wednesday nights during the February rating “sweeps” period. The show will air locally on KDLH-TV Channel 3.
But it’s highly unlikely that “The Louie Show” will be picked up as a full-time series this season, said John Whitman, executive in charge of production at Shukovsky/English Entertainment Co., the show’s producers.
“If there was an instant attraction to the show in a big way, then other variables would pop into place,” Whitman said. “But the likelihood of that happening is small.”
More likely, Whitman said, is that the show’s six episodes will run this winter, then possibly be rerun at a later date. “If it gets reasonable (ratings) numbers, then it’s got a shot in the fall with a legitimate launch.”
Just how prominently Duluth is featured in the program won’t be known until “The Louie Show” actually airs.
Riki McManus, a local casting agent who’s been working with the show, reported that the set designer requested several photos of Duluth, including images of the Aerial Lift Bridge, of locals ice fishing, even of a men’s room in Duluth’s City Hall.
Here’s the next update, which ran in the Eh? column on Jan. 16, 1996:
LOUIE LOVES DULUTH
More than two weeks before the premiere of “The Louie Show,” Duluth is already in the national spotlight.
Promotional ads for the show feature Louie Anderson wearing a dusty blue sweatshirt with “DULUTH” screaming across his chest in bold, white letters.
The ads have been airing on CBS affiliates across the country, including KDLH TV-Channel 3 in Duluth, which will carry the show.
The show, which will debut Jan. 31, features Anderson, a comedian and native Minnesotan, as a psychotherapist working in Duluth.
Louie Anderson (center) as Louie Lundgren and Kate Hodge (right) as Gretchen Lafayette during filming for “The Louie Show.” (CBS publicity photo / News Tribune file)
The News Tribune got an advance screening of the pilot episode, and ran this review on Jan. 29, 1996 – two days ahead of the series premiere. The Duluth-filmed opening sequence was nowhere to be seen:
REVIEW: SHOW’S EARNEST, FOLKS LIKABLE, BUT …
`THE LOUIE SHOW’ WON’T LAST UNLESS IT’S REVAMPED
Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer
In his new situation comedy, “The Louie Show,” Louie Anderson stars as a hinterlands psychotherapist whose ingenuous instinct for truth-telling often gets him into trouble.
If this show is to last beyond the six episodes already commissioned by CBS, it will need — like Louie’s patients — a little self-examination and a little help.
Because this is the ’90s, Louie earns his salary working for an HMO. Because this is a TV sitcom, his friends come from a variety of eclectic and interesting professions.
His best buddy is Curt (Bryan Cranston), a gung-ho, anal-retentive but well-meaning detective on the Duluth Police Department.
Hanging around in Louie’s house or in the corner coffee shop is Jake (Paul Feig), a wise-cracking physician who works with Louie.
Into this mix breezes Gretchen (Kate Hodge), a high-octane, slightly ditzy certified massage therapist. She moved to Duluth from Los Angeles after she saw a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard that said “Duluth: Think About It” and interpreted it as a cosmic sign.
Clearly, the aim here is to develop an ensemble-type comedy around a successful stand-up comedian — a la “Seinfeld” or “Ellen” — but things don’t immediately jell with this batch of characters.
In the early, character-establishing episodes, there are laughs, but the writing rambles and the jokes feel forced. One of Curt’s first lines, for instance, is a complaint to Louie about a loose board on his porch that could cause a twisted ankle. “Instead of chasing the criminals,” he deadpans, “I’d have to drop ‘em with my .45 . . . wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Anderson himself sometimes seems to be vamping, literally dancing around to maintain some sense of energy as the scripts drag along.
The humor is neither especially pointed nor particularly witty. Though Louie’s clearly the center of the action, his laugh-lines and those of the supporting characters seem to exist in a vacuum.
There’s little sense of how these characters will play off each other. There’s even less sense of how Anderson’s kinder, gentler, more introspective brand of humor will translate into weekly television.
With the exception of Anderson’s endearing and amiable presence and Hodge’s full-speed-ahead adrenalin shot of a character, “The Louie Show” feels cumbersome and in need of streamlining.
Local viewers might be disappointed in the relative lack of northern exposure in the show. Except for a few shots of the Missabe Building, passing references to the Vikings or the occasional joke about our Minnesota Nice attitude, there’s not much of Duluth in these early episodes.
That much-ballyhooed opening sequence featuring Duluth landmarks, for instance, has been replaced with a dizzying montage of Louie in hip-waders, a barbecue apron and an immense blue Duluth sweatshirt.
