NEW ULM - Forty years ago, Bob Wirtz had a vision. A touring musical group had come to New Ulm and he was impressed. He thought it would be nice if New Ulm had a group like that as well.
Wirtz and his late wife Bettianne were Luther League advisors at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in New Ulm and he asked some of the teen members if they would like to do some singing.
The group was small at first, six students and Wirtz. They decided to do a worship service at Our Savior's and it was a hit, the then yet to be named group was asked to do more.
The Menagerie display at the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame lists this as the first large group photo. It was taken in 1972.
A group photo taken in 1990.
Wirtz thought if the congregation of Our Savior's liked it, maybe others would too, so they did a test run on the road.
Bettianne had family near Westbrook, and Bob asked if their church in Dovray would like to have his group do the service. He got a bus driver's license and took the show on the road.
"They liked it," Wirtz said. "The kids liked it as well. That's how we got started."
If you go...
What: Menagerie Reunion Concert
When: 8:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 17
Where: Fairgrounds Grandstand during Bavarian Blast
Tickets: $9 to get into the fairgrounds for Bavarian Blast
Now the group needed a name. They batted around some ideas. "Discovery" was mentioned, "New Discovery" was another idea - but nothing seemed to fit just right.
Then Bettianne suggested Menagerie.
"I said, 'well we are bunch of wild animals,'" Wirtz said. "I let the kids decide and they thought it was a good fit."
The name stuck.
For more than 30 years, Menagerie practiced every Wednesday and toured around Minnesota and other parts of the upper midwest on the weekends. And on a few special occasions they even took the show overseas.
And now nearly a decade after their last performance and 40 years since the dream began, Menagerie will hold a reunion concert from 8:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. July 17 in the grandstand at Bavarian Blast.
"I thought [the idea of a reunion] was kind of fun," Wirtz said. "I think about the kids and I am always wondering what's happening with them because they are spread all over. I am really interested in what's happening with them because I love those kids. They are always going to be my kids."
Wirtz and Menagerie have a special place in the hearts of Shannon and Scott Stuckey of New Ulm because that's where the couple met. It's also something they can share with their oldest daughter Ellen, who was a member of the group too when she was in high school.
"Back when we were in it, it was a huge part of our social life," Shannon Stuckey said. "Every Wednesday night we would sing at Flandrau [that's where the group practiced in the summer months] and nobody wanted to leave. When my daughter was in it wasn't all of her social life because they got busier with other things. But in 1975 there wasn't as much to do.
"Bob devoted his life to the young people of New Ulm and I think that everyone that was involved would say that he holds a huge place in our hearts."
When Menagerie started it had about 25 students in grades 10, 11, and 12 from all three high schools in New Ulm. But as the years went by, the numbers grew and they averaged about 45 members.
It was also an exclusive club to be in because the students who wanted to join had to submit a letter to Wirtz outlining why they wanted to be in Menagerie. They were to write what they could bring to the group and what they wanted to get out of it.
"I would duplicate the letters and take the names off and anything that could identify who the kids were," Wirtz said. "I numbered the letters and I made copies of all the letters, I gave the kids copies of the letters and we just sat down and I had them read the letters. The kids voted on the number that they felt should be in. Before we would even do the voting, I would have the kids talk about the ones that wanted in. I would ask, 'what's their attitude like, how are they spiritually, what do you know about them morally? We want kids that have the right attitudes."
Even his own two sons Ted and Jim had to write a letter and be voted in.
"I wouldn't just let them in because they were my kids," he said. "It was exciting to be in it with my kids. It was really fun to perform with my kids."
Around 700 teens went through the program over the 30 years and besides doing performances around Minnesota, the group toured Europe nine different times.
That is one of Aaron Lambrecht's, who was a member in the mid 1990s, favorite memories.
"Menagerie ment a lot to me," he said. "It meant that I was able to meet life-long friends. I got to travel to a lot of different places, both in the region and abroad and I got the opportunity to experience new cultures and different ways of life."
Erik Gislason was impacted a different way as he went into a career of performing and entertaining after high school. He joined a touring performing group called 'Up With People' and eventually went to St. Olaf and got a theater degree.
"I continued singing and performing in college," he said. "From there I went to New York, where I was an actor and performer for 10 years. Menagerie was one of the real early building blocks of my life. I've spent a lot of my life performing and singing and if it weren't for Bob and Menagerie, I don't think I would have ended up in a career in theater."
Janet Zahn has the same sentiments. She was one of the first members of Menagerie and a few years ago, she opened Camden Music School in Minneapolis.
"There is no doubt in my mind that growing up in New Ulm and singing in Menagerie, had something to do with this," she said. "It put music in my heart and in my life forever. It's such a gift."
And as a teacher of music now, she understands how much work it must have been for Wirtz all of those years.
Every Wednesday directing practice and nearly every Sunday shuttling the group to all points around the state.
"Now from my perspective, I marvel at the amount of time that they gave to the group," she said of Bob and Bettianne. "They were so generous of their time and talent. When you are in it and having so much fun, you don't realize. I learned so much. I learned about singing, performing and timing. It was just a tremendous gift that they gave to us growing up. It's hard to put into words."
And it wasn't until after he retired from Menagerie did Wirtz understand how many lives he touched.
"I don't think I realized how important I was to those kids until I retired," Wirtz said. "It was something that I just did. I enjoyed it, I loved those kids. You don't realize the effect you have on the kids until much later."
And Shannon Stuckey, who says Menagerie groomed her for her career as a voice and performance teacher at Gustavus Adolphus, was just glad her daughter could be blessed by the group as well.
"It was a spiritual thing for me, it was a social thing for me and I think the majority of the kids would agree," she said. "I am very glad that my oldest daughter got to do it and share in that experience and I just wish my younger two kids could have done it."
So why did Wirtz call it quits when he did?
"It was time, the kids were getting so busy it was difficult for kids to focus on one thing," he said. "The kids are so active today. It's fun to see, it's great to see kids being so active but they have to spread themselves so thin. They can't always be where they want to be and I thought it was time. I knew that some day I would have to retire, I didn't want to, I didn't look forward to that but I knew someday it would be right."
Now Wirtz is excited to see all of his "kids" again and he cherishes the moments he had with them.
"It's probably 30 of the best years of my life," he said. "I think I am a lot better person because of them. I learned a lot from them."
And Lambrecht summed up his feelings the way most people in Menagerie would.
"Bob is like a second father to me," he said. "He, his wife and his sons were like a second family to me, throughout my life and it still continues today."