Friday, July 13, 2018

88 years for 88 keys: A Duluth piano odyssey

By Jim Heffernan
One of my earliest memories as a toddler is crawling on the floor beneath the grand piano in our home. I recall lying on my back peering up at the piano’s undercarriage with its unvarnished hardwood and brass fittings. A mystery to me then, it served as a good early childhood hideout.

Growing up in those years — the 1940s — I innocently thought every home had a grand piano, as much a part of the household as a stove or refrigerator. Of course that wasn’t the case. Many people had uprights, but I knew of no other grands in the neighborhood.

We had one because my mother was an accomplished pianist, and, aside from practicing her music and rehearsing with various wedding singers, she gave lessons to up-and-coming hoped-for future pianists in western Duluth.

I have had that piano in my own homes for the past 35 years — since the death of my mother. I can’t play it beyond the ditties anyone growing up with a piano learns in childhood, such as “Chopsticks.” My own piano lessons didn’t take. But I couldn’t bring myself to part with it.

Now it is moving on.

In light of that I thought I’d track the history of that “baby” grand since it became a part of our family, long before even I was a baby myself. My mother bought it from the former Boston Piano Co. in Duluth on Feb 27, 1930, for $685. Amazingly, the contract for it survived in the family archives. It is a Schroeder & Son piano. That manufacturer went out of business during the Great Depression, Google informs us. 

Its first stop was in lower Piedmont Avenue, where my mother, still single, resided. After she married in 1932, it was moved to a duplex apartment on West Sixth Street in Duluth’s West End where she and my father lived and started their family. There it remained until shortly before I was born in 1939, when my parents, and my older brother, moved to a home they purchased a short distance away on north 23rd Avenue West. The piano came with them, of course.

A home with ample space, the piano was placed in a sizable entrance room off the living room. It was there that I discovered it as a toddler and where it remained throughout my childhood, youth and young adulthood until her death 44 years later.

Time to move it to a fourth location.

By then I had married and had a family of my own (and an upright piano of our own for our two kids to learn on) living in the Lakeside neighborhood. Somehow, the movers (never move a piano without professional movers) managed to wedge it down our basement stairway into a rec room, making us a two piano family.

About seven years later, we moved, and the professionals had to take it apart — separating the harp and the case — to get it back up the stairs. We told them to take it to their shop, on Superior Street in Downtown Duluth, and recondition it before moving it to our new residence. That shop would be the fifth location in Duluth for that piano, even if it was temporary. And we sold our upright.

Once settled in our new home in Hunters Park, the baby grand was delivered to us, splendidly reconditioned, even with new gleaming white keys. It originally had ivory keys that had become chipped and worn. Modern piano keys are no longer ivory, but they look the same. It was the sixth location for the now 60-year-old instrument.

It fit nicely into our large living room in that home for the next 15 years, after which it came with us to our current dwelling, a townhome in Hermantown, serving as its seventh location, or eighth if you count the several months in storage while our current home was being built. Here it fills a living room corner, designed to accommodate it, where our grandchildren have amused themselves plunking on its keys, and even, as they have grown older and endured lessons, playing it.

Now, we are preparing to move it one more time as it passes to still another generation of our family.

It will repose next in Duluth’s Congdon neighborhood at the home of our son — grandson of the original owner — and his family in a household including some of her great-grandchildren. It will be the ninth move for the piano within a radius of no more than about five miles over a period of almost 90 years and a lot of Duluth history. Well, 88 years to be precise, the same number as there are keys on a standard piano.

We’re happy to pass it on and to keep it in the family, with future generations perhaps finding a place for it in their homes. I’m looking forward to playing “Chopsticks” again when we visit.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Things to do while Trump’s in town...

By Jim Heffernan
Many Duluthians and other area residents who do not support President Donald Trump are not pleased that he is holding a political rally in Duluth on Wednesday, June 20. I am among them.

