The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Travels With Myron

by Richard Terrill

MYRON FLOREN IS SITTING in front of us sipping a soft drink after the gig, a dance at some anachronistic ballroom in a small town on a winter night in 1974 or '75. Or it's summer and he's in his trailer with that same soft drink, and it's the same year, or perhaps a year earlier or later. Either way, Myron Floren is the accordion player on The Lawrence Welk Show, the guy who seems to be second in command, who takes over directing the orchestra when Lawrence is ill or when Lawrence is dancing in front of the bandstand and before the TV cameras with his champagne lady or a "chick singer," as we would have called her then.

Myron is relaxing with us after the gig. This has never happened before. We are college students making money for school or rent. We have never before seen Myron (soft spoken but businesslike Myron, show-biz half-smiling Myron), never before seen him relaxed. We are, to those in the crowd of senior citizens who ask us, members of the Myron Floren Orchestra. "For this night only," we could tell them, but dare not. "Where you headed next?" the dancers ask us when we're on a break. "Oh," we reconnoiter, eying each other to get the story straight, "I guess we're headed east. Aren't we?"

It's true. After the gig we'll drive home to our rent and our classes. Our town lies east of here. The eyes of the oldish Welk-ies who ask us light up at what they imagine is the romance of our travel. To be young again and this time live the itinerant life of the working musician! Carefree and on the loose!

Whenever Myron Floren has a gig in Western Wisconsin or Eastern Minnesota, or northern or central Illinois, his manager calls Gerry Way, our bass player and leader, who lives over in Chippewa Falls, the next town from where our college is. How Gerry Way came up with this connection with Myron and other such traveling performers no one has told me. But when Myron's man calls, Gerry in turn calls whoever of the local musicians is around-three or four trumpets, a trombone, a rhythm section, and three or four saxes (including me). Then we pile into cars and drive to whichever county is holding the fair or whichever town the dance. In each region of the country there is a Gerry Way whom Myron's manager would contact, and that Gerry Way gathers whatever musicians he can find to be, for that weekend in that part of the soon-to-be-200year-old USA, the Myron Floren Orchestra.

"So where are you headed next, boys?"

Once, crammed into three cars, we drove all the way to the Holiday Inn in Gary, Indiana, some eight hours away, to play a dance. The money was especially good and it was summer and there was no school the next Monday and the hotel room was actually paid for. Despite that, a few of us left in one car right after the gig and drove all night home. The fog was so thick we started out with the windows rolled down, heads craned into the night to look for road signs or median strips to let us know we weren't in the ditch.

"Is that the entrance ramp to 94 over there?" Duke the lead trumpet player asked the semi driver in the next lane.

"You're on the entrance ramp," the driver said.

Duke had to be back home to go fishing the next morning, so he had said he was leaving now-after one a.m.-and asked who wanted to go along. Duke was like that-a handsome, ex-football-playing, tobacco chewing free spirit who couldn't live in town because if he didn't get into the woods every day to drop a line or check his beaver traps, he just didn't feel good. I don't know exactly why I went along with Duke and those who had summer jobs the next day, since I didn't. Maybe it was because Stan, the drummer, scared me a little and I didn't want to spend the night in the hotel with him. Not yet thirty, Stan was the only one of us to already have a pot belly. He liked to wear a faded t-shirt that read "Bruenig's Beer," after a brewery that had gone out of business before I turned eighteen. Stan had a tangled web of hair that swished in front of his face when he played his sparse and passionate drums behind the college big band.

After the Myron gigs, though, I was afraid the drinks and joints and practical jokes with Stan might get to be too much for me. I didn't like to be that much out of control. It was a weakness, surely, to be one of the youngest guys in the band and still to be "uptight," as the expression of the day had it. Stan kidded me that I worried too much. Once, on the way to a Myron gig in Matoon, Illinois, I laughed at the series of green Interstate road signs that advertised "Regional Trauma Center," marking every town off the highway in which one could find a hospital.

