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Becklers team to sing, play music for others

When most area residents think of Gene and Clarisse Beckler, they think of their creativity in taxidermy.

The Ellsworth taxidermist, who's assisted by his wife, has recently done custom mounts for some customers instead of the general public. She's contributed several bear and smaller animal rugs in the past. But both have other pursuits keeping them busy now, as well as in the public spotlight.

Those are related to music--specifically, singing for him and playing accompanying instruments for her.

"I like to sing at home, but not in public," Mrs. Beckler said Tuesday, admitting to some nervousness.

In fact, even her accordion and piano playing for audiences can create a few "butterflies" in her stomach initially, she said, though the "jitters" disappear shortly thereafter. Her husband, on the other hand, enjoys vocalizing at weddings, charity events, hospitality businesses and social functions.

They were to perform together again last week at Zion Covenant Church, for locals including members of Brotoloc Health Care System's group homes, where Mrs. Beckler is employed (another of the homes' employees, Mary Hines, asked her to play at the church).

"Gene taught me the chords," she said, adding, "otherwise, I play by ear."

Beckler learned how to read music from his late mother, Clara, who'd once been part of an orchestra, his wife said. She was skilled on the mandolin, concertina and accordion as well.

"Gene has his own style," she said, noting his tastes range from country pop and rock to opera.

Meantime, she's more typically joined her sister, Lila Hobbs, when entertaining at the Ellsworth Care Center in the past, for instance. She favors traditional music--like hymns, polkas and waltzes--over the modern kind. Events at the Pierce County Fairgrounds and parties (a recent one celebrated the 90th birthdays of twins Doris Hines and Dorothy Seifert, plus Adeline Langer) have been other times for her to display her musical skills.

A list of 430-plus selections she's compiled to play shows such classics as "Easter Parade" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smilin'," for example. Among the numbers she was planning for the appearance at the church were "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

Mrs. Beckler said she's played piano since age six and learned the accordion when she was 13. She attended school in Spring Grove and first became acquainted with her future husband through her older brother, Harlin Kinneman, a friend of his.

"Gene sang 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart' to me," she remembered about one occasion when she was age 10 and wishing to be a bit older to attract his attention.

Her family had a piano at home and she recalled playing for Christmas programs and Sunday School gatherings at her home town church. Sisters Joanne and Joy played the piano, too, as did her brother Cleland, who died at an early age.

"I still play every day after dinner," she said.

While her soprano voice isn't often heard, her spouse's baritone sound frequently surfaces. When young, he attended the MacPhail School in St. Paul for two years, he said. He was tapped to sing on Twin Cities' channel 11-TV during that time and placed second in a competition for singers at the Minneapolis Aquatennial one summer. A woman who heard him sing offered to pay for him to have voice lessons.

"She was Jewish and she wanted me to sing 'Ave Maria' at her funeral," he said, emphasizing the irony (he didn't do it).

As a student in Ellsworth, he used to imitate Frank Sinatra in front of classmates as they walked home from school, he said. His spouse reminded about the time he impersonated "Tiny Tim," even dressing the part. He eventually sang with the St. Paul Opera Company for a couple of years, and still does light opera.

He said he's sung opera in Red Wing and entertained in the piano bar at the former Pines in Hager City. He has sung and played at the St. Paul Auditorium, Rochester (Minn.) Auditorium, and, closer to home, Pilot House, former Steamboat Inn, Coachman Supper Club and Hudson House. At a local wedding especially memorable for him, he prepared for five songs and ended up additionally singing all the responses that were part of the ceremony.

"I was getting tired by the end," he said.

Besides singing, he plays several instruments, including the guitar. Last week, he sat down at a keyboard in the couple's home to share a bit of his opera, his version of Jerry Lee Lewis-rock and even a Liberace-type rendition. His wife soon got into the spirit with a few tunes on the accordion.

Other than music and the occasional bear rug, she has ways to stay occupied. She said she's worked at the Brotoloc homes for nearly 16 years, presently at Willow View, where there are four occupants. She's babysat, taught and baked bread, rolls, cakes, cookies and pies, sometimes selling them. She took a home course in cake decorating and another in photography.

The Becklers have passed their musical talents along to at least one of their five children. Son Mark plays the piano, his mother said. They also have a daughter, Laurel Lee Tropen, in New York, two other sons, Scott in Missouri and Chris in Ellsworth, and another daughter, Susan Duffy, in Big River.