I initially decided to simply ignore the event, but that will be hard to do due to the intense media coverage of the rally. So simply ignoring it will be impossible.

I have come up with the following list of more pleasant things to do during the rally for those who simply can’t stomach the visit.

  • Haul a load of garbage to the area landfill.
  • Buckle down and begin working on next year’s taxes by listing itemized deductions so far this year.
  • Set about cleaning the oven in the kitchen stove by hand scrubbing, positioning yourself on your knees.
  • Search your lawn for weed growth, removing any incipient infestations with a metal-pronged tool and depositing the residue in a compost heap you can start in the next recommended item.
  • Put aside long-standing delays by starting that fun compost heap that you’ve been intending to establish for potato peelings, eggshells and other items, such as lawn weeds.
  • Paint something — anything in the house like a kitchen or bathroom using oil-based paint for difficult, messy cleanup.
  • Visit a dentist and have him or her yank those crooked teeth to make way for an improved smile.
  • View a video of an opera. Any opera. (Actual opera lovers are exempt from this recommendation.) Warning: Do not include “Nixon in China” by John Adams (not THAT John Adams).
  • Discover Duluth’s out-of-the-way attractions and historic sites such as the site of the former sludge pond near a one-time slaughterhouse on Oneota Street, or the dump in Gary-New Duluth where construction debris is deposited.
  • Eschew former inhibitions and go ahead and build a birdhouse in the garage.
  • Brush up on your Shakespeare.
  • Visit a proctologist to discuss upping the rate of your colonoscopies.
These are just a few suggestions for ways to stay happy and contented during the Trump visit. Be creative and come up with ideas of your own, such as crawling into bed and assuming the fetal position with your thumb in your mouth. Close eyes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering Bessie, Duluth’s Elephant...

By Jim Heffernan
Note from Jim:  The 2018 MN legislature appropriated money for refurbishing Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo. Alas, plans are not to include an elephant. I thought it would be respectful to old Bessie, the Zoo's long-gone elephant, to re-print this Zenith City Online post remembering her. 
Lake Superior Zoo: 1962
To begin with, there was an elephant. Just one. It had its own house at the Duluth Zoo, and an elephant is hard to ignore when it’s in a room. I saw it many times as a child and youth visiting the zoo starting in the 1940s.

Bessie was the elephant’s name—I was reminded when I read Nancy Nelson’s monograph of our zoo here on Zenith City. What I have to add are mainly personal impressions and recollections of the city’s approximately 90-year-old zoo, which has greatly evolved through the years of my consciousness and patronage of it.

For one thing, it is now called the Lake Superior Zoo. For another, it has no elephant. Hasn’t had one for a long time. I suppose there are records somewhere showing when this pachyderm arrived in such an unlikely place—northern North America—or where she came from.*

There are references to Bessie in newspaper articles from the late 1930s, and she was around for many, many years after that. I always felt a little sorry for this lone elephant when I stood in her presence. She was billed as the dancing elephant” for reasons I can understand.

Most of the elephants I’d seen were in movies or circuses. When Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey set up its big top in the Wade Stadium parking lot in about 1950, they brought 35 elaborately costumed elephants in to lead their opening parade around the three rings. Then there were the elephants in Tarzan movies, always coming to the rescue at Tarzan’s beck and (very distinctive) call.

And then there was Bessie, standing in her custom-built house (high ceilings) at the Duluth Zoo, shackled in her wing, rocking constantly back and forth as though she were nervous about something. She probably was: She had no companions of her species. She had to be lonesome, if I may apply a human emotion to a pachyderm.

Also, she seemed to grow long hair on her back, which surprised me. Other elephants didn’t have any hair. Bessie wasn’t covered with it by any means but there it was. I assumed, probably incorrectly, that she grew it in reaction to our cold climate, whereas African and Asian elephants in their native habitat didn’t need it. Bessie was Asian, by the way. You could tell by her ears.

But enough for now about the zoo’s only elephant, whose demise and disposition I will get into later.

