Music to Her Ears

‘Rita Marie at KSTP’ looks back on Sunset Valley Barn Dance.
Andrescik on Barn Dance

Rita Andrescik has been wowing them ever since kindergarten. “I would sing anytime someone would listen,” she says. “Music has been my whole life. I can’t remember when it wasn’t.”

Over the years, Andrescik’s voice has led her on a mellifluous journey of high notes, including a stint on an early Twin Cities television show.

Before that, though, she wanted to be an opera singer. The “Nordeast girl,” now a grandmother of three living with her second husband in Eden Prairie, was studying music education at the Minneapolis College of Music in 1955 when she got a call. It was the late David Stone, producer and host of the popular Saturday night Sunset Valley Barn Dance on KSTP-TV, a country music show similar to the Grand Ole Opry.

Barn Dance launched as a KSTP radio show in 1940, moving to television in 1948. Stone wanted Andrescik to sing country, something she had never considered. But, she says, Stone was looking for someone who could sing “a little different from the rest” of the cast.

She got the part-time job, performing four times a week around her class schedule. “The TV show was like a college class,” she says. “You had to learn new stuff quickly all the time.”

For her two years as a Barn Dance regular, Andrescik sang hymns and “sweet” songs like Dinah Shore did at the time.  “I didn’t sing real twangy stuff,” she recalls. One problem—her last name. Stone wanted to make it easier for viewers to spell it in fan letters, so she took her middle name as her last and became Rita Marie on air. “I always called myself ‘Rita Marie of KSTP,’” she says.

Andrescik also performed on two Barn Dance spin-off shows—Main Street and her own morning show for about a year, Rita and the Gang. Having her own show was fun, but waking up at the same time as the milkman, she says, was not. During the summer, the troupe performed in small towns. She made $10 for each Barn Dance and out-of-town show, and $5 for each noon and morning show. “It was like I should be paying them,” she says. “We performed at the State Fair for the noon show every day, and I would walk on the streets, and people would want my autograph.”

Eventually, Andrescik left, and the show went off the air in the late 1950s. “Music changed, times changed,” she says. “When I was on the Barn Dance, it was the biggest thing in town. That was the only thing on television. That and the (professional baskebtall team) Lakers (before moving to Los Angeles).” In the end, country music won her over. “I have a hard time deciding which I like better: opera or country,” she says. “Singing with Barn Dance made me love country.”

Andrescik later performed with the Schieks Singing Sextet, singing show tunes at Schieks Cafe, a trendy supper club at the time in Minneapolis, where Andrescik met and married her first husband, Mike Wisniewski. The couple worked three shows the night of their wedding. “You couldn’t have two from a sextet gone,” she says.

The couple teamed up in the 1960s as the song-and-dance act, Rita and Mike Warren, mostly performing locally. For two years, the duo traveled to gigs in such places as Los Angeles, Tucson, and Medora, N.D. She enjoyed the singing but grew tired of the road, especially with two young sons. Eventually, they split up the act and divorced.

After needing a cornea transplant in the early 1970s, Andrescik turned to teaching music. She eventually landed at her alma mater, Edison High School, in northeast Minneapolis. In all, she taught for 23 years before retiring in 1995. She never regretted leaving television. “I was performing right at school, and I was helping kids,” she says. “I loved my job.”

Andrescik has been singing for 10 years with The Somewhat Dixieland Band. She and her fellow eight musicians play Dixieland music at senior residences and church gatherings. Andrescik loves being back on stage. “It means I can still do it,” she says. “I feel like I still have it.”