10 years ago tonight: Zamboni explodes, Peterson Arena burns

Tonight – Dec. 19, 2014 – marks the 10th anniversary of the night a Zamboni exploded and sparked a fire that destroyed Peterson Arena in West Duluth. Thanks to Perfect Duluth Day for the reminder of the anniversary.

Here’s a look back at some stories and photos from the News Tribune files, starting with this story and photos that ran the next day – Dec. 20, 2004:

Duluth firefighters run hoses to battle a fire at Peterson Arena after a Zamboni exploded on Dec. 19, 2004. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)

BLAST, FIRE GUT ARENA

By Christa Lawler, News Tribune

A Zamboni exploded Sunday night inside Peterson Arena in West Duluth, starting a fire at the ice rink at Wheeler Fields.

About 30 people — two broomball teams and a handful of fans — were inside the building at the time of the explosion. One player was taken to the hospital. The extent of his injuries was not known.

A small blast at 9:40 p.m. was followed by a larger explosion, which knocked the doors off the boards surrounding the ice surface onto the ice.

Spectator Cade Ledingham, who was in the arena and witnessed the explosion, estimated that four players were thrown from the ice by the blast.

The building was quickly evacuated and the players watched the fire from a small warming house about 30 yards away. Both teams confirmed that all of their players and fans were accounted for, but all of their belongings — including street clothes, keys and even shoes — were inside the burning building.

The Duluth Police Department blocked off busy Grand Avenue as fire crews struggled to battle the fire. The temperature hovered near zero at the time of the explosion.

Duluth firefighters battle a fire at Peterson Arena after a Zamboni exploded on Dec. 19, 2004. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)

By 10:15 p.m., the fire had engulfed the north side of the building, at 3501 Grand Ave. Police cleared out the warming house when it looked like the fire might reach nearby power lines. Power was cut to the area at 10:25 p.m. A Duluth Transit Authority bus was brought in to pick up the players.

Joe Buckley, the Zamboni driver, said he was sweeping up when the blast occurred. He thought propane tanks had caused the explosion.

A Zamboni is a vehicle used to resurface ice.

Player Ryan Ringsred, who was bandaged, had picked small pieces of Plexiglas from the back of his neck. He was on the ice when the explosion occurred.

“I was facing the boards when they blew up,” Ringsred said. “I was on the ice and the Zamboni blew up behind me. I was flat on the ice.”

Even his helmet was dented.

“It’s brand new,” he said. “It did its job, I guess.”

There were about seven minutes left in the broomball game between the Rapid Fire and Budweiser teams when the blast occurred.

“These are two teams that battle every year for the league championship,” said player Dave Reyelts, who was in the penalty box at the time. “It puts things in perspective. When it happened, guys from both teams were grabbing each other. Even in rivalry, the guys were looking out for each other.”

Brandon Kolquist, another player, also had small cuts on the back of his neck.

“I just got blown over the boards with the explosion,” he said. “It was crazy. Everybody was trying to hit one door at the same time.”

Here’s a follow-up story and photos that ran Dec. 21, 2004:

Duluth firefighters inspect the interior of Peterson Arena on Dec. 20, 2004, after a major fire the night before. (Bob King / News Tribune)

YOUTH HOCKEY LOSES RINK; DAMAGE MAY BE $850,000

By Mark Stodghill and Scott Thistle, News Tribune 

The loss of one of its two indoor hockey arenas is a major blow to the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association.

“We’re down a facility, and this is the prime time of the season,” DAHA Executive Director Clarke Coole said. “This is going to impact our program enormously.”

Coole met with Duluth city officials Monday to discuss the explosion and fire that destroyed Peterson Arena on Sunday night in the midst of a broomball game.

DAHA serves more than 800 youth hockey players, and tournaments were scheduled every weekend in the building through January, February and two weeks in March, Coole said.

The building’s loss also creates a hardship for Duluth high school boys and girls hockey teams, who practiced at Peterson, Coole said.

“Right now, we’re looking for a short-term fix to salvage this year,” Coole said. “We’re going to need a lot of city officials’ support for the kids.”

Coole’s organization will try to get ice time from the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Other area youth programs have already offered to help.

