One of bandleader-entertainer Skip Wagner’s popular fan-favorite performing acts was playing two trumpets in harmony, as seen here in 2011 engagement at Otto’s Brat & Beer Garden in downtown Minocqua. Wagner, now 86, retired from performing in January 2019.
One of bandleader-entertainer Skip Wagner’s popular fan-favorite performing acts was playing two trumpets in harmony, as seen here in 2011 engagement at Otto’s Brat & Beer Garden in downtown Minocqua. Wagner, now 86, retired from performing in January 2019.
Johnny Carson: “Who’s the funniest person you’ve ever heard?”

Bill Murray: “Well, it’s a guy you’ve never heard of named Skip Wagner, in a little town in northern Wisconsin called Three Lakes.” —“The Tonight Show”

It’s a shame Johnny Carson never booked Skip Wagner. Talk about must-see TV on NBC!

For a big chunk of my life, the prospect of getting to watch headlining Wisconsin entertainer-band­leader Henry Gerald “Skip” Wagner Jr. perform in his halcyon days form was a lot like watching my dad angling for muskie “Ol’ Grandad” off the southeastern fish crib on Allequash Lake in Boulder Junction, a modern-day Captain Ahab stalking his elusive “Moby Dick” in a Dodger-blue Pequod rented from barefoot Reuben Schauss.

Skip, like Ol’ Grandad, was always the one that got away.

My vacationing parents weren’t of the Las Vegas-style comedy-music-variety show crowd and there weren’t many nightclubs letting an unattended 5-year-old — or 13-year-old — in the door in the 1970s, cover or no cover.

Evidently falling far from the straight-laced family tree as a guilty pleasure after-school devotee of CBS’ bawdy cocktail hour-turned-game show “Match Game,” I was enthralled by Vilas County News-Review ad images of a sombrero-topped Skip Wagner simultaneously playing two trumpets, a feat I reverently regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, possibly even ranking higher than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, or the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

If there would’ve been the concept of a “bucket list” back in the 1970s, seeing Skip Wagner in action would have been on mine, right up there with punching a ticket to CBS Television City in Los Angeles to watch cocktail party host Gene Rayburn preside over the “Match Game” bedlam.

While the “Match Game” dream sailed without me, I finally crossed seeing Skip off my bucket list back in 2011, when a 25th wedding anniversary lunch with my wife at Otto’s in downtown Minocqua serendipitously turned up an unexpected surprise — a June 21 solo Skip Wagner gig in the tree-shaded outdoor beer garden, a little slice of Bavaria in the North Woods.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit my inner fanboy squealed in delight.

Skip did not disappoint, particularly when he got out a second trumpet and the Eighth Wonder of the World played out before my eyes and ears. I nearly dropped my brat in my PBR.

While the comedy-heavy, variety-styled Skip Wagner Show of yore was never designed for dancing, my wife and I danced anyway to Skip playing two trumpets simultaneously in harmony, truly an anniversary to remember.

One-man show

This subzero evening, however, it’s an audience of just one — me. 

Professionally, it’s an auspicious occasion. I’ve never interviewed anyone immortalized in bronze before — Skip playing two trumpets for posterity thanks to the 2018 craftsmanship of Eagle River sculptor Brad Samuelson. 

Officially retired since his final gig in January 2017 playing with the Bill Hassey Orchestra at the St. Germain PrimeTimers Snowflake Dance, Skip is sitting in his intimate, Teutonic-styled dining room under a Tiffany-style lamp and ceiling-suspended faux grape arbor, both fashioned by his own considerable artistic handiwork.

Channeling his classic jaunty Las Vegas-style showman form of yore, Skip’s throwing out one-liners like a firefighter tossing penny candy at a Fourth of July parade.

“I like being a ham,” Skip says. 

And where Sinatra was never seen without his signature fedora, Skip tonight, like in 2011 at Otto’s, is sporting his trademark black-and-white captain’s hat as “The Skipper,” a nod to his longtime “Skip, Skippy, Skipper” nicknames, a moniker originally borrowed by his dad from Percy Crosby’s popular 1923-’45 “Skippy” comic strip, which chronicled the adventures of rambunctious fifth-grader Skippy Skinner, the “Calvin and Hobbes” Calvin of its era.

