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)


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.

Before the music died in 1959, it lived in Duluth

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:


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)

Holly fan

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.”

That night

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

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:


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.

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.

The Louie Show, 1996

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”:


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:


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:



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”:

The News Tribune wasn’t the only one to pan the show. Other negative reviews included these from Variety, the Deseret News in Utah and the Los Angeles Times. But it wasn’t all bad. The New York Daily News had praise for the show, as did a reviewer for the New York Times Syndicate.

On the same day as the review, the News Tribune also ran an interview with Louie Anderson:


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:


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)


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:


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:


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:



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:


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:


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.

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.

Homegrown Music Festival photos

Duluth’s Homegrown Music Festival, which opened Sunday, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Here is a gallery of News Tribune photos from – or associated with – Homegrown Festivals of years past:

You may notice that the captions are pretty sparse on a few of these photos; if you can provide any names where they are missing, please post a comment.

World-famous voice with roots in Duluth

April 19, 1998

Duluth native Lorenzo Music uses the studios at Minnesota Public Radio in downtown Duluth in April 1998 to tape commercials and other voice-over roles. “Cartoon (characters) are very hard to do remote,” he says. “Everyone has to be sitting in the same room. You really have to react to each other. That’s one thing I no longer have a shot at. But I’m willing to give it up to be here in Duluth. It’s worth it for what I have instead.” At the time, and for many years, Music preferred not to have pictures taken that showed his face. (Bob King / News-Tribune)


By Chuck Frederick, News-Tribune staff writer

In a downtown Duluth recording studio, Lorenzo Music snaps a headset over his ears, smooths out a script and leans into the microphone.

“Do you wanna know what I’m wearing,” he teases as producers and engineers in both Los Angeles and Duluth wiggle patch cords and adjust sound levels before taping a radio commercial.

A voice from California considers Music’s question. Her short, startled laugh spills out of the overhead speakers and fills the Minnesota Public Radio studio inside the Holiday Center.

“Uh, let’s see,” she says. “Hawaiian shirt?”

“Hey, this is Duluth!” Music declares, smiling broadly.

“Oh yeah,” she says. “Denim?”

Dead on.

Lorenzo Music has been wearing his comfortable jeans and loose-fitting denim shirts a lot lately. He has a Duluth Pack slung over one shoulder, a spectacular view of Lake Superior over the other, and in between, the contented, easygoing smile of a man at home.

One of Hollywood’s hottest sitcom writers of the 1970’s, Music left the grind of L.A. in December to visit his old hometown.

And now, like someone reluctant to trade in a favorite pair of sweatpants after a long weekend, he’s finding it hard to leave.

The man who helped create “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” who co-created “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Rhoda,” whose voice is that of Rhoda’s never-seen-but-beloved Carlton the doorman and later of Garfield the cartoon cat, is rediscovering his roots.

He also is writing his autobiography and a slim volume of poetry and he is working as a voice actor, taping commercials and voice-overs in Duluth via digital telephone lines.

“I came back to Duluth because I wanted to remember my memoirs,” said Music, whose visit in December was a birthday gift to his wife, a chance for her to visit her mother, Margaret Johnson, in West Duluth.

“I just felt so good here,” he said. “This place is where I was formed and it’s so far removed from the stress of L.A. I felt I could come here and be here. (A friend’s) house was available on the lake. All I had to do was write and listen to the waves — and be here. I had to do it.”

Duluth roots are deep

Music came to Duluth for the first time in 1942. He was 5 years old then and had moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., with his parents, Harry and Sophie Music. A master mechanic, his father worked in the Superior shipyards during the war and played a drum in the company band that marched each time a new ship was launched.

Performing and comedy filled the Musics’ home in Central Hillside. “I was even forced to entertain as a child — or they wouldn’t feed me,” Music deadpanned, slipping into that goofy, Carlton-like, singsong voice of his. “I was a stand-up baby.”

He graduated from Central High School in 1955 and went to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to study speech and English.

But he spent more of his time playing banjo and performing comedy in the UMD cafeteria. He also performed for the Owl’s Club, the Eagle’s Club, pretty much anywhere that would have him, even the faculty wives’ tea.

He took to acting, too. During rehearsals for “Guys and Dolls” at UMD he met Myrna Johnson, the West Duluth woman who would become his wife.

