If Ron Larsen were to introduce the three men playing instruments in his band for a group of senior citizens, it would have to be “me,” “myself” and “I.”
Larsen, 79, is a one-man band. Calling his music and comedy act Uncle Ron’s Accordion Band, Larson’s nimble fingers tap dance over a button box accordion, while his left foot maneuvers a pedal that makes the cymbals crash, and his right foot is responsible for the pedal that beats the bass drum. He also has an old wooden washboard on hand in case an audience member wants to play along with him.
Larsen, a native of Walnut Grove, is an Air Force veteran and retired salesman that has been entertaining senior living facilities for the past 15 years.
“I never set a fee for the places I play,” he said. “I enjoy it too much. If they want to pay me for gas or something, I leave that up to them.”
Larsen also performs for benefits in which money is being raised for a good cause, or birthday parties, anniversaries and other social events.
“I like to help others,” he said. “That’s why I like playing for benefits, too. It’s all about helping others and having some fun.”
And Larsen gets a big charge out of putting smiles on the faces of those he performs for, especially the senior citizens.
“I’m getting up there in age, too,” he said. “So I know it’s important to do things like this for them. They really seem to enjoy it and I’ve even had some of them get up and dance along.”
And laugh along.
Between songs, Larsen will tell humorous stories or jokes to lighten the mood. His attire for performances sets the mood. He generally dons a plaid shirt, bib overalls that are rolled up to reveal his long white socks and tennis shoes, a red handkerchief flopping out of his pants pocket, and an Elmer Fudd-style cap. And he captivates his audiences with his comedy as much as he does his musical abilities.
“We were having a surprise birthday for my mother about 10 or 15 years ago and each of the four children were going to come up with something to do to entertain her at the party,” he said. “The other three siblings all lived close to her and I was living in Colorado at the time. So I didn’t have much time to think of something to do.”
Larsen arrived in Minnesota and stayed the night before the party at a cousin’s house.
“I found an old hat and bib overalls,” he laughed. “And I decided to play my uncle’s accordion. That was basically the start of me playing in front of people the way I do now.”
Larsen first got interested in the accordion, more by chance than a desire.
Larsen’s great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather both played the button-box accordion, which is different than a piano accordion.
A piano accordion is straightforward in that each key represents one particular note. The arrangement of the notes is such that at every half-step, the player has to move down or up by one step. But in a button accordion, the buttons have a uniform arrangement and to play a single note, one has to play the buttons on the row associated with that note.
A piano accordion does not have more than 45 notes, but in the right hand register of a button accordion, there can be a maximum range of 64 notes. And in a button accordion, two different chords can be played using the same fingering pattern. But in a piano accordion, playing a chord requires the same technique employed by a pianist.
“My father (Julius) and uncle (Darrel) learned to play and I always would listen to them,” said Larsen, who now has five button-box accordions in his possession. “When I was in the fifth grade, my father told my mother to ‘Make sure that the kids don’t play with my accordion.’ We had a Christmas program at school and each grade was supposed to do something. Someone brought a button-box accordion and I used it and learned to play Away in a Manger.”
Imagine his father and mother’s surprise when they attended the Christmas program and out popped Ron playing Away in a Manger on a button-box accordion.
“My dad thought I had been practicing on his accordion,” laughed Larsen. “He was so surprised. He let me practice on his accordion after that.”
Larsen’s current instrumental ensemble isn’t exactly state-of-the-art. His button-box accordion is a 60-year-old Hohner model made in Germany, while his bass drum is actually a galvanized wash tub tipped on its side. And a pair of pie tins slapping together is his version of a set of cymbals.
“Because both of my hands are tied up with the accordion,” Larsen told, “I had to rig up a way to play the bass drum and cymbals with my feet.”
But playing the accordion, singing, and tapping both of his feet to make the instruments work in unison can be a little trying; similar to trying a tongue-twister with peanut butter in your mouth.
“It was a little frustrating at first trying to keep time on the accordion, drum and cymbals,” he said. “And I thought to myself that this just isn’t going to work. So I decided to quit trying.”
After thinking it over for several days, Larsen decided to again give it the old college try.
“I went downstairs and practiced as slow as I could,” he recalled. “And all of a sudden it just started to click. And I’ve been playing ever since. Timing is a gift. I admire all the others that play instruments in bands.”
Now the personable showman plays without even thinking about it; his hands and feet as cooperative as he could hope for. And he plays everything by ear.
“I try to learn new songs all the time,” he said. “I sit down and listen carefully and then play the song.”
And the majority of those fortunate enough to be able to hear him play have positive critiques.
“Uncle Ron’s music is super good,” said Elaine Eichner, a resident at Heritage Pointe Senior Living. “I am from that generation and really enjoy listening to the button accordion. My grandpa and cousin used to play by ear and it’s great having those memories. It’s also nice to have someone that still enjoys playing that kind of music.”
Heritage Pointe had Larsen perform a couple of years ago and hired him for an encore performance for 20 residents recently.
“Ron is a great entertainer,” said Karen Alfson, Community Life Director at Heritage Pointe Senior Living in Marshall. “He not only sings and plays the accordion, but he also tells stories and jokes along with his music acts.”
And every so often, Larsen will meet someone from his past while he is performing.
“Ron and I both play the button accordion, so we have a lot in common,” said Heritage Pointe resident Spike Dolan, who played baseball against Larsen when they were in high school. Dolan played for Milroy and Larson for Walnut Grove.
“We have become good friends and I always try to make it to the entertainment when he is here. He puts on a good show.”
Larsen also gets his audiences involved, according to Alfsen. “After the show, he also makes his rounds and shakes everyone’s hands and thanks them for coming. That’s a true entertainer,” she said.
Larsen now performs between 65 and 70 one-hour shows a year at senior living facilities, birthday parties, wedding, anniversaries and charity events that he organizes and promotes to help those with extraordinary needs.
He and his wife, Patricia, have been married for 57 years and have six children, 21 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The Larsens now reside in Bruce, SD; just a few miles over the Minnesota border.
Larsen currently has no plans to put down his accordion anytime soon.
“I’ll keep playing for people as long as I’m able,” he said. “I’m having too much fun to stop now.”