While the march of time, a 1997 heart attack and bypass surgery, and early-stage dementia have taken their cumulative toll on Wagner, he’s still gamely ready for snappy showtime repartee in the private “home/museum” in downtown Three Lakes that he’s shared with his ex-wife and now reunited partner, Barbara “Daisy” Wagner, since 2014.

Kicking off the interview, I ask Skip his age. 

“Eighty-six,” he deadpans. “I would’ve been 88 if my dad wouldn’t have been so shy.” 

I wait for the “ba-dum-bum-ching” drum roll and rimshot of yore. While the classic show business laughter cue isn’t there anymore, I still laugh — and genuinely so.

Having watched a bevy of vintage YouTube videos of Wagner and his band performing at The Showboat at Northernaire, Oneida Village Inn and other North Woods venues in advance of the interview — a mix of lively popular tunes, stand-up comedy, zinging ad-lib one-liners, and classic golden age skits including the pig Latin “Duck Hunter” and the black light “Skinny Marink” skeleton puppet and “Banana Bunch” calypso mask acts — the quip is classic first- and second-show Skip Wagner, even without drummer Craig Fine’s “ba-dum-bum-ching” follow up, flaming drumsticks quite literally afire.

It’ll be later into the interview — and evening — before Skip gets to the risqué third-act material.

While Skip developed any number of creative acts over his decades of showmanship, by far he is best known for his signature move playing two trumpets simultaneously in harmony.

“I was drunk one time and tried it,” Wagner recalls when asked of the tradition’s roots. “People started requesting it all the time, so it just became a part of the show to do the two trumpets.” 

Skip ambles down the hall to fetch a well-used, timeworn trumpet, gets another out of a meticulously hand-tooled leather case of his own creation, and suddenly “When the Saints Go Marching In” flows forth in an impromptu performance.

The inner fanboy is squealing again, even if it’s not the Skip Wagner polish of yore. I have no brat to drop in my beer in appreciation. Tonight, all I have to raise in “ein prosit” toast to the Eighth Wonder act is a glass of ice water.

“I lost my lip,” Skip apologizes. “Give me a week and I’ll get my lip back, maybe less.”

In retirement, by his own admission, he doesn’t play much anymore. 

“I’ve got a whole house of instruments that I played,” he notes. “I’m retired. I’m afraid to play ’em. I’m not up to it like I used to be. I’ve got arthritis in my hands. I hardly play anymore.”

Tonight, however, the spirit is willing, even if the flesh isn’t quite what it used to be. While the end result might not be up to Skip’s exacting standards, it sounds like music to me.

A master of 24 instruments in his prime — everything from trumpets, saxophones, tubas, clarinets and mandolins to drums, banjos, bagpipes, glockenspiels, piano accordions and nearly everything in between — nowadays Wagner largely plays a short playlist consisting of “Taps” in honor of fallen comrades at Three Lakes veterans’ funerals as a member of American Legion Post 431.

“I was doing a lot of bugle playing,” he recalls, pointing to a bugle standing at attention on the kitchen counter. “My bugle’s there, ready to go at any time.”

These days? Not so much. 

“There’s only a few World War II veterans left,” Wagner laments.

Daisy, at the ready to fill in details, correct suspect recollections and keep the interview moving forward on track, notes that the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has “iced” most veterans funerals over the last year.

For Wagner, playing “Taps” is coming full circle. 

Calling it his “first gig,” Skip played “Taps” for the first time at age 10 for a 1944 wartime funeral under the auspices of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

With a youthful vigor belying his 86 years, Wag­ner springs up and grabs his bugle off the counter. Even with an iced, rusty lip, the familiar strains of “Taps” flow forth. 

“Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hill, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”

It’s been years since I’ve heard “Taps” live graveside at an interment, a tradition largely replaced by faux ceremonial bugles with electronic inserts playing a digital recording.

