Lloyd Johnson knew that his favorite lemon cake would be served at his 100th birthday party Wednesday at Woodbury’s Stonecrest Senior Living residence.
But playing a duet with surprise guest and mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko? Let’s call that the icing.
“I can’t believe it! It’s wonderful!” said a stunned Johnson, dressed in a dark suit and standing inches from his idol in a room filled with applauding residents and Maxine, his wife of 71 years, at his side.
“He’s famous. I’m nobody.”
A gracious Ostroushko didn’t miss a beat. “Today,” he said, “you’re everybody.”
Then, with Maxine on piano, and the couple’s youngest son, Joey Johnson, on accordion, the two violinists performed “San Antonio Rose,” “I Saw the Light” and a beloved folk song, “Halsa Dem Darhemma,” which turned into a tear-fest as Johnson stepped to the microphone and sang sweetly in Swedish.
Ostroushko, raised in Minneapolis’ Ukrainian community, is an Emmy Award-winning composer who has collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson to the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra in Moscow. Johnson, a fine fiddler in his own right, has been an Ostroushko fan since discovering his music more than 30 years ago. A photo of the virtuoso hangs on Johnson’s wall, taken during a brief meeting nine years ago.
Recently, Johnson was sharing one of his few unfulfilled dreams with Stonecrest recreational director Renee Vaughan, also a musician. “I always wanted to play with this guy whose photo is hanging on my wall,” he told Vaughan. She remembered.
The son of Swedish parents, Johnson was born on Dec. 4, 1913, and reared on a farm in Harris, Minn., with five siblings. When he was about 11, Harris started an orchestra and Johnson’s father handed him a violin. “I started playing by ear,” Johnson said.
“Everybody thought I had a terrific talent and all that.”
He later picked up trumpet, too. After high school, he wrote arrangements and played in dance halls, making about $3 a gig. At least once, he was paid in candy bars.
He and Maxine, 93, married in 1942. He left music behind to make room for work and raising three sons. Barry, 69, and John, 67, are retired pilots. Joey, 56, is a professional musician.
In 1977, Lloyd and Maxine moved to Florida to manage a condo complex. With some free time again, Johnson found his way back to the violin, expanding his repertoire from classical to country and western, gospel, bluegrass and golden oldies. Maxine took up guitar, then piano, and the two became popular entertainers in senior centers, playing, singing and dancing cheek to cheek.
Back in the Twin Cities since 2003, they perform monthly for fellow residents of Stonecrest. “He’s got it, but he never flaunts it,” said Stonecrest resident Harry Yannarelli, 90, who attends all their concerts.
A few months ago, Johnson (who stayed out of hospitals until a heart attack at 85) decided he should practice violin daily. “I was amazed, at my age, what a difference it made to play every day,” he said. “I don’t want to brag, but I think I’m playing better now than I was months or even years ago.
“It certainly gives me a lift now,” he said. “I am amazed I can pick up a fiddle and play at this age with a middling, decent technique.”
Maxine said her husband’s talent is far beyond middling. “When I’m singing, I have to have music,” she said. “But Lloyd? When I tell him what songs to play, he’s off. He doesn’t stop.”
About nine years ago, Ostroushko was to perform at a park in Woodbury. Joey surprised his father with third-row tickets. He then e-mailed Ostroushko with a request. “My dad is 91,” he wrote. “Can you play a song for him?”
Ostroushko did better than that. About halfway through the concert, Ostroushko did a shout-out to Johnson, wishing him a happy birthday.
“Well!” said Lloyd to Joey. “That’s me!” Later, Ostroushko posed with the elder Johnson for the cherished photograph.
“There’s a neat thing about musicians who’ve got nothing to prove,” said Joey.
“You don’t fear other musicians. Peter knows his place in history. For him, to meet somebody else who still does it and enjoys it, that’s a treat.”
Another treat got cooking as Johnson’s 100th birthday approached. Vaughan contacted Beth Friend, owner of Ostroushko’s label, Red House Records, asking Friend if she thought Ostroushko would be willing to be the “surprise” birthday guest.
He said yes “because it’s rare for someone to ask something so personal. The fact that he’s a fiddler made it that much closer to me.”
“It was one of those delightful moments that happen in the middle of a regular old workday that changes everything and buoys you right up,” Friend said. She attended the birthday party and was all smiles.
Johnson confessed that he didn’t sleep much the night before his birthday. “It’s a traumatic experience when you know you’re going to be 100 in a few hours,” he said.
Ostroushko made the day easier. “They could have knocked me over with a shovel,” Johnson said. “I’ve been wanting to meet him again.”
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