KEN RITUCCI INTERVIEW
February 12, 2004
Bob Brundage – Tonight we’re talking with Ken Ritucci back in West Springfield, Massachusetts by telephone. Ken is a fine caller and caller-coach and has been around the square dance world for some time and we’re looking forward to an interesting interview about his activities in the square dance field. So Kenny, let’s start out as I usually do – first of all I should mention that today if February the 12th, 2004. So Kenny, why don’t you tell me where you were born and brought up a little bit about your childhood history, etc.
Ken Ritucci – Well, I was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1957. I was one of three children – my mother raised us alone and did not have any square dancing history in my background at all and basically if it wasn’t for me there’d be any square dancing history in my family at all – both laugh – and I got into square dancing in 1974 and started to call in 1975 so I’ve been calling for about 28 years now – 29 years.
BB – OK. What was your first introduction to square dancing?
KR – It was a fun night that the Park and Recreation Department was having in Waterbury – went down there in ’74 and there was a lot of young people around my age – boys and girls. At first I thought you know, it was going to be hokey but when I saw the young crowd I thought,” Well, this looks like it might be fun” and sure enough it was.
BB – Well good. Do you remember who the caller was?
KR – Yeah. It was two brothers, Phil and Tom Moran and they were teaching for the Park and Rec Department and they had a big, big hall – I don’t think the hall is there anymore but it was huge. It could hold probably about 50 squares. They took turns alternating tips and teaching.
BB – All right. So where did you go from there? Did you have other square dance experiences back early –
KR – Well, what happened was a group of us started going out dancing that fall of ’74 and ’75. We graduated and then we drove up to the New England Convention – that year it was up in Portland, Maine – that was when they were getting 8 to 10, 000 dancers just for the New England and we were literally just trading off partners and dancing, I’d say seven nights a week. At that point I said to myself: I’m going to get bored you know, as any 17 year old would do learning and dancing but I said, “ Maybe I’ll do what that guy does up there on the stage – not knowing you know, what it would encompass but that’s when I went to a small summer session that summer with Ed Rutty and Dave Hass – at Dave Hass’ Barn in East Hampton, Connecticut. They were running a weekly callers group and then from there Clint McLean gave me a flyer to the Earl Johnston/Al Brundage’s Callers School up at East Hill Farm and that was the first time I went up.
BB – So, what was your impression of that callers school?
KR – Oh, I thought it was wonderful. I went up in ’75 and I went up every year – I skipped ’80 only because I was doing a summer camp up in Maine – I couldn’t make it. Then I went from ’81, ’82, ‘83 – there was a whole group of us at the time – a bunch of young callers coming up at the same time. We just kept going back year after year you know, some of us actually started taking it serious after maybe the third or fourth year – we weren’t chasing the waitresses up at East Hill. They ran obviously the biggest school in the country – it was a fantastic school and I got to meet a lot of great callers.
BB – Right. Well, who were some of your other mentors in the course of your beginning of calling?
KR – I’d say beginning calling was probably Ed Rutty and Dave Hass – Earl and Al obviously and I’d have to say probably Clint McLean. Although there were callers that I learned from that were on the guest staff. There was Jim Mayo, Lee Kopman was there one year, Ed Foote, Jack Lasry was very good. They had Deuce williams in ’83 – that was the last time I went – that was an Advanced School – Deuce conducted the Advanced School at the same time that Earl and Al were running the regular school and then in ’84 Earl and Al asked me if I’d want to sort of be an apprentice and help out with the school the year after.
BB – Oh yes. All right, did – (long pause) – I lost my train of thought. That seems to be prominent disease these days. OK, as long as we’re talking about calling what do you find appealing about calling?
KR – Well, I like the fact that you can entertain – that you can take a group of dancers that, from the teaching aspect you take a group of adults or kids, mainly adults who really know nothing about something and you see your finished product I think at the end of class – you see how well they can dance. I like the entertainment aspect of it – when I go and call now – it took me years to own this – you’re just not up there calling you’re really an entertainer in some ways. You have to be involved with the whole aspect of what’s going on and in between tips as well. It’s a whole evening instead of just six or seven times up on stage.
BB – Right, right. Well, the thought that I was trying to get at was how did you evolve into running the callers school yourself?