First, some general impressions of the old zoo, and a little history. Unlike today (I visited the zoo again last fall with a few of my grandchildren), back when I visited the zoo as a youth, the main building stank to high heaven. I’m sure they did their best to clean up after the lions, tigers (but no bears there) and monkeys, but it was not welcoming. That has been eliminated today.

Unlike so many people, I have never cared for monkeys or primates in general. Maybe it’s because they remind me of me. It seemed to me that the lions were always sleeping when I viewed them. The tigers paced their cages, just as they always do when in a confined area. There are much better accommodations for them today.

Bears were kept in their impressive open-air dens with numerous caves where they could hide from people trying to view them, especially me. Nearby frantic wolves in room-size cages eyed a small herd of whitetail deer not far away, kept behind a tall fence in a wooded area. As a newspaper reporter much later, I can recall doing a story about an intrepid deer hunter, apparently frustrated in the woods, assaulting one of the zoo deer with a knife and spiriting the remains away. You want venison, you want venison.

Oh, there are so many zoo stories (not to be confused with Edward Albee’s absurdist play, <The Zoo Story>, which has little to do with zoos). For many years, well into the 1960s, a black bear with a large white V on its chest was a popular attraction—perhaps to some the V signified America’s victory in World War II. A zoo director with whom I had become acquainted accidentally caused the V bear’s death, and lost his job because of it. That was one beloved bear. The director, who always wore snake-proof boots, not so much.

Let’s not forget the Richard Griggs menagerie of stuffed African beasts he had shot on his many safaris. Griggs, a Duluth tycoon and philanthropist (Griggs Field and Griggs Hall at UMD are named for him, as he donated much of the land on which the college is built), had many of his kills stuffed as trophies—and built a wing on the zoo’s main building to house them. There was some disgruntlement at the time by those who believed zoos were for displaying live animals and not dead ones, but money talks and the addition, now the Griggs education center with just a few of his stuffed animals, was built.

Finally, let’s get back to Bessie, the lonely elephant. She eventually died right there at the zoo circa the 1970s. Google says Asian elephants in captivity live an average of 80 years, and Bessie had to be pushing it.

What do you do with a dead elephant in Duluth—or anywhere for that matter? I don’t know about other places, but in Duluth she was loaded onto a large truck and laid to rest in the Rice Lake landfill with the wretched refuse of decades of the city’s garbage. An ignominious ending for a lonely elephant a long, long way from her nativity—who knows where or when.

Her disposal does give rise to wondering. What if, sometime in the next millennium or two, archeologists sifting through the northern tundra to determine what life was like way back in the 20th century came across the Rice Lake landfill? Discovering the remains of an elephant this far north might forever change theories about the distribution of animals on this planet.

That’d be Bessie.
This post below was previously written for Zenith City Online and posted on October 4, 2016.

*Editor’s Note: We found he following information about Bessie on the Lake Superior Zoo’s website: Bessie, the elephant, was an all time favorite animal. She came to the zoo in 1937 when the elephant house opened. She was 12 years old at the time. The local community knew her well. Before perimeter fencing was installed around the zoo, Bessie would often wander off the zoo grounds and go ‘visiting.’ Bessie lived at the zoo until she passed away in 1974 at the age of 49.” Catch up with all of Jim’s recollections of growing up in Duluth here.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Gala Opening Night of the Historic NoShor Theater...

The historic NorShor Theatre, in the midst of a revival and now managed by The Duluth Playhouse, has its official grand opening gala event, along with the hit play, Mamma Mia tonight. The marquee (see below) brings a nostalgic touch to the first Duluth Playhouse production in this epic theater.The Duluth News Tribune published a special insert in today's paper commemorating this Duluth treasure's grand revival. You can read my column HERE.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Buddy Holly Winter Dance Party Tour Through Duluth: 59 Years Ago...

