Tuesday, May 03, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 15

Chapter Ten

Tom Pry

Band Daze

Most of us involved in this memory-chasing scheme seem to have also been involved in the Searcy High School Band at one time or another. I have a feeling that is coincidence, fueled by the fact that, whether we particularly liked each other or not, we spent more time with each other than was the case with most SHS student groups.

When the Searcy School District became a consolidated one, and all those one and two-room country schools were closed up and their students now bused into town, the high school band started growing into a powerhouse. Originally housed in a room of its own at the east end of the old high school building, the band quickly outgrew those quarters (subsequently turned into two classrooms) and moved to a building it shared with the cafeteria, down the hill from the high school, at the corner of Moore.

By the time I came into the musical picture, in the fall of 1953, it took four or five buses and a truck to get the band to its gigs.

Besides being an excellent musician and teacher, William “Bill” Laas was a well-known arranger and music instructional book writer. His publisher, Belwin, still has some 30 of his reed (clarinet, sax, etc.) instructional books in its catalog.

Bill Laas Posted by Hello
Bill had also worked out a system of arranging that made the songs sound decent no matter what the size or composition of the band. This made it possible for him to put together a couple of sets of books that gave any band, whether tiny or immense, a sound that was pretty good, with a decent repertoire. Few marching bands in the country were without it in the 50’s.

Bill was the one who wrote our “signature” arrangement, the St. Louis Blues March, with which we invariably entered the field, around a hundred strong. (Well, alright, it was a cop off the Glenn Miller arrangement, but it worked). It never failed to bring the crowd to its feet.

Bill also used a select number of us as what he called his “lab band,” where he’d try out his newest arrangements, then record them to accompany the manuscript when he sent them to his publisher.

Bill had quite a cottage industry going: the entire Laas family was involved, Bill’s wife, Cecil (no, that’s not a typo) cheering us on, as their daughter, little golden-haired Sandy, performed as a “mascot” majorette. Kid was an excellent twirler, even in grammar school, and she kept right up with “the big girls.” And why not, since the improbably-named Cecil Laas was also the very same person who trained the teen twirlers.
Bill Laas was kind of gruff type, and hyper on the subject of musicianship, while Al English gave the impression of being a little more laid-back and easygoing. That appearances were deceiving is a given, but it makes it funnier than Al was the one who was into precision “marching” halftime shows, and Bill the guy who dreamed up the glitzy “vaudeville” shows.

One of my favorite stories, and one in which I was NOT the participant, comes from 1950, when the SHS band was invited to appear in the Cotton Bowl. Anita Hart Fuller recalls the kids getting white coveralls with SHS Band embroidered on the back.

“Those coveralls were bought by everyone to wear as a sort of non-official uniform -- when we went to the Cotton Bowl, in 1950 (according to Bob, and I think he's right). I didn't buy any but wore Bob's - with ‘Bobby Scott’ embroidered on the left side. My most vivid remembrance of the Cotton Bowl was seeing the entertainer, Frank Sinatra ... who was married to Ava Gardner at that time. The reason I can remember THAT is that we all had favorite movie stars, and JoAnn Hubble's was Ava Gardner.”

What caused that trip to stick in my mind had nothing to do with Frank Sinatra OR Ava Gardner. Instead, it had to do with a vitamin supplement called “Hadacol.”

You must understand that most of the south at that time was “dry,” in terms of alcohol. In the few places it was legally available, booze existed under a set of rather strange rules. For instance, in White County, we were a “damp” county, meaning that, with the proper licensing, you could sell beer and DOMESTIC wine (but none of that-there frenchie stuff, hyeah?). You could buy hard liquor by the bottle in Pulaski County (Little Rock and environs) but, if you wanted to buy a cocktail in a bar or restaurant, you had to take your bottle with you and purchase “set-ups” from the establishment; i.e. your $2.00 mixer.

