One night, World War II hero Jimmy Doolittle, the aviation pioneer, walked into the Flame Room at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. As soon as Cliff Brunzell, leader of the Flame Room's famous Golden Strings ensemble, recognized Doolittle, he saluted.
"From one B-25 pilot to another," Brunzell declared.
Brunzell — a Minneapolis music institution who led the Golden Strings for more than 15,000 performances in front of more than 1 million people including Nat King Cole and King Olav of Norway — died Friday. He was 92.
The Flame Room was the go-to special-occasion restaurant in Minneapolis, starting in the 1960s. Rock drummer Bobby Vandell recalls going downtown with his parents from St. Cloud to see Brunzell and his combo: eight violinists, two grand pianists and an upright bassist.
"My parents were enamored with him," Vandell said. "It was an experience like no other. Cliff was a very striking presence who carried the persona of a leading man from the golden age of movies — a Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and perhaps more than anyone, Clark Gable."
Later, as a professional musician himself, Vandell came to appreciate Brunzell even more.
"His virtuosity and ability to play jazz on the violin was unequivocal," Vandell said. "Seeing and hearing Cliff Brunzell perform, made one certain this man was not from Minnesota, but from Hollywood, New York or Paris. Cliff held a charismatic quality of class and elegance from another era, with the talent to back it up."
Brunzell took pride in playing classical and jazz, said his daughter, Barbara Brunzell. He enjoyed three different gigs equally — performing with the Minneapolis Symphony (and traveling around the world), exercising his showmanship with the Golden Strings and exploring jazz late in his career.
Born in Minneapolis, Brunzell started violin lessons at 8 and played on the radio at 11. After high school, he got a job playing in a trio at the Nicollet Hotel. He entered the Army in 1943 and later earned a bachelor of music degree in violin at MacPhail College of Music (where he met his wife, a pianist) and later a master's in both violin and music education. In 1948, he joined the Minneapolis Symphony under Antal Dorati but left seven years later to run the Hopkins High School orchestra.
In 1963, hotel magnate Curt Carlson asked Brunzell to put together a music ensemble to entertain at the Flame Room. The group became an institution, releasing 10 albums of light classics and pop standards. While the Golden Strings were playing three sets a night for six days a week, Brunzell also was teaching at Hopkins.
"He had a deep, deep passion for music," Barbara Brunzell said. "He was dedicated to the profession, to his colleagues, to the people he played for and to his family. When the grandkids came around, he made a change. They were like gold on earth and he couldn't get enough of them."
He also loved going Up North to the family cabin in Hackensack, Minn. "Nature was definitely his sanctuary," Barbara said.
Even though the Golden Strings ended a nearly 19-year run at the Flame Room in 1983 when the Radisson was remodeled, Brunzell never stopped performing. He did six or seven Christmas gigs last year and played a final show in January.
Brunzell is survived by his daughters Barbara, of St. Paul, and Juliann, of Minneapolis, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Visitation will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Washburn-McReavy in Edina, and a service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Minneapolis.