It becomes evident quickly that Wagner, who started his lengthy North Woods show biz run a year before I was born, has more musical talent in one of his arthritic fingers than I’ll ever have in my whole body, my fifth-grade go at playing the recorder and an ignominious adult try at the hammer dulcimer included.

Setting the stage

Perhaps it was something in the water in his musically-talented childhood neighborhood in west suburban Milwaukee.

“Liberace lived down the street,” Wagner recalled of the flamboyant Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-’87), a child prodigy pianist-entertainer of Polish and Italian descent. “My sisters went to school with Liberace.”

It likely didn’t hurt that musical talent and showmanship ran in the Wagner family.

“My dad, ‘Wagner the Great,’ was a trick roller skater with circuses and on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s,” Skip recalls of his father, who most famously performed with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), an iconic African-American tap dancer and actor best known for his Broadway performances and film roles, including his popular appearances tap dancing alongside child star Shirley Temple in four Fox films beginning with 1935’s “The Little Colonel,” which featured the first interracial dance pairing in Hollywood history.

“My dad and him once roller skated down Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee to Lake Michigan,” Skip recalls of Robinson.

The elder Wagner developed his signature “human roulette” roller-skating skills as a vaudeville circuit “skatorial dancer” while working as a deckhand on the Lake Champlain side-paddle wheel passenger steamer Ticonderoga.

Skip’s painstakingly-detailed model of the Ticonderoga is one of many hobby crafts filling the “home/museum,” projects running the gamut from stained glass, drawings and paintings to decorative signs and a fully functional aluminum suit of armor. The Ticonderoga sits in a place of honor in the dining room, providing a constant reminder of his father and Skip’s own show business roots.

Far from a one-trick pony, the versatile vaudevillian also captivated audiences as a tap dancer, clown and magician.

Following in their father’s footsteps, Skip’s two older sisters, LaVerne “Billie” and Joy, were skilled vaudeville tap dancers and roller skaters in their own right, sometimes appearing alongside their father. During World War II, they entertained troops on the USO circuit.

Skip’s mother, Edna, who played the piano accordion, brought musical talent to round out the Wagner family’s creative milieu.

“I was 5 when they strapped a piano accordion on me,” Skip recalls of his 1939 launch into musicianship. “When I was in grade school, somebody stuck a trumpet in my face. As time went on through high school, I picked up tenor sax, trombone, string bass.”

Skip closes his eyes and plays an air bass, voicing the deep sounds as he plucks imaginary strings. 

Doom, doom, doom, blap. Doom, doom, splat.

Providing a well-rounded foundation for showmanship, Skip’s mother taught him to be a musician, while his father taught him to be an entertainer.

Even before joining the band at West Milwaukee High School, a teenaged Skip, performing as “Hank” Wagner, was already a seasoned Milwaukee area band leader with his polka and Dixieland jazz band.

“I started out young,” he recalls. “At 11 years old I had a band that played sports games, for soldiers, school events. When we were in high school we played the saloons in Milwaukee. We got away with it because my dad would take us.”

Expanding horizons

Wagner’s growing musical horizons broadened further in 1957 after being drafted into the Army, where Uncle Sam took full advantage of the 23-year-old’s considerable musical abilities with his assignment to the 392nd Army Band at Fort Lee, Va., near Richmond.

“Being drafted and playing in an Army band was perfect for me,” Skip recalls. “Musicians were a special commodity. You weren’t a soldier then. You were specialty. We played many concerts and parades. We had dance bands that went into town and played for the southerners that hated Yankees.”

Wagner says his stateside tour of duty was a great launching pad for his impending return to civilian life.

“The Army was where I really picked up the music business,” he remembers. “I kind of had to go with what the band had at the moment. I played everything — trumpet, sax, accordion, banjo. When called for, I’d be on the keyboard or on the drums. I was jumped around. I was into everything.”

Changing times

Following his discharge from the Army, Wagner found himself in need of a new stage persona and musical genre to meet chang-ing times heading into the 1960s.