The original poster advertising the event
January 31 marks the 59th anniversary of three days before "the day the music died" when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash in Iowa. Three days prior to their death–January 31, 1959–these pop stars of the fifties performed at the Duluth Armory in a memorable appearance from my youth. A small private plane carrying these performers crashed following their final performance in Clear Lake Iowa, claiming their lives. The plane was heading to Fargo, North Dakota. As Don McLean wrote in his classic music parable, American Pie, the plane crash resulted in "the day the music died."

I, Bob Dylan and other area youths packed the Duluth Armory on January 31, 1959 to take in the performances of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, three of Rock and Roll’s most promising musicians of that era. “The Winter Dance Party Tour” began on January 23, 1959 with performances scheduled for 24 cities. The Duluth appearance took place three days before the tour tragically ended.

My friend, Lew Latto, was the producer and MC of the Armory show that also included Dion and the Belmonts. Lew was a precocious teen who became a popular disc jockey as a youth and continued on with a successful career in radio until his death in 2011.

Ed Newman, blogger on Ennyman's Territory, interviewed me about that evening.  Read it HERE.

This year the Historic Duluth Armory is again paying tribute to the Winter Dance Party. Tickets may be purchased HERE. For more about the revitalization of the Historic Duluth Armory, follow that link.

You can find more photos and accounts of the original Duluth Dance Party Tour on the News Tribune Attic on January 31, 2014.

Friday, January 19, 2018

NorShor Revival...

NorShor Marquee
"New Life. New Legacy." 
As Duluthians are aware, the historic NorShor Theatre is in the midst of a revival and now managed by The Duluth Playhouse. February 1st will mark the official grand opening gala event, along with the hit play, Mamma Mia.

The Duluth News Tribune is planning a special edition commemorating the grand opening and I'll have a column there to share my recollections. I also provided the DNT with my collection of personal photos to use in that edition. I thought this would be an opportune time for me to pay tribute to this Duluth treasure again in this blog by sharing some information previously shared and also some fun photos.

The cache of my NorShor photos (some included here) were given to me by the late George Brown, the long-time manager at the time of his retirement in the 1970's. They include photos of the grand reopening when the Orpheum became the NorShor with interior and exterior shots of the Orpheum before it was remodeled. These photos would have been destroyed or lost with theater changes and George knew I would take good care of them. Later, Laura Ness, our former mayor's wife, was doing some work gathering history about the theater and, with my permission, captured my photos on a CD for preservation. I have authorized public use of these photos as long as they are credited to me.
NorShor Lobby 1941 
NorShor Mezzanine

NorShor lobby (2) 1941
Woman of the North Country was a 1952 Hollywood movie set in Duluth that premiered at the NorShor. Stars, Rod Cameron and Ruth Hussey, came to Duluth for the Norshor premiere, but Boyer and Goddard were stars of the first movie shown in the newly remodeled theater, “Hold Back the Dawn” in 1941 (see marquee photo above). One star of the Boyer, Goddard magnitude did appear in person at the Norshor: Ingrid Bergman. She came here to sell war bonds during WW II a couple of years later and gave a sales pitch from the NorShor stage before motoring to the Riverside shipyards to speak to workers....

Here's an anecdote going back to the building's Orpheum days (1911-1940): I once came across a Duluth newspaper review of a popular stage play of the early 1930s, "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," playing at the Orpheum, that listed Orson Welles among cast members in the role of a juvenile. Welles was born in 1915 (thank you Google), so he must have been 16 or 17 when he toured with the play, including its stop in Duluth.

And in more modern times...
As a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune, I covered the grand opening at the NorShor in 1972 of the Patty Duke film, You'll Like My Mother. That film was set at the Congdon Mansion and the movie premiere at the NorShor was followed by a gala reception at the Hotel Duluth Ballroom. Read more about that HERE.
Pictured above: Orpheum Auditorium,
Orpheum Exit (became NorShor entrance),
and Orpheum 2nd Ave. E. entrance