Friday, August 20, 2021

How it was in Duluth when Elvis was here...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune /August 20, 2021

Elvis Week ended in Memphis three days ago, and I missed it again. The annual event at Elvis’ mansion Graceland marks the anniversary of the singer’s death.


It’s been 44 years; it’s longer than he was alive. He died on Aug. 16, 1977 at the age of 42. Most notable for Duluthians is that he performed in the Duluth Arena twice not long before he died — Oct. 16, 1976, and April 29, 1977.


As arts and entertainment writer for this newspaper at the time, it was my responsibility to “cover” the Elvis visits. I have written about this before, but I thought I’d summarize some of my memories, and add some not mentioned before, one last time — almost on the anniversary of his death.


Glancing over what I just wrote, I realize I hadn’t bothered to include his last name: Presley. He’s so well known it’s not really necessary.


I well remember the day he died. I had a small office in the corner of the newsroom and one of the copy editors, responsible for monitoring the wire services, stuck his head in my doorway and said, “Elvis is dead.”


Bombshell. Bombshell to my generation (which is essentially Elvis’ generation) and a bombshell to me, because I had so recently covered the iconic rock star on his visits here. I got pretty close to him at his performances and once standing in his presence as he sneaked into the Radisson Hotel in the dark of night through a service entrance.


There were about a dozen people outside the hotel entrance when he alighted from a black Cadillac with his girlfriend and walked over to the non-public doorway. He stopped briefly and just locked at us with a slight smile before he turned and walked into the hotel to board a service elevator to his room. He’d reserved three floors, reports claimed. His plane, the Lisa Marie, was at the airport.


I guess I was standing about six feet from him at that moment. Many years later I stood six feet above him at his Graceland grave.


I was not a rabid fan of Elvis like a lot of people of my generation. We were in high school when he suddenly emerged on the popular music scene from “Heartbreak Hotel” and forever changed it. I thought he was pretty cool and liked his songs, but I never bought a recording or went to his movies.


Still, it was exciting to cover his Duluth visits for the paper. Back in those days, the newspaper reviewer of just about every concert or show was given what were called “ducats” — free tickets. Not Elvis. It seemed like the Elvis people didn’t want press coverage. Wouldn’t even talk to us.


As was the practice in those days (but no longer), no way were we going to buy tickets — we’re the free press which means we get in free; it’s in the Constitution isn’t it? — so I contacted Joe Sturckler, then manager of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) and made a deal. He would meet me and a photographer at a pre-arranged remote entrance and sneak us in. But, he said, if Elvis’ people caught us and threw us out, he could do nothing.


Elvis’ people didn’t catch us, but we didn’t have seats, all reserved. The result was we stood — right down in front at the side of the stage located on the east end of the Arena. We mingled with the mob of audience members who would run up and down the aisles to get pictures or a closer look at their idol. One teenage girl near us at the first concert fell and appeared to break her leg.


It was pretty much the same for both concerts. Sneak in. Work our way down to the stage and watch the spectacle. Elvis’ show was largely the same both times too. He had several warm-up acts, and then mounted the stage to great fanfare music (“Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, the main theme of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) wearing an ornate white jumpsuit with a wide belt around his ample midsection. He spoke quite a bit and performed a passel of the songs identified with him. You know them. They are the soundtrack of mid-20th Century America.


I think both reviews — reports really — I wrote of the concerts survive in various corners of the Internet. I haven’t seen them lately, but I always remember that in the last one — about four months before he died — I wrote that he looked quite healthy. Hmmm. I didn’t go to med school.


By that stage of his life, he had gained quite a bit of weight, and it was noticeable. But he gave the audience what they came for, including passing out sweat-soaked scarves and bestowing a few kisses on quite a few of the rapturous women who made it to the edge of the stage just below him.   


Both times, when his hour in the Duluth spotlight was up, he sang one last number, turned and dashed for a waiting vehicle on Harbor Drive and a short ride back to the Radisson.


A deep-voiced announcement echoed through the hall: “Elvis has left the building.” (He might have said “arena,” can’t remember.)


In many decades of reporting, the Elvis visits are among the most memorable. Maybe THE most memorable. In retrospect there is a sense that it was a brush with modern American cultural history.


The famous orchestra conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story” and much more) once said “Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.” Beatle John Lennon once remarked: “Before Elvis there was nothing.”


Well, there was Beethoven, but, yup, Elvis was something.

For more on Elvis in Duluth, check these links HERE, HEREHERE.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Gone with the wind off Lake Superior...

