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Sad News for the German Community Today

‘The Kaiser’ of St. Paul’s North End dies at 70

Kaiser Bruce Larson

Bruce Larson, a self-described half-bald, half-Norwegian and half-German who likes to dress up as Kaiser Wilhelm, poses for a photograph in the dance hall of the Klub Haus on Rice Street. (Pioneer Press 2005 file)

The Kaiser has left Rice Street.

Bruce Larson, a St. Paul philanthropist and Europhile whose love of languages, history and dressing up led him to launch the city’s annual three-day Oktoberfest festival, died Wednesday night at Regions Hospital from complications related to pancreatic cancer, according to those close to him.

Affectionately known as “The Kaiser” and “Bubba,” he was 70.

“For now, we grieve and celebrate a truly beautiful and amazing figure who loved and gave so much to our community,” said St. Paul City Council Member Amy Brendmoen in a statement. “Like so many others, I am privileged to have known Bruce and to have called him a friend and I will miss him terribly.”
Larson, as Rice Street lore has it, invested his last $500 in a nonprofit home health care venture, Equity Services of St. Paul, that grew into a successful North End business.

The business employed as many as 125 in peak years in a low- to middle-income area near Rice and Maryland Avenue.

He later co-founded the North End Community Foundation, established in 2000, which has donated more than $1 million to the North End in the form of scholarships and community grants. At the Klub Haus, a German-themed event center he owned and operated, he wrapped up meetings of the North End Business Association by using his beer stein as a gavel.

He also was a benefactor to the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas, where he donated heavily to the history and language departments.

Born in River Falls, Wis., and raised from adolescence in Inver Grove Heights, Larson held degrees from the U in classic European history, psychology and chemistry — foisted on him after eight years of studies and a near-constant refusal to graduate.

“He had an affinity for the University of Minnesota — which is an understatement — so he rented rooms to U of M students,” said Jon Wiersma, who leased a bed in Larson’s North Lexington Parkway home as an undergraduate in 1984, not suspecting at the time that he would later meet his own wife, Julie, in the same house.
Larson would became the surrogate uncle and grandfather to his two tenants’ four children.

Larson, “a self-avowed bachelor,” never married, but he also became a paternal figure to one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the city at a time of rising poverty, displaying his Norwegian and Germanic roots with heavy pomp and flair.
He frequently showed up at charity races and special events dressed as the emperor of Austria, king of Prussia or a European pirate, and funded a detailed version of the historic Viennese Ball at St. Paul’s Landmark Center.

“His public persona kind of overshadowed his private life,” said Wiersma, who recalled how Larson had a penchant for breaking into song, usually “Lill

Bruce Larson, also known as “The Kaiser of Frogtown,” stands at attention as the German national anthem plays at the start of the 41st annual Deutscher Tag (Germany Day) on Sunday, June 14, 1998, at the Germanic-American Institute on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. (Pioneer Press file)

y Marlene,” in public settings, much to the surprise and delight of those present. “He was a private person, believe it or not. It was always communal meals with animated conversation at the dinner table, Christmas Eve over at his house, cooking fondue, traveling together to Europe.

 

Longtime friend and former tennis partner Tom Fashingbauer, former director of Ramsey County Human Services, said Larson had a “near-genius” IQ but lived his life as a free spirit who shrugged off social norms.

“He came across with a persona in the community of the bouffant,” Fashingbauer said. “He loved theatrics, and he almost lived half his life as a character of (19th century Austrian Emperor) Franz Joseph. He had all the helmets. He would make appearances all over the state, in fact, and in Wisconsin, dressed in this attire.”
Larson founded Oktoberfest at the Klub Haus, the event hall and wedding venue he renovated on Rice Street, until it outgrew the space and landed in downtown St. Paul’s Rice Park.

It returns for three days this September to the historic Schmidt Brewery on West Seventh Street, organized by the German American Institute with sponsorship from Summit Brewing.

The Klub Haus “was his little playhouse,” said Wiersma, who was with Larson at Regions Hospital hours before he died.

“He always wanted a venue, like a beer hall with an upstairs dance floor. It fulfilled his fantasy of actually making that dream come true — the whole Germanic flavor. And part of its flavor is to serve the community.”

A year ago, with his pancreatic cancer causing complications, Wiersma helped Larson sell his North Lexington Parkway home and move into an apartment in the same building as Equity Services, which Wiersma now operates alongside the Klub Haus.
The company’s nurses monitored his vital signs daily, but Larson rarely failed to meet with his protege each morning to review the company’s financials. At Brendmoen’s request, the St. Paul City Council named Sept. 17, 2016 “Bruce Larson Day” in the city.

On Wednesday, it became obvious Larson needed to be hospitalized.
“He was very jovial, and said something to the effect, ‘What, are you waiting around?’ We thought, we got him admitted, and tomorrow we’ll know more,” Wiersma said. “Two hours later, he died. I said to a friend, I wish you could have seen him in repose. Total peace. And did I detect a slight smile!”

A Catholic mass will be held at 1 p.m. Aug. 3 at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church off Rice Street, to be followed by an Oktoberfest-themed celebration of life at the Klub Haus. Attendees are invited to wear European period attire.

Source: Twin Cities Pioneer Press.