As the “outsider,” though, Gretchen speaks in the show for what is evidently Los Angeles’ perspective of life here on the tundra: The people are emotionally frostbitten and it’s hard to track down a good half-caff mocha latte with nonfat milk.
The characters in the show have a good start on their Midwestern sensibilities and they’re earnest and likable.
But earnest and likable only get you so far in Sitcomland. Good television comedy is fueled by offbeat ideas, sharp writing and bright performances.
Given a chance, “The Louie Show” might evolve in that direction. But it’s not there yet. Right now, the only thing inventive or special about the show is its Northland setting.
Here’s a clip of that dizzying montage opening sequence, posted by Paul Lundgren over at Perfect Duluth Day. It’s preceded by a clip of Anderson interacting with a patient played by Valerie Mahaffey, who won an Emmy for her work on “Northern Exposure”:
On the same day as the review, the News Tribune also ran an interview with Louie Anderson:
COMEDIAN WANTS SPOTLIGHT ON HIS HOME STATE
Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer
Of all the places on the planet, how would you ever get the idea to set a television show in Duluth, Minnesota?
It helps if you’re a native of the state, as is comedian Louie Anderson, who stars in “The Louie Show” premiering Wednesday night on local CBS affiliate KDLH-TV Channel 3.
Anderson grew up and cut his performing teeth as a stand-up comedian in the Twin Cities. But he’s been to Duluth several times and under a variety of circumstances.
“In about 1979, I drove my friend to Duluth to read letters to his father at his grave,” Anderson said. “I thought it was kind of an interesting city.”
That experience was the inspiration for “Dear Dad,” one of Anderson’s two autobiographical books. It also set him thinking that Duluth might make a good springboard for his entrance into situation comedy.
“I thought there was a lot of character there,” Anderson said, speaking from his car phone somewhere on the Los Angeles roadways. “And there were a lot of characters there.”
Home-state pride plays into the equation, too.
“I think people think that people in Minnesota don’t have much going; that they’re just shoveling the walk all the time,” he said.
“But in Minnesota, there’s something very much like me in the sense that, no matter how hard things seem to be, you can see it through and you might even be able to get a laugh out of it.”
In “The Louie Show,” Anderson plays a psychotherapist at a fictitious Duluth health maintenance organization. The character is close to the heart of the performer.
Anderson was a social worker in the Twin Cities before becoming a stand-up comedian. He also spent a large part of his adult life in therapy dealing with his own chronic depression.
“There was a lot of mental illness in my family, and had I not found comedy, I think I would have been dead,” he said.
That perspective, Anderson believes, gives his show more humanity than other situation comedies.
His character “is something I could have very easily have been. I think it’s believable that I’m in a position where I care about people and their problems.”
The first half-dozen episodes of “The Louie Show” have already been taped and were pretty much devoted to establishing the characters of the ensemble cast.
That didn’t leave much room in the spotlight for Duluth or the moods of Lake Superior. But that’s something Anderson plans to change if the series gets picked up for a full-scale run in the fall.
“If the show goes, we’ll come up there this summer and shoot the main titles,” Anderson said. “We wanted to do it (for the pilot episodes), but the lake was frozen.”
It’s even possible that portions of a couple episodes could be shot on location in Duluth. The show’s writers are considering a story line, for example, that would feature the Duluth-Superior Dukes, the community’s minor-league baseball team.
Another idea for a show has Louie running for mayor of Duluth — and winning.
Although “The Louie Show” is coming on the air as a mid-season replacement series, Anderson is optimistic about its prospects.
“I think people have been waiting for me to do a sitcom and I think I have a lot of fans out there,” he said. “The show’s a lot better than most of the shows on TV. With the dedication and the work, it’ll be a classic TV show.”
His prediction? “The Thursday after the third week of the show, (CBS will) order more shows,” he said.
And if not? Anderson said that would be a disappointment, but he’s learned that life goes on.
“Then,” he said, “I’ll be off the air and I’ll be on to something else.”
Louie Anderson as Duluth psychotherapist Louie Lundgren in “The Louie Show,” a short-lived 1996 CBS sitcom. (CBS publicity photo / News Tribune file)
On the day the show premiered – Wednesday, Jan. 31, 1996 – the News Tribune ran this item seeking viewer / reader feedback:
WILL `LOUIE’ FLY? YOU CAN BE THE JUDGE
Tonight’s the night that “The Louie Show” moves from the imaginings of its creators and to a few million television sets across the country.