“There’s been tons of support from area associations — Cloquet, Proctor, Hermantown, Superior and Mars Lakeview Arena,” Coole said. “They’re asking if there’s anything they can do to help out with bits and pieces (of ice time). The support has been awesome.”

The Duluth Central-Denfeld girls high school hockey team had four practices scheduled at Peterson that must be rescheduled, coach Shawna Davidson said. She’ll talk with DECC officials to see if there are any times available. The team normally practices at the DECC, but had several Wednesdays scheduled at the West Duluth arena because the DECC ice wasn’t available until after 9 p.m.

Kevin Smalley, the Denfeld boys hockey coach, has rescheduled his team’s Peterson practice dates to before school at the DECC, Davidson said.

Exterior view of Peterson Arena in West Duluth on Monday morning, Dec. 20. 2004, after the fire. Broomball players and friends of players (right) leave after looking through the equipment bags for anything salvageable. There was little worth keeping. (Bob King / News Tribune)

INSURANCE QUESTIONS

On Monday night, the Duluth City Council wasted no time in weighing in on the loss. City Attorney Bryan Brown told councilors he was still investigating whether the arena is insured. Although two buildings at the Wheeler Fields athletic complex are insured, the policy is somewhat unclear as to exactly which two, he said.

“We have reported the loss to the insurance company,” Brown said. “I am hoping that the reply is that there is no problem with coverage.”

City Administrative Assistant Mark Winson said that, if necessary, the city could shift some money from next year’s capital improvement budget to help rebuild the arena.

Because of the fire, Councilor Neill Atkins said he would like the city to take another look at what facilities the city insures.

Construction workers with Advanced Restoration and Construction begin work after their lunch break on a protective roof that will cover the fire damage at Peterson Arena on dec. 21, 2004. The protective roof is for insurance purposes. (Amanda Odeski / News Tribune)

DAMAGE $850,000

City fire officials said Monday the blast was probably the result of leaking propane from a Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine. Damage was estimated at $850,000 by city officials, according to a release issued by Mayor Herb Bergson.

Propane used to fuel the Zamboni built up in the resurfacing machine’s storage room. It was eventually ignited by the flame of a gas-fired water heater and exploded, Duluth Fire Chief John Strongitharm said.

Broomball players and fans, who escaped serious injury, said the initial blast blew the doors to the storage room across the rink, injuring some players. Others were injured by shards of Plexiglas, blasted into their skin. But most of the players were at the opposite end of the rink from the explosion, Strongitharm said.

“I would think it is very fortunate that the explosion happened when the people were away from that door, and they all had the sense to drop their broomball sticks and get out,” Strongitharm said. He said calm, quick thinking by players and fans probably saved lives.
After the initial blast, there were at least two other explosions, which Strongitharm believes may have been caused by empty propane tanks stored in the arena.

Another view of the interior of the Peterson Arena on Monday morning, Dec. 20, 2004 after the devastation of Sunday night’s fire caused by a Zamboni explosion. (Bob King / News Tribune)        

DON’T JUST BLOW UP

Propane is the fuel generally used by resurfacing machines, although some are operated by electric batteries and others use natural gas, said Walt Bruley, who has operated resurfacing machines for more than 30 years.

Bruley, a district representative for the Minnesota Ice Arenas Managers’ Association, said all DAHA resurfacing crews regularly attend safety training.

“They’re one of our star groups when it comes to that,” Bruley said.

It would be highly unlikely that the Zamboni would actually have exploded by itself, he said. The machines are built with safety valves to contain potential propane leaks, he said.

“These things don’t just blow up,” said Bruley, who was on his way to drive a Zamboni at the DECC on Monday afternoon. “There were many things in that room that probably could have blown up besides the machine.”

Propane is generally considered a safer fuel than gasoline because it doesn’t ignite as easily and it has an additive that gives it a distinct smell, making leaks easily detectable. Propane, which is heavier than air, generally sinks to floor or ground level, where it can easily be vented, Bruley said.

“If there was a leak, it would have been something that could have been smelled,” Bruley said. “This is a very, very rare occasion.”

