The Ghost Light is lit


Just as Duke Ellington’s life took a dramatic turn in the mid 50’s, Larry Howard’s life had a dramatic change in 1963, the Guthrie Theater opened in May with Larry as the stage-door man. The 60’s saw the Guthrie being recognized as a prominent regional theater, but in the late 60’s it began to push it’s limits and various power struggles in upper management caused both a lose of artistic personnel and audience. It came close to closing for good. In 1969 Don Schoenbaum, only a few years removed from coming to the theater as a Ford Foundation intern was placed in charge of both management and artistic decisions. He kept the theater going and with the help of Sir Tyrone Guthrie managed to lure Michael Langham away from Stratford Ontario and take over as Artistic Director in 1971. Larry Howard’s job was saved as were all the jobs of us working at the Guthrie when Michael took over.

And Larry was only a few years away from meeting the Duke.

Duke Ellington’s last tour began in October of 73 with the first month in Europe, before coming back to the U.S. where it ran almost nonstop until almost the end of March 74. This extreme tour was taken in spite of, or maybe because of, Duke’ health was failing. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He never announced anything about it being a farewell tour but he knew it was.

Mercer Ellington, the Duke’s only child knew also. Mercer was a composer, arranger, band musician, band leader both in conjunction with his father and on his own. In the late 60’s he left his personal career and joined his father’s organization as a trumpeter and road manager, and nurse. During a concert when the Duke became tired, Mercer took over on piano and conducting.

It was evident that the Duke was handing over the baton to his son. It was also evident that there was a strong bond of love between father and son. Over the years I had the pleasure of working the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Mercer in charge. Mercer was a gentleman just like his father. And when Mercer was phasing out, he slowly turned over the reins over to his son, Paul, who continues the tradition. I had the good fortune to have worked the three generations of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The two concerts at the Guthrie had been moved from January to March 15 and 17. The load-in/setup went smoothly. The concert was great. Sometime in the second half, Duke left the stage and Mercer took over. The Duke returned at bows and the Take The A Train encore piece.

When I went down to the stage to put out the ghost light and wrap up for the night, Joey B, the Guthrie deck hand told me about a conversation between two of the ‘old-timers’ when they were casing up their horns.

One leaned over and asked where the next gig was. When he was told that they had a day off and then came back to this same stage, he laughed and said, ‘Damn, you don’t say. Tonight wasn’t a one-nighter.’

“Nope we can go and jam tonight and sleep tomorrow during the day.’

‘Well,’ the first old-timer replied, ‘I’ll just go to the hotel and sleep tonight and sleep tomorrow too. My bones are tired, man, tired.’

Some of the band did go jamming that night, at the Padded Cell, a small jazz club in Minneapolis, frequented by both local and national musicians and known to lock it’s door at closing time and allow the jam sessions to go well past sunup. Sad to say, the Cell, like all the jazz clubs in the Twin Cities and across the river in Mendota, where I grew up, are long gone.

Michael Langham had the Duke autograph Larry’s book as he promised, but Ellington was very disappointed that Larry had not brought the book to the dressing room in person. From what Michael had told him about Larry, Ellington said he really wanted to meet him. The two worked out a way.

It wasn’t just the band members that enjoyed a day off. Mine was spent with a late sleep before I began my spring yard work. In show business you grab sleep when you can. Like the old timer said, the bones get tired.

When I drove into the Guthrie lot for the second concert, I saw Dawson’s limo parked so Larry could not get out. It was past the time Larry usually left for home. When I walked around the limo to get in the stage door, I could see Larry and the Duke sitting in the back seat, windows rolled down to catch the spring weather. Two elderly gentlemen engaged in conversation. Larry had met the Duke.

Lawson was in the green room when I went in to get some coffee. ‘I never saw Larry smile like that when I opened the door so he could get in with the Duke,’ Dawson told me. He looked at his watch and said in ten minutes he would have to bring Ellington around to the lower stage door, and Larry could go home.

The next time I saw Larry he told me how easy it was to talk to Duke Ellington. ‘It was like we were friends from way back.’ He showed me his copy of Music Is My Mistress that Michael had given him for Christmas and now it had the Duke’s autograph.

The second concert like the first was excellent. The playlist was a little different than the first to keep the musicians from getting bored This time though the Duke didn’t make it through to the intermission.

Joey B. was breaking down things when I got down to the stage. Mercer was looking out the door and one of the musicians was sitting on a chair next to the door.

