EVELETH — It began as casual conversation among veterans returned from World War II. They’d get together evenings at the VFW Club on Eveleth’s main street, and one night they concocted a crazy idea — why not dress up in goofy clothes, form a band and march in parades. After all, they had musicians in the group, and they wanted to have fun. And Mesaba Range VFW Post 1172 was willing to sponsor them.
The late Louie Pazzelli, who was discharged from the Army in 1945, was among those at the forefront as the bandleader. “It started because of the VFW,” his wife, Josephine “Josie” Pazzelli of Eveleth, said in a recent phone interview. “The guys just got together many nights.”
More than 60 years later the tradition is still going strong, as the Eveleth Clown Band draws followers and fans at every Iron Range parade. Their most recent parade was at Merritt Days. The band is no longer sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but members still show support for those who have served. In Mountain Iron they stopped to play at the American Legion, greeting veterans personally and shaking their hands. Band leader Dean Zadra, Eveleth native who now lives in Red Wing, said in a phone interview, “We still feel that there’s a deep connection with the VFW, therefore we have a lot of respect for it. We try to show appreciation. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Charter members of the band included Bill Crider, Bill Ikola, Bob Forte, Donald De Paulis, Joe Buncich, Bill King, John Mattila, Glenn Anderson, Ray Vito, Louis Rannikar and Pazzelli.
Longtime band member John Berquist, of Long Lake south of Eveleth, said in a phone interview, “There were earlier clown bands, but they were lost in the fog of human history.” The VFW Clown Band started right after World War II, he said. The band varied from a dozen members to currently more than 50. “It’s predominantly male, with an occasional female member, and auxiliary clowns of both genders and all ages,” Berquist said. The band has brass instruments trumpet, cornet and trombone and of course, drums, and the current repertoire of songs includes among others, “Just Because,” “In Heaven There is No Beer” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
Berquist talked about the enduring attraction of the band. “Nobody else in the world gets to do what they do. To participate in it is a special experience.”
A member for more than 40 years, Berquist said, “I decided not to quit. We just keep on going.” The members are mostly Eveleth and Gilbert graduates, some of whom “make enormous pilgrimages home, from halfway across the continent” for the Fourth of July.
Chris Vito of Crookston, who started with the band several years ago when he was just out of high school, said, “It’s a pretty special group that transcends generations. It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of it. It’s really fun to come back and see all the young people carrying on the tradition.”
Vito’s father, Jerry Vito of Eveleth, was instrumental in restarting the band in the 1960s — the veterans who started the band, including his uncle Ray “Czar” Vito, had gotten busy with working and raising families and membership was declining. “At that time we had 14 or 15 members and we were the VFW Clown Band,” he said. The bass drum with its Eveleth VFW logo was repainted. The band played a dozen parades each summer, ending with the Cloquet Labor Day parade, and was a guest at the Minneapolis Aquatennial in 1964, Vito said. He played trumpet in the band, and the band held regular practice sessions and even marched in the Christmas City of the North parade in Duluth. “Most of us were college kids. We had more marching songs and we marched in a formation,” Vito said.
Paul Tuskan of Long Lake is in his 29th year as a band member, and he is easily recognized by his frilly gowns and lavish headdresses. “I got them from all over,” he said in a phone interview. He shops at Herberger’s, he’s even “bought off the rack at the Bridal Loft,” and his mother has sewed many of his frocks. “The shoes I get at Payless,” he added with a chuckle.
Dick Colburn, a longtime follower of the band who has taken countless pictures over the years, wrote a history of the band some years ago. He wrote, “In 1999 I spoke with a few folks about the history of the clown band. I spoke with Louie Pazzelli, who along with others, founded the band in 1949. It began in casual conversation at the Vets club. The tradition of being ‘goofy,’ dressed as clowns and having the leader direct the band with a toilet plunger, started at the very beginning, according to Pazzelli. The tradition of barnstorming in and out of bars also began in 1949 and continues to this day. As Louie Pazzelli said, they liked to ‘liven it up a bit’.” The founding band had four music teachers in it ranks. The band played mostly polkas, an Iron Range tradition, though they did play “Peasant’s Overture” from a hotel roof at the 1950 national VFW convention in Chicago.
Colburn wrote that in 1949 nine band members attended a national VFW convention in Miami. “In order to get to Miami Pazzelli borrowed $3,000 from a Nash car dealer he worked for to fund the trip. By passing the hat while playing in the hotel and in bars in Miami, they made over $3,000 and repaid the loan. They won first prize of $1,700 playing at the Orange Bowl for the convention. They performed before 50,000 howling fans.”
Josie Pazzelli is pleased that the band her husband helped start is continuing to this day. “They had really good musicians” in the early days, she said. Besides being a band member, her husband was deeply involved with the VFW, serving as commander of the Eveleth post several times and being elected 8th District commander.
And the jacket he had worn when he attended a military academy in Georgia and later wore in the band is still intact — a 1949 photograph shows a uniform-clad Pazzelli kneeling in front of the Clown Band. Her son, Bobby Pazzelli, later wore it in his days in the band. “There’s a lot of history there,” she said.