He said Sunday’s explosion was truly a freak incident. “In my 30 years, I’ve never heard of another situation like this,” he said.

Lynn Skafte (left) and Steph Truscott, good friends of the adult broomball team whose equipment was smoke and water-damaged by the Peterson Arena fire, pick through the equipment bags hoping to find some salvageable items on Dec. 20, 2004. (Bob King / News Tribune)

NO FIREFIGHTERS HURT

Firefighters weren’t injured by subsequent explosions, Strongitharm said. A second blast occurred just after a frozen fire hydrant prompted firefighters to seek an alternative water source, Strongitharm said.

“It’s hard to say what impact the frozen hydrant had,” Strongitharm said. “It was freezing cold and it was fully involved when we got there. They did run out of water . . . but right after they ran out of water, the explosion took place.”

Extreme cold and a slope made containing the blaze difficult. “There were a number of falls because we were fighting on a hill, but no major injuries,” Strongitharm said.

The speed at which the fire spread and the heat were remarkable, he said. “It was a surprise,” Strongitharm said.

The fire was so intense that the building’s steel framework bent in places, which may make it unsalvageable. The arena had just been outfitted with new rink boards, which were destroyed in the inferno.

“It doesn’t look good for the building,” Strongitharm said.

The arena’s days may have been numbered anyway. It was proposed to be leveled with other neighboring structures, including a closed gas station and the athletic complex tennis courts, to make way for a proposed $55 million sports complex and community center.

The city project hinges on funding from the $1.5 billion estate of McDonald’s restaurants founder Ray Kroc and his wife, Joan Kroc. They left the money to the Salvation Army to build sports and community complexes nationwide. Salvation Army is expected to announce by spring which communities will get the money.

Staff writers Chuck Frederick, Chad Thomas and Nikki Overfelt contributed to this report.

Peterson Arena was razed and not rebuilt. After a number of years, western Duluth finally got another ice rink when the Duluth Heritage Sports Center opened.

Here’s one more view of Peterson Arena from before the fire, during a horseshoe tournament on July 7, 2001:

Donald Stangland (left) and Tom Warneke, class G horseshoe pitchers participating in the 38th annual Duluth Open Horseshoe Tournament, split hairs determining points during their match Saturday afternoon, July 7, 2001, at Peterson Arena. Stangland beat Warneke, 29-22. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

Share your memories of Peterson Arena by posting a comment.

Promoting New Duluth, 1890

From the archives of the Duluth News Tribune, this full-page ad from the Nov. 26, 1890 edition of the Duluth Daily Tribune (a forerunner of the DNT):

An account of the brief life of the village of New Duluth can be found in the 1921 book “Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota: Their Story and People,” edited by Walter Van Brunt. It contains a report from Charles Lovett, who was involved in the development of the community. New Duluth was incorporated in the fall of 1891 and was annexed into Duluth a little more than three years later, at the end of 1894.

Haunted house in Duluth, 1902

In a town with as much history as Duluth, there are countless stories of ghosts and haunted houses. But most of those don’t make the newspaper.

One that did was the case of “mysterious rappings” at a home in the Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood, in December 1902. As you can read below, the News Tribune carried two stories about the strange events in a home described as “three doors east of Twenty-sixth Avenue West on Tenth Street”; no specific address was given. Is the house in question among those still standing along that block of 10th Street? It’s hard to say – but if you have anything to add to the story, please post a comment. And if you’d like to share your own Northland ghost story, please feel free to share those, too.

Here are the two stories about the mysterious spirit of West 10th Street, as they appeared in the News Tribune back in 1902:

December 5, 1902

GHOSTS INHABIT WEST END HOUSE

Mysterious rappings give concern to many timid persons

Duluth has a genuine haunted house, located just east of Twenty-sixth Avenue West on Tenth Street.

Besides the ghost, spirit or whatever it may be, there reside in the house Mrs. Lindberg and her three children.

The building was formerly owned by ex-Alderman Ambrose M. Cox, who was asphyxiated by gas last Saturday. At the time Mr. Cox owned the building a man named Joseph Wolf died of smallpox there.

To make the story more weird the appearance of the unearthly noises were heard shortly after Mr. Cox met with the fatal accident.

