Be sure to have your best Teddy Bear handy for this Sunday, as Governor Mark Dayton has declared it Teddy Bear Band Day. That’s right, Minnesota originals the Teddy Bear Band are celebrating three decades of entertaining children with a special 30th anniversary show at St. Paul’s Central Park Frank Rog Amphitheater. We spoke to TBB bassist Richard Erickson about making music for children and launching bears in the air for all these years.
How did The Teddy Bear Band begin?
Ron Gustafson is a lifelong early childhood family education teacher. My wife had heard about ECFE and thought it was pretty cool and decided to take our daughter. She took our daughter to the class and said it was great, that “the guy played a little guitar in the class. We went around and said what we did and what our husbands did and he said that he’d like to meet you.”
I was in the house band, Wall Street, at Eddie Webster’s back then, and he came down and listened to me play. He said if I could bring in my upright bass, the kids could find that really interesting. A few years after my daughter was done with the ECFE class, he called me up and said his program had his funding cut for that year and he wanted to keep the program going at that level. Ron had the idea to do a fundraiser benefit concert. I said sure, we got together with the two other Dads he asked and did what was supposed to be a one-time concert. Ron came up with the name Teddy Bear Band, young children were encouraged to bring a Teddy Bear to the show. We got done and I said, “Gee, this is fun, anyone want to keep doing this?” They laughed and said, “Where would we play?” I said, “I don’t know. I book my jazz group on the side a little bit,
I could just mention it to people and see what they say. They said “Well, great. If you book some shows, I guess I’ll play them.” We were playing a bunch of arts in the park concerts which were all jazz and classical, and people said, “That sounds interesting. We have a lot of young families in our community, maybe we’ll try that!” One thing lead to another and we got booked at every library and got really well known in the metro area. People found out about the Teddy Bear Band and that our foundation was in child development and we started playing all these open houses around the state, and then the State Fair.
1985 was the first show, and here we are three decades later. Has connecting with children from the stage changed much over the past 30 years?
You know, we just recently had a meeting with Dr. Marti Erickson [distinguished colleague at University of Minnesota's Center for Early Education and Development] a couple of weeks ago and she was saying what connects with kids really hasn’t change much over the past 30 years. Yeah, styles change, but what we’re talking about is where are kids in the early years of development, what is appealing to them and what do they find interesting. Those kind of things haven’t changed a whole lot. We’ve just been discussing that lately and, it’s really true. We add new types of music, but we’ve become full circle in a lot of ways too.
When we first started, we did traditional children’s music and Ron had a couple original tunes, and it was mostly based on the standard folk type of music that children’s music was always identified with. Then, as we did more performances and our whole thing was about really engaging kids through our music, I started thinking if we did a few more musical styles and added a little energy into what we were doing, that should encourage the kids to be engaged further. So, everybody agreed, everybody enjoyed doing everything from reggae to country to bluegrass to rock ‘n’ roll. We’re on a docket with the Smithsonian and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being the first group to introduce contemporary elements into children’s music.
We always tell people we think the important thing about what we do is the show itself, the spirit in which it’s presented and achieving our end goal, which is having kids come away from our show with the sense of “I did it, I was in the show and I did it with all the other kids’ families.” Basically, their mind’s set up for success and feeling like they’ve accomplished something and they’re part of something. That’s the basic goal we try to achieve.
What lead to the addition of your mascot Panda?
Well, when we did our first show, it was just musicians. After the band caught on, here’s Ron, who is teaching full time, and I’m booking him to do shows on weekends and weeknights. Soon, his wife’s not seeing him very often. So, she said, “You know, I think it would be kind of cool for you guys to have a mascot. I’m going to make a panda costume and come and do the shows with you.” That’s how that got started. After a while, they had their own child and she was working full time so she decided to not do Panda anymore, but it was received well and we wanted to keep it going. We did a show at the Walker Art Center and there was a woman there on staff who was doing acting and stage direction, and she loved doing it so she became our next Panda person. She did that for quite a few years and now we have the wives of the guys in the band doing it. Panda’s not on every show, we have Panda on an a la carte menu.
Over 30 years, what really stands out as some of your favorite memories?
Well, you know, I think one of the really neat things that’s been going on for the past couple years is the kids who were our original fans back when we started are now bringing their kids to see us because they remember how much fun they had. They go, "Oh, Teddy Bear Bands’ still around, let’s bring our kids!” These now young adults really do have wonderful memories of coming out with their families and seeing us, and their parents who are now grandparents come back to the shows too. We have this multi-generational group of people, and that’s one of the stand out experiences of this 30 year accomplishment.