KR – Laughs – Well, only because Earl retired and Al finally said the hell with it. I was on staff in ’83 and from ’84 straight on they had me on staff sometimes would be just coming up for a day depending on the amount of students they had. My degrees in college was Education and I did teach school for a couple of years and I really loved to teach. I just would stick close to Earl and Al and they saw how enthused and serious I was about it and having run the biggest and longest running school in the country I think in the history of the activity they wanted to – when they thought it was their time to turn it over they wanted to turn it over to someone they felt would continue the tradition. Randy Page and I were fortunate enough to be asked to do that. So, that was one of the highlights of my career was to be asked to take over Earl and Al’s school.
BB – Right. So, what’s been the experience with the school since then?
KR – Well, the schools been great. We took it over – our first year was in ’93 – I eventually sold out my half of it in ’99 to Mike Jacobs and as of this year I’m actually starting my own school – a smaller scale school – probably about 10 students working with Norm Poisson up in New Hampshire in his hall but the school was just as big from ’93 through ‘99/2000 when I was there we got – we brought in some of the bigger names, you know – this generation – we got the Tony Oxendines and we got Mike Callahan to come in and we had Johnny Preston and Jacobs himself. We actually did an advanced school one year. I think it was in ’96 we ran an advanced caller’s school in addition to the regular school. We had like 46 students and it was really big. I think 12 of them were just for the advanced/challenge school and they came from all over – Canada, I think we had some overseas people – we even had students come from Taiwan.
BB – Wow. Well, that’s interesting. In the meantime what about some sort of home club program of your own?
KR – I’ve had several clubs throughout my whole 30 years of calling. I’ve had basically – in western Mass. there’s not much of a home activity at all .I had at one point at the height when I was out 7 nights a week I’d probably have 3 or 4 clubs of my own. The last club I had was the club up in Brattleboro, Vermont – Green Mountain Steppers which I – In 2000 when I sort of took a little reprieve – I didn’t totally retire but I almost did. I gave that club up because I wanted some time off but still kept up with some guest appearances. So, I’ve taught several classes – I can’t even remember you know hundreds and thousands of students plus numerous workshops at the advanced and C1 level as well through the years.
BB – Right. Well, what’s been your experiences with like local festivals and conventions, etc
KR – Well, like anything in the activity we were doing very well. The little one we have here in western Mass – Fall Festival – we used to get 1000 dancers in one day. I think now we’re lucky if we get maybe about 2-250. The New England Convention which I have the pleasure of programming this year and next year up in Brattleboro – probably going to shoot for about 1400 dancers where in the heyday we probably got maybe 8 to 10,000. So. Festivals and conventions – the Connecticut Festival – for years we’d get 3000 dancers in one day and now they’re lucky they get maybe – I don’t know, I haven’t called it the last 3 or 4 years but I am going back this year – probably about 300, 400 people.
BB – Right, right. So, you’ve been affiliated with the Western
Mass Caller’s Association then?
KR – Yes, I’ve been a member of the Springfield Area Association since 1980 and the Connecticut Caller’s Association since ’75 – obviously a member of Callerlab – I was on the Board of Governors for six years – I was on the Executive Committee for one year. I was also Chairman of several committees during the late 80’s and most of the 90’s – the Plus Committee and some of the Quarterly Selection Committees and such – and then, of course being an Accredited Caller/Coach I’m on that committee as well.
BB – Right. Well, you’ve been certainly busy. What’s been your experience concerning round dancing?
KR – Well. personally I’ve never – I’ve cued one round. I carry it with me and whenever there’s not a cuer or something I’ll get up and tease and I actually can still cue it – I think it’s “Sleepy Time Gal” Tips of My fingers” I think it is and I took round dance lessons when I was breaking out into square dancing and I enjoyed round dancing, you know but just like Connecticut and New England twenty years ago we had a host of great round dance cuers like we had a host of great square dance callers and of course, a lot of them aren’t around anymore. As I got busier with calling I sort of didn’t – I honestly didn’t go out round dancing anymore but I would still do some rounds at one of my dances if they were easy enough. Even to this day I’ll still do some rounds. Round dancing is a great activity – it really is a good partner with square dancing – I’ve seen that some aspects of New England certain cuers have gotten very popular and had big programs where basically they almost do their own thing – they have their own round dance parties and their own round dance clubs and lots of times they don’t even need to be with the squares.
BB – Right. What about contras?
KR – Well, contras – I used to do contra dancing in the early 70’s when I first started this activity – Clint McLean and Rusty McLean and some of us younger guys would go up into New Hampshire and we would do contra dancing you know – Duke Miller and some of these other callers for I’d say like 8:00 at night to 8:00 to 11:30 to almost midnight.