Startled by rappings

Monday the occupants were startled by rappings on the floor. An investigation of the cellar did not reveal anything, and the noises continuing through the night, the case was reported to the police. Two policemen called during the day. Shortly after their entrance, the noises began and continued at intervals. Neighbors of the family heard of the trouble and called, and one man has been wearing his pompadour ever since.

The spirit does not object to being interviewed, and will answer any question put to it.

Tuesday night a brother of Mrs. Lindberg remained at the house during the night. He commanded the spirit to answer by two raps for no and three for yes. Directly following the questions, given in an ordinary voice, the answers were given. When asked if it would like some music three solemn raps was the reply. Accompanying music on the mouth-organ, the clog of an expert jig dancer could be plainly heard on the floor. After a song by the same man, an encore by the unseen visitor followed. The rapping was either loud or soft according to the wishes of the audience, and any number of raps asked for was given. They emanate from different parts of the floor, according to the disposition of the rapper.

The spirit evidently sleeps between the hours of 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. for it refuses to be aroused during that time. It is also partial to small audiences and will not give a performance before a crowded house.

Many visit the house

Inquisitive persons from all parts of town have visited the place, most of them unbelievers in spiritualism, but all report themselves fully convinced.

When asked if it would like to talk with a certain woman an affirmative reply was given. The woman lives on a farm out of town, and the two oldest girls of the family were sent for her Thursday. She refused, however, to converse with the unearthly person, and says she will leave town. While the girls were in search of the friend of the spirit, no noises were heard, but as soon as they re-entered the house, an inquiring rap was immediately heard on the floor.

The occupants say they cannot put up with the disturbance much longer and the house will soon be for rent to some unsuperstitious person.

A dog was put in the cellar to keep the spirit company, but he was more particular about the company he kept, and was last seen going down Tenth Street as fast as his legs could carry him.

——

Here’s a short follow-up that ran in the paper two days later, on Dec. 7, 1902:

SPIRIT STILL KEEPS KNOCKING

Spiritualist tries to drive spook out but it refuses to quit house

Ghosts continue to hold daily carousals at the west end.

Those haunting the house three doors east of Twenty-sixth Avenue West on Tenth Street played before a crowded house last night.

A spiritualist called yesterday to commune with the spook and induce it to get out, but a deaf ear was turned to her request. To the question, “Are you to remain here?” it replied solemnly in the negative.

Different persons around the city have laughed at the stories of those who visited the house, and expressed a desire to investigate the nocturnal mystery. One who was particularly brave – before getting into the vicinity of the ghost – said he would show them how they were all being fooled.

He accompanied his friends to the house, and heard the gentle tap, tap, tap on the cellar floor. He then asked questions and was immediately answered by the invisible oracle. He tried Scandinavian, and was perfectly understood by the ghost. “Strike louder,” he exclaimed in a whisper. The dirt was shaken out of the cracks at his feet. His hat rose on his head, a break was made for the door and he fled.

——

That’s where the story seems to end in the News Tribune. If you know more about this haunted house, or any others in Duluth or the Northland, please post a comment.

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:

BEFORE THE MUSIC DIED, IT LIVED IN DULUTH

Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune

The one wish Lew Latto has from that cold Saturday night in 1959 is that he’d had a camera. He took no pictures at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31 as a troupe of rock ’n’ roll entertainers put on a Winter Dance Party show for about 2,000 fans — a performance that takes a place of honor in Duluth entertainment lore.

Latto, then a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth freshman, was the local promoter and master of ceremonies. He had no way of knowing history was right around the corner.

The Day the Music Died was 48 hours away for Buddy Holly , 22, of Lubbock, Texas; J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, of Beaumont, Texas; and Ritchie Valens, 17, of Pacoima, Calif.

“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” Latto, 69, said recently from his winter home in Hallandale Beach, Fla. “I spent most of the time on the side of the stage and had the chance to talk quite a bit with Ritchie Valens.

“When I read in the newspaper three days later that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 2, 1959, the Winter Dance Party reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where 1,300 youngsters showed up. It was the 11th stop on a tour that began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and had become a tedious, bitterly frigid bus excursion. Holly rented a plane to get to the next destination, 440 miles away for a concert the next day in Moorhead, Minn. They were to land in Fargo, N.D.

