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He developed a love of song early, racing home after school to spin tunes on the record player. "I'd wear them out until the hole got too big." His parents bought him a toy ukulele when he was ten. He later upgraded to a baritone ukulele and kept practicing. At thirteen he was discovered by "a lady who promoted young entertainers," he recalls.
Soon Ronnie Reichard was on all of the local television affiliates, including a few appearances on Dance Party with Russ David, a 1950s music show on Channel 5. He started performing at sock hops, schools and nursing homes. A photo in his scrapbook shows a boy standing with four others on a stage; a sign hanging from the ceiling reads, "Aeolian's Stepping Stones to Stardom, WEW, 770 kilocycles."
"I remember that night like it was yesterday," he says, gazing at the photo. Another page in the scrapbook holds a letter, dated 1953, from St. Louis department-store magnate Arthur Baer, president of the now-defunct downtown store Stix, Baer & Fuller. The executive took a shine to Reichard. He told the youngster he could help. Baer was friends with Eddie Cantor, a revered 1950s comedian and singer who co-hosted the nationally televised show The Colgate Comedy Hour.
Baer wrote Cantor a letter, asking that he give the boy an audition. "That was the closest I ever came to making it big," recalls Reichard.
Eddie Cantor declined. "I like Ronnie's personality," reads his typewritten response. "I like his voice I like everything about him." The letter closes with Cantor wishing Ronnie well. "I think your boy deserves an opportunity of being seen by and heard by the largest number of people."
It was a minor setback, but Ronnie kept playing. One photo shows him singing to a crowded auditorium. He seemed to be on his way. But in the summer of 1956, history intervened and history's name was Elvis Presley. From the start, Reichard couldn't stand Presley's music. Unlike his teenage peers, he couldn't stomach rock & roll at all in fact, he still can't. Too noisy, he says, and it drowns out the softer melodies.
"Music changed, and I wasn't into it," Reichard says flatly. His father, always an encouraging voice, suggested that Ronnie update his style. "But I drew the line. I didn't like it, and he couldn't understand why I couldn't bend a little bit. I wouldn't bend. And in fact, I still won't."
"He didn't want to do any leg-shaking," concludes Mary Dee Brown, "so he took his toys and went home."
Over the next 40 years, Reichard "did all these crazy things" for work: He taught guitar lessons, repaired electronics and fixed church organs. For a while he was a DJ on KSTL (690 AM), "playing hillbilly music." A lazy left eye kept him out of Vietnam, and he wound up selling appliances.
"I never had a job that I didn't fight, no matter what it was," says Reichard. "I couldn't change dimes" tossing out an old-timer's phrase "and not find something about it that wasn't any good." Pause. "But that's the public for you."
But he never lost the bug. Most nights he'd go out to dinner and then come home and play guitar. "I never really let up," he says.
"I didn't even let anyone know that I did music, because I always felt that was what I was interested in, and the music that I knew nobody could even talk to me about. They didn't have any idea what it was all about. I just shut up about it."
Reichard partly blames genetics or, specifically, his grandfather Max Luttbeg. "I inherited my stubbornness from him," he says.
Luttbeg was a famous wrestler at the turn of the nineteenth century. He arrived in New York City from Russia in the early 1900s and, along with his wife Reichard's grandmother moved to St. Louis a few years later, where he continued wrestling. Photos of Reichard's grandfather posing with an opponent, A.J. Thibodeaux, are archived in the Library of Congress.
After Luttbeg retired from the mat, he turned an accordion hobby into a profession and headed out on the vaudeville circuit. He also built accordions, some of which are housed at the World of Accordions Museum in Superior, Wisconsin.
"He used to kid around," recalls Reichard. "He used to say, 'We oughta go into vaudeville vodeville, he called it. He even had the billing: 'Max Luttbeg and Grandson.'" Letting out a riotous laugh, Reichard adds, "He took the top billing!"
Luttbeg wrote an unpublished autobiography. It's an odd book, says Reichard. The manuscript begins with Luttbeg's life story, but soon devolves into a series of chapters on wrestling moves, and eventually becomes a screed against Luttbeg's archenemy bodybuilder and self-proclaimed "Father of Physical Culture" Bernarr Macfadden. The last sentence of the autobiography, says Reichard, captures his grandfather's frame of mind. It reads: "I'll see you all in hell."
Reichard's worldview is more tempered, even if his friends joke about his "doom-and-gloom attitude" and call him a lovable curmudgeon.
"I've gotten to the point where the world is changed," says the man who'll only watch classic movies on TV. "I'm a time capsule. I live in the middle 1940s, OK? That's where I'm at. And I've never really gotten out of it."