Thursday, September 27, 2012

Will There Be Clarinets In Heaven?

Bob Kuehn (keen) didn’t just dance to the beat of a different drummer; he heard all kinds of different drummers in his head, I’m sure, and followed the beat of several of them.  That’s perhaps why Bob was more than just a bit offbeat.

How offbeat?  Think of the Cosmo Kramer character played by Michael Richards in the “Seinfeld” show, only a LOT more weird.

Not that Bob’s sax or clarinet playing was offbeat or weird.  That he did pretty well, as I recall. 

Bob passed away last week Wednesday. He was 81.  That's a picture of Bob, above, holding his favorite beverage.

Of all the colorful characters I’ve had the privilege of knowing or working with in my years of playing polka music – and that’s some pretty colorful folks, like Harold Loeffelmacher and Johnny Gag – none were as colorful as Bob Kuehn.  UFO Bob, as he was known on KFIZ Radio in Fond du Lac, on his frequent guest appearances on Joe Scheibinger’s “Backstage Live” talk show.  (Of course, KFIZ is just a bit offbeat, itself; it’s one of only two radio stations east of the Mississippi to have a call sign starting with K, not W; and it’s had more than its share of colorful on-air personalities, including the inimitable Joe Goezer (gayzer), who would get fairly tanked up on the 4th of July and then broadcast “play-by-play” of the Fond du Lac fireworks show from Lakeside Park:  “ahh…ohh…geez, you shoulda seen THAT one”.)

More on the UFO’s later.

Bob had quite a few nicknames; in his later years, particularly in his persona as a guest on the radio, he preferred to be introduced as “UFO Bob, from the planet Platypus, where fermentation rules.”  The first nickname I ever heard for Bob was “Rastus Kaboon, the Man from the Moon” – an appellation so given because of Bob’s far-out beliefs and stories.  Ted Dorschner, the banjo man with the Rainbow Valley Dutchmen, called Bob “Sooty” – but I can’t recall why.

There are many stories connected with Bob; I’ll relate the one I remember best, because it made such a strong impression on me.  I was all of 16 years old back in the summer of 1965, and I had the best summer job in the world: tuba player for Ray Dorschner’s Rainbow Valley Dutchmen.  The regular tuba player was my high school band director, Ernie Broeniman, who spent countless hours teaching me how to play the big horn, and how to “hear” the chord changes in old-time music, and how to ad-lib (improvise, without music) a bass line with fills and runs.  Ray Dorschner was kind enough to let me take Ernie’s spot on the band while Ernie spent his summer working on his Master’s Degree at Colorado State.

The band travelled in Ray’s 9-passenger Chevy wagon, and coming home from some gig about 2:30AM on a weekend night, I was in the seat next to Bob, who was also filling in with the band that night.  Bob might have had a beer or two during the course of the four-hour gig (not that you could tell from his performance) and may have had a quick nightcap or two before the band trailer was packed up for the ride home.  Bob was making pleasant conversation about old-time music and musicians, when suddenly he said to me something like “you know, they won’t teach you this in school, but our government is actually run by small aliens who hide during the daylight hours.”

Bob went on to explain to me that the U.S. government was actually being run by tiny space-men, who really made all the important decisions.  Sure, LBJ was President, but the aliens called the shots.  John Kennedy was assassinated because he was going to tell everyone that the aliens really ran things.  Bob told me the aliens live in a hole near Red Wing, Minnesota; at night, they transport themselves to Washington, D.C., and run the government, the military – everything.  Bob said if you ever go to Washington at night, and look at the Capitol and all the government buildings, all the lights are on – all night – which proves that the aliens are in there, working until dawn, when they transport themselves back to Red Wing and sleep in the hole.

I didn’t mention this story to my parents the next day, when they asked me how the dance job went.  They were leery enough about letting their 16-year-old son spend his weekends with….musicians.  They had nothing to worry about.  Ray Dorschner took me under his wing and made sure I didn’t stray from the path of righteousness and sobriety.

Bob played with many of the fine old-time bands that booked out of central Wisconsin.  In addition to working with the Rainbow Valley Dutchmen, Bob performed with the Don Peachey band, Fred Palmer’s band, Andy Justman’s band, and the Ron Harvey Orchestra.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve forgotten.

My friend Jim Vollmer, who was a regular clarinet and sax man with the Dorschner band back in the 60’s, reminded me the other day of another of the famous Bob Kuene stories.  One time, when Bob was playing with the Don Peachey band, which booked out of Burnett, Wisconsin, they had a weekend gig in Minneapolis.  Bob was apparently convinced there was a hex on his horn, because it just wouldn’t do what he wanted it to.  After the gig, the band returned to the downtown Minneapolis hotel they were staying at, and Bob hung upside down with his sax from an upper story window of the hotel, trying to remove the hex from his horn.  Jim’s e-mail to me concluded the story with the sentence “Yes, he had been drinking a little bit.”

(Editor's note: after reading this story, Ernie Broeniman e-mailed me and said he was on that gig and confirmed the story, and added that after coming in from hanging upside down in the hotel window, Bob came in and lit a fire under his Sax to break the Hex!!!

Ernie also told the story about how a few years ago, he happened to be driving down the street in Fond du Lac and saw Bob walking, in the rain.  He hadn't seen Bob in years.  Ernie pulled over and told Bob to jump in, and he'd take him where he was going, and Ernie says Bob started conversing with him as if they'd seen each other yesterday.)

Now, about that UFO story.

Because of Bob’s firm belief in aliens, flying saucers, and so on, he made a very colorful guest on radio talk shows.  In addition to Joe Scheibinger’s show on KFIZ, Bob was also a frequent guest on Ron Harvey’s show on WFON-FM, also in Fond du Lac.  (Yes, Ron Harvey had a great band, but his “day-job” was broadcasting.) Several years ago, Joe decided to play a prank on Bob, who was always talking on the radio about the UFO’s he saw in the night sky over his cabin near Dundee Mountain in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about 20 miles east of Fond du Lac.  Scheibinger and his pals arranged to secure the services of a pilot and a small airplane, and one night, they flew circles around Bob’s cabin, with a very bright blue spotlight hung out of the window of the plane.

Of course, the next morning Bob called in to Joe’s “Backstage Live” talk show, and went on for several minutes about the UFO that was right over his home last night, and Joe finally confessed that it was all just a prank.

Bob took it all in good humor, as he did most things in life.

Rest in peace, Bob Kuehn – one of the most colorful characters I’ve ever known.

(Another editor's note: Sincere thanks to all the old-time musicians who have e-mailed or messaged me today telling me they have enjoyed reading this post, and have fond memories of Bob and his unique outlook on life.  If you have a story to contribute about Bob, please send a message via my Facebook account or e-mail me at and I'll be happy to add your story to this brief account of Bob's colorful life.)


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