Louie Anderson’s career as a sitcom actor rides on tonight’s 7:30 premiere episode on KDLH-Channel 3 and the five shows that are scheduled to follow Wednesday nights on CBS.
Too, Duluth’s place in the pop culture firmament rests on how well “The Louie Show” does. Will the Northland be thought of in the fond glow that the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” brought to Minneapolis? Or will the Twin Ports become like Portland in the wake of the disastrous and little-remembered McLean Stevenson sitcom, “Hello, Larry” — merely the answer to a trivia question?
The Nielsen households and their little ratings diaries will decide, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a say.
Watch the show tonight. And then, from 8 to 9 p.m., call in to our special “LouieLine” and give us your review. What did you like? What did you hate? Will the show live? Or will it die?
The number is 723-xxxx. Be sure to leave us your name and your phone number in case we need to get back to you. We’ll publish some of your responses in Thursday’s News-Tribune.
Here was the response from Northland residents, as reported in the News Tribune on Feb. 1, 1996…
Jane Koskinen and her son, Jason, watch the premiere episode of “The Louie Show” Wednesday night, Jan. 31, 1996, at the Amazing Grace Bakery and Cafe. Footage of a house in Duluth owned by Koskinen was used to give the show some Duluth flavor. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)
`LOUIE SHOW’ KNOCKS ‘EM OUT IN NORTHLAND
Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer
“The Louie Show” was a big hit Wednesday night at the Amazing Grace Bakery and Cafe, where Jason Koskinen and a group of about 25 friends watched the premiere episode of the set-in-Duluth situation comedy.
The 16-year-old Koskinen spent a day last May in front of the camera, filming what he hoped would be the show’s opening credits. Those scenes didn’t make it into Wednesday’s broadcast on CBS, but Koskinen proclaimed himself satisfied with the result nonetheless.
“It was interesting to see how they portrayed Duluth and Duluth people,” Koskinen said. “I’m hoping that they’re going to be able to get us in the next time, as well as some other Duluth stuff, instead of just showing Louie spinning around.”
If Koskinen’s enthusiasm for the show was tempered a bit by missing his national television debut, most of the rest of the Northland was wowed.
Dozens of Northlanders flooded the News-Tribune’s “LouieLine” to offer their comments. By their estimation, “The Louie Show” is a smash . . . at least in the community where it’s set.
Here’s a sample of the local reviews:
Marjorie Lake, Duluth: “Thumbs up for Louie!”
Jan Melton, Duluth: “We love `The Louie Show.’ We want to see more of Duluth in it, but definitely want to see it stay on the air.”
Pat Martin, Duluth: “ `The Louie Show’ ” had a lot of charm. Problem is that it didn’t have sex and violence so it won’t go. It did a lot to make Duluth look kind of nostalgic.”
Pauline Palmer, Superior: “Both my husband and I like the show. If we’re not home on Wednesday night, we’ll tape it. My only suggestion would be I would like to see more of the Duluth locale.”
Dave Wittke, Superior: “Louie Anderson and his show both kick.”
Mary Overlie, Duluth: “It would be nice if we could all be that happy throughout the year, but it’s not realistic. No one in Duluth is that happy right now. I’d like to see it make it, but I think he’s probably going to do his six weeks worth and then it’ll be over with.”
Peg Campbell, Pike Lake: “We’re a lot of a `bit over 60′ and we loved it. Everybody is believable except Louie’s friend who’s a doctor. We don’t have such flaky, flaky doctors here.”
Judy Helgesen, Duluth: “Louie’s very real. He could be someone who lived up here.”
Dawn Mankoski, Superior: “Louie has done it again. He’s shown us we can laugh at ourselves and we just might make it through this winter.”
Joe Howard, Duluth: “I thought the show was boring, pretty dry. He needs better writers.”
Phyllis and Art Barschdorf, Duluth: “Very gentle humor and good family viewing.”
Terie Suliin, Duluth: “The roofer with the Swedish accent was too fakey. Louie doesn’t pronounce `roof’ like he used to when he lived in Minnesota.”
Lucy Wills, Barnum: “It’s so nice to have a show without a lot of dirty talking.”
Pat Bergholm, Duluth: “I thought the characters were real, especially the female housemate and detective. I hope they won’t make fun of Duluth.”
