These days, 96-year-old Bob Clark cracks jokes, tells great stories, and flirts with the staff, either from the comfort of his easy chair in his room at Park Centre in Newton or from the hallways and gathering spaces in his wheelchair.
Perhaps Clark gets his undeniable charm from his days as the pianist for Putt Kenrick and his Southern Iowa Swingsters.
“I wasn’t a rock star, but I played for a ten-piece orchestra out of Knoxville, back in the thirties,” Clark said. “(We played) modern dance music. We played all over the Midwest.”
During the Depression Era of the 1930s, “Swing” music was extremely popular. According to Clark, he and his bandmates played one to two shows a week. They were booked for a lot of shows at Masonic Lodges, which led to some interesting demographic changes.
“Masonic Lodge, you got a lot of the older folks, they weren’t hip like the young ones,” Clark said. “Played down in Pella, and I’ll tell ya — when it got to be twelve o’clock, ya quit. They were very strict and very religious.”
Clark isn’t sure where he caught the musical bug from. His father played the guitar and taught lessons, he said, and he and his sister took piano lessons for 50 cents an hour, off and on, for three or four years. He said he also played the trumpet for the Colfax High School band.
“No, not really,” Clark said when asked if he still plays piano. “Haven’t done it for so long, they got two pianos here, but I don’t play. (Stopped playing) several years ago. I’m 96, there’s a time to stop.”
Although he said his father taught guitar, he said things didn’t go over as well when his father tried to teach him.
“He taught me a few chords and that was it, he got disgusted with me,” Clark said jokingly. “Like your dad would with you, I don’t know why. I don’t remember if I broke a few strings or not, I could have.”
While Clark may not have followed in his dad’s footsteps with the guitar, his piano lessons helped pay the bills.
“I had a day job (too),” Clark said. “I made three bucks (from performing) and I gave my driver a dollar and half for taking me to dances. Of course you know, three bucks back then was a helluva lot of money. Well not a lot, but it was good. I kept my mother (afloat) on it.”
Clark said he and the Swingsters performed at night and he spent his days at a manure factory in Colfax. Despite having two jobs, Clark said he had to get rides to shows.
“I didn’t have a car and I had to have somebody take me … it was the Depression,” Clark said. “Your damn right I know what it’s like to go hungry, you bet. Back then you couldn’t get a job. I played for three dollars a night; nowadays they make all kinds of money. I don’t know how much.”
Clark said that after a few years, he left the Swingsters for good and continued working in the manufacturing field. He spent 35 years in a factory before retiring in 1979.
“No pension, just Social Security,” Clark said jokingly. “We wasn’t organized, no union.”
Clark may not have had a happy ending with the factory, but he seemed to really enjoy those years with the Swingsters.
“Oh yeah, I wasn’t married, of course” Clark said of his time on the road. “I think we made a lot of people happy.”