The first thing ever on the Freddie Fisher site was an article from the Winona Post. In their usual gracious manner they've allowed us permission to reprint this copyright article by Dave Michael, one of the organizers of Schnickelfest 2004.
From the moment I met Jack Norton things clicked. Returning to the world of professional music after years behind the retail counter, I found myself face to face with someone as off beat, expressive, and dare I say obsessive as myself. The more I got to know him, the more I found we had in common.
Be it through old records, film clips, books, song folios, period instruments, or anything else pertaining to early American music (Jazz, Folk, Country, Blues, etc.), our personal collections, experiences, and knowledge complemented one another beautifully. I guess it was inevitable that something like Schnickelfest would come out of it all.
Jack was living in Winona, Minnesota, and told me about this guy named Freddie Fisher who led a comedy band there back in the 1930s called Schnickelfritz. It wasn’t until several months later, while going through my old 78rpm vinyl records, that I found I actually had a few of the sides Freddie cut for Decca that I had purchased some years earlier at a yard sale on Lake Minnetonka. When I brought them to Jack’s attention, he related the story again in more detail, and shared the two dozen or so sides he had in his collection.
I met a friend of Jack’s, Jerry Modjeski, a Schnickelfritz nut and DJ on KFAI radio in Minneapolis. He had us on his show a few times, and we played the old 78s on the air. Jerry was the source of many of Jack’s 78s, as well as several old clippings from the local newspaper, and the first footage of the band any of us ever saw. It was Jerry’s groundwork that really got things started.
Jack pointed out that Saturday June 12, 2004 marked what would have been Freddie Fisher’s 100th birthday. It was decided that we would form a tribute band, put together a show to be emceed by Jerry, and take it back to the town where it all began.
Jack found Freddie’s brother-in-law Max Bunn and longtime friend Don Kiekbush in Winona, and they shared stories, clippings, and photos. Max had kept a scrapbook of Freddie over the years, and was kind enough to share it with us. This gave us many clues as to what to look for and where we might find it. We continued to dig for some time, finding only the occasional article or recording. Even the Internet provided us with very little until we found Hezzie.com.
The folks there had many more of Freddie’s recordings, some additional film clips, and a book of remembrances, all of which they were more than happy to share. As luck would have it, we had some things that they did not, and were able to add to their collection as well. Hezzie.com posted info about the pending celebration on their website, which led to our first interaction with Freddie’s immediate family.
Jerry was contacted via e-mail by Nikola Fisher, one of Freddie’s grandchildren. He forwarded it to me, and I replied. About a week later I received a response from Nikola, who is a musician himself, living in Australia. He was very friendly and had much to share. He sent along a story to be read as part of the program, and a few recordings of songs he wrote and performed inspired by his grandfather. He then put me in contact with his father, Joseph (King), who had even more to add.
Joseph, who was also very friendly, shared what he could. He had moved to Australia in the late 1950s, and had taken very little with him. He played coronet in a band with his father in Aspen, Colorado prior to the move, and was instrumental in bringing him out of musical “retirement.” He suggested I contact Walt Smith, who had played piano with them in Aspen, and said that his sisters Susan and Joan would have much to add as well.
My search for Susan and Joan led me first to a columnist at the Aspen Times named Steve Skinner, who also is a DJ, musician, and runs an indie record label/brewery in Colorado called Flying Dog. He, too was helpful in posting Schnickelfest 2004 info on Flying Dog’s website, covering our progress via local media in Colorado, helping to coordinate a potential future performance of our show out in Aspen later this summer, and is the only source for the official Freddie Fisher Aspen T-shirt.
I found Joan next, and called to see if she would talk about Freddie and Schnickelfritz. She was quite willing to talk about her father, and even invited me over until she found out I was calling from Minnesota. We set up a more convenient time for me to call back, which didn’t work out, so she had her sister Susan contact me instead.
When Susan called, there was much to talk about, and she was very open and willing to share whatever she could. The few questions she couldn’t answer herself she asked Joan and others, eventually digging up at least partial if not complete answers. She was quick to find and share what few photos and clippings she had, and like Joseph, suggested I talk to Walt Smith.
Walt had the most insight into Freddie’s musical history. They had played together from the mid 1950s until Freddie’s death in 1967. It was Freddie who had gotten Walt into music in the first place.
As all these biographical pieces came together, the format of the show began to emerge. We needed to put together a small display of Schnickelfritz memorabilia, a collection of film clips (which I had to laboriously track down, and many of which are not in the best condition due to their rarity), and a concert performance of songs covered by Schnickelfritz.
The band itself was formed with Jack Norton and the Mullet River Boys (Jack Norton, Jed Germond, Paul Liebenow, and myself) at the nucleus, surrounded by the winds of a New Orleans Dixie band I also play in called the South Side Aces (Tony Baluff, Steve Sandberg, and Zack Lozier). Once the songs for the performance were selected, we were faced with the task of tracking down the appropriate sheet music.
I contacted Susan again to see if she could find any of the original Schnickelfritz scores. It was rumored that they might be at the Aspen Historical Society, but they were closed for several weeks, and we were forced to proceed without them. Luckily, clarinetist and South Side Aces founder Tony Baluff was able to orchestrate wind parts based on the generic piano arrangements we were able to find, and the original Schnickelfritz recordings of them. Susan later contacted me, having located some of the scores, which we hope to use in future performances.
The radio show will kick off the weekend of Friday the 11th, and there will be two shows in Winona on Saturday the 12th. Both live shows at the WAC will be recorded by Two Fish Studios’ Mobile Recording Unit, mixed down, and released as the companion disc for this 2 CD set.
I found a Schnickelfritz advertising poster from the early days, and had my sister -in-law Stacy scan and tailor it to meet our needs. It ultimately became the poster for Schnickelfest 2004. She had worked on an earlier project featuring the Mullet River Boys called Wizard Oil, designing the label for “Wizard Oil Brand Soda.” I had an entire case of it left, and came up with the idea to repackage it as “Schnickel Spritz” for the Festival weekend.
Another of my sisters-in-law Neffer (short for Jennifer) and some of her cronies assembled the Schnickelfest 2004 commemorative buttons, which serve as tickets for the event. The caricature of Freddie seen on the poster, bottle, and button was originally done by Xavier Cugat in 1945, and was later used by Freddie as a Christmas card. It really captured Freddie’s moniker, so we decided to use it again.
We hope to donate copies of everything we have found on Schnickelfritz and Freddie Fisher, including full documentation of Schnickelfest 2004, to the Winona County Historical Society, and start what we hope will become the Freddie Fisher Research Wing. Assuming everything goes through as planned, the library will include over 200 recordings, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, photos, 15 film clips, and will grow as new discoveries are made.
The accomplishments of Freddie Fisher are all but lost to the world, and his is a story worth telling...and remembering. It has been 100 years since his story began. Hopefully the legacy of Ferdinand Frederick Fisher and Schnickelfritz will finally travel the road to recognition.
The Winona Post is located in Winona, MN and can be read by clicking HERE
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