"Trauma Center!" I laughed out loud each time I saw the sign. I thought it was a strange thing to call a hospital.

"Trauma," Stan, the drummer repeated. "That's a good nickname for you. Trauma!"

Stan had never had a worry in his life up to that time, I thought. Once he and Duke got Charlene the piano player drunk. She was one of two women in the local pool of musicians and only 16 besides, so she got a harder time even than me. This time she and Stan and Duke were lounging in a hotel room, the two guys with their clothes mostly off, or so the story went by the time I heard it. "Just sit back," Stan told her, but she didn't.

WE ARE IN ELLSWORTH or Austin or LaCrosse with Myron, and I remember now that the scene is a summer one, which means county fair instead of ballroom dance. Myron Floren relaxes in his trailer with a soft drink after the gig. He works us hard at dances, sixty minutes on/fifteen off, more time playing than the Union would allow. But during our breaks, when we're questioned about our itinerary by the faithful, Myron stays on stage and signs autographs. Myron doesn't take breaks. We know he's had at least two more heart attacks than anyone else in the band.

"My dream for the Bicentennial," Myron tells us, collar loosened and Dr. Pepper in his hand, "is to gather a chorus of young people-the picture of health and of America-and stand them before Mount Rushmore. And to stand in front of them myself and conduct them as they sing 'God Bless America."'

"Is he serious?" each of us wonders, long-haired and bell-bottomed. This is the first time Myron's let us into his trailer, and we look to each other for confirmation of how to react. His television smile doesn't crest or waver. He is serious, we conclude. There is no reason to conclude otherwise: Myron, after all, doesn't take breaks he doesn't need. Only once did he miss one of our gigs-for open heart surgery. We got to that dance on a wintry night in Snowblind, Minnesota, and found that instead of Myron, it was Dick Dale, a Welk singer and woodwind man, leading our little pick up orchestra. What was the difference to us, since the money was the same (and pretty good-fifty 1970s pre-inflated dollars a night; my rent was 52.50 a month)? The difference was that all the music was different. Dick Dale had a different book, and even Myron's music had been hard enough for me. "The Lichtensteiner Polka" was a black forest of sixteenth notes; Myron played "Alley Cat" in the key of z sharp; and there was always some chart a dancer would request that we'd never played before-"Fat Dutch Girl Polka," "Canadian Tango"-and Myron would not turn down at request. On any of these jobs we were supposed to be able to get out of the car, change into our feltblack out-of-style tuxedos (Stan and Duke had bought out a bankrupt men's store and sold the goods to us at a tidy profit), sit down, and play whatever was put before us. That's what professional musicians did, we knew. And we wanted to be professional. Myron all the while smiled at the people and played. Flawlessly. Each beat and each note.

But another difference between Myron and Dick Dale, quite fortunately, was that Dick Dale at least held a quick rehearsal. Dick Dale was a singer-the one who each December crooned "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland" with his arms around the waist of a Welk girl singer twenty years his junior; the one who stood at the apex of a vee of younger men in cardigan sweaters to belt out in his seamless baritone "Saturday Night," Welk's obligatory rock tune. Dick Dale's face looked something like that of a camel. But being a singer and a pro, Dick Dale didn't want to be smiling in song before the people and have the band miss a repeat sign and send him over a musical cliff with lead weights tied to his polyester. It's hard to keep smiling through that. It was different for instrumentalists like Myron, who might be able to lead the band through a botched key change or missed second ending. People didn't listen that closely to music that didn't have words in it-as long as the beat was solid so they could keep dancing through another highball. And the beat was solid, since Stan the drummer was as dependable onstage as he was certifiably crazy back at the hotel.

