Feature: Pinky and Maree Skorich

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

Today, like every day, Dan “Pinky” Skorich and his wife, Maree, will exchange the kind of custom-designed affection that longtime couples develop over the years: Maree Skorich will tell him she loves him and Pinky, always the card, will respond that he loves her “more-ther.”

The Marble couple has had more Valentine’s Days together than most. In October they will celebrate 75 years of marriage, one of the longest unions in Minnesota. The secret to their lifelong relationship: “Joy and happiness and lots of laughs and good friends,” Pinky Skorich, 94, said.

There was a light rain on Oct. 23, 1937, when former Greenway football star Pinky Skorich married a quiet girl from Keewatin, the one he had determined was the cutest in her group of friends. There is lore attached to rain on a wedding day and the Skoriches won’t dispute it:

“They say it’s good luck,” Pinky Skorich said.
“We’ve sure had a lot of good luck.”

Pinky Skorich met Maree Vranesh when they were both out on the town in Keewatin with separate groups of friends. His older brother knew her older brother. Pinky Skorich ended up walking all the girls home that night, saving his future wife’s stop for last.

“She hit me with that arrow,” he said.
“He looked like a gentle person,” she said.
“She still loves me after all these years,” he said.

Pinky Skorich said he wanted to kiss her that night, but she wouldn’t let him. They hadn’t even had a proper date, she told him.

He has a tall tale he likes to tell about picking up the marriage license, which cost $2.25 in those days. Pinky Skorich claims to only have had 25 cents on him. Luckily, Maree had him covered.

“She was Quick Draw McGraw,” he said. “She had the two dollars. I still owe her!”

When the two were first married they lived in a small house on Pinky Skorich’s parents’ land in Calumet. He came home from work and found his young wife waiting with dinner.

“She was standing at the door with the most beautiful pan of spaghetti,” he said, then “the handle broke.”

He scooped up the pasta dinner off the floor and ate it anyway, he said.

Pinky and Maree, 95, have three children: Mike Skorich of Grand Rapids and Michele Picchiotti of Las Vegas are twins. Dan Skorich is a Duluth ophthalmologist. There are seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Pinky Skorich worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad and traveled a lot; Maree Skorich went back to school and became an assistant librarian at what was then called Itasca Junior College in Grand Rapids.

Dan Skorich said his parents always stressed the importance of family and sticking together.

“They were just always very loving and there for us,” he said. “The strength of their marriage was an example for all of us.”

The couple lives in the same house they have had for more than 50 years. Pinky Skorich writes poetry, a relatively new hobby. He collects the handwritten rhyming couplets in a notebook. They take about 10 minutes to write, he said. Maree Skorich has her favorites and when he reads one, she mouths the words along with him.

Maree Skorich sings. For many years she was a soprano in the church choir at St. Basil of Ostrog Serbian Orthodox Church in Chisholm, where they were married. When they were first dating, she would sing “Goodnight, My Love” to him. She still does. As she sings he gives her hand a squeeze, closes his eyes and joins in for a few lines.

They work on crossword puzzles together — in ink and without a dictionary. Maree Skorich’s vision has weakened and Pinky Skorich has trouble walking. He’s the talker of the group. She makes meals: spaghetti, pigs in a blanket, eggs and bacon and her signature apple pies.

She tucks him into bed every night.

“He never goes to bed without saying he loves me after all these years,” she said.

This story ran in the February 14, 2012, edition of the Duluth News Tribune.


Feature: Richard Rosvall, steampunk artist

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

If you ever run into artist Richard Rosvall, there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing a dark bowler hat with handmade goggles of wood, leather and lenses set on the brim.

 It’s a bit of an “Around the World in 80 Days” look and it attracts attention, but not as much as some of his other creations would if they were trotted out in public: his collection of high-altitude breathing appa­ra­tuses, a hand cannon complete with a copper-coated toilet ball or a rifle that features the belled end of a clarinet.

For the past three years, Rosvall has crafted pieces of steampunk art – a style that takes items from the steam-power era and gives them a science-fiction tilt: items that re-imagine how people in the Victorian era might have envisioned the future. Rosvall’s work incorporates leather, copper, wood and the inner mechanical pieces of old typewriters and adding machines.

“It’s the stuff Jules Verne used to write about, looking at it from the hindsight of the 21st century,” Rosvall said. “People love to dress up. There is an appeal to the Victorian era. People were polite.”

Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, said she is seeing more work and steampunk-themed events in this area in the last few years, including pub crawls and art shows. Friends of Industry, a collective of artists, hosted a show last summer. Limbo Gallery has also shown steampunk art. There is talk of a steampunk ball in the works by a handful of steampunk aficionados.

“It’s a perfect fit for our region,” Dugan said. “A lot of it is about invention and certainly creativity. I love the idea that northern Minnesota (cultivates) the sense that you’re cut off from the rest of the world. It’s this northern wasteland, and you have these bizarre machines coming out of that.”

Rosvall got into making steampunk art when his son, Erik Rosvall, commissioned a Halloween costume from him.

“Steampunk has been getting pretty big,” Erik Rosvall said. “I like the aesthetic of it, the idea of the clockwork stuff.”

At first it was just a mask and a weapon. It developed into body armor and hats and more masks, an eye patch and more accessories. Vegetable-tanned leather that has been wetted, molded and dried. Copper pounded with an anvil to make patterns.

Right now Rosvall is working on outfitting an entire flight crew for a March fashion show. He has part of a leather corset wrapped around a dress form, and he plans to incorporate a skirt and thigh holster, complete with one of his pistol props with wood pieces he fabricates or takes from wooden chair backs and detail work that includes cranks and levers from old clocks, typewriters and fishing gear.

His crew will sport the high-altitude breathing apparatuses he made, which have copper nose covers, leather straps, trunk-like nose pieces with a dollop from a colored scouring pad sticking out of the end of it. Hoses connect to belts.

For Rosvall, the appeal is that he can make things inexpensively. He finds materials at thrift stores. Also, there aren’t any rules, just basic guidelines. That’s what other local artists have latched on to as well.

“It’s so nice that you can make it your own. There isn’t a lot of It has to look like this,’ or It has to look like that,'” said Patricia Peterson, who designs whimsical steampunk fashions. She showed pieces during an Occupy the Runway event in the fall. Her work includes dresses and hats.

“The Victorian lace and all the soft things, then you have the industrial, the metals and the really funky punk part of that really hard style, then bringing it together to make fun and interesting looks,” she said.

Eric Horn is working on a steampunk-themed graphic novel called “Chronicle.” He takes photographs of local models, sometimes wearing Rosvall’s creations, then draws over them to give it a comic-book look. Horn was recently part of an art show in which slides of his images were shown on a steampunk-themed TV: A wood-like frame shaped like an old-fashioned television and fitted with a white screen made by Gustave Campanini, whose approach to the art is to make large-scale things in the steampunk aesthetic, but using the decidedly un-steampunk material Styrofoam.

Getting into steampunk has caused a stylistic shift for Campanini, who was working with a lot of color and has challenged himself to give things a 1800s look.

“I try to keep it as simple as I can,” he said, “to work with natural tones. Everything I’ve been doing looks like leather and rusted metal. Usually when I paint, it’s been more like I have to make it look old.’ It’s been quite interesting and challenging.”

Eris Vafias, who operates Limbo Gallery, said she uses steampunk as inspiration.

“I enjoy symbolism and a lot of the symbols – keys, clocks, peacock feathers – associated with the steampunk genre happen to be symbols that I am either fond of or gravitating toward due to some personal association,” she said.

You’re only limited by your imagination, Rosvall says. He works nonstop on projects, and one idea can inspire four more ideas.

“I never expected that three years later I’d still be fooling around with it and having fun,” he said.

This story ran in the January 1, 2012 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

