Old Pelican area friends will be ‘guinea pigs’ for new country-western theme comedy show

By Louis Hoglund

Bruce Arntson

Homecoming for Bruce Arntson could be a weird time machine experience for both him and his old friends from the greater Pelican area. 

The Pelican area native took off for a life in show biz nearly 50 years ago, and has been a Nashville guy since 1979. The musician and entertainer first took the stage as a young teen at Pelican Rapids junior high gymnasium dances. He’ll be “testing” his new Nashville show on his hometown on May 6.

“I’m using my Pelican friends as guinea pigs,” laughed Arntson, who graduated from Pelican High in 1973. He’ll be in town to help an underclassman, Terry Sjostrom, who graduated from Pelican in 1976 and is battling cancer. Proceeds from the Arntson show will go toward the Sjostrom benefit. 

Pelican will be the test run for a show he plans to bring to the stage in Nashville in fall 2022. Locally, it will be somewhat “low budget,” said Arntson. “No elaborate light show—just me and a piano,” said Arntson. His Pelican bandmate, from back in about 1966-67, Dave Johnson, will be doing the sound. 

For about one hour on the Pelican VFW stage, it won’t be Arntson—but a humorous Nashville character he invented. 

But prior to and after the comedy performance, it will be the same old Bruce. Or…some semblance of a younger Bruce—who back in the 1960s and early 1970s played rock and roll and water skied Pelican Lake, from his family’s docks at El’s Resort on the south side of Pelican Lake.

“I’m related to half the town,” he laughed. Cousins include the longtime Pelican Press Publishing family, the Petersons. 

Writing helped Arntson carve out Nashville career 

In the official Bruce Arntson bio, he’s a Nashville-based writer/composer/actor. 

His longest-running project was the 14-year stint with the comedy act “Doyle and Debbie,” basically a spoof on the country music scene. Some elements of the “Doyle and Debbie” show may creep into the Pelican performance May 6. 

Nashville is a city of a million stories. Many of those stories don’t end well. Fortunately, Bruce managed for more than four decades—though he waited tables on and off for a half-dozen years. 

“It is really difficult—you can be a great singer, or a great guitar or piano player … but there are zillions of them down in Nashville,” said Arntson. “I branched out into writing and was able to piece together a show biz living. I didn’t get rich, but it worked out.”

Bruce Arntson, Pelican area native
On his career in Nashville
Debbie and Doyle Poster

His endeavors included script-writing, interviewing, and production work on CMT television documentaries. The show profiled artists ranging from John Denver to Loretta Lynn. 

Among his earliest jobs after moving to Nashville was writing and composing for many of the CBS/Disney productions of the “Ernest” franchise, the largely forgettable films revolve around “Ernest Goes Here, Ernest Does That.” Still, it was work that enabled him to stay in show business–in Nashville. 

Interestingly, Arntson hasn’t really played and sang on stage for three decades, at least not as a conventional instrumentalist-singer-performer. 

“The Doyle and Debbie Show was acting,” said Arntson, noting the show was basically theatrical comedy. The comedy duo might have continued to this day, but the COVID pandemic largely shut down performing venues, he noted. 

Bruce Arntson, a 1973 Pelican Rapids graduate who grew up on a Pelican Lake resort, will be returning to his hometown from Nashville to “test drive” his new stage show, May 6, 8 p.m., at the Pelican VFW club. Above, Arntso, in his role with “Doyle and Debbie,” a country music satire he performed successfully for 14 years in Nashville and around the world.

The D and D Show is something better seen than explained, and there are clips available on the internet. It could be compared to the TV country-western spoof “Hee Haw,” but with a bite that is edgier, more contemporary, and less cornball slapstick.

Pelican show will be scripted comedy, plus music 

He’ll be acting in Pelican, too. But his stage character will be playing and singing. “Just me and a piano,” he said of the upcoming VFW engagement. 

The “plot” of his new show may be hard to convey in print, at least with the humor he intends. Basically, it is a satire on the “songwriter nights” hosted at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe. At these events, as Arntson explains it, Nashville songwriters show up and pontificate about the stories behind the songs they wrote, in an informal setting. 

“The show is making fun of an evening of people on stage, who you have never heard of, talking about the songs they wrote,” said Arntson. “It’s a comic show, with music—and the ruse is that I’m pretending to be serious.”

