Eldo Kanikkeberg, Trolley's `Singing Motorman' Who Gave Joy To Many

Seattle's waterfront trolley won't be the same. Eldo Kanikkeberg, the "singing motorman," is dead.

But somehow the occasion seems less sad, maybe because of all the songs and all the joy Mr. Kanikkeberg gave to generations of bus and trolley riders, members of the Norwegian community, and the public at large.

"He was a very happy person. He liked to tell jokes, he liked to laugh. If he could make people laugh, or bring them joy by playing his accordion, that was his thing," his wife, Carol, said yesterday.

Mr. Kanikkeberg died Thursday, doing what he loved best: singing, telling jokes and entertaining an audience, in this case a Norwegian fraternal organization at the Norse Home on Phinney Ridge.

Mrs. Kanikkeberg said her husband died either from a blood clot on his lung or a massive heart attack. Doctors were not yet sure which, she said. He was 64.

Mr. Kanikkeberg's reputation as Seattle's singing motorman spread far and wide.

Metro officials noted Mr. Kanikkeberg was featured in travel films and articles published as far away as Japan and Australia. He appeared as a guest on local public radio and even was featured in a special satellite program beamed around the world from his streetcar during the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle.

The late Harre Demoro, a former historian and transportation writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, once wrote about Mr. Kanikkeberg's musical exploits for a publication in Australia,

explaining in ample detail how the Seattle streetcar operator would regale "unsuspecting tourists" with songs and good humor.

City Councilman George Benson recalled how other Australian papers had a field day picking up on the Eldo Kanikkeberg story, musing about what a voice Mr. Kanikkeberg must have had.

"He was the personality of the system, no doubt about it," said Benson, who with the late Charles Peterson, a waterfront businessman, and the late Robert Hively, a Seattle meatcutter and railroad buff, are credited with giving birth to the trolley system, whose antique cars originally operated in Melbourne, Australia.

Benson said he knew Mr. Kanikkeberg years before he was elected to the City Council or before Mr. Kanikkeberg picked up his moniker as the "singing motorman." Mr. Kanikkeberg used to live across the street from Benson's Mission Pharmacy on Capitol Hill and was a customer back in the early 1950s, said Benson.

"He was fun-loving. He also was a generous, generous person," said Benson. He and Mr. Kanikkeberg used to team up, Benson on the baritone and Mr. Kanikkeberg on accordion, to play Christmas carols at the Millionair Club charity in downtown Seattle.

Mr. Kanikkeberg was born Jan. 27, 1929, in Maddock, N.D. His mother, Amelia Stenerodden Kanikkeberg, died right after his birth. He grew up on a farm and was raised by his paternal grandmother and a widowed aunt. His father, Ervin, played clarinet and saxophone, and his uncle, Sigrud Kanikkeberg, played violin, piano, and sang. "He (Sigrud) was about like Eldo, a happy-go-lucky guy. Anything with strings on it he could play. Neither he nor Eldo had a lesson in their lives," said Mrs. Kanikkeberg.

Mr. Kanikkeberg first started off playing the guitar as a child, then he got a little accordion. He learned everything by ear.

As he grew older, he continued his love of music and entertaining. He attended Minot State Teachers College in North Dakota, married his high-school sweetheart, Carol, then served in the Army during the Korean War, attaining the rank of sergeant first class.

During the war, Mrs. Kanikkeberg moved to Seattle to look for work and to be closer to her sister in Marysville and brother in Bothell.

When the war ended, Mrs. Kanikkeberg, who was doing clerical work for Pacific Northwest Bell, convinced her husband to remain in Seattle. He applied for work at the Post Office, Boeing and Metro. "Metro called first," Mrs. Kanikkeberg said.

From the start, while driving bus route No. 30 from Ballard to Laurelhurst, Mr. Kanikkeberg would burst into song as he drove. And at Christmastime, he would dress up as Santa Claus and hand out candy canes to the youngsters along his route, traditions he continued when he switched to the waterfront trolley when it began operating in May 1982.

Twice, Mr. Kanikkeberg was selected as Operator of the Month by Metro - in September 1979 and August 1985. He was named Operator of the Year in 1986. With more than 40 years service at Metro, he was among a handful of the most senior operators in the transit system.

Last year, he won an audition to appear on actor-comedian Bill Cosby's remake of the old Groucho Marx television game show, "You Bet Your Life." However, the show was canceled before Mr. Kanikkeberg was called to appear, said Mrs. Kanikkeberg.

At home, Mr. Kanikkeberg was remembered as a father who "was certainly there all the time to support whatever we did," said his younger son, Neil Kanikkeberg, 36, of Redmond.

He was a Little League baseball coach for the Wallingford Boys Club for 15 years, and also coached basketball for the club, said Neil.

And he paid homage to his Norwegian roots, performing countless engagements for the Norwegian community throughout the Puget Sound region, his family said. In fact, he performed so much in Ballard that many people thought he lived there, said Mrs. Kanikkeberg. The family actually lived in Wallingford.

Mr. Kanikkeberg often composed his own lyrics to well-known tunes. When he collapsed and died last week at Norse Home, he had been singing, "Home, home on the fjords," to the tune of "Home on the Range," said Mrs. Kanikkeberg.

In addition to his wife of almost 46 years, Mr. Kanikkeberg is survived by his two sons, Jay, 39, of Bellevue, and Neil, and four granddaughters.

A funeral service has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Zion American Lutheran Church, 2102 N. 40th St.