The outfits span genres: A silver, sequined dress donned by jazz pianist Jeanne Arland Peterson stands in one corner. A hand-painted leather coat worn by seasoned country singer Sherwin Linton hangs in another.
But the instruments within the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame give away its oom-pah-pah roots.
Organs and accordions. Concertina after concertina. One ornate squeeze box, played by polka legend Syl Liebl, landed in this modest museum via Dodie Wendinger’s lap. She ran the Hall of Fame for three decades, collecting artifacts and stories.
“My sweet man here, he’s gone,” says Wendinger, 71, smiling at a black-and-white photo of Liebl and his wide grin. When Liebl was inducted into the Hall of Fame, in 1993, he rented a tuxedo for the occasion. He was long retired by then, his fingers crumpled. But upon receiving his award, he called for his concertina. Wendinger fetched it from his trunk. “He was the only concertina player I knew who could — in the middle of the song — flip the concertina over and keep on playing.” That night, the crowd on its feet, “those crumpled fingers did something.”
She lowers her own hands, remembers the rest of the story: Years later, Liebl asked her to come by his place. They were visiting when, “all of a sudden, he came and put his concertina on my lap,” Wendinger says. She asked him: “What are you doing, Syl?” And he told her: “I want the Hall of Fame to have that.” So now it sits in a glass case here in New Ulm, alongside photographs and press clippings.
Polka legacies bump up against rock icons in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, pop. 13,000. This city, known for its German immigrants and Glockenspiel clock tower, was once nationally recognized as a hotbed for old-time music and the social dance bands that played it. Volunteers founded the Hall of Fame in 1988 in order to honor legends like John Wilfahrt, better known as “Whoopee John,” or “Daddy of the Concertina,” one of the country’s most famous polka bandleaders. The first five inductees were all dead, all old-time.
But over the years, they’ve inducted musicians and musical groups from classical to jazz, polka to pop.
“You don’t get people to come for the dead ones,” says Wendinger, who stepped down from her executive director gig years ago but on this Monday morning popped in to handle some paperwork. “And I don’t like to wait until they’re gone.”
On occasion, a music writer will point out the hall of fame’s “head-scratching decisions,” as the Pioneer Press’ Ross Raihala put it, as well as who’s still missing: Hüsker Dü, the Jayhawks, Babes in Toyland, Low. But odd pairings might be part of the charm. Last year’s class of inductees included rock band Soul Asylum alongside polka bandleader Ernie Coopman.
Also inducted: the five siblings of Peterson Family, known as “Minnesota’s First Family of Music.” They joined their mother, pianist Jeanne, who was known as the grande dame of Minnesota jazz.
“We had a mini-family reunion,” says singer Patty Peterson, gathering two dozen relatives in New Ulm for the weekend. The day following the gala, they stopped by the Minnesota Hall of Fame. They lingered at the display case honoring Jeanne. Photos from her days playing on WCCO. Awards and albums. Wendinger was “quite the hostess,” Peterson says. “They really made us feel special. It’s not Hollywood. It’s real Minnesota.”
About 600 people visited the Hall of Fame last year, paying the $5 entry fee. The nonprofit boasts a $30,000 annual budget, fueled by $25-a-year memberships, a fundraising dance and legacy gifts. Despite the stately art deco exterior of what used to be the Brown County Museum, the fluorescent-lit first floor museum is modest, Midwestern.
Even more so in its early days, when the museum sprung up on the town’s western edge, tucked inside a cafe within the Randall Foods supermarket. It was “more shrine than museum,” as the Pioneer Press noted in 1996. A single display case and a wall of photos. Two old concertinas and an organ. The newspaper’s photo shows a man named Bernie gobbling a hot roast beef sandwich, paying little attention to the history behind him. “We didn’t have much,” Wendinger says. “But we had a little bit to call a home.”
Meanwhile, the hall was inducting musicians and board members were scouring real estate listings. “I remember entering this building,” Wendinger says. She whispers: “It was so filthy. All the paint had come off the walls. Dirt, mold. You name it, we found it.” From dawn until darkness, they scrubbed and painted.
Then they began collecting. Records and photographs, sheet music and instruments. A blue velvet robe from the St. Olaf Choir. A red feather boa worn by pianist Lorie Line. On the day that Prince died, fans arrived at the Hall of Fame with bouquets.
“I could go on and on with all of the stories,” says Wendinger. She’s quick to praise the inductees who attended their ceremonies: “What a wonderful lady.” “She’s a dear friend.” “They’re lovely people.”
But she’s less generous with the musicians who declined to pick up their awards. Bob Dylan, born in Duluth, had little interest in his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1991, the same year as Judy Garland. A few years later, when Dylan was playing nearby, Wendinger called his manager, asking whether she might drop off his Minnesota-shaped statue.
“He said, ‘We’re not interested,’ ” she says. “And he hung up the phone, he did. I figure, it’s your loss.”
Wendinger has reached out to Prince’s people, too. The icon was inducted into the Minnesota Hall of Fame a little late — in 2007, three years after landing in the national Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (Wendinger is quoted, back in 1996, as saying that Prince “somehow isn’t … ripe enough.”) But since his passing, Wendinger has gotten possessive. “That’s not leaving here — just to go in their museum? Sorry. It’s staying here.”
In one tall case is Linton’s red leather duster, adorned with horses and stoic portraits, a badlands scene. After performing in it for more than a decade, he lent it to the Hall of Fame, along with a black hat and snakeskin cowboy boots.
“I decided it was something that other people could enjoy looking at,” says Linton, honored in 2001. “If I’ve got it hanging in my home, who else is gonna see it?”
The South Dakota native is known for his Nashville recording days, his Johnny Cash tributes and his record-breaking longevity. Now 80 years old, he’s never missed a gig. Over the years, he’s been inducted into a dozen halls of fame, including South Dakota’s. “But I’m still not famous,” he laughs. Minnesota’s is “as impressive as a hall of fame can be.”
He points out that what Nashville is to country music, New Ulm is to old-time music — a mecca. “It’s important to recognize the music of Minnesota and the cultural history of Minnesota,” he says. “If I may quote from one of my songs: ‘The foundation of our future is the pages of the past.’ ”
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