But a vitamin supplement, even if it was 5% vitamins and 95% drinking grade alcohol, well, that was medicinal, don’t you see? It might’ve tasted like hell, but it would give you a buzz. Best of all, you didn’t go to a bar or bootlegger for it: you bought it at the drug store, and what could be wrong with that?

It was a VERY big seller in the sunny, if hypocritical, south and, the drier the county, the more Hadacol was sold there.

(Note for those alcoholics living in our now-dry county: I don’t think they’re still making the stuff).

Well, Bill Laas had put together a half-time show for the SHS band to use in the Cotton Bowl, a show that featured a dancing Hadacol box. As I got the story, two weeks after the band got back from Dallas, a check came in the mail, addressed to the band. The check was for the nice, quite appreciable amount of $1500, and was accompanied by a note: “Thanks for the free national advertising.”

It went into our perpetually-starving uniform fund.

I can’t confirm the truth of this story, but it’s MY story and I’m going to stick to it until someone proves differently.

One of the most exciting things to happen during my 3-year tenure with the band was when we finally reached the critical mass to INSIST, as a condition of our participation in the Arkansas State Fair Parade, that we march IN FRONT of the horses, not behind them.

This was no small concession, since we all had to clean our own shoes.

Then there was the year we hosted the District Band Festival.

This event brought in bands to do a short concert, two numbers apiece as I recall, a march and a concert piece, one band after another, on a pretty tight schedule. Three judges wrote up what could be sometimes be quite acid comments on each band’s – and director’s -- performance.

Our judges, all acquaintances of our band director, were ensconced in the balcony of the high school auditorium: one sitting in the middle of the front row, the other two at each end of that row, the idea being that they were supposed to make their judgments independently.

As part of their equipment, the participating bands were required to supply three manila envelopes, each containing photocopies of the directors’ score to the music they were performing, one envelope per judge, so they could see if the band was faithfully following the arranger/composer’s intentions.

As the host band, Searcy appeared first on the schedule, eight in the morning, so we could be free to greet and organize our guests through the rather hectic day.

Nervous? Yes. Being judged will do that to you. Things relaxed a bit when one of the judges called from the balcony, “Al, would you have your band play a couple of choruses of THIS?”

“THIS,” as he held it up in his perch, was the centerfold from a brand new publication: Playboy Magazine, which most of us had heard of, but few of us had seen. Al English had, from somewhere, procured three copies and had slid the centerfolds into the judges’ envelopes, along with the musical scores.

And, before you panic, Playboy was much, MUCH tamer when it first started publication. Besides, you can’t make out a lot of details when you’re on the stage and the object of your attention is in the balcony, even if you ARE your typical testosterone-laden teenage boy.

We band kids were miraculously lucky during the “golden decade” of which I primarily write. In Bill Laas and Al English we had two guys who made music both fun and self-disciplined. The standards they set were high, but they were not stingy in letting us know when we’d attained them.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the things we learned from those two men in our youths are things that have stuck with us all through our lives, right up to now.

Which deserves a closing comment dedicated to Bill and Al.

In this day of escalating assistant superintendent salaries and, consequently, tightening budgets for everything else, there are noises about removing band, choir, fine art, and other such “non-productive” courses from the curriculum. Both my children were superb musicians (better than me, if the truth be told), but neither of them has ever attempted to make a living at it.

Was it time and money wasted? Not a bit. Both of them have achieved well in life, and I lay a major part of it on their band director down in Naples, Florida, Jerome Edwards, who was cast in the mold of Bill and Al. He insisted on discipline, he rewarded accomplishment, and he set a high standard in daily comportment and achievement.

Studies in recent years have shown that “band kids” display higher student citizenship and better study habits than children never exposed to music. If we let the “Readin’, Writin’, and ‘Rithmetic only” crowd yank music out of the curricula of our schools, not only will we be the poorer for it but, more importantly, so will our children and grandchildren.

That would be a lousy legacy for us graduates of the Bill Laas/Al English/Jerome Edwards School of Musical Citizenship to leave.

Remember that, next time the subject comes up.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


Post a Comment

<< Home