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on August 6, 2021

Some like it hot, they say. I’m one of them. I like it hot, as it has been this rare summer in Duluth and the northland. And we’re just a week into August. Whew.

 How does it happen that a native Duluthian, such as I, could be so fond of hot weather when in most years we get so little of it? That’s exactly why. We traditionally get so little of it that when we do, when the mercury hovers near 90 Fahrenheit, I become elated, but at the same time wary that it could abruptly end.


I learned to like it hot in my childhood, listening to my parents decrying the northeast wind’s arrival all too often in summer. That’s the wind, commonly known as the “nor’easter,” that ushers the cool air perpetually hovering over our beloved Lake Superior into our city.


You could be enjoying a perfectly lovely day, a southwesterly breeze wafting in nice warm air, when suddenly — oops — the wind would change to a northeaster and the temperature would drop from, maybe 80, to around 57. Ugh. Break out the sweaters and sweatshirts, raise the top of the convertible; it’s going to be cooler near the lake. (More on “Cooler Near the Lake” at the end of this column.)


When I was a child growing up in what was known in those ancient times as Duluth’s West End, one of our neighbors had a weathervane atop his garage in the alley behind our house, visible from our small pantry window.


It never failed. Even the gentle wafting of the first breaths of a nor’easter wind would reverse the arrow on that weathervane from southwest to northeast and the temperature would start dropping. In our family, we kept our eye on that weathervane whenever we were experiencing a nice warm day, just waiting for the arrow to point toward the lake and change everything. Goodbye nice warm day.


Oh, the dread. Oh, the disappointment. Chilly in July. That’s why I like it hot.


In my early 20s, when I was on active duty in the Army, I was stationed for a time at Fort Lee in Virginia in July. The weather is always hot south of Richmond, Va., in summer. Back then, there was no air conditioning in the barracks, just large screened windows in case a cool breeze might come up as the troops slept. It seldom did.


Fellow soldiers, some from the South, would be writhing in their bunks, sweat pouring from their brows and backs, fitful sleep caused by the unrelenting heat. I, in their midst, would throw a sheet over my boxer shorts-T-shirt clad body and sleep like a…well, I hate to employ a well-worn cliché, but how better to put it than to say I would sleep like a log in the high summer heat of the deep South. (Well, there’s “sleep like a baby” too but everybody knows babies’ sleep isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.)


How could a private soldier from the far north sleep soundly through hot summer nights in the South? I always figured that, being from Northern Minnesota, Duluth in particular, I was finally thawing out. 


Back here on the home front and recalling way back during my early years, there was one drawback whenever the blessed southerly breezes pushed the cold air back on Lake Superior. The warm wind would invariably be accompanied by a strange odor, a sort of sweet stink. This was universally known as the smell of Cloquet.


When you smelled Cloquet, you knew it was going to warm up, making it kind of a mixed blessing. Of course the odor came from Cloquet’s wood industries, their air quality unregulated in those days by the environmental concerns that were invoked later. The ranks of those of us who remember the stink of Cloquet are thinning.


Still, it was worth it if the breezes brought warm weather, as far as I was concerned.


I have visited the vicissitudes of Duluth weather before in this column. Years ago I composed some light verse with the title “Cooler Near the Lake.” I’ll just reprint the final two verses here, one more time…make that one last time:


“I know the day is coming when

The real God’s Country beckons,

And when St. Peter meets me there,

He’ll ask my home, I reckon.

When I tell him it’s Duluth,

He’ll say, “For heaven’s sake,

Ain’t that the place everyone says

Is cooler near the lake?”


“That’s it,” I’ll cry, “oh kindly saint,

And in this realm please spare,

From chilly off-lake breezes,

And winter underwear.”

“If it’s heat you want,” he’ll reply,

“In the other place you’ll bake!”

“Fine, send me any place except

Where it’s cooler near the lake.”


We’ll see.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Shelter in Place: poetry for our new reality...

Our friend and St. Paul resident, Stan Kusunoki, did it again! His poetry captured real life through the eyes of a devoted teacher in two previous books of poetry we've enjoyed (Items in the News & 180 Days: Reflections & Observations of a Teacher). His newest book of poetry, Shelter in Place, promises to provide thoughtful insights as a devoted teacher while facing our new reality of Covid. We don't have to have professional experiences in the classroom to relate to the feelings and real life scenarios Stan presents through poetry.

We are looking forward to reading Stan's poignant insights in Shelter in Place and hope you too will explore our "new Covid reality" through the eyes of this most talented poet and teacher.

 Kudos to words of poetry and to Stan, a most talented poet!

Jim & Voula Heffernan