Rick Klemond, Duluth: “I hope people on the East Coast and West Coast can understand it. Keep it on.”
R. Warren Peterson, Cloquet: “It’s got good humor and good energy. If he can keep it going, I think it’s got a chance.”
Florence Anderson, Duluth: “We loved the interesting and appealing characters, the funny story line and it was great to see Duluth in prime time.”
Nancy Johnson, Superior: “The only thing: It should have been an hour long instead of a half-hour.”
A couple weeks later, things were not looking good for “The Louie Show.” The Eh? column had this to say on Feb. 14, 1996:
LOUIE SHIP LISTING
Quick: Call a Nielsen family and tell them to tune into “The Louie Show” tonight.
In its second week on CBS, the set-in-Duluth sitcom starring Minnesota’s own Louie Anderson fell eight places in the prime-time ratings as compiled by Nielsen Media Research for Feb. 5-11.
The show finished 75th with a 7.4 rating, representing about 7.1 million households. The premiere episode posted a 8.6 rating, good enough for 67th place.
The bad news is that “The Louie Show” seemed to lose ground to ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show” and finished ahead of only four shows in CBS’ limping prime-time lineup.
The bright spot? Well, Louie still beat Montel Williams, whose hourlong drama on CBS, “Matt Waters,” finished the week tied for 84th place in the ratings.
Comedian Louie Anderson, in character as Duluth psychotherapist Louie Lundgren, in a CBS publicity photo for “The Louie Show” from January 1996. (Cliff Lipson / CBS / News Tribune file)
Two weeks later, the News Tribune’s Eh? column reported this news on Feb. 28, 1996:
LOUIE LEAPS UP
Don’t start singing the dirge for “The Louie Show” just yet.
According to the weekly prime-time ratings compiled by Nielsen Media Research for Feb. 19-25, Louie Anderson’s set-in-Duluth sitcom bounced up nine places to finish in 72nd place.
It was the second-best finish for the show in its month on the air. The premiere episode of the comedy placed 67th in the weekly ratings.
“The Louie Show” is still among CBS’ lowest-rated programs, but the sitcom finished above network-mates “Due South” and the special “Wynonna: Revelations.”
And here’s a little news that will make you either laugh or cry. Louie even did better than Dan Rather, beating out the network’s coverage of last week’s New Hampshire primaries.
The last episode of “The Louie Show” is set to air April 3. The show’s fate after that is in the hands of CBS honchos.
Then there was this longer update the next day, Feb, 29, 1996:
WHAT WILL BE THE FATE OF `THE LOUIE SHOW’ COME MAY?
SITCOM PRODUCERS STILL HOPEFUL
Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer
“The Louie Show” didn’t make it to the airwaves Wednesday night, but that doesn’t mean CBS has pulled the plug on the situation comedy starring Minnesota comedian Louie Anderson.
This week’s episode of the set-in-Duluth sitcom was bumped off the air so that the network could broadcast the annual Grammy Awards production. “Louie” will return next Wednesday for the fifth of its scheduled six episodes.
The show will also be preempted on March 13, meaning the last episode of the show will air on March 20.
“Louie” has never finished higher than 67th in the prime-time Nielsen ratings. Those numbers disappoint the show’s producers, but they’re not ready to give up on the show yet.
“We knew that, going into Wednesday evening, we were never going to be a breakthrough hit,” said John Whitman, executive in charge of production at Shukovsky/English Entertainment Co., the show’s producers.
Wednesday night has been a poor night for CBS this season, Whitman said, as the network struggles to recover ground lost from its disastrous last season.
Whitman also said “Louie” also suffers from a weak “lead-in,” the show that immediately precedes it in the schedule. “Dave’s World,” finished last week in the 66th slot in the Nielsen ratings. “The Louie Show” finished 72nd.
“The Louie Show” is “a show that’s worth being on the air,” Whitman said. “But it has to have substance around it to help it launch.”
Anderson’s program was roundly praised by television critics in the Twin Cities but received mediocre to negative news from other critics around the country.
A spokeswoman at CBS would say only that “it’s too soon to say” what will happen to“The Louie Show.” The networks generally announce their fall lineups in May.
Whitman, too, said it was too early to make a call on the eventual fate of “The Louie Show” — or to determine if the show’s cast or setting needed to be retooled.
The network’s decision would be based on a number of factors, including the show’s relative strength against other similar shows, the network’s need for another comedy and the crop of new shows proposed for the coming season.