Just after midnight on Feb. 3, Holly, Richardson, Valens and pilot Roger Peterson, 21, boarded a 12-year-old single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza at an airport in nearby Mason City, Iowa. Peterson, a rookie, wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield eight miles from the Surf Ballroom. Everyone aboard was killed.

The Duluth Armory, built on London Road in 1915, decommissioned and given to the city in 1978 and now mothballed in hopes of renovation, is no longer a performance venue. But the building will be the site of a 50th anniversary Winter Dance Party gathering for about a half-hour starting at noon Saturday. Fans will be able to look into the Armory but not go inside, said Susan Phillips, president of the nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center. The entrance is at 13th Avenue East and Jefferson Street.

Buddy Holly performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

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 www.buddyhollyonline.com.

The Winter Dance Party moved to Green Bay on Feb. 1, ultimately by train after difficulty with its school bus because of wind-chill temperatures of 40 below zero. Then it was on to Clear Lake and a meeting with destiny.

– end –

J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

———-

The News Tribune’s Kevin Pates also wrote a story about the event on Jan. 30, 1999, for the 40th anniversary:

RELIVING THE LEGEND

Kevin Pates, News Tribune

Three days after leaving Duluth, Buddy Holly and three others boarded a plane after midnight in Mason City, Iowa.

Holly, 22, had chartered a flight to Fargo, N.D., for the next stop of the 1959 Winter Dance Party: Moorhead, Minn. Also on the single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza were entertainers J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson, 28; Ritchie Valens, 17; and pilot Roger Peterson, 21.

Peterson wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota on Feb. 3, 1959. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield. Everyone aboard was killed.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s fatality list had its first superstar.

The news of Holly’s death was a blow to America’s teen-agers, including those in Duluth, where he had performed Jan. 31 at the National Guard Armory on London Road.

“We had a chance to see him, just as he was getting started, and then he was gone. It was like `Oh my God. He was just here.’ It was devastating,” said Yvonne Pavelich, 54, a bartender at Duluth’s Radisson Hotel. She was a 14-year-old Washington Junior High freshman when she attended the Armory dance. “The next day at school the boys wore black armbands and the girls had black ribbons in their hair.”

The Lubbock, Texas, songwriter, who played guitar, sang with a trademark hiccup-style and wore black, horn-rimmed glasses was like no one before him.

In the 40 years since the crash, Holly has become recognized as the founder of the first modern rock band. He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His life has been portrayed in a 1978 movie. His face is on a U.S. postage stamp.

On Sunday, the Winter Dance Party will live again, 40 years to the day after it stopped in Duluth. An anniversary tour is hitting 11 towns in 11 days. Because Duluth’s National Guard Armory is no longer a performance site, the party is at the Holiday Inn’s Great Lakes Ballroom.

Niki Sullivan, a member of Holly’s band the Crickets, and Ernie Valens, nephew of Ritchie Valens, will be among those performing here.

John Mueller will portray Holly. He’s played the rock ‘n’ roll legend for the past 4 1/2 years, first in a production called “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and more recently in the play “Buddy.”

“I hope what comes across is the pure joy I get from his very straightforward, innocent music. I try not to make it a caricature and I don’t even like the word impression. I would say my performance is 50 percent me and 50 percent Buddy Holly,” Mueller, 36, said from a tour stop in Montevideo, Minn.

Sullivan has seen many Holly impersonators, but says Mueller is unique.

“John is a clone of Buddy Holly. I’m not kidding,” said Sullivan, who was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over Buddy’s death, but I’m getting a chance to relive my past every time I see John perform.”

Second time in Duluth

In 1959, Lew Latto was a 19-year-old top-40 disc jockey-entrepreneur at Duluth’s WDSM. The University of Minnesota-Duluth freshman acted as booking agent and master of ceremonies for musical acts coming to Duluth.

The Crickets, with Holly, first played the Armory on July 11, 1958, as part of a Summer Dance Party. To finance the Winter Dance Party stop on Jan. 31, 1959, Latto got an advance on his WDSM paycheck.

