Al DeRusha was the youngest of 11 children who grew up in a cold-water flat on the west side of the Mississippi River in St. Paul. His father worked in the caves along the river, growing mushrooms for the business that’s now Lehmann Farms.
“They grew the mushrooms in horse manure,” Al said. “They had to turn it over. You walked by the caves, there was horse manure stacked up in front.”
This was early in the 1940s. An amusement park would set up in the summer on Harriet Island. The youngest DeRusha children went to work there, including Al.
“I was 6 when I started,” Al said.
Three summers later, life started to get interesting for DeRusha. And it has stayed that way for more than seven decades.
“Our family had nothing,” DeRusha said. “We didn’t know it, because everyone who lived near us was the same, but we had nothing.
“Harriet Island flooded one spring and stayed under water so long there wasn’t going to be an amusement park. I had been working for the Magel family. They had to go on the road and offered me a job. My mother made them promise I’d be back in time for school.”
Al was 9 when he first headed out on the carnival circuit. Young Al was the gofer to start and then started running “games” on the midway.
“You know the milk bottles — hit them with a ball, knock them over and win a prize?” DeRusha said. “I had an old carny tell me, ‘We had a tornado hit our carnival one day. Only thing still standing were the milk bottles.’ ”
When he was 13, a young member of the Magel family also started working summers on the circuit. Her name was Marlene.
“We just celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary,” Al said.
DeRusha attended Humboldt High School. A student was allowed to sign up for a program where he could go to school in the morning and then work at a job in the afternoon.
“They would go down the list when a job came open,” DeRusha said. “I worked at St. Paul Plastics, Fisher Nuts … the jobs would last a couple of months and you would go back on the list.
“In 1953, I was a senior and a job opened up at a TV station that was in its early days in the Hamm Building in St. Paul. I had only seen TV in the hardware store window.
“I was second on the list, but the kid ahead of me didn’t have a driver’s license, and that was a requirement. I was told to go to the Hamm Building and see Stuart Lindman.”
KSTP-5 and WCCO-4 were the first two stations in the Twin Cities. Then, a third signal was granted — Channel 11 — and here Al provided a history lesson:
“The signal was split between WMIN in St. Paul and WTCN in Minneapolis, in the Calhoun Beach Hotel,” DeRusha said. “One would be on the air for a few hours, then the other. I needed a driver’s license to shuttle things back and forth between the stations.”
And then life truly got interesting.
DeRusha became a floor manager and then a producer. Channel 11 moved completely to the Calhoun Beach Hotel. The staples of the independent station’s success were kid shows.
The big one was “Lunch With Casey,” with Roger Awsumb, at noon. Lynn Dwyer joined the show as “Roundhouse Rodney.”
DeRusha still shakes his head in amazement. “They didn’t have a script; there was just an idea and Roger and Lynn went with it,” he said. “The show became so popular we started an after-school show — ‘Casey Jones at Grandma Lumpit’s Boarding House.’ Lynn was Grandma Lumpit, and he was brilliant.”
DeRusha also ran the floor for Mel Jass’ matinée movie.
“Seven minutes of movie; four minutes of ads,” DeRusha said. “Mel was the greatest pitchman of all time. He’d just say, ‘What’s next?’ and you’d say, ‘Muntz TV,’ and he’d start selling TVs.”
DeRusha’s interesting life gained more steam when Verne Gagne’s AWA wrestling show started a live Saturday telecast (6-7:30 p.m.) from a small studio at Channel 11.
Al was the producer, and later a ring announcer, and a referee for endless matches. He left Channel 11 and went to work full-time for the AWA in 1973. He also promoted a circuit of matches in secondary markets — Brainerd, Willmar, Austin, towns of that size around the Midwest.
“The AWA was in 15 major markets when we were doing the TV show,” DeRusha said. “And we did interviews for each market. I used to call Gene Okerlund, ‘Gene, Gene, the Interview Machine.’
“The wrestlers would come in and sometimes do a dozen interviews. Jesse Ventura was tremendous in the interviews. He’d say, ‘Where?’ I’d say, ‘San Francisco.’ He’d say, ‘Who I got?’ I’d tell him, and then he’d start in … never missed a beat.”
There’s a book in Al DeRusha’s wrestling travels, if he ever retires and has the time to write it.
Derusha left wrestling in 1990 and went to work for the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) as a lobbyist and promoter.
The OABA is the association for owners of carnival businesses, including the Magels, now with a fifth generation in the family trade.
Clearly, Al DeRusha was always a “carny” at heart, and now he’s working as hard at 80 for those folks as he did as a 6-year-old on Harriet Island.