Jerry and Myrna Music pose for a publicity photo in 1961, they year the former UMD students appeared at the school’s Homecoming dance in October. They later changed their names to Lorenzo and Henrietta. (News Tribune file photo)

Chases his dream

“I remember wanting to be an actor when I was 7, or maybe a comedian,” said Music, 60, a short round man with a smooth head and a quick wit. “I always knew I was a performer.”

In 1959, he chased his dream to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco. One night, he watched the yet-undiscovered Smothers Brothers perform.

“I can do that,” he thought.

The next morning he auditioned, performing the same little folk music and comedy act that had underwhelmed the Owls back in college. It went over better this time. He landed the nightclub gig.

“It was a cute act in the UMD cafeteria, but I didn’t know if I could do it in front of the Smothers Brothers and the owners of the club,” Music said. “To me, this was the big time.”

Hours before his first performance, he blacked out with fear. His bride-to-be fed him chicken soup and helped him dress. She drove him to the club and literally pushed him onstage.

He was a hit. The two were married, and not long after, she joined him on stage.

Together, though, the act didn’t gel. It was hard to tell who was funny and who was playing it straight, Music said.

The club fired the Musics. They hit the road, intent on making another run at the limelight. They played coffeehouses and nightclubs across the country. They toured with the USO, doing shows in the Far East, Europe and the Mediterranean.

By 1967, they liked their act. It was good. It was ready.

But it was too late.

The Byrds were hot and the Beatles had all that hair. Rock ‘n’ roll was in. Their folk-music-and-comedy act was out.

Myrna and Jerry Music use a Japanese tea service they brought back from their USO tour of the Far East, during a visit to Duluth in fall 1963. (News-Tribune file photo)

Lands Smothers Brothers job

The Musics wound up in Las Vegas, opening for Julie London. On the other end of the strip, the Smothers Brothers were on the verge of mega stardom. They had been signed by CBS to do a weekly series and were looking for writers. They remembered Music. He had never written professionally, but accepted the job.

“I didn’t think you needed to be professional to be a good writer,” Tommy Smothers said from his car phone in Burbank, Calif. “I flavored the writing staff with new guys. We all learned our craft as we went along.”

Music was one of 15 writers for the Smothers’ show. Others included Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. In 1969, they won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy Writing.

“(Music) was one of the fun guys,” Smothers said. “I was a big fan of his. I always loved his delivery and his act. I figured he’d be a good television writer because he was funny. He and his wife had a great act.”

Two and a half years later, Music left “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” to become head writer of the new “Glen Campbell Good Time Hour.” He bounced to another variety show and also started moonlighting, writing in evenings and on weekends with longtime friend David Davis. Davis had been a director of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and associate producer of the spy spoof “Get Smart.”

The moonlighting paid off. The new writing team sold scripts to “Love, American Style.”

Helps create ‘Mary’

And in 1970, when Davis was asked to produce a new show based in the Twin Cities about an independent-minded TV newswoman, he brought Music along as his writing partner. For 2 1/2 years, Music and Davis wrote or contributed to nearly every script of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“Everyone working on the show was from somewhere not Minnesota,” Music said. “I was their Minnesota expert. Things like, ‘How long does snow stay on your shoulders after you come in out of a storm.”‘

“He didn’t even have a desk at first,” Davis said of Music. “He sat in my office and I pulled out one of those boards that come out of desks for your typewriter. That was his area.”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was a huge success. The network was eager to cash in. “Why don’t you guys come up with another show,” a CBS executive asked Music and Davis. “If you guys could write a new show for any actor, who would it be?”

“Bob Newhart,” they said in unison. They had written for him before, including a sketch he performed on the Smothers Brothers’ show. They knew his stammer. And they loved his dry, straight humor.

“He was easy for us to write for,” Davis said of Newhart. “I had grown up with him on the radio.”

So they started writing, back at the same secluded Santa Barbara, Calif., beach hotel where they had written their first Mary Tyler Moore episode and where they would later write the pilot for “Rhoda.”

“The Bob Newhart Show” was another hit, thanks in large part to Music and Davis, the show’s star said.

“If their concept hadn’t worked, the show wouldn’t be on the air. It wouldn’t have done so well,” Newhart said from Los Angeles. “The best tribute is it’s still on (in reruns). It’s still being watched and it’s finding a new audience.