Feature: Gabe Mayfield, local actor

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Gabe Mayfield knows what it takes to get into the head of a blood-thirsty alien plant bent on world domination. It takes studying cartoons and listening to Motown. It requires Southern slang and a touch of James Brown.
The local actor plays the voice of the vicious plant Audrey II for the fourth time in his 11-year acting career in a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” that opens at 7:30 p.m. today at the Play Ground.
The musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is the story of a nerdy orphan named Seymour who works in a forgotten plant shop in a rundown neighborhood. He’s got a crush on a woman named Audrey and he’s got a plant named Audrey II that thrives on human blood, which helps it grow larger and attracts attention to the shop.
Then Audrey II’s thirst gets too huge to handle.
Mayfield’s first theater role was Audrey II in a 2000 production at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He was tapped by longtime drama professor and director John Munsell for the part.
The young actor drew comparisons to Levi Stubbs, a baritone from the Four Tops, who was the voice of the plant in the 1980s film adaptation.
And some audience members thought Munsell was pulling a scam.
“Someone actually accused me of using the soundtrack to the Broadway musical just for Gabe’s songs because it was so obviously just a great voice,” Munsell said.
Mayfield landed the role again in 2005 in a production at the Duluth Playhouse directed by Linda Bruning. A News Tribune reviewer said the actor deserved kudos for “his soulful interpretation.”
When Munsell was asked to
direct “Little Shop of Horrors”
for the Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota last summer, he told theater staff to cancel the search for Audrey II.
“I said, Don’t bother to cast anybody,'” Munsell said. He brought in Mayfield to reprise the role.
The show at the Play Ground was initiated by a group of friends, stage regulars who hand-picked fellow actors and then brought in Michelle Juntunen to direct her first musical. Mayfield has added plenty of ideas on execution, knowing the musical completely.
“He came into the first read-through and didn’t even have a script,” she said.
Mayfield has pushed the show in a darker horror direction, less campy. He said he tries to keep his character classic and true to the film version, adding a little Ray Charles to the mix, including a Southern slang accent. He has listened to the Temptations, James Brown and the exaggerated cartoon-style of Mother Brain from “Captain Nintendo.”
“I’m working on making the lines fit and sound more real than before,” he said. “I try to add levels to the dialogue.”
After this show, Mayfield plans to sit out a few rounds of local theater. Last season included parts in the Playhouse’s “Chicago,” Lyric Opera of the North’s production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and Renegade Theater Company’s “Parade.”
But he’s not necessarily done with “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Mayfield said he would like to direct it professionally and he would like to play Audrey II in a remake of the film. He would also like to play the part of the dentist. This is, after all, his favorite show.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s like all musicals wrapped up into one. You’ve got everything. The best part is that it takes music from the Motown era, they use some rock ‘n’ and roll and things like that. It’s mainly the music I love the most.”
Meanwhile, Munsell might be the maker of the plant, but he said he doesn’t know if he wants to see this version of Audrey II.
“I don’t know that I want anything but the memory of the last time I saw him,” he said. “It was absolutely perfect.”

This story ran in the August 11, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.


Daily: Great White and Loverboy

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

    The truth of being a band that ruled MTV in the 1980s: No
modern-day fan is going to be satisfied at a concert until they hear “Working for the Weekend.”
Not a problem, according to Loverboy’s guitar player Paul Dean.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said in a phone interview from Canada. “It’s the little song that could. It doesn’t quit. It’s amazing. I remember the first time we played it live. We opened the third (set) with Working for the Weekend’ and everyone was standing up and the place came alive. We knew at that moment that this tune was going to do something.”
The Canadian band headlines the Buffalo Valley Music Festival, a two-day outdoor event that starts with country tribute bands on Friday and switches to rock cover bands on Saturday. The festival closes with two real deals – Great White and Loverboy.
Michael Lardie of Great White said the classic tracks from the 1980s and ’90s are the reason they initially drew fans – and they have to respect that. Of course Great White is going to play “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” Each night at each venue is a unique experience, and he said they keep that in mind when they play it for the millionth time.
“Some bands might make the mistake of saying Here’s one of our hits and here’s 12 songs off our new record,'” he said. “The fans made you have the career by buying the records. If I went out and bought an artist’s records throughout the years and they didn’t play the biggest song, I would find that somehow offensive.”
The bands are both in the middle of heavy summer tour – which seems to indicate there is still a call for an old-school arena rock band fronted by red leather pants and a bluesy group that adopted the hair band image. Unlike the musicians, the fans are getting younger.
“I always say we get babies to blue hairs, and we always have,” Dean said. “Maybe it’s because of our increased Web presence. I love playing to the kids. They have the power. I love seeing the fist in the air. That turns my crank.”
Lardie said they have hard-core fans who have been hanging around for 25-30 years. Now they’ve introduced their kids to the band.
“They’re singing the lyrics and verses,” Lardie said. “That’s the greatest compliment we can receive. They’re handing down music to their kids.”
Loverboy gained popularity in the early 1980s with “Working for the Weekend,” “Loving Every Minute of It” and “Turn Me Loose.” The band is fronted by singer Mike Reno and the lineup has stayed untouched – except for the loss of bassist Scott Smith who died in a boating accident off the coast of San Francisco in 2000.
Dean said each band member is a good politician – and that is how they’ve managed to stick together.
“You’ve got to be,” he said. “It’s like being married to four guys for 35 years. You’ve got to compromise. You put the five of us together on stage and it’s a lot of fun.”
They released the song “Heartbreaker” earlier this year, a single that Dean said fans are digging when they play it live. There have been times when a new single hasn’t been well received.
Great White is a Los Angeles-bred band second-best known for the single “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” A version of the band was playing the night of the 2003 nightclub fire at The Station in Rhode Island where 100 people died, including a musician. Lead singer Jack Russell is currently on hiatus with health problems. Jani Lane, the former Warrant front man who died last week, was singing with Great White for a stint in 2010.
Terry Ilous of XYZ has taken over as lead singer in the interim, and is getting kudos from his new bandmates.
“He’s got a fantastic Jeff Keith-David Coverdale,” Lardie said. “Edgy and bluesy. He’s putting his own personality into it. He’s not just aping what Jack does.”
Dean said there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in Loverboy that he attributes partly to the band’s marketing team. They’ve had songs in commercials and songs parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” and last season the NBC TV show “30 Rock” did a Loverboy-themed joke in which it was revealed that the character Pete used to be a member of the band.
“I was really happy with that, it was a huge honor. I’m a huge fan of that show,” he said. “To be connected with those guys is amazing.”

