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Eveleth Clown Band:
I did the Eveleth Clown Band groupie thing after the Land of the Loon parade in Virginia last weekend. I followed them around as they went “barnstorming” main street bars – Sports Page, Virginia Servicemen’s Club, Flaimer’s, Popper’s. I watched the people who awaited and cheered their arrival, sang and danced along with their ribald and boisterous performance, and deflated upon their departure. For many, the flamboyant cross-dressing, costumed and polka-playing band, is the highlight of the parade and post-parade celebration. The Clown Band has been an integral part of the Range’s Fourth of July and centennial celebrations for as long as most people can remember.
Actually, the Eveleth Clown Band has been around since the mid-1940’s. While there are no official records, it is known that the band was started by Louie Pazzelli and a few other Evelethians. At that time, the members were all veterans of foreign war, and played in the VFW Drum and Bugle Corps, according to today’s band leader Paul Tuskan. Other original band members included Tono Thompson, “Czar” Vito, Louie Rannikar, “G-G” Sabetti and Joe Silovich.
Richard Colburn, a professor of art at the University of Northern Iowa and professional photographer, has followed the Eveleth Clown Band for over two decades as part of a project to document rural life in the American Upper Midwest. He shared with me the following history of the band, as it was told to him by band elders:
“In 1999 I spoke with a few folks about the history of the Clown Band. What I have isn’t complete and some of the recollections may be clouded by old memories.
“I spoke with Louie Pazzelli who along with Tono Thompson and others, founded the band in 1949. Later I heard through Jerry Vito that Frank Rainaldi said the band started in 1946. Tono Thompson later played professionally with the Horace Hite Orchestra. Pazzelli later became Director of Public Works in Eveleth.
“They told me that the band began in casual conversation at the Vet’s club. ‘Let’s start a goofy band.’ The tradition of being ‘goofy’ - dressed as clowns and having the leader direct the band with a toilet plunger - started at the very beginning according to Pazzelli. The tradition of barnstorming in and out of bars also began in 1949 and continues to this day. As Louie Pazzelli said, they liked to ‘liven it up a bit.’
“There were four music teachers in the founding group along with a pharmacist and others. They mostly played polkas although he recalled they did play the Peasant’s Overture from the hotel roof at the national convention in Chicago in 1950.
“In 1949 nine members of the band (all that could get away) went to the VFW National Convention in Miami where they were a ‘big success.’ In order to get to Miami Pazzelli borrowed $3000 from a Nash car dealer whom he worked for to fund the trip. By passing the hat while playing in the hotel and in bars in Miami they made over $3000 and repaid the loan. They won first prize of $1700 playing at the Orange Bowl for the convention.
“In 1949 and 1950 the band traveled regionally and nationally. It seems that the conclusion of the summer’s parades was always the Cloquet Labor Day parade. In the early days the band would stay for three days and were provided with lodging and food. It seems that the band petered out in the early 1950s, as the players had other commitments and busy lives.
“Jerry Vito recalled that the band broke up in 1952. His uncle Ray Vito asked if Jerry wanted to re-start the band in 1963. They got the old equipment from the VFW. The drum was re-painted in 1963. Some old West Point uniforms were with the equipment. The VFW paid for make-up and mileage. This new version of the band played in 1963, ‘64 and ‘65. The members were former members of the high school band. They played marches such as “Anchors Away” but also the Julida polka and did formations which required lots of practice. They played 10-12 parades each summer with the conclusion being the Cloquet Labor Day parade.
The tradition lives on
Some of the band’s current long-time members agreed to visit with me recently. They included John Berquist (the oldest living band member who joined in the late 60’s); Scott Wudinich (member for 31 years); Paul “Tucky” Tuskan (26 years); C.J. Lysaker (22 years) and Danny Lange (11 years).
What does it mean to be a member of the Eveleth Clown Band? What keeps them tied to this annual and, for some, family tradition? They looked at each other, and paused before anyone spoke. How to explain it? “It’s the camaraderie. It can’t be explained,” said Wudinich. “It’s the high point of the year. It’s better than Christmas. You get to see so many people. For me, it’s a lot of close ties and unions with members of the band.”