Joey came over and told me in his stage whisper how the old guy took off his shoe and sock as soon as he came off stage. ‘His damn foot is all swelled up,’ Joey said, nodding to the band member, ‘And it’s green. Green! Looks like hell.’

I took a good look at the man. It was Paul Gonsalves, of the Newport Jazz Festival fame.

After seeing Gonsalves off to the Emergency Hospital, Mercer helped us with the breakdown and supervised us loading everything in the bins of the bus. He told us that he was going to get his father and the Duke always wanted to thank the stage crew. ‘But whatever you do,’ he said, ‘Don’t mention anything about having to send Gonsalves to the hospital. I’ll make up some excuse why Paul isn’t at the next gig, but I can’t tell him how bad he is. Dad just couldn’t handle that news… in his condition.’

Joey B. and I were only too glad to glad to wait and shake Duke Ellington’s hand. Joey commented on how much he liked ‘that good kind of music’, and I agreed and thanked him for his meeting with Larry.

The Duke gave me a smile and said it was his pleasure to meet Larry. ‘He’s quite a man. You here at the Guthrie are lucky to have him. He really had an interesting life. Did you his father was a Buffalo Soldier?’ And then he added, ‘Next time I play here, I’m going to make it a point to take him out to dinner.’

Mercer turned his head so his dad couldn’t see the expression on his face.

Mercer never told his father how sick ‘Strolling Violins’ Paul Gonsalves was. And he never told him when Paul died on 5/15/ 74, eight days before Duke Ellington died. Gonsalves was only 53, but years of drug and alcohol took their toll on him.

When the band left the Guthrie, they played six more gigs, canceling the two at the end of the tour. He died five days after the tour ended. He had his 75th birthday just a few weeks before.

Larry Howard continued to greet people from behind his stage door counter for several more years before he retired. I sadly lost track of him after he left the Guthrie.

I do know he was walking better in his later years. That promise that the young actor/director intern at the Guthrie, David Feldshuh, was fulfilled when David got his medical doctorate

David’s medical doctorate followed his doctorate in theater. Doctor/Doctor David continues his work in theater as a prize winning playwright, nominated in 1992 for a Pulitzer for Miss Ever’s Boys, teacher, and director at Cornell, as well as working in the Cayuga Medical Center with Emergency Medicine as his speciality.

.Currently he is one of the Front Line Heroes in the battle against COVID19.

There’s no people like Show People. They smile when they are low.’

Show people, many of my family member included, were the first to lose their livelihood

when the virus hit.

And they will be some of the last to go back to their profession

And the current ‘leadership’ in the White House and Senate are doing nothing to help the millions of


on the verge of losing everything.


And this is a wrap for the three part Larry & The Duke.


Back in the days when we were protesting for Civil Rights and an end to our involvement in Viet Nam, Dick Gregory, black comedian, leading activist in both movements, came to Minneapolis. During a press conference he was asked how Minneapolis compared to other major cities as far as racial discrimination against blacks was concerned.

He said he found very little black prejudice compared to other cities; but before Minneapolitans had to chance to take bows, he explained why. He observed there were so many Indians in Minnesota that were the brunt of prejudice, white folks didn’t have time to bother with the small black population.

There wasn’t any prejudice against Indians in the village/township of Mendota where my roots were. Mendota was a settlement across the river from Minneapolis and St. Paul, older than both. Outside of a few outsiders like my dad, who married into it, we were descendants of French/Canadians or Mendota Sioux or a mix of both. No bona fide Mendota resident had to go back too many generations to find a common ancestor with any other bona fide Mendota resident.

There were some inhabitants that people did not like; but it wasn’t prejudice because they might have Indian blood, it was because they were jerks.

From the time I was a toddler, one of my best friends was Fred La Batte, grandpa’s hired hand. He claimed to be 100% Mendota Sioux; and when questioned why he had a French name, he always answered, because his Sioux name was too hard to spell. I enjoyed being around Fred and I learned a lot from him, including a few English and French words that I found out the hard way to never use within my mom’s hearing distance.

When I acted up and Fred told me to stop it, I stopped. Not to would cause him to shake his finger at me warn me what would happen if kept misbehaving. He would put me in a gunny sack and take me to Chicago. When I asked him about Chicago he told me it was a place worse than even Minneapolis. Yes sir, I obeyed Fred.