“Being a writer myself, I always felt the most important thing in the world is the written word,” Newhart said of Music’s and Davis’s scripts. “If you don’t have the words on the page, nothing is going to work. And this show worked.”

Lorenzo (Jerry) Music, right, the Duluth Central High School graduate voted “wittiest” of the Class of 1955, returned home in June 1976 to give the commencement address for his alma mater at the Arena. He was welcomed at the Duluth airport by a delegation which included, from left, Central Principal Richard Carlson, Joanne Maddox and Mary Forseth. (News-Tribune file photo)

‘Hi Bob’

The show also prompted one of the 1970s more unusual and talked-about drinking games — “Hi Bob.” To play, participants took a drink each time someone on the show said Bob’s name or “Hi Bob.”

Music insists he and Davis didn’t invent the game, though they may have helped it along. They did write all those “Hi Bobs” and “Bobs.”

But for good reason, Music said. Actress Suzanne Pleshette had a habit of calling Newhart, her on-screen hubby, “honey.”

“The ‘honeys’ bothered us and we thought they’d annoy the audience,” Music said. “She put them in when we didn’t write them and they made her character sound whiny, so we started writing fewer and fewer ‘honeys’ and more and more ‘Bobs.’ “

Rhoda and Carlton

Newhart was a ratings machine, and CBS was hungry for more. The executives wanted a Mary Tyler Moore spinoff based on best friend Rhoda Morgenstern. They tapped Music and Davis to develop and produce “Rhoda,” a show that forever changed Music’s life.

It was based in New York and needed a New York feel, Music said. The characters lived in an apartment building. And down in the lobby, there was a doorman — Carlton the doorman.

In the debut episode, Carlton’s now-famous slow, somewhat-drunk-or-stoned voice stumbled from an intercom box in the apartment of Rhoda’s sister, Brenda. “There’s a woman here who says she’s your sister,” Carlton said. “She doesn’t look anything like you.”

“The lines weren’t necessarily funny,” Music said. “It was the way they were done. The guy was gooney. He was out there. I do good gooney, I guess.”

Music and Davis had tried to hire a different actor to deliver Carlton’s lines. But no one did it quite right. They either played him too big. Or too drunk.

Music delivered the lines during rehearsals. “You should have seen him,” Davis said. “He was practically falling over, he was trying to do the lines so sleepily. The first time he did it, everyone just busted out laughing.”

With auditions going poorly, it was Mary Tyler Moore who finally suggested Music stay with the part. She was a guest star on that first episode.

Music did. And got huge laughs from the live studio audience during taping.

Carlton’s appeal can be traced to the days before television, when families huddled around the radio. Imaginations painted pictures of the characters. Carlton allowed Americans to do that again.

“It was a fun thing that people tuned in for. I thought it was hilarious from the very beginning,” actress Valerie Harper, who portrayed Rhoda, said from her New York home. “Lorenzo was great. He’d do the voice live on the side with a microphone so the audience could hear. And it was always incredible. I can’t remember a line from Carlton that didn’t work. I don’t remember Lorenzo ever bombing out.”

One hot doorman

Carlton the doorman was one of Hollywood’s hottest stories that television season of 1974-75. An air of mystique surrounded him. Who was he? What did he look like? A fan club started. Several hundred fans joined.

In the final episode of the season, “Rhoda” viewers thought they’d finally get to see the mysterious character.

A knock on Rhoda’s door. It was him. Rhoda cracked open the door but didn’t unhook it. Upset with Carlton, she delivered a severe tongue-lashing. When she finished, Carlton, played by Music, stuck in his arm, extended his hand and asked, “Will there still be a tip?”

The two characters worked well together, Harper said. The contrast of the out-of-it, laid-back Carlton against the high-strung, speak-her-mind Rhoda made for many comic moments.

“It was another character to play off, another super, funny character,” Harper said. “He just had a terrific voice for Carlton. He didn’t do a trick voice. He did a character. He used his own voice and that’s what helped make it work. It was honest.”

In 1976, Music was on top of the world. He had four hit shows on his resume and two Emmys, the second for an animated CBS special he created and produced called “Carlton Your Doorman.” He returned to Duluth that summer a hero, the guest speaker at graduation for his old high school.

But just three months later, the bottom fell out. “The Lorenzo and Henrietta Music Show,” a syndicated daytime talk, comedy and musical variety show starring Music and his wife, fell flat.

