Menagerie members sing, remember

At inaugural sing along in NU

Staff photo by Fritz Busch Ted Wirtz of Carver, the son of former Menagerie director Bob Wirtz, sings and plays acoustic guitar at The Menagerie sing along at the New Ulm Country Club Saturday. Wirtz said a summer sing along for anyone interested in coming, is planned in New Ulm.

NEW ULM — Menagerie alumni, friends, family and supporters hugged each other, talked of the good old days and sang their favorite oldies in harmony at the New Ulm Country Club Saturday.

Ted Wirtz of Carver, the son of original Menagerie director Bob Wirtz of Florida, said the sing along was different than previous Menagerie reunions in that it is open to anyone interested in the group and its music.

“We just want to sing and remember. We don’t want to lose The Menagerie,” Wirtz said, between hugs as people came in the door.

The non-denominational youth folk group directed by Bob Wirtz from 1970 to 2000 began when Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Luther Leaguers including Jill Akre, Marcia Alsop, Jill Schlong, Kathy Schmidt, Nancy Suedbeck and Barb Cherrington wrote and conducted a worship service. Wirtz and his wife Betty were Luther League advisors.

The students were encouraged to continue after the worship service. Performances at other worship services were well received. The group expanded, adding members from area schools, adopted the name The Menagerie and became non-denominational.

Students practiced Wednesday nights at the Flandrau Beach House. Acoustic guitars and violins were added. They performed at church services and social functions around Minnesota.

“My dad (Bob Wirtz) can’t be here. He loves you and he’s healthy. I wish my dad was here. Nobody more than me,” Ted Wirtz said.

“The Menagerie wouldn’t exist without everybody in this room,” he added.

Wirtz grabbed his guitar and began playing and singing “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight,” as dozens of former Menagerie members sang along.

John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” came next, in harmony. The singing continued for hours.

Wirtz said the new bi-annual sing along format was determined by feedback from Menagerie alumni.

“The alumni still want to get together, play and sing as before but they want something for everyone to come and listen or sing along with them if they want to. New Ulm has such a profound heritage of supporting music,” Ted Wirtz said.

He said a possible summer sing along venue may be the Flandrau State Park beach house, where The Menagerie practiced during the warmer months decades ago.

“It’s about sustaining the history of the group and inviting everybody else to come and just have fun with it,” said Wirtz.

A former member of the Halloways rock band, Wirtz said he still writes music and sings and considers himself “a folk guy.”

Bob and Betty Wirtz’ son Jim of Cologne said he grew up with many Menagerie members, going on bus rides to church services with them beginning at age three.

“I went to Germany with The Menagerie. We still have very good friends in Germany. They’d come to New Ulm for Heritagefest and we’d host them. They’d host us in smaller towns in Germany,” he added. “It’s like having brothers and sisters in Germany. That’s how close we are. We taught them English. It made them so happy, they’d cry when we left. Everybody on the trip had experiences like that. My dad wanted kids to have a good cultural experience.”

“Just about everybody in it is like my older or younger brother or sister. We are still very close. It’s quite like a family. It’s been a lot of fun,” said Jim Wirtz.

In 1974, The Menagerie performed at the U.S. Naval Academy. The group performed in Nashville several times. They helped celebrate the 600th anniversary of the founding of the Ulmer Muenster Cathedral in Ulm, Germany in 1977.

“We had a great time everywhere we went. It was always fun. Church was a big part of it,” said Kevin Wieland.

“Bob and Betty Wirtz didn’t have kids when we started The Menagerie in the 1970s, but they had us. We were like their kids,” said Deb Ellanson Kaehler.

“Bob drove us to places in a bus. Sometimes it was really cold. The Menagerie brought together a lot of kids that wouldn’t have otherwise gotten together”, she added.

The Menagerie was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2004 at Turner Hall. During the ceremony, Wirtz said he believed the group had a positive effect on people nationally and internationally.

“The group sent an underlying message of love, caring and respect to whomever they encountered,” Bob Wirtz said at the induction.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today