Fred also taught me a lot about horses. Come time to cultivate the corn, Fred would hitch Dick, grandpa’s sorrel gelding to the one-row cultivator. Many a hot summer day you would see Dick still hitched to the cultivator munching on the grass in the ditch by the highway. No sign of Fred because Fred had flagged down a ride to Huber’s for a couple cold beers. When I asked Fred how he got the horse to just stand there for such a long time and not go anyplace or turn around and eat the corn stalks, Fred said he warned the horse if he misbehaved he’d get a gunny sack over his eyes and…

and, and, you’ll take him to Chicago. Right, Fred?’

You learn real good, little Donny.’

The first lesson I received in prejudice was from Mrs. Benson, who taught all eight grades in the one-room schoolhouse I went to. Now even though she was a Lutheran Swede from Minneapolis, we all liked her, students and parents both. She only taught us one year because her husband got polio and required her help at home.

(Polio was the first pandemic that I lived through. We survived because the politicians united and left finding the cure and vaccine to the medical experts, like Dr. Jonas Salk.)

Mrs. Benson’s teaching of prejudice was straight forward. She said that we should accept or reject people as individuals and not because of culture or color…Prejudice was wrong. Prejudice was stupid. Prejudice hurt both the person it was directed against and the person who directed it.

In addition to her talking about it, she gave us a list of books that would teach us more about prejudice.

We were to pick out a book, read it, and then stand in front of the room and tell the rest of the students what we learned about prejudice from the book. She eliminated the first three grades as far as reading a book was concerned; but they could tell us about prejudice they had witnessed, or comment on what they heard. The lesson was in the first hour of class when someone was ready to speak.

After she finished laying out the groundwork, she handed note books she had purchased with her own money and told us we were to keep a record of what we were learning about prejudice, starting with what she had said that morning.

Now any questions?

About six hands went up.

 ‘Mrs. Benson, how do you spell ‘prejudice’? 

I reread Huckleberry Finn from the school’s library, which had about two hundred books in it and which I had already finished reading all of them. I gave my report on the relationship between Huck and Jim, the runaway ex-slave about five days into the project. I was the first to make a report.

So to keep me actively involved in the project, Mrs. Benson lent me her personal copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now that really showed me a world unlike the one grew up in. I read it twice before I gave my report.

Mrs. Benson suggested I read yet another book. She gave me some suggestions but this time I went out on my own read my dad’s copy of The Vanishing American by Zane Grey. I had heard it a radio program once. Since she wasn’t aware of the story, she consulted with her husband, who was a Zane Grey fan. When he told her it was a tale about the loss of Indian culture and of love between  a Navajo man, a white woman.

Mrs. Benson suggested that she and I talk over my report before I gave it. She wanted to make sure her project on racial prejudice did not turn into a sex education class. She didn’t have to worry. I concentrated on the prejudice and loss of the native culture, not the mushy love stuff. I also tied in a lot of things that Fred LaBatte had told me, like why he had a French last name.

( Today the Navajo nation is vanishing, not the culture, the people. They are hardest hit segment of the killer virus in America. In the early days of the virus, those days the president assured us not to worry, within a couple weeks the few virus cases in the US would disappear, a prominent Navajo leader died and people came from all over the Navajo reservation, the largest reservation in the US. The lack of early knowledge and prevention, the arid harsh land, the abject poverty, the scarcity of medical facilities, and the total disregard of the Federal government have fueled the virus wildfire and the vanishing of the Navajo is another type of genocide that has permeated the our nation since the first day Anglos set foot in New England.)

So my growing up in Mendota and my education from Mrs. Benson, pretty much laid down the foundation of my feelings about racial prejudice. I never had much experience with blacks those early years , except for playing against some in sports. Then I went in in the Army!

Oops! What started out as one blog post has gotten away from me. Par for the course. I will close out this post and will continue my experience in prejudice in the Army, deep in the heart of Dixie, in another post.

I will close out this with a quotations I was introduced to last week in one of my favorite blogs:

Playamart – Zeebra Designs A blog of beautiful art, great photos, and fine prose by Lisa, a talented Mississippian now living in Ecuador.

 Blacks and Native Americans share one thing. Native Americans had their land stolen, and their culture systematically crushed. Blacks – it’s the opposite; they were stolen from their land, and they had their culture systematically crushed. We can’t begin to imagine what it takes to come back from that…” – Greg Iles – excerpt from 2017/National Writers Series interview –

And that’s a wrap for today. Stay Safe