It was a “suicide run,” Music said. “It was a total disaster. An absolute bomb. I was always good on my feet, but I wasn’t that good.”

The show was canceled after six weeks, its ratings abysmal.

Lorenzo and Henrietta Music in a publicity photo for their short-lived “The Lorenzo and Henrietta Music Show” in 1976. (News-Tribune file photo)

Now a top voice actor

About that time, Music’s phone rang. It was an agent who provides voice actors for radio commercials, cartoons and other voice-overs. He said he had been getting requests for the Carlton the doorman voice. Was Music interested?

Two decades later, Music is one of the top voice actors in the business. Of the thousands of actors available to do voices in the Los Angeles area, Music is one of only a few who works consistently, said casting director Carroll Day Kimble.

“He’s a love. And he’s very well respected in the business,” said Kimble, who runs Carroll Voiceover Casting Co. in Los Angeles. “He’s extremely creative behind the microphone. He can change a couple little things and really make a spot sparkle. He’s a genius in the booth.

“And in the advertising world, people love to know they just booked Carlton the doorman,” she said. “They like to say, ‘Hey, I booked Garfield the cat.”‘

After Carlton, Garfield is probably Music’s best-known voice role. In 1983, he won another Emmy Award for co-writing a Garfield TV special. And from 1988 to 1995, he provided Garfield’s voice for the Saturday morning cartoon series.

Music’s other voice characters have included a crash test dummy in those you-can-learn-a-lot-from-a-dummy public service announcements that encourage motorists to buckle up, and, more recently, a store announcer on “The Drew Carey Show.”

“I believe voice actors should be heard and not seen,” Music said. “If you don’t know what I look like, I can be the crash test dummy. I can be Garfield the cat. I can be anything. But if some kid knows what I look like, then Garfield becomes me, and I don’t want to be Garfield. Garfield should be Garfield.

“As a voice actor I can be an ugly frog or I can be a handsome prince,” Music said. “If I worked on-camera, I could only be the handsome prince. You know?”

All of which helps explain why Music doesn’t like his photograph published. And why he was reluctant to be interviewed for this story.

He craves anonymity. It’s good for his career, he said, to maintain that mystique about his identity that started with Carlton the doorman.

Music wants you to know the voice, not the face. It’s the voice, after all, that puts lunch in his box, gas in his car and his kids in college.

“All I need is a studio, and this is the studio here,” Music said between takes at Minnesota Public Radio. “We have everything we need here. And this is all I need to bring. A pencil and my reading glasses. And if I didn’t bring a pencil, it wouldn’t matter.”

He doesn’t even read the script before arriving.

The radio commercials he is taping this day are for a casino near San Diego that’s giving away a pair of Volkswagen Beetle cars. Music portrays an excited caller who asks an exterminator if they’d heard about the bug infestation.

His head bobbing, his hands waving, his eyes popping to emphasize certain words, Music performs the lines. Between takes, he sips from a glass of milk left over from lunch. After one run-through, he pauses.

“At the ‘heck no,”‘ he says into his microphone, talking to the producer in California, “I feel like I could do that line a different way. Should I just do what I feel is best?”

“Always,” says the producer.

And the next time, Music does it differently. He drops some words, adds others, changes the emphasis. He does the lines better. No question.

“This is feeling really good,” the producer says. “The character sounds fine. The acting sounds fine.”

One more time.

“Wonderful. That was awfully good,” the producer says. “I can’t imagine anything else I’d want. Except for you to come back to L.A.”

Music smiles again.

“Oh, please don’t make me come back to L.A. just yet,” he says.

And this time, there’s not even a hint of teasing in his voice.

— end —

Lorenzo Music died from cancer on Aug. 4, 2001, at age 64. He was survived by his wife and four children.

Here are a couple of YouTube clips featuring Lorenzo Music’s voice acting. The first is from the pilot episode of “Rhoda” – you can see his name in the opening credits, and then hear him as “Carlton the Doorman” at about the 1:10 mark:

And here’s a short “Garfield” clip from the 1980s:

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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.

— end —

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.


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.

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Duluth’s Recycla-Bell club for teens, 1996

March 10, 1996

Joyce Campbell (from left), owner of the Recycla-Bell in Duluth, stands in front of the building with regular visitors Malahn Amend, 20, Genevieve Gaboriault, 16, and Leah Smith, 17, in February 1996. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)



By Zita Lichtenberg, News-Tribune staff writer

Cutting lyrics and a raging electric guitar blast through giant speakers. In a room with black walls, a band is pounding out music and a group of kids are “moshing” — pushing against one another, trying to get to the center of the group.