Musical past will be remembered by lakes area Baby Boomers 

Baby Boom music enthusiasts have encountered Arntson in a number of incarnations back in the 1970s. After his debut in Pelican Junior high, with the band “Lemon Meringue,” Arntson hooked up with a number of mostly Pelican area musicians to form “Anon Re,” derived from an Egyptian phrase. 

Many of the bandmate names will be familiar locally: Clark Hohman, Tyrone and Tim Hickman, Tim Albright, Mark Meland, Johnny Heusser, and Dave Thorpe. Mostly college age at that time, they played mostly in the Fargo-Moorhead area—including fraternity parties. 

From there, Arntson was hired by “Skunk Hollow,” which became one of the best-known club bands in the region in the 1970s—uniquely specializing in western swing and amped-up country-rock. 

Sounds from Pelican’s past: The band “Lemon Meringue,” a quartet of Pelican teenagers on stage in about 1967. The band included Dave Johnson and Leon Kratzke on guitars; Jeff Johnson, drums; and Bruce Arntson on keyboard. Two of them will be back together after 50-some years, as Arntson performs May 6 in Pelican—with Dave Johnson running sound for the stage show.

After Skunk Hollow, Arntson did a tour with Johnny Holm, another very well-known act—that toured the upper midwest, and was especially popular on the county fair circuit. 

But by 1979, Arntson was in Nashville. 

He never left, though he has returned almost annually to his native Pelican area and has maintained contacts and friendships. In fact, old bandmates from the Twin Cities and the Fargo-Moorhead area are expected to journey to Pelican Rapids for the May 6 event. 

“I have very tight bonds up there,” said Arntson.  

Who knows which Arntson ‘character’ will take stage in Pelican?

As a “resort rat” growing up on Pelican Lake, Bruce Arntson developed into a water ski showman—performing with the area ski club, locally and in a three-state area. He won a state contest title for youth “ski tricks.” His parents owned the small, three-cabin “El’s Resort” on the south side of Pelican Lake. This ski show flyer, about 1969, shows Arntson at about age 14-15; foot on one ski—with the tow rope on his other foot.

Nashville may not be the only inspiration for his country-western satire. Between his childhood as a “resort kid,” his school sock-hop engagements, and small town, main street Pelican—some of his material may have been inspired by his hometown. His parents were Florence and Elvin, who managed the Park Region Co-op and owned a small resort on the side—another likely source of rural humor. 

So—which Bruce Arntson will show up in Pelican May 6? 

The grown-up version or a Pelican Lake “beach rat?”

A keyboard-playing musician? 

A genuine Nashville songwriter?

Or the satirical version of a country star? 

Or the washed-up honky tonk singer Doyle?

Only Bruce Arntson knows for sure…And for spectators to find out.

Bruce “Doyle” Arntson’s country-western satire stage show kept him busy for 14 years in Nashville, on TV and around the world

Bruce Arntson and Jenny Littleton first performed their award-winning country music satire “The Doyle and Debbie Show” in 2006 above a coffee shop near Belmont University in Nashville. A year later, they set up shop in a legendary Nashville bluegrass club, where they performed nearly every week for 14 years. 

One writer described the show as “like Spinal Tap with a twang, and it manages to tweak and tickle without ever denigrating country music.” 

“…a gloriously tacky send-up of a washed-up country duo,” wrote the New York Times. 

“…hilarious. Drop-dead funny,” was the conclusion of the Chicago Tribune.

Some of the same wit and satire can be expected when Arntson brings his new, “work in progress” stage show to Pelican May 6—which will essentially be his debut. 

Doyle and Debbie appeared three times on Conan O’Brien and performed all over the world, including an 8-month stint in Chicago’s Royal George Theatre, for which they were awarded Chicago’s top theatrical honor for best musical.

Pelican Rapids native Bruce Arntson as “Doyle” and Jen Littleton as “Debbie” performed a satirical comedy act that “raised lowbrow Southern culture to the level of something approaching art,” wrote one reviewer. The show was headquartered in Nashville, but did travel—including a Fargo engagement that attracted his local and area friends and family.

Doyle and Debbie were also an act on Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise, for more than a decade. He continued to write, produce, and perform in theater, TV, and film in Nashville, New York, and LA, as well as in the UK and Australia.

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