Ken Ritucci Interview
We’d have a blast and we would drive around and do some contra dancing but obviously modern western was our main thrust. I remember up at caller’s school Al and Earl would always have Duke show up with some of his dancers and put on a performance for contra dancing as well.
BB – Right – laughs – but did you ever call it?
KR – No, I never really called contra dancing – I did but some records – I think maybe my earlier days I would do, “Slaunch to Donegal” and I would do some of the, you know the famous ones you know but I really do – I never got into it – it just wasn’t something I spent a lot of time on.
BB – Right, right. Well, have you ever had time for any other hobbies?
KR – Well, I coach my son in baseball every spring. He’s 14 and he’s on the 13-15 league so I think another year or two of that and then at that point I’ll give that a break because it’s very time consuming. I used to do a lot of hiking when we started square dancing. We met up with a group of dancers who in Connecticut who liked to hike and they’re the ones who really got me involved up into the Manadnock Region. We hiked Mt. Manadnock several times and then we’d go to a dance at night and we’d sleep over at a hotel or something up in Keene so I used to do some hiking – I haven’t really hiked much in recent years although this past summer I did take 4 kids up to Mtr. Manandnock and we hiked the mountain – first time I’ve been up there in 20 years.
BB – Ah ha. Well, That’s great. One of the things I’ve been asking the other callers I have interviewed is – do you have any regrets – anything you wish you’d done differently?
KR – With calling ot with the activity?
BB – Yeah, or with either one. Or both
KR – Regrets – I guess we all can say we have regrets. I don’t think I have any regrets from the educational standpoint. I basically accomplished what I wanted to – probably not maybe – I think the one regret I probably had is when things were going hot and heavy I probably should have cut back on my schedule to make more time with the family than I did. You know hindsight being 20/20 you get caught up in the rush of everything – the contracts have flown – the festivals and everything the next thing you know you’re looking at 3 years of solid bookings and now you get a little bit older you start saying: Well, if I did things a little differently. Do, I guess that would be my biggest regret.
BB – Right. So, you would have spent more time with the family then, right?
KR – Yeah, absolutely.
BB – OK. Well the other thing that I’ve always liked to ask is –where do you think square dancing has been and where is it now and where do you think it’s going?
KR – Hmmm – well. I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand different opinions – I’ll add mine – I think we’ve seen the best days of square dancing – I don’t – I think the 50’s, and 60’s and 70‘s probably were our biggest – I don’t think even after the first half of the 80’s after that the decline started. I personally don’t think we’ll ever get back to being that big. I think that society has changed and, in some ways square dancing has not changed with it. You know, as you certainly know years ago traditionally the man worked all day, the wife stayed home so she was anxious to get out of the house. It was a form of inexpensive fun activity and everyone did and, of course we didn’t have DVD players and VCRs and movies and all the types of modern conveniences plus we didn’t have a lot of two couple working – young kids and, of course not just working but working different shifts and different hours – people are tired and society is changing very fast that way – everybody wants – because of this work load and this rush to pay your bills and meet your family’s demands – people need things quick and fast and unfortunately square dancing is not a quick and fast activity. It’s trying different programs – the 10-10-10 program but that still keeps you in it for a long time because when you learn the 10 weeks then you stick around and learn the 10 more – before you know it you’re there for the traditional 30 anyway. Where is it going – I’d like to say it’s going to get better – I’m hoping it will. I’m sure there’s parts of the world and certainly parts of the country that’s doing OK. I would say most of them are not anymore. I know here in New England it’s not doing it and in the New York, New Jersey area. Clubs are folding – dancers are getting older – there’s fewer callers – caller’s schools are down – it’s just I think it’s just the way it is. I mean I just don’t think we have an answer – there’s not one answer that’s going to snap it back. We don’t have the financial funds to do some really serious national, you know on TV in-your-face advertising. They’re trying, I know Callerlab and the foundation are constantly doing – raising money, but you know you need serious money to hook up with, you know Cocoa Cola or some of these other companies that you get on your TV screen and really show a different flavor of what peoples images of what square dancing is. People keep saying it’s going to rebound – maybe in certain areas it might – overall though I just don’t see it – I don’t see it ever being as big as it was – I think we all need to change our philosophy of what it is. I think we’re starting to see that where you know, 2 or 3 day festivals are now being cut down to possibly a day and a half you know, you can’t offer 20 halls anymore – you’ve got to go down to 6 or 7. So I think we all have to do with less because there is less out there.