The largest crowd for any of Latto’s events — about 2,000 — paid $1.75 to $2 that winter night. The package of entertainers, which also had singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, earned about $1,000.

Teens came to Armory dances to listen to music, meet friends and dance, said Duluth News-Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan, 59, who was at the Winter Dance Party as a UMD sophomore.

“The girls were screaming over Holly and I remember thinking `What has he got? He looks geeky,’ ” said Heffernan.

Holly’s appeal was obvious to some fans, like Hibbing’s Bob Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan. He was a 17-year-old high school senior and budding musician when he came to the Winter Dance Party. Dylan has credited Holly with being an influence in his music.

Latto knew Holly was onto something.

“There’s no doubt that had he lived, he would’ve been one of the top rock performers of his era. I look at Holly’s effect on music like what James Dean was to movies,” said Latto, 59, who now owns radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids and has a weekday talk show on WEBC.

Duluthian Darrell Paulson was a drummer in his own group, the Rock and Roll 5. The band was on the same bill with Holly in 1958 at the Armory and Paulson later worked for stars like Gene Vincent, Marty Robbins, Skeeter Davis and Brenda Lee. He met and talked with Holly again, in Canada, while with Vincent.

“I’ve worked with other big shooters, but Holly was very personable, very kind. All of his musicians carried themselves as professionals. They were very concerned about the kind of music they were making,” said Paulson, 60, who still owns two drum sets, and is now in the food sales business.

Ritchie Valens performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

Holly’s burning star

Holly’s meteoric rise was just that — a brief three-year recording career. He had three albums and just one No. 1 hit (“That’ll Be the Day” in 1957) before his death.

The band that recorded many of the Crickets’ studio albums was Holly, drummer Jerry Allison, bass player Joe B. Mauldin and rhythm guitar player Sullivan.

Demanding travel and recording schedules, and problems with business manager-producer Norman Petty led to changes in the group.

Sullivan says he never regretted leaving the Crickets in 1957 yet enjoyed his time with the group and its leader.

“Buddy was a good, old Christian boy, who knew what he wanted and how to get it. His burning desire was to be an entertainer and he got there and became a legend,” said Sullivan, 61, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and still receives royalty checks for his association with the Crickets.

Holly left the Crickets and Petty in 1958. He married and moved to New York to begin a solo career that October.

The final tour

Holly’s motivation was to grow as a rock innovator, producer and artist but he lacked the money. He reluctantly agreed to headline the 1959 Winter Dance Party put together by General Artists Corp.

“More than anything, Buddy went on the tour as a favor to GAC. They felt they needed a bigger attraction, so they really urged Buddy to help them out,” his widow, Maria Elena, said in the 1975 biography “Remembering Buddy.”

Holly needed a new touring band and got Carl Bunch on drums, former Cricket Tommy Allsup on guitar and Lubbock disc jockey Waylon Jennings, 21, on bass.

The GAC tour chartered a bus that proved to be a lemon on the icy, snowy roads of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. It broke down several times the first week.

The Dance Party began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and the 11th stop was Feb. 2 in Clear Lake, where 1,300 fans showed up.

Weary from travel, Holly chartered the 12-year-old Beechcraft for a 3 1/2-hour flight to Fargo. Allsup and Jennings were to join him, yet legend has it that an ailing Big Bopper talked Jennings into trading places and Valens won a coin flip for Allsup’s seat.

When the plane didn’t arrive, a search began. When the tour bus reached Moorhead at noon, Allsup was first into the hotel and the news was on the lobby television. The desk clerk relayed the details.

High schooler Bobby Vee, 15, and his band, The Shadows, made their professional debut that night in Moorhead, filling in for Holly. The tour went on, finishing Feb. 15.

The music does matter

Paul Anka had written “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” specifically for Holly. It turned out to be Holly’s last studio track, released Jan. 5, 1959, and ultimately reached No. 13 on the Billboard charts.

Certainly, Holly and his music have mattered. While record sale totals aren’t available, an MCA Records spokesman said Holly’s albums continue to consistently sell well. His records have influenced rockers from the Beatles to Elton John to Linda Ronstadt.