In the other room the kids are more subdued, sitting and talking in booths that look like leftovers from a ’50s diner.

This is the Recycla-Bell in Duluth’s Endion neighborhood, and on this particular Saturday, around 200 14- to 20-year-olds have come to listen to music, talk and just hang out.

Once a Northwestern Bell telephone building at 1804 E. First St., it’s now a music venue for Northland bands and the only place in the Twin Ports these young people feel belongs to them.

A young woman in flowing clothing with glitter in her eyelashes stands next to the booths talking to Joyce Campbell, the Recycla-Bell’s owner.

She is Michelle Pesek, a 20-year-old pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and she is thanking Campbell for keeping the Recycla-Bell open.

“There’s a feeling of peace and camaraderie and the freedom to be ourselves here,”‘ Pesek said.

Despite minimal supervision — Joyce and her husband, Chris, are the only chaperones — the crowd at the Recycla-Bell is calm and self-controlled.

“The owners are very good-hearted and respectful, and the kids don’t feel they are being repressed,” Pesek said.

“If they are repressed, they will rage against it,” she added, “but if they are treated like thinking, respectful teen-agers, they will act like thinking, respectful teen-agers.”

Some of them have dyed their hair unnatural colors and pierced their bodies in socially incorrect places. Others look like the kid next door in flannel shirts and blue jeans.

Regardless of their fashion statements, they defy some of the negative stereotypes adults hold about today’s young people.

Recycla-Bell patrons dance to live music in the dance area in January 1996. Young people of all ages crowded the dance floor. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Freedom through responsibility

Recycla-Bell kids cooperate with and appreciate the Recycla-Bell rules: no alcohol, no tobacco and no drugs.

“It just doesn’t fly if you break the rules,” said Joel Hardesty, 19, whose band played at the first concert at the Recycla-Bell in 1991.

There is one compelling reason: the music. It is one of the only places teens in the Twin Ports can see local bands, along with occasional groups from Canada and other parts of the United States, playing music they like — rock, alternative, punk or ska (the precursor to reggae).

The young people here know they will decide the fate of the club themselves, and nobody wants to mess things up.

As insurance, John Stone, a Recycla-Bell regular, acts as the unofficial bouncer. He has kicked out people only one or two times. Drugs, alcohol and violence are not problems, he said.

Besides making sure the moshing doesn’t get out of hand, Stone, 20, recruits bands and runs the sound system. He said it’s important that the music and the environment at the Recycla-Bell are largely controlled by people under 21.

There is no decor except for a few posters, and the music room’s black walls and empty floor provide the perfect backdrop for bands and dancers who are attempting to escape the trappings of the adult world — if only for a few hours.

Besides having the minimalist atmosphere they crave, young people say the Recycla-Bell is a place to go and feel respected and accepted.

“It’s a place where kids can be in charge while still respecting some rules,” said Joel Monsaas Kilgour, 19.

“Anyone who comes in here isn’t labeled,” said Jessie Huard, 17. “The Campbells accept any group.”

Superior High School students Adam Frink, 14 (left), and Amy Brandt, 17 talk with their friends, seated behind, at the Recycla-Bell in Duluth in February 1996. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Owners’ attitudes key

“Young people need what we all need: love, respect, hope and to feel like we have some choices. I started with this basic premise,” Joyce Campbell said.

She and her husband bought the old Northwestern Bell Telephone building in 1991, made an apartment for themselves on the third floor, and turned it into an activist center for anti-violence and environmental causes and a music venue for young people on the weekends.

Joyce often plays the part of mother to the “Bell kids,” as she calls them. She knows many of them well, gushes with praise over their accomplishments and snaps their pictures, telling them to pick them up the next time.

The kids smile or fidget with embarrassment — many of them are not used to having an adult earnestly compliment their dyed hair and eccentric outfits.

“My opinion has always been that hair color or length and clothing styles are some of the safer choices that young people trying to figure out who they are can make … they don’t have the dangers of other choices like drugs, alcohol, sex and violence,” Campbell said.

Political activities still take place at the Recycla-Bell, but they are separate from the concerts, the Campbells said.