“It’s up for grabs,” Whitman said. “I would not try to put a probability or even a thought” on what the network will do.
For now, he said, “we wait till May.”
Minnesota-raised comedian Louie Anderson portrays Louie Lundgren on “The Louie Show,” a 1996 CBS sitcom that was set in Duluth. (CBS publicity photo / News Tribune file)
On March 7, 1996, the Eh? column reported that “The Louie Show” ran up against tough competition in Duluth:
LOOKING FOR LOUIE?
Everything seems to be conspiring against “The Louie Show”: It’s stuck on a bad night with bad shows surrounding it. Now, the Minnesota high school hockey tournament is getting in the way.
KDLH-TV Channel 3 preempted Wednesday night’s broadcast of the set-in-Duluth sitcom in favor of the tourney. Die-hard fans of the show can catch the program at 5 p.m. today on Channel 3.
Another ratings report, from the Eh? column of March 13, 1996:
‘LOUIE’ LEAPS AGAIN (TO 67TH)
In Duluth, “The Louie Show” got bumped from its regular Wednesday night slot last week in favor of the high school hockey tournament. Other markets, however, carried the episode that made a strong showing the Nielsen ratings.
The show finished the week at number 67, its best performance since the Jan. 31 premiere episode that also ranked 67th.
And remember that the set-in-Duluth sitcom will be pre-empted again tonight. The sixth and final episode will air March 20.
And that is where the News Tribune files end on “The Louie Show.” The show was canceled after six episodes.
The show included several notable names among its cast members – Bryan Cranston, later of “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad”; Laura Innes, who played Dr. Kerry Weaver on “ER”; Paul Feig, who was directed episodes of “The Office” and “Arrested Development,” and who created the show “Freaks and Geeks”; and Kimmy Robertson, who played Lucy Moran on “Twin Peaks.”
Also notable – the casting of Nancy Becker-Kennedy as Louie’s assistant, Helen. According to a 2009 CBS News story, it marked the first time an actress in a wheelchair had a regular role on a sitcom.
I wish there was a full cast photo in the DNT archives – or at least one of pre-stardom Bryan Cranston – but there is not.
Louie Anderson has made several trips to the Northland to perform in the years since the sitcom was canceled.
What do you remember about “The Louie Show” and/or the local buzz surrounding it? Share your memories by posting a comment.
The Edmund Fitzgerald in the Twin Ports with the tug Arkansas, circa early 1960s. (News-Tribune file photo)
Other duties at work have kept me from posting many new items to the Attic in recent months, but I have to note that today – Nov. 10, 2013 – is the 38th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a massive storm on Lake Superior. The freighter’s crew of 29 men, including several from the Northland, died when the ship sank in eastern Lake Superior off Whitefish Point on Nov. 10, 1975; it had been heading from Superior to Detroit with a load of taconite.
A little after 7 p.m. that day, the Fitzgerald was in radio contact with the nearby Arthur M. Anderson, and reported that they were “holding our own” in heavy seas. There was no further contact with the freighter; minutes later the ship had disappeared from radar screens.
I compiled a number of archive photos and other information about the Fitzgerald in 2010, on the 35th anniversary of the wreck. You can view that post here.
Among the items posted there is this well-done video for Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song about the wreck:
Split Rock Lighthouse northeast of Two Harbors will host its annual beacon lighting and memorial service for the victims of the Fitzgerald, and all Great Lakes wrecks, this afternoon. They will toll a bell 29 times for each man who lost his life on the Fitzgerald, and then toll the bell a 30th time for all lost mariners. After that, the lighthouse’s beacon will be lit. It’s the only time each year when visitors can climb to the top of the tower while the beacon is lit and revolving.
The lighthouse will be open from noon to 6 p.m. today; the memorial service is at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $7 per person, free for Minnesota Historical Society members.
Here’s a News Tribune video of the Nov. 10, 2011, memorial ceremony at Split Rock:
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:
Crowds fill Duluth’s Miller Hill Mall during its official grand opening on July 25, 1973. (News Tribune file photo)
As featured on the front page of the Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 News Tribune, Duluth’s Miller Hill Mall is turning 40 years old this year. The mall opened in stages, with the “official” grand opening in July 1973.
The mall has been featured in a number of past Attic posts, including several with photos from its opening year. Here are links to those posts:
The buffeteria was one of the most popular places in the Montgomery Ward store at the Miller Hill Mall when this photo was taken in July 1973, four months after the store opened. (News Tribune file photo)