Museum revives music legends

Staff photos by Clay Schuldt Randy Krzmarzick carries the tradition of Tanta Anna into the 21-century. The Tanta Anna was always played by a male member of the Fezz Fritsche Band. See more photos on page 8A.

NEW ULM — It was a musical blast from the past at the Brown Historical Society (BCHS) Saturday night.

This year the annual Night at the Museum Gala featured re-enactors standing in for the music legends of New Ulm’s Golden Age, such as Guy DeLeo, Fezz Fritsche, Harold Loeffelmacher and Whoopee John Wilfahrt.

BCHS Research Librarian Darla Gebhard said the idea for a music themed gala was born out of nostalgia for the big ballroom era. From WWII until the 1960s, the big band music and dance halls were among the top forms of entertainment.

This year the two most striking re-enactors were Misty DeLeo as her grandfather Guy DeLeo and Randy Krzmarzick as Tanta Anna. It was the popular concensus among museum guests that DeLeo looked the most like the person she portrayed, but she did have a hereditary connection. Krzmarzick was the bravest re-enactor. To play Tanta Anna he wore a yellow dress and too much makeup.

“I will regularly embarrasss myself if it is for a good cause,” Krzmarzick said. He was originally going to play DeLeo, but he thought it was more appropriate to give Misty that honor.

A photograph of the real Tanta Anna (Edward Willinger Sr.) and Fezz Fritsche was on display at he museum.

Mark Santelman played band leader Fezz Fritsche said the song Tanta Anna and the performance associated with the song was extremely popular in its era. The song featured a combination of English and German language. The act probably would not be pollically correct today, but the audience loved it back in the day.

Asked why the New Ulm area had a wealth of talented musicians, Santelman and Krzmarzick said it was a combination of talent and German’s love of music.

Gebhard confirmed the German influence was a factor. She said “Whoopee John took German folk songs he heard his mother hum and turned them into modern dance music. Usually it was a waltz.”

Gebhard estimated there were ten ballrooms and dance halls in the New Ulm area alone. The Nightingale, Blue Moon, Black Dragon and Hilltop were just a few of the popular dance clubs. There were several businesses with small dancing areas on the second floor. Even the National Guard Armory served as dance hall.

There were plenty of musical acts to play the dance hall, whether it was the Fezz Fritsche Band, Babe Wagner Band, Whoopee John or Six Fat Dutchmen.

The Sleepy Eye Area Concertina Club plays outside the Brown County Historical Society (BCHS) before the gala event. The Concertina would move further downtown after the gala event to direct guests to the dinner reception at Lola’s.

Gebhard said she remembers attending concerts at George’s Ballroom in the ’60s. The shows would end around midnight and everyone would head to Eibner’s for a Coke and french fries.

“Where do teenagers go now?” she asked.

The Big Band and dance hall era came to an end due to the expense. In the Depression and during WWII it did not cost much to hire a band, but by the ’60s it was too expensive to hire a large band. The rock n’ roll bands were more popular and were usually cheaper since a rock band had fewer members. However, even rock ‘n roll bands became too costly for local dance halls.

George’s Ballroom managed to stay on for a few more decades, but today running a musical hall is almost impossible.

Guests to the museum gala were able to get a semblance of the past by visiting the museum annex, which was decorated to resemble an old dance hall. It was top spot to gather at the gala.

This was the third year BCHS has held a night at the museum fundraiser. It has become an annual staple of the fall season that helps the BCHS raise funds and remind the community of its past.