There are some political signs in the building promoting peace and opposing a couple of military programs, but most kids are oblivious to them and say the owners have never tried to open political conversations with them.

But Campbell does live by her principles, and tries to instill a sense of respect in the young people who go there. Besides the anti-drug, tobacco and alcohol rules, she will not tolerate ill treatment of others or discrimination.

Setting such rules and still giving kids room is a delicate balancing act. Campbell described one band she prohibited from playing because it had what she considered a sexually explicit, offensive name. But she gave in when the band changed its name, for one night, to “Appeasing Joyce.”

The kids respect her authority and her flexibility, and Campbell has had little need for discipline.

The music stops playing around 10:30 p.m. and, with few exceptions, the kids shuffle out quietly and are gone by 11 p.m. Many of them call their parents on a bright orange phone, Campbell’s private line, that sits on a piano in the main room.

Campbell has had parents call her on that same phone, asking what the Recycla-Bell was all about.

She always invites them to stop by, and many of them take her up on it.

“I’m really happy about it,” said Roxanne Stahl of Duluth, whose 14-year-old daughter frequents the Recycla-Bell.

Stahl went in to check the place out for herself and said she was glad the crowd was young, explaining that she felt uneasy when her children went to places where the patrons were older.

“If there’s a place these kids can go and hang out for a few hours, then I’m all for it.”

A surprising number of Recycla-Bell kids share Stahl’s relief that there is an “under 21” place to hang out.

Ask around, and the majority of them will tell you they are glad there is no smoke or drunken people to deal with (and most of them say they have experienced both at parties elsewhere).

Coffeehouses and cafes, the only other places in the Twin Ports where under-age people can enjoy live music, are all filled with smoke, complain many of the kids at the Recycla-Bell.

Recycla-Bell visitors move about the large gathering room on a crowded Saturday night in January 1996. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Community rallies to protect the ‘Bell’

The hangout almost disappeared a few years ago when the city of Duluth brought charges against the Campbells of disturbing the neighborhood and of committing zoning violations for running a commercial establishment in a residential zone.

The disturbance charge was dropped quickly as people in the neighborhood, rather than complaining, rallied to support the Campbells. The Duluth police had only a couple of complaints about loud music while Campbell was able to produce letters of support from several neighbors close to the Recycla-Bell.

Supporters wrote letters to the city and Mayor Gary Doty, and young people collected more than 1,000 names on petitions supporting the Recycla-Bell.

Campbell argued that she was running a charitable operation, which is allowed in her neighborhood. She makes no profit from concerts and spends her own money to keep the place heated.

Nearly two years and seven court appearances later, the Campbells were informed in April 1995 that the city had dropped all charges “in the interest of justice.”

City Attorney John Smedberg said one of the deciding factors was the overwhelming support of the community. He said the message he heard was that, in this day of gangs and drive-by shootings, it made no sense to close down a place where kids gather peacefully.

“Yeah, you do listen to stuff like that,” Smedberg said.

The police department has not experienced any trouble with the Recycla-Bell since the lawsuit.

“As far as I’m concerned, we feel they’re trying to do a great thing there,” said John Christensen, license officer for the Duluth Police Department. ““For a group of young people, that age group, they don’t have anyplace else to go to be together, listen to music, dance and hang out.”

Mark Kuiti, bass player for the band “Lift”, plays and sings at the Recycla-Bell in Duluth in late December 1995. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Recycla-Bell looks for real support

With the legal difficulties past, the Recycla-Bell is back to the business of being the music scene for young people.

The Campbells are there every concert night as chaperones, counselors, supporters — whatever the “Bell kids” need.

Support from the community is great, but Joyce Campbell says she wishes some tangible support would back it up.

“We are committed to keep doing what we are doing and we are going broke,” said Campbell, whose income is from two small “Ma and Pa-type” motels she and her husband own.

“The kids, who organize and plan events, usually give us a donation from money collected at the door, but this small amount doesn’t begin to touch our expenses,” Campbell said.

She strongly encourages the bands to keep admission down to $3 per person to keep the concerts open to all income levels.

Campbell said if the Recycla-Bell were run by an organization such as a church or the city, it would not be as free and open as it is. But that lack of affiliation also means lack of regular funding.

If she had one wish for the Recycla-Bell, it would be that adults in the community who support it would get involved — stop by to help chaperone and clean up. Give a few financial donations. In the past two years she has received only around $100 in private donations.

