Saturday, November 7, 2009

John Philip Sousa Comes to Brooklyn

Woody Allen used to tell a joke about being in a marching band when he was in school, and how it was the band's dream to stay together after school and play lounges. It reminded me, as unlikely as it may seem for a poor kid from Brooklyn, of my days as a member of the marching band in Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school back in the 1950s. Looking back, I can't figure out how a school that charged practically nothing for tuition could afford to support a full-blown marching band with instruments, uniforms, and a band manager. I imagine our parents must have kicked in something, but it couldn't have been much since most of them were struggling just to make ends meet.

The band was something to behold. We had a full horn section (bugles, trombones, French horns and tubas, flutes, glockenspiels (a kind of portable xylophone), snare drums, base drums, standard bearers, baton twirlers and a drum major. Our uniforms were blue satin blouses with white trim, white pants with a blue stripe, and white hats (called shakos I believe) with a gold crest. The band manager, whose name I can't recall, was a dapper looking man with a Boston-Blackie moustache. He was married to a stunning blonde who showed up at all practice sessions, which accounted for our band's nearly perfect attendance record.

The band members were drawn from the kids in school, from fifth graders on up. We were asked what instruments we wanted to play, and somehow they taught us enough music to get by. I played what looked like a trumpet, but was actually called a bugle. It had a single valve parallel to the horn bell, unlike the trumpet which has three valves on top. I can still recall the beautiful, shiny horn sitting in its case with the blue velvet lining. We were responsible for maintaining our instruments, and mine always gleamed. I liked the smell of the Noxon metal polish my mother kept in the house for cleaning our imitation silver dinner wear.

We would march in local parades, mostly in Brooklyn. Once in a while we would get a gig out of the area, and all pile in a bus to visit these exotic places. I think we may have also competed against other school bands but I'm fuzzy about that. We had a limited musical repertoire, but all marching band songs sound alike after the first few numbers. We practiced in the school gym, learning not only how to play our instruments, but also how to march in formation...a skill which came in handy later in life during my army days. I can recall playing our blockbuster, a song called "The Thunderer" by John Philip Sousa, a marching band classic. Here it is sounding a lot better than when we played it.
YouTube - The Thunderer March by John Philip Sousa


My music career was pretty remarkable when you think about it. Not so much for my playing ability, which was just fair, but the fact that at a time when money was scarce, my little school somehow found a way to sponsor such a grand enterprise. It is mainly owing to a Catholic school's ability (even to this day) to squeeze three nickles out of a dime, that inner-city kids like me even had a chance to join a marching band. I think to save money, the church paid off our band leader in "plenary indulgences". (For non-Catholics this was a kind of "get out of jail free" card for any stretch you had to do in Purgatory before ascending into Heaven.)


I was a lucky kid. There were many good men and women like our band manager, the teachers who ran our summer day camp, the coaches of all our athletic teams, and the neighborhood librarians who suggested books to read...these good people gave their time for little compensation so that kids could be off the streets and out of trouble. They challenged our bodies and our minds to make us better, and in retrospect, I am so grateful. If it was within my power, I would grant them ALL a plenary indulgence so they could take the Easy Pass lane straight to Heaven.



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3 comments:

The Whiner said...

i thought you were going to start with Woody Allen's line from "Take the Money and Run" when he describes his job as "a cellist in a marching band." Who knew you had a marching band at school?

Jim Pantaleno said...

It's not something you'd expect in a small Catholic grammar school, but marching bands were fairly popular at Brooklyn schools. It gave the kids something to do besides steal hub caps. It was great fun.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

what was, the hub caps or the marching?