Monday, June 13, 2005

Stupid Band Director Tricks

(Originally run 12/17/03 on our old site)

Ernest Simpson

One of the most seemingly cruel and cold-blooded, mean groups of people, at times, towards each other are band directors. Each has stories to tell of what they have done to each other and practical jokes pulled, along with many pranks. All in a good and friendly spirit, but with the help of the students in many cases. Sometimes this involved the students or even maybe stunts pulled on the students. A couple of brief notes come to mind:

I had a majorette in my band once that always wanted to twirl fire, and after saying no many times, I finally gave in. When she caught her uniform on fire in the half time performance, I was doing the announcing, and just acted like that was part of the show. Of course, I had safety measures on the sideline, and there was no injury, just hurt feelings and embarrassment. There’s nothing like being shot with a fire extinguisher in front of the home crowd.

I was a guest director one summer at band camp at Arkansas Tech, when one inebriated director came back to his dorm room late one evening. The old dormitory had hardwood floors, so some of his director friends decided to teach him a lesson and, using thumbtacks, tacked his clothes to the floor, where he had decided to sleep. Imagine his surprise when he awoke and tried to get up.

Bill Laas, our wonderful band director early in my life, enjoyed a practical joke. He loved to invite friends as guest conductors for concerts, and scheme with the band to ‘pull one’ on the guest, if the guest, of course, was a good sport.

Too bad if they weren’t.

Bill was a true showman, and his “William Tell” halftime show was a classic. I still remember the giant paper mache’ apple that had a huge arrow pop out when the signal was given to shoot the apple off Wm. Tell’s son’s head. The arrow was spring loaded and each end came out of the apple with the pull of a string. The ‘fired’ arrow disappeared into a long sleeve as the other arrow simultaneously popped from the apple.

The great Ralph Hale, director of the Christian Brothers College Band in Memphis, was a frequent visitor to Searcy. Ralph came to Christian Brothers in 1947 and taught there until 1988. After a few years, he started the Christian Brothers High School Band. He is the only high school director ever inducted into the American Bandmasters Association, whose members consisted of only college and university directors. He, along with the very talented Bill Laas, were a good pair of showmen.

Being good friends, Bill invited Ralph to be guest conductor of the Searcy Band at spring concert.

Word is, Bill had been guest conductor the year before for the Christian Brothers Band, and Ralph concocted the following with the band: as Bill was conducting the march, he loved to end the last measure of the trio with a flourish of the baton, wheel and step off the podium and do a sweeping bow. Ralph told the band that, when Bill stepped off the podium, they were to go immediately back to the last strain of the march and begin playing again.

The trap is set.

Last note of the trio, Bill pivots off, bows, the audience begins applause, and the band starts up again. To keep from looking like an idiot, Bill jumped back on the podium and began conducting again, as though it were on purpose. Well, the band did it twice, and twice, he jumped back on the podium and started conducting again. Finally it was over, and everyone had a great laugh.

So, in the spring of 1953 Ralph came to Searcy, and Bill Laas and the Searcy Band lay in wait.

Bill took his creativity, enlisted the help of a couple of senior boys in the band, and borrowed some tools from Luther Hardin. They modified the conductor’s podium by boring several ¾ inch holes in the surface, and ran an extension cord attached to a hot plate under the podium. Sitting on the hot plate was a pan of water, and mixed in was a whole jar of Vicks Vaporub.

He also made a conductor’s baton of paraffin, and attached a handle.

The trap is set.

The date is March 17, 1953, and the rivalry for one-up-manship was heating up, so to speak. The concert went well, and the water and Vicks were heating up. The vapors started up through the holes when Ralph came to the podium for his portion of the program.

In the middle of the last piece as he was conducting, the vapors became overwhelming. Fumes came up though and rose up and blended with the heat and lights of the stage. Tears started, and the wax baton started to wobble. Ralph was choking but managed to get through the piece. When he stepped off the podium, wiping the tears from his eyes, the front row of the band was getting the full effect of the Vicks, as well: the flutes and oboes were getting as much as the director. Paula Windsor, Martha Jenkins, and Carolyn Walker had stopped playing long ago. The first row of clarinets, Larry Killough and Jimmy Chandler, braved on through.

Our little class of future ’57 had no problems, since we sat so far back in the group; besides we hardly had a clue what was going on anyway.

When the piece was over, Mr. Laas explained what was going on, and the audience got a good laugh. Revenge at last.

I recall in a concert once we had a rubber duck and feathers in a box above the stage and someone shot a blank from a shotgun during one of the pieces, and the fake duck and feathers fell from above the curtains. It may have been during the same concert, I can’t remember. Bill Laas loved to have fun with the kids, and proved it by leaving a memorable legacy of love of music and memories for many who were fortunate to have known him.

As a side note, I was asked to serve on a judging panel for which Ralph’s Christian Brothers Band performed in contest in 1980 and, at the time, his groups had received First Division ratings for twenty-six years in a row. Dear reader, you don’t think this judge would be anxious to be the first to award anything less than the top rating to this band after a record like that, do you? Along with Bill Laas, I had known this man since Junior High. I prayed that the band would play well and, truly, they were flawless.

Tom Pry points out many of the great successes of Bill Laas: our teacher, composer, inventor (Thum-Eze for sore clarinet player thumbs,) musician .. and friend. Belwin-Mills publishing company published many of his pieces. Bill was the director of the Michigan City (Indiana) Junior High music program for many years, before his retirement.

Inveterate Prankster Posted by Hello

Tom Pry

Before you ask what a high-powered guy like Bill Laas was doing in a junior high school, let me briefly mention a fellow you never heard of, Stan Ciciora. I decided to join the large, very active community band in Naples, Florida, many moons ago. Stan was directing it at the time and, after my first rehearsal with the group, I said, “Stan, you’re really good. What in hell are you doing in a JUNIOR high school?”

He got a rather embarrassed look on his face, thanked me for the compliment, then added, “Remember this, though: if I’m as good as you seem to think I am, then that’s exactly where I belong because, in junior high, is where I’m either going to make ‘em or break ‘em.”

Not too terribly much later, my children went through Stan’s hands in junior high, and I realized the 100% accuracy of what he said: both kids became outstanding musicians, thanks to Stan.

As for Bill Laas memories, I’ll always remember the halftime show he put together in the fall of 1953. It had a circus motif, capped by Drum Major Larry Maness seeming to throw some very large and wicked-looking knives at one of the majorettes.

The majorette (sorry, I don’t remember which one) was outlined in balloons, standing in front of a large box, looking appropriately frightened as Larry would bring his arm back, take careful aim, and then toss the knife. A balloon would pop, and there would be the knife, sticking in the panel next to her, quivering from the impact as the majorette quivered in fear.


What was actually happening here was that, when Larry would release that “knife,” a set of strong rubber bands would pull it instantly back up into his sleeve. At the same time, one of our band members hidden in the box would release the retaining pin on an identical-looking “knife,” one with a pin projecting from end of the “handle.” When released, the knife lookalike, spring-loaded, with great force would pop out of the front of the panel, breaking the balloon with the pin … and looking for all the world as if Maness had picked up knife throwing skills during his checkered growing-up years.

Impressive as hell .. ingenious as could be .. and one of many lasting memories we have, compliments of the late -- and missed -- Bill Laas.


Post a Comment

<< Home