This story ran in the August 18, 2011 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.



Feature: Renovating Dylan’s childhood home

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Bob Dylan’s childhood home in the Central Hillside is currently a pale shade of salmon. Beneath that layer of paint are hints of green. But that shade matches some flecks on the storm windows, so that can’t be right. There weren’t aluminum storm windows on the house at 519 N. Third Ave. E. in the early 1940s.

Bill Pagel, the owner of the duplex, has a mystery on his hands.

The historian and collector of Dylan memorabilia — whose collection hit its apex with the purchase of this house in 2001 — is trying to restore the home to its appearance when the folk singer lived there with his parents, Beatty and Abe Zimmerman, and younger brother, David.

“My purpose in doing all of this is I wanted to preserve it and restore it as much as I can to what it looked like,” Pagel said. “Beyond that, I don’t have any idea. For posterity. At some point, get it on the national registry.”

He’s referring to the National Registry of Historic Places, the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.

Pagel has a binder with photographs that show the structure of the porch, as well as neighboring properties — some of which have been razed. But the black-and-white image he has of the house exterior, taken in the winter by the owners who came after the Zimmermans, reveals only that the house was a light color but not white. The shade is darker than the snow on the ground.

Pagel is looking for anyone who might have a photograph that shows his house — anything that can help him get it close to how it was from 1941-46 when the Zimmermans lived there.


The Zimmermans rented the 900-square-foot, two-bedroom space upstairs of the house built in 1909. It has a dark wood staircase that ends with a twist to the left. It opens into a middle living area with piano windows facing the lake, the view obscured by buildings. Carpet covers the original wood floors, and there is a shelving unit built into the wall.

At the front is a living room with a large window and a door that leads to an upper-level porch with a view of Lake Superior. There is another, smaller porch off the back of the house. The bathtub has its original claw-foot tub. The heavy oak doors remain, as do the push-button light switches.

“Bobby reached up and pushed those a couple times,” Pagel said, fingering the switch panel.

Pagel plans to finish the house’s exterior this summer: fitting the front porch with a skirt of vertical wood, painting the house, and fixing the roof. He will work on inside projects like refinishing the original wood flooring and rehabbing the kitchen in the winter.

“I remember it here”

Pauline and Theo Swierc say that when they owned the house from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Dylan stopped by about three times. He introduced himself to the couple from Poland and told them that he had been born there. They let him look around inside, they said Friday. Pauline’s mother still lives next-door to the house.

“Friendly guy,” said Pauline Swierc. “He said, ‘I remember it here. I (was) born here.’”

Theo Swierc said when they sold the house, the real estate agent added the information about Dylan to the listing, and they sold it the next day to Kathy Burns. She wasn’t interested in the house as much as its history, they said.

Pagel bought the property in 2001, after an initial eBay bidding war fell through on Burns, who listed it as a “must have for the die-hard Dylan fan.” She billed it as the place where the musician took his first steps. Pagel was the second-highest bidder and eventually bought the house for about $82,000. He has been planning renovations for years.