In Tuskan’s case, it’s a family affair, too. His father and grandfather were band members, and in 2009 his son, Tim Tuskan, played for the first time. Tim is a senior at Eveleth-Gilbert High School and a drummer in the E-G marching band. During the Land of the Loon parade he had to change from his marching band uniform to his Clown Band cheerleader outfit in short order. “I only missed about a block,” he said.
The band fluctuates in size from year to year and event to event, but one thing remains the same. It always brings people back home to Eveleth and the Iron Range for the Fourth of July. They come from all over the United States, and even Europe, to reunite with their families and friends, and to play with the Eveleth Clown Band. Some come every single year, without fail. Others might return after a 5, 10, or 20 year absence. Once a band member, always a band member, and returning musicians are always welcomed.
This year they had about 25 band members for the Land of the Loon, and expect their numbers will swell to 50 or more for the Fourth of July. They are always the last entry of the parade, bringing up the rear and finishing the procession with a bang. After the conclusion of the parade, they “barnstorm” main street establishments. In their hometown of Eveleth, before hitting the bars, they make stops at the nursing home, the senior high rise apartments, and the hospital. “They love it,” said Tuskan. “They look forward to it every year. It means a lot.”
Their repertoire is primarily polka-based including favorites In Heaven There Is No Beer, Just Because, Julida, You Are My Sunshine, Roll Out The Barrel, and The Key’s In The Mailbox. A few pep band songs from high school and college days might be played, including Beer Beer For Old Eveleth High, and usually When The Saints Go Marching In. It is their tradition to play You Are My Sunshine while lying on their backs on the ground.
Nowadays, the band plays primarily Virginia’s Land of the Loon parade and the Gilbert and Eveleth Fourth of July parades. They also do the occasional centennial parade. This Saturday is Kinney’s 100th birthday, and the Eveleth Clown Band will be there. They have requests to be in many more parades than they are able to participate in, and turn down many offers every year.
I asked the current band members if they had ever celebrated the Fourth of July anywhere other than Eveleth and the Iron Range. “No, never,” they all said simultaneously, as though the idea was ludicrous. Berquist, who has missed playing only one 4th of July in his nearly 40-plus years with the band, told me this: “No one else in the world gets to do what I get to do. I get to beat on the bass drum with the Eveleth Clown Band on the Fourth of July. It’s a unique thing. If I ever think about maybe not [returning home for the 4th], I say to myself, ‘I get to beat on the bass drum. I’m going.’”
The bass drum
The band’s bass drum has a unique story, too. Berquist said in 1980 - or “thereabouts” - the Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick’s Fine Arts Gallery was preparing an exhibit of musical instruments and artifacts that demonstrated the way people celebrated community events. They didn’t have an American bass drum, but knew of the Eveleth Clown Band drum. They had seen it once while conducting field work in 1978 on a folklore project which brought them to the Iron Range Historical Society and a July 4th celebration on the Range.
They wanted to include it in their exhibit, but there was a controversy because it wasn’t, and could not be, part of their permanent collection. As the dilemma worked its way up the chain of command, it eventually landed with the Undersecretary of the museum – who just happened to be Berquist’s college classmate. Berquist told him they could use the bass drum for the two-year exhibit, under one condition – that the drum would be returned each year to Eveleth in time for the 4th of July parade.
It’s a testament to the specialness of the bass drum that this unusual request was finally granted. “So,” Berquist said, “we shipped the drum to the Smithsonian after the Fourth that year, and on June 30th of the next year, this truck arrives at my place with a huge crate with the drum in it. After the Gilbert and Eveleth parades, we put it back in the crate and shipped it back.” They did that two years, and then the bass drum returned home to Eveleth for good.
Berquist doesn’t know much about the history of the drum, other than it is American made and the clown band came into possession of it sometime in the 40’s. “We inherited it from some disbanded group somewhere. It wasn’t new when we got it.”
Where the drum is stored between celebrations is a closely guarded secret.
The Coach’s Candy Clowns
The Clown Band is preceded in all parade processions by the “Coach’s Candy Clowns” – who distribute candy to children along the way and interact with the crowd. Established in the 70’s by C. J. Lysaker’s father Pepper, the candy clowns are an important part of the “performance.”
“We don’t forget that parades are for the kids, too,” said C. J. “The candy clowns don’t throw the candy into the street, they walk right up to the kids and hand it to them. They talk to people, they give people hugs.”
Everyone has a story
Berquist, who now lives in Rochester, is a folklorist. He is currently the Director of the Rochester World Festival and does programming and storytelling work. He says the Eveleth Clown Band is an important part of Iron Range culture and traditions.
“The band has been in the [4th of July] parade so many years. One year when I was a little kid, they weren’t in the parade. It was terrible. For me, for so many people, that was the highlight of the parade. To me, to not have [the Clown Band], it wouldn’t be the Fourth of July.”
Of course, it’s not just the time marching in the parades that is meaningful. “It evolves into a once a year gathering [of Eveleth and Iron Range friends]. I don’t know what these guys even look like in normal clothes,” Berquist said. “They come from far, far away, because it’s special to all of them.”
I asked for favorite stories from some of the current band members. One year, Tuskan’s son was born on the Fourth of July around 8 o’clock in the evening, which created quite a furor. And one year, when Tuskan was about 30, he played together with his dad, who was about 60, and his grandfather, then about 90. “That was pretty special,” he said. Then there was the year he got smashed in the mouth with the bell of his horn. “Took my teeth right out,” he said. “I asked my wife, ‘How bad is it?’ and she said, ‘We gotta go.’”
Lange had a memorable mishap as well, when his cymbals got criss-crossed and sliced off the tip of one of his fingers. “We got some tape at the Ben Franklin store and wrapped it up. I only missed a block.”
C. J. Lysaker told me about the band’s early morning tradition on the Fourth at his dad’s place on Ely Lake. Pepper Lysaker and C. J.’s uncle, John Henry, put on a big breakfast which sometimes features such interesting fare as ostrich egg omelets and alligator omelets. But the breakfast feast doesn’t take place until everyone on the lake is awake. Their tradition, which started in 1988, is to go out in a boat promptly at 6 a.m. and play revelry, and play loudly, so the lake residents don’t forget that they need to get up and get ready for the 9 a.m. parade. Lake residents sometimes respond with refreshments for the musicians on the end of their dock, salutes by gunfire and even the firing of a cannon. I raised my eyebrow at that tale, and C.J. said, “No, really, there’s a guy with a real cannon.”
The lake wake-up call and breakfast is followed by warmups, directed by Pepper (a former coach) who insists they be physically prepared for the strenuous performance ahead of them. Again, I raised my eyebrow. “No, I’m serious,” said C. J.
Tuskan said they’ve forgotten more stories than they can remember, but they reminisced about marriages, marriage proposals, babies, and even a job offer that are all intertwined with the Clown Band in some way. C. J. said that he met his future boss, the superintendent of Nashwauk- Keewatin schools, when the clown band was barnstorming in Buhl at the Hideaway Bar 16 years ago. “I met this guy on the back deck and he asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I’m wearing a negligee, right? I told him I was looking for a teaching job. He told me to send him a letter. I did. And he hired me.”
“And you’re still there,” I said. “Yep, I’m still there,” he nodded.
Bottom line, it’s just a lot of fun
Everybody has fun and the band gets to give back to the community as well. Usually they have a little cash in the pot at the end of the year and they donate it to civic projects like equipment for playgrounds, renovations at the Hippodrome, and scholarships for EGHS band members. “We like to be able to do that,” said Tuskan.
C. J. probably put it best, as to why they keep on keepin’ on. When the Eveleth Clown Bands plays, “everyone’s smilin’. We keep the crowd happy, we keep it lively. We keep people’s spirits up.”