An Evening with Norm Dombrowski and the Happy Notes

by Joe Larson
4 July 2001

I said the band job last weekend "went fine." What did that mean, exactly?

I loaded my amp, two guitars, and bag into the truck about 6pm Friday night. The amp especially is heavy, and I like to allow a lot of time for moving it. Sure, it has handles and wheels, but there's enough weight to be very respectful of it, for my back's sake.

Arrived at the Holiday Inn around 6:30pm. We were scheduled to start playing at 7:30pm, so that was plenty early. If I'm there a half hour early then I am officially "on time." But I like to allow extra time because you never know what you might run into.

The Holiday Inn was full of nuns. Turns out we were the featured entertainment for the Friday night dance for the Sisters of St Joseph who were celebrating their order's 100th anniversary. Something like 350 nuns were there from all over the world. Many of them were thrilled we were coming; our reputation preceded us.

Dan S. was there. I stood around talking to him a while. He's a friend, a fellow ham, a fellow barbershopper, and an all around interesting person to talk to. He runs a bus service in town and he and his wife Millie had been shuttling the nuns between the local convent and the Holiday Inn. Dan recently had a heart operation so it was good to see him up and around and looking good. He was going to videotape us for part of his local access cable TV show next month, if it was okay with us. Sure, no problem. We don't mind when someone tapes us.

Sister Carolyn was organizing the event, running around looking frazzled but with a sweet smile for everyone. They were just starting to eat, and we would be setting up where the banquet line was, so was it okay if we waited a while?

Sure, no problem. I start when Norm calls out the first song, and I stop shortly after we play Goodnight Ladies. Whenever that might be. Besides, Norm wasn't even there yet. So Dan and I just talked. He was getting to know some of the nuns from shuttling them around. One of the Sisters was there from Peru, and was excited about learning to dance this "polka."

Soon Norm's big gray van pulled up, full of more heavy boxes. Norm found one of the Inn maintenance folks, who opened one of the emergency doors so we didn't have to haul our stuff all the way down the halls. Just part way. There's always plenty of heavy boxes to go around, but we don't like to carry it any further than we have to.

We brought in the stuff and set it outside the banquet hall in the corridor while the Sisters ate. Wandering around talking to the Sisters who came out. Mark, Joe, and Marie all went to Catholic school, and ran into several of their old grade school teachers. There was lots of conversation. The Sisters are just regular folks, although they seem somewhat more intelligent than normal, very interested in life and in you, and interesting to talk to.

Eventually the staff finished serving meals and the bigger guys took away the food tables and the indoor gazebo decorations. We moved our stuff inside the hall and set up while they cleared the tables off the dance floor. Wires everywhere, like usual. It takes us up to a half hour to get everything moved in and connected and ready to go. Gee, I put this piano cord away neatly, how did it get so tangled up since then? Untangle it and plug it in. Set up my guitar stands, plug in the pickup for the acoustic guitar and the electric bass. Plug in the piano, foot pedal, and Marie's smaller amp into the mains. It's quite the system, I guess. We all seem to know what to do to set up our part of the equipment and we hop right to it.

Let's use half our regular speakers today to keep the volume down. Okay, fine. Tune up my guitars, again. Mark gazes in wonder at the main amplifier for a few moments, wondering why it isn't making any sounds. Pushes a small button on the mixer, everything comes to life.

A lot more poking and tweaking and Testing One Two on each of the microphones. Marie play your concertinas to make sure the left and right side mikes are working.

Everybody ready?

The first song today is the Redhead Polka. The sisters are real party animals. They're up and out of their seats right away, dancing. Pulling friends out of the crowd to dance. Coming up between songs to say Hi to the kids they haven't seen for decades. Norm says, "Remember, if you don't dance the first song, you can't dance them all."

It's a great feeling. The music sounds good, I'm hopping up and down with the beat.

The Chicken: they all dance. There are two groups videotaping now, they circle in on the dancers. The Hoky Poky: likewise. Somebody requests Alley Cat, which we pull out of one of the dozens of heavy books we carry everywhere. I've never played this arrangement before, probably never heard it before, though I know the song. Doesn't everyone? I play along, got it fine after the first few notes.

It's a short job, so we don't get far from the old standards. The Krakowiak. Everlasting Love Waltz. White Rose Waltz. She's Too Fast For Me Polka. We Love Our USA Polka. Marie switches between her C box and her Bb box. Sivy Kon (aka The Old Gray Mare), E-I-O. Norm calls them out, we play them. Put the bass down and go play piano when Marie goes to violin for The Mountaineer Polka and Turkey In The Straw. And lots more.

Turns out that Norm and Mark and Marie had also been there playing for the Sisters' 75th anniversary, so now they have played for both the 75th and the 100th anniversaries! Wow. It's often a tradition, where possible, to bring the same wedding band back for a couple's 25th anniversary. But this takes it to a whole new level.

Playing went way too fast, as usual. We were done around 9:30pm. Seems like every one of the Sisters there came up to thank us for playing, and to God Bless us. What a nice feeling. As it turns out, Norm did not charge them for playing. Then we wound up (neatly) all the cords and packed them (neatly) away. We rolled and carried and pushed all the heavy (respectful of your back) boxes out to the big gray van and loaded them in. I put all of my stuff in there too. We're going to do it all over again tomorrow and Sunday, for different people. It'll be a busy weekend for the Happy Notes.

Saturday evening: Riverfront Rendezvous in the Pfiffner Building on the Wisconsin River. Sunday afternoon: We were a surprise for Al and Janice Klein's 50th wedding anniversary party in their back yard. Both of those jobs "went fine," too.

The End