“I just procrastinated,” he said. “I just got to it now. I should have done it earlier.”

Local Dylan enthusiast John Bushey, who hosts the show “Highway 61 Revisited: The Music of Bob Dylan” on Saturdays on KUMD-FM, was rooting for Pagel during that online auction. Bushey had met Pagel at concerts and was familiar with what he considers the premiere Dylan website in the world, http://www.boblinks.com, which Pagel runs.

Bushey said he knew that Pagel had a lot of Dylan memorabilia and liked the idea of the then-Madison resident bringing his collection to the area.

“He’s a historian,” Bushey said. “He wants to preserve the house of one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th century. That’s why I wanted him to get the house. He’s trying to put it back the way it was. He’s intense in his research.”


The two-story house, which would be nondescript if not for its place in rock ’n’ roll history, attracts plenty of attention from Dylan fans — more so in recent years.

Pagel said a handful of people stop by every week from all over the world. On Friday, he had visitors from France. Former tenant Bertram Bergeron, who lived in the apartment with his wife, Sue, for 13 years until 2002, said traffic was lighter in those days.

Bergeron said the most striking moment of fandom when he lived there came on Dylan’s 50th birthday when some kids asked if they could decorate the light post outside of the house.

“Then they said, ‘Can we come in?’ and we said ‘No,’” he recalled.

Neither Bergeron nor his wife is a fan of Dylan. While they still miss living in the apartment, the space held no “Dylan was here” appeal for them. They never saw Dylan’s initials etched in the woodwork, or any of the other urban legends associated with the space.

When fans stop by now, Pagel will gladly talk about Dylan. He considers himself more of a historian than a lyric interpreter, and will talk about his collection of vintage posters and relics from Dylan’s childhood and teen years. But like Bergeron before him, Pagel won’t let fans inside, either.

Bob Dylan, who is a year older than Pagel, turns 70 next year. Pagel is hoping Dylan will want to come back to the hillside where he spent his first six years. Dylan has mentioned the fog horn, and the rocky ledges of Duluth’s landscape in his poetry. And when he played at Bayfront Festival Park in 1999, he said:

“I was born on the hill over there. Glad to see it’s still there.”

Pagel would offer an opportunity to the star not afforded to others who stop by his residence:

“I’d let him come inside,” Pagel said.

This story originally appeared on August 7, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune.

Feature: gb leighton, musician

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Twin Cities-based gb leighton is as much a part of the Grandma’s Marathon weekend scene as elusive course records and droves of straight-legged limpers wearing “Finisher” T-shirts.

This will be the 14th year that the fun-time, sing-along bar band with regional appeal has secured this gig — playing for the masses beneath the big-top tent at Canal Park. And in that time, it is this scene that has become front-man Brian Leighton’s happy place, the spot he goes to in his mind when he imagines his ideal concert setting as he mentally prepares for his other shows.

“It always makes me feel like a star, almost,” Leighton said. “It’s one of those set-ups: big stage, big tents, thousands of people and they sing along all the words. … In my mind, that’s why the show is important to me.”

Full story here.

Originally published June 17, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune

Feature: Russell Gran, painter

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Meet Lars Lundberg: He hunts, he fishes, he has xylophone abs. He enjoys playing hoops, has a younger brother and he’s lucky with the ladies. Maybe too lucky. Lars will choose the military over college. He’ll sport camouflage and make friends named Omar, Ryan and Eric. Spoiler alert: Things do not end well for young Lars.

It is this imagining of a life that is at the center of acrylic painter Russell V. Gran’s exhibit “Favorite Son,” which opens Friday at Washington Gallery.

Gran, 74, is a Duluth native and graduate of Denfeld and the University of Minnesota Duluth. He moved back 20 years ago after a stint on the East Coast. He is the oldest resident of the Washington Studios Artists’ Co-op. A former neighbor and colleague recalled him as “the patriarch of Washington Studios. The soul of the place.”

The idea for Gran’s narrative-turned-visual art comes from a mix of places, including young friends who ended up in the two “worthless wars,” as he calls them, Desert Storm and Iraq.

“I hated to think of these young people in their flower, getting killed,” Gran said. “This is the story of Lars, the favorite son of the Lundberg family. … Giving a story to it gave me focus.”

Full story here.

Originally published June 10, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune