Steve Kramer of the Wallets dead at 59

KRISTIN TILLOTSON and PAUL WALSH | Updated 1/21/2013

The former band frontman turned advertising creative died in his sleep Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Steve Kramer, left, with playwright Kevin Kling, wrote and performed a show called "Of Mirth and Mischief" at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul in 2011.

Steve Kramer, who fronted the beloved 1980s Twin Cities band the Wallets before shifting his musical talents into the advertising world, died in his sleep while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Kramer, who formed an ad agency with the band's producer, Bob Hest, and wrote commercial music for clients including Target, was reported to be in good health before his death Saturday in his hotel room. An autopsy is pending. Kramer was 59.

The Wallets developed a loyal following in the mid-1980s and earned a mention in Newsweek with quirky songs such as the band's biggest hit, "Totally Nude," mixing New Wave sounds with polka and synth rock.

He returned to the public eye in 2011, collaborating with Twin Cities writer Kevin Kling on the holiday show "Of Mirth and Mischief." They recently teamed up again to work on "The Best Summer Ever," a new musical for Children's Theatre Company.

"Steve always took care of himself and was very health-conscious, especially of late," Hest said in a statement, noting Kramer had been sober for 33 years and even survived a three-story fall many years ago in New York while a drug addict.

"He was diligently doing bikram yoga, or "hot yoga," and he was really looking forward to completing the new show with Kevin Kling," Hest added.

Kling said Monday that he wasn't sure what will happen with the musical. "He really was the spirit of the project."

He said Kramer was the perfect composer for the show, which called for R&B, Broadway and hip-hop.

"He was so adept at so many different genres," Kling said, who last saw Kramer on Thursday before he left for Sundance.

"We would meet every Monday for the last two years," Kling said. "I'm missing him now. We just hit it off. He could just get me to laugh. ... He really had a good way of looking at the world."

'Erik the Bikeman!'

Along with Target, the Hest and Kramer agency also held accounts with JC Penney, McDonald's, Harley-Davidson, MTV and Budweiser.

One of his most well-known broadcast ads in the Twin Cities market, for Erik's Bikes, features Kramer's voice screeching "Erik the Bikeman!"

"In many ways, [Kramer] had come full circle, going back to writing songs for the stage and capturing it all splendidly after years of penning 30-second pieces," Hest said. "I don't know what I'll do without him personally and professionally."

In 1997, about eight years after the Wallets' run ended, Kramer told the Star Tribune: "I don't miss performing at all. I like recording. I would do the actual performing again if you could be dropped into the situation, but everything else -- the driving, the moving [of] equipment -- was so labor-intensive."

Kramer was born in Chicago, raised in Minneapolis and graduated from West High School. He relocated to New York, where he played keyboards with James Chance and the Contortions, a leader in the "No Wave" movement of the time.

After his Kramer returned to Minnesota and soon after formed The Wallets with Jim Clifford, Max Ray, Rod Gordon and Erik Anderson.

Family and friends recalled Kramer's kind and playful spirit.

"He had this electric aura about him," said Clifford, who had known Kramer since the sixth grade. "You could maybe put a hat on it, but you couldn't bottle it."

His sister Jennifer Kramer, with whom he was staying in Park City when he died, said that while most people know him through his music, he was "very spiritual, very loving to everybody. People would always remember him, even bank tellers and gas station attendants, because he would make them laugh."

Another sister, Phyllis Dozier, said, "This is very hard for all of us in the family and for Cathy Young, his longtime partner of 30 years. They were finally planning to get married officially."

Along with Young, Jennifer Kramer and Dozier, Kramer is survived by stepdaughter Bobbie Young, sister Jean Kramer-Johnson, mother Margaret Shryer and stepfather Davis Shryer, all of Minneapolis.

A memorial service is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, 4901 Chowen Av. S., Minneapolis.
 
[Photo: Tom Wallace]