Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura doesn't bow down to many people, but he made an exception for the Swingin' Sertomans. At the 2001 fishing opener in Breezy Point, the 13-member Brainerd showband sang "Guv'na Ventura" to the tune of "Lady Madonna" - complete with personalized lyrics - and earned a worshipful bow from the governor.
He's one of many Minnesotans in the past 20 years who have been impressed by the Swingin' Sertomans, who will play their last public show Sept. 20 in Hackensack. At some point along the way, the band lost the "g" at the end of "swinging," but the members never lost their enjoyment of playing.
"Sometimes it's hard to tell who's having more fun, the audience or us," said drummer/vocalist Ken Thomas. "We crack wise and just have a good time. There'll be an occasional faux pas and it becomes part of the show. You never know what's gonna happen. It's not very static; it's very dynamic."
Originally, the Swingin' Sertomans - an all-volunteer band that raises money for the Sertoma (Service to Mankind) charitable organization - weren't supposed to last 20 minutes, let alone 20 years.
Swingin' Sertomans Paul Bloom (left) and Jon Lubke performed with the band Friday at Madden's Town Hall for the Regional Sertoma Convention. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the band will retire later this year.
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Guitarist/vocalist Paul Bloom, one of four founding members still with the band, said it was created for the 1988 Brainerd Sertoma convention.
"Jon Haapajoki came into my office one day in the fall of '87 and said, 'I think it'd be great if our local club would put together a little group and kind of lead the thing off, maybe do a 15-minute show or something.' We hustled up some material, and by May of '88 we did a 15-minute show.
"It was just for that one show, but some people saw us and said, 'Hey, could you come over and do a show over here?' Too many people started asking us, so then we started charging, and after that we started jacking up the price to slow down the demand. At some point we decided once a month would be the average we'd play."
The Sertomans have become the longest-running active band in the Brainerd lakes area in part because of that light schedule. Many of the members - among them schoolteachers, business owners and engineers - had previously been weekend warriors.
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"Every one of us will tell you that when you're in a band - unless you hit the big time - you're playing bars and getting people to dance, and that becomes a grind week in and week out," Thomas said. "But you still have a desire to play some music and have some fun. ... It's a great outlet for all of us to still play those instruments, because that gets in your blood. But none of us aspired to be in such a group. It kind of happened along the way."
For a 1991 Sertoma convention in Oklahoma, the Sertomans devised the three-act, costume-laden format that has held up ever since (although the song list changes): The first act includes northwoods comedy skits and parody songs, the second act features cowboy classics and barbershop harmonies and the third act boasts early pop hits.
"I liken us to a vaudeville act," said vocalist Mark Puschinsky, a founding member. "I think that's why we've lasted so long. We go to all these small communities and it's like the old vaudeville days. We come in and put the silly hats on and act stupid and funny. And we have pretty good people playing the instruments."
The silly aspect of Act I includes Norwegian jokes such as the one where Ole (played by backup vocalist and founding member Lester Franz) mistakes an ice-rink manager for God.
"I come out with fishing gear on and an ice auger, and I attempt to drill holes in the floor and go ice fishing," Franz said. "Ken, in his deep voice, says, 'Dere's no fish down dere.' That's kind of fun."
The Sertomans don't just do the classics, they also show off their creativity. Among their favorite parodies is "You've Lost that Manly Feeling," a riff on the Righteous Brothers that the Sertomans use to serenade an unsuspecting audience member.
When Bloom books a convention, he usually inquires ahead of time to get a suitable target, but before a Sertoma convention in Minneapolis, he forgot. So he called "Larry" to the stage, correctly assuming there would be a Larry somewhere in the big crowd.
Bloom asked, "Where you from?"
"Kentucky," Larry said.
"You got a shotgun?"
"You got a good sense of humor?"
The Sertomans plunged ahead with the tune about a fisherman who suffers indignities such as trading in his rugged truck for a family minivan. Larry sat patiently until the song was over. Then he got up and gave guitarist/vocalist Bob Nibbe a big smooch.
"After that, we decided to get somebody pre-approved," Bloom said with a laugh.
The Swingin' Sertomans always have a laugh, whether performing in front of tens of thousands of people (they sang the national anthem at a Twins game in 2004) or eight people in a 1,500-seat venue.
"One of the most interesting (shows) was when we went to Iron World (an outdoor amphitheater in Chisholm)," Thomas said. "It was for the biggest taconite company up there. It was the company picnic."
"It was during a time when a company had bought them out and they had taken the health insurance package away from all the employees," Bloom said. "And they thought they were going to make them happy by having a party and food and entertainment. And what happened was all the employees boycotted the event."
Still, the Sertomans played for the eight management-types who showed up.
"Those eight people thought we were great, and paid us a huge amount of money," Bloom said.
Sound-board operator Steve "Gus" Augustinack said the fundraising is the most satisfying part of the gig.
"When Ken comes out and explains what Sertoma is about and the fact that we're raising money for charity, it's just a great feeling," he said. "It's great to feel the positive energy from everybody."
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