It’s estimated that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper combined to sell more than 10 million records in the 12 months leading up to the Winter Dance Party.

Dennis Farland, who works for the Maytag Co. in Newton, Iowa, took time off to put the 40th anniversary tour together.

“It’s been far beyond my expectations. It has been phenomenal,” Farland, 54, said from a tour stop in Eau Claire, Wis. “I’m pretty passionate about the music, but even so, I think this is a magical show.”

– end –

Dion and the Belmonts performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

———

As noted above, one of those in attendance at the Duluth Armory show was a young Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing – later to be known to the world as Bob Dylan. In February 1998, when he won the Grammy for Album of the Year for “Time Out of Mind,” Dylan mentioned the concert in his acceptance speech:

Were you at any of the Winter Dance Party concerts in 1959? Share your memories by posting a comment.

Chinese Lantern fire was 20 years ago

Flames erupt from the upper windows and roof of the Chinese Lantern shortly after 7 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1994 as firefighters pour water into the three-story structure from their hoses and aerial trucks. Twelve units and up to 50 firefighters were at the scene in downtown Duluth. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the landmark Chinese Lantern restaurant in downtown Duluth. The fire on Jan. 16, 1994, burned “one of the places – like the Aerial Bridge, like Glensheen – that comes to mind when people think of Duluth,” the News Tribune reported the next day.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the fire story that appeared in the Jan. 17 DNT:

“The Chinese Lantern, a landmark supper club popular among Northland residents and visitors for 30 years, caved into a shambles of scorches timbers and ice in little more than three hours early Sunday.

Up to 50 firefighters were called out in 18-below weather at 5:45 a.m., battling a downtown Duluth fire of unknown origin that started in the kitchen and quickly burst through the rooftop in a wall of flames that threatened the lives of a dozen firefighters inside. …

Owner Wing Ying Huie opened the Chinese Lantern in 1964 at the Superior Street level of the Palladio Building, immediately behind the structure that burned. He was following a Huie family tradition of serving authentic Chinese specialties that began when his father, Joe Huie, opened a restaurant near the entrance of Canal Park in the early 1900s.”

Go to this Attic post from 2008 for more of the story and additional photos: Chinese Lantern fire

Jan. 17, 1994: Workers remove heavy items from the wreckage of the Chinese Lantern a day after a fire destroyed the downtown Duluth restaurant. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

After the fire, the building was repaired and a half-dozen bars and/or restaurants tried to make a go of it at that location: Blue Water Bar & Grill. Bella Vita Ristorante. Champps Americana. Duluth Athletic Club Bar & Grill. Score Sports Bar & Grill. R Bar. None lasted for the long haul.

In late 2011, it was announced that the Minnesota WorkForce Center, Duluth Workforce Development and partner agencies would move into the entire vacant building, ending – for now – any attempts to try yet another restaurant at that location.

Share your memories of the Chinese Lantern – or any other long-gone Duluth restaurant – by posting a comment.

Remembering the Spalding Hotel

Today’s News Tribune features an article on the 50th anniversary of the demolition of the landmark Spalding Hotel in downtown Duluth. The photo above, from the News Tribune files, appears to date from the late 1920s or 1930s. The hotel was demolished in 1963 as part of a larger urban renewal project.

The Spalding was the subject of several previous Attic posts, with a number of old photos. You can find them here, here, here and here.

Local authors and historians Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton featured the Spalding in their 2012 book “Lost Duluth.” You can find that information – and much more about Duluth history – at Zenith City Online.

Do you remember the Spalding? Do you have some memorabilia from the old hotel? Share your stories and memories by posting a comment.

 

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.

Duluth front pages from Kennedy assassination, 50 years later

On this 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, here are four Duluth front pages covering the assassination and its aftermath.

In 1963 Duluth was served by two papers – the morning News-Tribune and the afternoon Herald. The Herald was able to provide same-day coverage of the event; here’s its Nov. 22, 1963 front page (with all of these, click on the image for a much larger, readable version):

Here’s the Nov. 23, 1963, News-Tribune:

And here are two more News-Tribune front pages from the days following the assassination:

Share your memories by posting a comment.