“I used to go by the name of Hank, Hank Wagner, but it sounded like a country band,” he remembers. “The whole band was at the house, my mother was in the kitchen doing the dishes, and they were trying to come up with a name for me. My mother comes out of the kitchen and says, ‘Why don’t they call you Skippy like your dad used to call you?’ They were all sitting there going, ‘Skip. Skip Wagner. That sounds good.’ ”

Wagner embraced the new pop Las Vegas-styled variety show format being popularized by Hollywood’s famed “Rat Pack” — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

The Rat Pack took Las Vegas — and America — by storm, displacing longtime mainstay old-hat Vegas headliners like Jimmy Durante and Cyd Charisse.

There was no looking back for Wagner and his rechristened Skip Wagner Band, which capitalized on the popular new variety show genre, a lively mélange of music, comedy, and personality-driven showmanship.

The snappy repartee, informal banter, and off-the-cuff spontaneity of the Vegas-styled shows kept audiences engaged, on the edge of their seats, and feeling an insider part of the act.

“The Skip Wagner Band wasn’t for dancing,” Skip recalls. “It was a Las Vegas-styled show for entertaining, a strict comedy-type show, and we played all kinds of music — everything.”

The six-piece Skip Wagner Band was a rising star on the national touring scene in the early-to-mid 1960s.

“We were going to go make it big,” he recalls. “I played some big places with the Skip Wagner Show. We played everywhere — California, Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, the entire East Coast.”

In 1966, Skip briefly found himself on national tour as a full-time comedian and front man for The Keith Phillips VI, playing prestigious venues like Harrah’s and Caesars Palace and mingling with name-dropping A-listers like Jimmy Durante, Sammy Davis Jr., Lauren Bacall, “Boots” Randolph, KFC founder Col. Harland Sanders, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Marty Allen, Steve Allen, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong.

“It’s fun bragging, you know, all the famous musicians and stars I’d meet playing Vegas and places like that,” Skip says, breaking out with a spot-on Armstrong imitation at the mention of his name.

“Satchmo. Oh, yeahhh.”

But family needs trumped fame in 1966 when Wagner’s 6-year-old daughter, Lori Ann, born with spina bifida, was named the March of Dimes inaugural national poster child.

Skip turned down an opportunity for a permanent Vegas booking at Caesars Palace to instead tour more than 84,000 miles across the United States with Lori Ann and his first wife, Mary Ellen, on behalf of the March of Dimes, travels that culminated in a December 1966 White House visit with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.

Lori Ann passed away at age 13 in February of 1974, an enduringly painful experience Skip sums up in one word — “Traumatic.” 

A Wisconsin institution

For 35 years from 1964-’99, the Skip Wagner Band was a North Woods summer mainstay, playing a packed seven-night-a-week schedule, sometimes up to three shows nightly, at a number of venues over the years, including The Other Place, Oneida Village Inn, Black Forest Pub and Reiter Center in Three Lakes, Eagle Waters and Golden Eagle in Eagle River, King’s Gateway in Land O’ Lakes, and Lac Vieux Desert in Watersmeet, Mich. 

“During the summer there were no nights off,” he remembers. “It was seven nights a week because summer is short. We never took a night off until I had a heart attack and the doc said I had to cut it down — so we had one night off a week.”

Over the decades, Wag­ner also kept a busy schedule downstate in Milwaukee during the off-season.

“It was a lot of fun,” Skip recalls of those action-packed days. “I had so many things going for me all the time. There was always something to do. I was busy doing sign painting and truck-lettering jobs during the day and entertaining at night. Monday was my only night off.”

Occasionally, Wagner folded his kids into the show — “perfect pitch” vocalist Lori Ann, born in 1960, on guitar, drums and piano; Henry III, born in 1963, on guitar; and Gene, born in 1964, on drums.

To support his growing family, Wagner moonlighted — daylighted in his case — additional jobs as well, trimming display windows at the Ed. Schuster & Co. department store on Mitchell Street, and teaching accordion and brass at a local music store.