BB – Well, what’s your impression of what we commonly call the CDP program – Community Dance Program?
KR – Well, I think when it started out it was – I remember I was there when it started out – I was on the Board or just getting onto the Board at the time. I think it’s a great concept – the Community Dance Program – I think the concept of it is in a lot of ways what is needed for today’s modern society. Unfortunately we’re sort of our own worst enemy – we’re in a dilemma here where we say we want to come up with community dance programs and we just want to keep it simple and yet, at the same time you know which group of callers does that. It’s a fine line to pick how you’re going to structure your programs – you want to stick with something like that and you’ve got a successful program – the urge is then you’ve got to fight not to bring those kind of people over into you know, a full-blown program for fear of turning them off. Yet, at the same time it’s also our nature to want challenge them more – we want to progress – we want to do more. I don’t know, I mean I think the concept of it is – well, I don’t think that it’s probably taken off as much as probably Callerlab and other leaders wanted to see it and hence I think we’ve got the 10-10-10 program now which they’re trying to incorporate more of an easy intro program – just come for 10 lessons – just let them dance after 10 – when at the same time they’re also saying, “Well, by the way 2 weeks later we’re going to start another class – you guys can still come and dance – you help them out – we’ll show you more calls –“ so we’re sort of repackaging the thing – the same product.
BB – Well, I was just wondering if maybe the ultimate goal might be going back to traditional style dancing – a more varied program like – including rounds and mixers and contras, etc. where anybody can just drop in any night they want to – not on a regular basis and be able to dance.
KR – Well, that’s a great concept – in fact, getting back to contra dancing I noticed in the local newspapers an like The Advocate – there’s like – I noticed the other day and I saw 4, 5, 6 different places on one night or one weekend of just contra dancing. So I think contra dancing is bigger than probably we western leaders want to admit because – lots of times they don’t even need to bring a partner and certainly don’t need any instruction – anything that is taught is taught that night and you dance – you know, the long swings and the dancing to the steps of the music and at the end of the night you’re one big hot, sweaty ball but you had a great time. You go home and you don’t have to worry about you know, club responsibilities – you don’t have to worry about travelling anywhere – if you want to go back – if you miss 3 Saturdays in a row you go back and you can just dance that Saturday you’re there. So, probably it would be nice if we can see more of that start to evolve –not just strictly contra but maybe throw in some rounds and things – then again, think of the mindset of the square dance callers that we’ve trained for the last 50 years – it’s been strict choreography – it’s been modern western – I mean, even myself included I would have a hard time just trying to run a contra night or something. You know, I would have to get somebody to do contras if I just wanted to host an event – I couldn’t do the rounds myself – I mean, who’s going to do this. Most callers just don’t have the experience or the skill to want to do that.
BB – Right. Well, you as a caller/coach do you spend any time looking at that angle of it?
KR – We do talk about it. We do talk about contras – not being an expert in it I don’t go into it too long but normally usually there’s someone there or we have someone on staff to help. We do talk about rounds – we talk about the importance of rounds – we talk about the whole full flavor and we always you know, especially if Al comes up in the summer we always want to hear the history and the tradition of the activity because – I always like the students to have a well rounded education, at least a background of where it is but where it comes from. I think though, again – this is just my opinion – I think if we’re ever going to get where we can incorporate multi-programs in one night you know, a lot of us would have to change our way of thinking and our way of living and we’d have to you know, seriously have to make an effort to make that happen.
BB – Right. Well, it’s my impression that a lot of the modern western programs don’t devote much time to teaching people how to dance actually. As you say, they’ve spent all their time working on choreography.
KR – Choreography and the other thing is too, we don’t teach them so much to dance with the music and the rhythm and the beat but when you hear callers call you can tell right off that they don’t understand. I mean they’re starting to call 3 beats before they should be placing the next call and they’re starting to run the dancers. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the lack of understanding of music and rhythm and also you know, with the invention of sight calling now can get to look at the dancers – you would think that would help because, at least if you looked at the dancers you can sort of stay on cue with them but at a lot callers – newer callers starting out who don’t know sight calling read and reading isn’t going to help them with the floor – it isn’t really going to help them with their timing so there’s a lot to it and, like you said if these new callers come up and they haven’t been taught to dance to music they’re not going to have that mindset to want to call utilizing music and rhythm. I do a whole presentation of just music and rhythm because it’s so important. It’s like – what Al always taught me – it’s how you sound. You know, it’s not what you say it’s how you say it.