“The typical parent says, ‘I’m really happy for what you are doing for the kids,’ ” Campbell said. “My response is usually, ‘Get involved, we could use some help.’ ”

Most have yet to accept her invitation.

— end —

Joyce Campbell sits in one of the booths at the Recycla-Bell before the visitors arive on a Saturday night in March 1996. Behind her are some of the many political messages that some of the visitors have put up on the walls. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Here’s one more article from a couple months earlier – Jan. 6, 1996:


By Zita Lichtenberg, News-Tribune staff writer

If you have nothing to prove and don’t take your fashion statement too seriously, check out the live music and atmosphere at the Recycla-Bell in Duluth.

Fluorescent dye-jobs mix easily with baseball caps and bandanas at this all-inclusive gathering place which features live bands in an environment free of tobacco, drugs and alcohol.

The rules may seem conservative, but the atmosphere and the crowd are not. The music ranges from loud rock to alternative, and the dancing ranges from too-cool-to-move to moshing and body passing.

Walk in the door and you’ll probably see a fair share of black leather and dredlocks but you also will see representatives from the sweater-and-jeans crowd and some who would be hard to put into any group.

The lack of group identity is the main pride of regulars at the Recycla-bell. They get especially annoyed if you call them “alternative.”

“Alternative is almost popular now, like preps and jocks are,” said Jessie Huard, 17, who has been coming to the Recycla-Bell for about three years. “We are very much our own selves.”

The only people who would feel out of place at Recycla-Bell, according to Malahn Ament, are those who put down a certain group or style — or those who might come in looking for drugs.

“We are not trend-setters. The only statement we try to make is that we’re not drug users,” said Ament, 19.

The Recycla-Bell building, in a quiet East End neighborhood, was owned by Northwestern Bell before Joyce and Chris Campbell bought it and transformed it into a meeting place and music venue.

Two rooms in the basement are open when bands play. One is jammed full of booths right out of a ’50s diner where people gather to talk. The other room is usually dark except for the stage lights that illuminate the bands and the giant American flag hanging over the stage. The only other noticeable decor: a few political signs promoting peace.

The bands are a mixture of local high school and college groups, and traveling bands from the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

The Recycla-bell is only open for concerts. The next is Jan. 27 and will feature several “ska” bands including Flux Capacitor and Slapstick. The music is a mixture of reggae and punk.

On Feb. 17, several alternative bands will play including Puddle Wonderful, Blind Shake, Life of Riley and Omega 2000.

Doors at Recycla-Bell, 1804 E. First St., usually open about 6:30 p.m. with music from 7 to about 10:30. Doors close at 11 p.m. Cover is usually $3 but may go up a dollar or two depending on who is playing.

— end —

Carla Garber, 15, laughs with some of her friends after returning from the dance and band area at the Recycla-Bell on a Saturday night in January 1996. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

I’ve been meaning to do an entry on the Recycla-Bell, also listed as the RecyclaBell and the Recyclabell – for some time. I was reminded by a recent Perfect Duluth Day post about a reunion concert coming up later this month.

The News Tribune does have some earlier material on the Recycla-Bell, in a folder I set aside a while back – and now can’t locate. When I do, I may post some more items.

The paper’s electronic archives don’t contain any more full articles all about the club (there’s no mention of when the Recycla-Bell closed), but they do have a number of mentions of the club in passing, noting upcoming shows. Here’s a sampling of bands and DJs who played the Recycla-Bell in the 1990s:

December 1995: Puddle Wonderful, Fromundas, Sourpuss and Omega 2000

May 1996: Flux Skapacitor

January 1997: Acidine Solution, U.S.V., the Riff Randells and the Krammies; Ferd Mert, the Rydells and Edible

February 1997: House of Large Sizes, Puddle Wonderful, Unbelievable Jolly Machine and The End; Doutang, the Swingtones and Alex Mac; O2, J. Hendrixson, MVP, Stonz’, DJ Boo and Elam

March 1997: The Dames; Area 51 (mister e and grandmaster kevin), Xaq from the Shack of Xaq, the House of Tod and Demonica Del Rio from the S & M Mausoleum; Blind Shake, Apathy, the Dames and Da Sonics

April 1997: Shapht vs. Shaft and Buggin’ Out

Spring 1997: The Sellouts

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