Milwaukee area performance venues over the years included popular nightspots like Tunnel Inn, The Scene, La Scala, Salvatore’s, Bavarian Hofbräuhaus, El Vagabond, Red Carpet Inn, and cocktail lounges in the Nino’s Steak Round-Ups dotting the metro area. 

The band also played occasional Manitowoc County gigs at Fox Hills Resort in Mishicot, in addition to landing two Tennessee engagements playing the Opryland Hotel in Nashville to rave review.

In 1965-’66, Wagner landed a studio musician gig, headlining the Skip Wagner Band’s hour-long weekday noon music and variety show on Milwaukee’s then-CBS affiliate WISN TV-12.

“It was a little of everything,” Skip recalls of the show. “We’d show up about 10 in the morning and work on what tunes we were going to play that day.”

Celebrities passing through Milwaukee on tour would often make guest appearances on the show, most famously one day a rising comedian and actress named Phyllis Diller, one of the first female comics to become a household name.

Recalls Skip of the late Diller, remembered for her self-deprecating humor and trademark eccentric stage persona, characterized by her wild hairstyles and wardrobe and exaggerated, cackling laugh, “We laughed so hard we couldn’t even play the music.”

Fond memories

Sifting through old photos of the Skip Wagner Band over the decades, lingering over a photo here and there, yesterday is as close as the present moment for Wagner as he improvs bits of songs and comedy acts of yore for his audience of one, including his popular turd wurning — er, word turning — spoonerism fairytale “The Stad Sory of Rindercella.”

“Rindercella lived in a hig bouse with her mep stother, and her two sisty uglers. Now they made Rindercella do all the wirty durk, ya know, like flopping the mohr, doshing the wishes and...”

Well, we’ll leave it at that. It’s a family paper after all. Evidently it’s getting late. “Wip Skagner” is getting into the “punny fart” third-show material that would make even Gene Rayburn blush.

He segues to singing his “Route 66”-inspired Three Lakes ballad, “Come Alive on Highway 45.”

“If you ever plan to motor north, on Wisconsin’s U.S. Highway back and forth, come alive on Highway 45. Now it winds from Chicago to Three Lakes, more than 300 miles to the Chain of Lakes, you arrive on Highway 45. Well you go through Milwaukee, West Bend, Ozaukee, Fond du Lac city is mighty pretty, Oshkosh and New London, Glenville and Tigerton, Antigo and Elcho, the gas tank is on low, Monico to Three Lakes, here we go-wo . . .”

Turning pensive as he returns to sifting through the photos arrayed before him, names come to his lips as group photos of the Skip Wagner Band in all its various iterations over the decades transport him back to another time.

“I’ve been with a lot of big-time talent,” he notes. “All the guys were really good, talented musicians ­— Dick Eliot, Sherwood Alper, Roger Kraft, Pete Funck (Pete Duquesne), Craig Fine, Roger Perkovich, Jim Scheppele, Bill Grove, Jim St. Charles, [and] Merv Harding, a nationally-known trumpet player who played with all the big bands.”

Moving in 2000 to Three Lakes, his longtime home-away-from-home in his performing heydays, Wagner’s previously music-filled nights are now filled in his retirement with his lifelong hobbies — sign-making, stained glass, woodworking and model-making. For a season, Skip even dabbled in origami.

“I’ve been a night owl all my life,” Skip says. “I used to work six nights a week playing. I didn’t sleep much. I was always on the go.” 

Wagner remains a night owl.

“He’s a man of little sleep,” Daisy says. “He’s up all night making things.” 

While his recent memories increasingly fade these days, Skip’s older memories of his lifelong immersion in show business endure.

“I think music, show business, is an interesting thing,” he reflects, fingering the old photos and brittle, yellowing newspaper clippings on the table before him. “I’ve spent my life with music, having a band. I’ve had quite a life.”

And for tonight’s audience of one, a one-man band playing two trumpets suits me just fine. 

For both of us, as least for a little while, it’s yesterday once more.