THIS IS THE WAY I remember it, so this was the way it was: there was the gig in Duluth with the weather at some record-setting low and us driving up there in the middle of winter (why always in these stories in the north where I live is the setting the middle of winter? Is there no beginning or end to it?) This night we were to be the Elgart band, led by the big band era holdover of that name, still touring once in a while. I can't remember now if it was Les Elgart or Larry Elgart, and I'm not sure I knew even then. I knew that one band leader brother was dead, either Les or Larry. The other brother played the saxophone. We had the saxophone player. Larry (or Les) was nasty and drunk, swore off-mike, and lacked Myron's rapport when on. He couldn't get over how "women's lib" was invading the music world, since Gerry's lead sax player was Katie, the other woman in our group. She was an exceptionally good player and an extremely attractive woman, which I think pissed off Les (or Larry) even more, the way that some men get hacked about beautiful women who are skillful and who have existed in the world up to this point entirely without them.

We got our money and left the Duluth arena, breath gathered in clouds ahead of us. We were glad that Myron was a nicer guy than Elgart. Then we found that somebody had lifted the battery from Gerry's car. We'd get home by dawn.

There was the Outagamie County Fair as early as '72. Like most fairs, it was a series of back-up acts leading up to one big-name headliner. One of the back-up acts at this fair was a young country singer calling herself Tanya Tucker. She was 14, I think, and Duke went over to talk to her between shows. Shy, but a nice kid, he reported, and we all wondered if he would try anything, but he didn't.

I remember more clearly that weekend the Marquis Chimps, another back-up act. I was playing the third alto sax part, which put me on the end of the first row. When Edmunds & Curley, the comedians, were on each night and we didn't have anything to do for a few minutes, I could look off stage to watch the "beautiful assistant" line up the three chimps and set them into their colored chairs, where they waited for the cue we'd play them when the comics were done. The chimp in red, the one sitting at the end of the row, would look at me and scratch the top of his head, and by the last night, second show, I would scratch my head back at him. He would pucker his chimp lips at me, and I would make lips back at him. He swiveled his neck and I swiveled mine. All the while the people in the stands could see me, but not him. They sat in their grandstand across the drag-racing track from the stage, waiting to get more cotton candy, waiting for the fireworks after the show, waiting for school to start in a couple of weeks, none of them seeing the chimp, but seeing only the sax player with the odd facial tics. In turn, I could see from my chair the thick paint on the face of the "girl" who managed the chimps, how her skin had been forced into that tutu. The chimp master, if that's what you called him, was a little old man in a red and white striped jacket. How tired the woman looked. I couldn't guess whom she disliked more.

And there was-always-the music, which meant that there was a thick black book of charts, and Myron or Les or Larry or Dick Dale or even, once, Tennessee Ernie Ford, would call over his shoulder, never missing a beat or a smile before the audience, "47," or "86," or "Just the Way You Look Tonight," and we would have the music unfolded a split second before the downbeat, and we would see the language of the notes before us then for the first time. Or see it, at least, for the first time since the last gig, in Fargo or Appleton, maybe last month or last summer. I was one of the poorer sight readers in the band, and perhaps the terror of this lottery was part of my Trauma. Worse, reed players were expected to double, and I might be reading along the baritone sax part, belching out low C's and B-flats on that vertical tank of an instrument, when the part would suddenly, almost coyly read, "TO CLARINET." The flight or fight terror would rise in me (could I run off stage to join the chimps? Could I get out of town now as a roadie for Tanya Tucker? "WHERE YA GOIN' NEXT, BOYS?"). In four bars rest I would set down the giant bari sax, take up my plastic clarinet (real clarinets were wood), the one my roommate the year before had given me instead of the fifty bucks he owed me. The reed on the clarinet was dry as a stick, the page peppered with notes as if the tune had been arranged by Jackson Pollock. And what was worse, I had never learned to play the clarinet. My mouth went from blowing into the tank-like bari to blowing through the barrel of this black plastic Derringer inclined to squeak more than sing.

The other players were goodStan solid as a tree on drums, Gerry like a clock on bass, Duke's lead trumpet as pure and high as good weather, Katie always beautiful on lead alto. They never missed a note. I hid in their arms and loved them for it. I earned each of the fifty dollars one clam at a time.