BB – Right, right. Well, one of the other things I wanted to ask you Ken is have you done any recording?
KR – No, I never recorded a song. I was asked to do one – Global Music Production about 10 years ago asked me if I wanted to and also Silver Sounds asked me at one point but it just never really interested me.
BB – Right. OK, so where do you stand now? Are you full time, part time?
KR – Oh, I’m just part time. I have a full time job – I’m busy with the kids – in fact, I’ve just started this past January, 3 weeks ago I just started going back to school for my Masters so my calling is, you know now that I’ve sort of come back into it a little bit, you know the dates are picking up down the road. I don’t think I’ll ever be out 7 nights a week like I did and not have a life. If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that unless you have a partner in life that this is all you do – eat, sleep and drink it – there’s other things in life than just calling and especially the way the activity is going too I think it keeps me healthier and fresher knowing that not every Friday and every Saturday night I’ve got to be out. So now I’m much more selective – I pick and choose where I want to go.
BB – Right. Do you have a home club program right now?
KR – No, now that I’ve been back I haven’t picked up one yet. There’s a club on the other side of the state that wrote to me and asked me if I’d be interested in teaching their class and being their caller. Of course they’re just doing exploratory just now – they’ve asked other callers. I said, “Sure, put my name in” it sounds like something I might want to do.
BB – Right. So, you’re guest calling some of the clubs around the area?
KR – I’m guest calling anywhere from Connecticut to New York to you know, almost near the Canadian border – just Massachusetts – basically New England and New York at this point.
BB – Right. Ever been down to my old club, the Madhatters in Danbury?
KR – Yes but not in the last 3 or 4 years. They’re still hanging in there.
BB – That’s what I hear – it must be close to 35 years now.
KR – No, I think they celebrated their 40th one last year.
BB – Is that right. I lost track – Both laugh – they didn’t invite me to come back.
KR – Well, I don’t know who called it or anything. They didn’t ask me for it either so –
BB – Yeah, well Randy used to teach there of course – Randy Page.
KR – I don’t think he called it either.
BB – Of course he lives in Danbury so –
KR – Yes, he does.
BB – All right. Well, I think we’ve covered pretty much everything Ken. Do you think of anything else you’d like to add.
KR – No, I just commend you for your efforts on this project, how many interviews have you done?
BB – Over 100 hundred now. I was looking back – I started in 1996 actually. I covered all of the – and a few of the people that I’ve interviewed in the past have since passed away – you know like Bob Osgood, etc., Max Forsyth and oh golly, it goes on and on but – so, I just wish now that we’d started earlier actually. How I wish we’d been able to interview Ed Gilmore or Les Gotcher and Pappy Shaw – gosh. Of course a lot of those have got some writings that we can look back on. Did you do any writing at all outside of this one article that I just got on my email that’s called, “ Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire”.
KR – I’ve done several articles from the late 80’s and early 90’s. I used to write every month a column, “Byline” for the Northeast Dancer Magazine and then it was – I ran up to probably 1994-95 and then last year they asked if I’d start writing again so I do write a bi-monthly column for them now. But, in my younger days 10 years a go I used to write some pretty provocative stuff. I mean, I really took it to the people and I wasn’t afraid – I got letters you know, I got bad letters, good letters –
BB – Yeah, I remember some of your articles – both laugh –
KR – Now I sort of tone it down – I just try to play the middle-of-the-road at this point but it depends on what’s up and what disturbs me and I asked if I could just write every other month because of my work commitment. I didn’t want to be committed to an every month thing. Now the national magazine put me – they asked for my articles so they print them whenever I send them in as well.
BB – Oh yes. Well –
KR – I enjoyed your book by the way. I read in like one night.
BB – Great, great.
KR – Remember you signed it for me last April at the convention. I read it when I got home.
BB – Well Kenny, I think we may be just about finished then. We got everything in on one side of the tape and I really appreciate you’re taking the time to talk with me tonight. I was very interested in your experiences. You’ve been rather unique for the business compared to a lot of people and I know you’ve had a successful run and wish you all kinds of good luck in the future.
KR – Well, thank you and I’m honored to be asked to speak with you tonight and thank you for including me in your group.
BB – Well, your tape will go into the archives of the Square Dance Foundation of New England and hopefully some day some researcher will look back and