I don't know what happened to Gerry Way, who I think eventually quit teaching high school chorus in Chippewa Falls, but then went back to it. For a while in between, he was playing weekends in a one man band. I don't think that was meant as a comment about his former mates, but I'm not sure. In fact, the Myron gigs continued for Gerry and some of the others for several years after I left college. The money got even better and the work steadier. Duke, I know, continued to teach junior high band in the small northern Wisconsin town where he could fish regularly. Katie married another of the trumpet players and they eventually ended up in New York, where she sings beautifully in a classy lounge for big money. The piano player who had once been sixteen, and maybe without her clothes, also has ended up in New York, a professional musician. Stan the drummer taught college for awhile, became much more of a friend to me after he calmed down a bit and I became less regularly traumatized by the pages I turned in life. Maybe quitting music helped. Or maybe having played it did.

I imagine by now the once-surviving Elgart brother-Les, or Larry-is also dead. I hope so. Tanya Tucker is now Tanya Tucker. Tennessee Ernie Ford died a few years ago. Lawrence Welk is off the air (and thus Dick Dale doesn't have to sing any more rock and roll covers, which he must have hated).

And I don't know that Myron Floren ever led a chorus of young singers in patriotic American songs before Mount Rushmore on July 4, 1976. I suspect he didn't. I imagine him now retired in Southern California, not taking that red station wagon from the regional airport to meet us or our clones in the Mid-Atlantic, upstate New York, west Texas, or wherever. Myron is taking a break.

From among these experiences I can pick one that I know happened always exactly as I remember it. I am as sure as if I were reading it now off one of those hand-penned charts in those terrifying black books. In the last set of the night, Myron always called "Lady of Spain," one of those obligatory show pieces for accordion players, the accordion being after all not so much a real musical instrument as an excuse for outrageous displays of technique. I even wrote a line into one of my poems about Myron's version of "Lady of Spain." The poem was a love poem for an old girlfriend-a humorous poem I'm happy to report, given how badly the relationship turned out-and the line said that my excitement at seeing her was like "ten thousand accordions, memorizing `Lady of Spain."'

Unlikely as that line sounds, it was a pretty good poem, and the line is true-all except for the part about the ten thousand. In reality, it was just that one guy up there astounding all the dancers on the out chorus. Each time he played that part of "Lady of Spain," no matter which season or state, Myron would raise his one leg against the bottom of the sequined squeeze-box, and paste on a serious look. Somehow, in the way accordion players can, he made each note of that melody into a triplet, so that the sound of the line was tremulous and beelike, though still exact. He leaned his forehead always to the same side in concentration (I noticed this the way I had noticed the mugging of the chimp in red offstage in Outagamie County). The sweat on Myron's brow, I remember, was real. Maybe he had to think for a moment about what his hands had to do to play these furious tremolos in "Lady of Spain." Or maybe he'd played this tune too many times to have to worry about missing a single note.

Maybe he worked to make look easy what he was making look hard. God bless America, he was that good.

Reprinted with permission from The North American Review (Cedar Falls, Iowa: May/August 1997) Volume: 282, Issue: 3/4, Pagination: 10-13, ISSN: 00292397. Copyright North American Review May-Aug 1997.

Editor's Note:

In an advertisement in the 1997 Accordion Teachers Guild Festival Program, Myron Floren claimed to perform over 150 concerts per year. Recently, however, he has had to cut back due to ill health.

In the September 4, 1998 issue of "Weekly News" published by Accordions Worldwide, the following article appeared:

More recently, on January 1, 1999, Bob Berta, former president of the Bay Area Accordion Club, wrote on (the usenet newsgroup for accordionists), "After surviving a stroke, Myron was found to have cancer. Evidently he has successfully gotten rid of that. Now word comes that he is suffering from Pneumonia and in the hospital."

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