By JOHN SKIPPER
The story of the North Iowa Band Festival is one that began long ago:
Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States. Babe Ruth had just hit 60 home runs in one season for the New York Yankees. Charles Lindbergh was a national hero for his solo nonstop flight from New York to Paris. And in the small farm town of Mason City, Iowa, city officials were making plans to celebrate an anniversary with a little band music. Bandfest 1936
That is how it all began. The gala event of Band Festival started humbly, grew rapidly, and has had touches of Broadway and Hollywood over the years.
But the underlying theme has always been the same: The harmony of wholesome entertainment for young and old alike.
The first band festival was held in 1928 in observance of Mason City’s 75th anniversary. There weren’t many high school bands back in those days but the festival was held nonetheless. Five out-of-town high school bands joined the Mason City High School band to provide music for the anniversary celebration
Eight years later, the Iowa Bandmasters Association held its annual meeting in Mason City and again, it was decided a band festival should be held. The 1936 festival was equally as delightful as its predecessor … and three times as big!
Eighteen bands participated.
The success of the 1936 Band Festival prompted organizers and other citizens to plan a similar event the following year. Thus, in 1937, the second successive festival was held, the third overall … and a tradition was born, a tradition that in the next half-century was to include the likes of Meredith Willson and the cast of a Hollywood movie, and thousands upon thousands of high school musicians.
There have been many memories – Meredith Willson grabbing a drum major’s baton and leading the parade; premiere of the Music Man movie; the Iowa State Lottery holding a special lottery drawing in Central Park to highlight the 50th anniversary in 1988; the moving of festivities to spacious East Park in 1992; the scramble in 1993 to move everything back downtown because East Park was flooded; a torrential rainstorm that soaked everything … and everybody … in the 1996 parade; the addition of kings joining queens as high school royalty in 1997 – but we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.
The 1938 festival featured 47 bands and was held in conjunction with the centennial of the Territory of Iowa. Another tradition got started that year … the crowning of a Band Festival queen. The first was Shirley Morgan of Sheffield, Iowa.
The popularity of the annual festival continued to grow, and in 1941, 56 bands participated, the second year in a row that more than 50 bands had been on hand.
Six months after that festival … and thousands of miles from Mason City … Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor and America was plunged into World War II. The annual Band Festival, like most other activities in this country, was affected. A festival was held in 1942 but none were held for the next three years.
In 1946, the Band Festival returned, this time held in conjunction with the centennial of Iowa’s statehood. (It seems like Iowa’s history and music are never far apart … and Mason City is an important link that helps bind them together.)
It was altogether fitting … and probably not altogether coincidental that the resumption of the festival came in the same year that Lester Milligan of Mason City was chairman of the State Centennial Committee. Milligan was a founding father of the original Band Festival way back in 1928.
The first post-World War 11 festival was a five-day celebration that included participation by the military: The United States Army Band began a 10-day Iowa tour by participating in the Band Festival.
The festival was becoming more and more linked with important events: The 1928 festival, grand-daddy of them all, helped commemorate Mason City’s 75th anniversary. The 1938 festival helped pay tribute to the centennial of the Territory of Iowa. Now, just eight years later, the centennial of Iowa’s statehood was being saluted.
Music and history continued their happy marriage in when Mason City celebrated its 100th birthday … and 100 bands from throughout the land participated in the 15th festival. One hundred bands! And native son Meredith Willson, by now a successful songwriter, participated in the 1953 festival, adding his special touch of enthusiasm as he had in three of the past five festivals.
In the next decade, Willson’s fame would soar, and with it, a new name would be applied to the hometown that he loved: “River City.”; Willson, whose work “The Music Man” ran on Broadway for 1,376 performances, would return to Mason city many times to have some good old-fashioned hometown fun … at the North Iowa Band Festival.
And about that new nickname: The Mason City Globe Gazette of June 6, 1958, proudly proclaimed in its banner headline:
5,000 Musicians Take Over River City
One of the highlights of the ’58 festival was the “76 Trombones” entourage led by … who else? … Willson
As described by William J. Petersen, writing for the State Historical society 10 years later:
“This spectacular unit, made up of 203 musicians including 11 tubas and 11 drums, was selected from 22 of the participating school bands. The bands were arranged in alphabetical order by towns, headed in each instance by a queen candidate riding in a convertible … Floats were interspersed between every third or fourth band. The last 12 floats in the procession were the special ‘Music Man’ floats which told the story of Meredith Willson’s musical comedy hit in colorful tableaux.”
As had been the custom for several years, the culmination of the festival was the amassing of all the bands … all 87 of them in this year … on the high school football field (Roosevelt Field) for a mass concert under the guidance of a guest conductor.
1950If, in 1958, the Band Festival gave its regards to Broadway … or was it vice versa? … then it can be safely said that four years later, the festival shouted, “Hooray for Hollywood!”
And at the forefront once again was Meredith Willson
By now “The Music Man” had been made into a movie and Warner Brothers announced that the film would premiere in “River City” on June 19, 1962.
The man who was “The Music Man” of stage and screen, Robert Preston, would be on hand, as would co-star Shirley Jones. She later starred in the television series “The Partridge Family” and has appeared in many other movies, stage plays and television shows. But she will always be remembered in Mason City as “Marian the Librarian.”
Of course, Willson came too … and so did Arthur Godfrey, who served as master of ceremonies for the premiere, which was televised.
Godfrey may not be a household name to current generations, but in 1962 he was as well known to television audiences as David Letterman is today.
Right in the middle of all the excitement was the 24th North Iowa Band Festival. Bands from all 50 states were invited. That made competition keen for the honor of being selected as the best band in the festival. Prizes included a national tour for the winner.
Hazel Flynn of the Hollywood (Cal.) Citizen-News was in Mason City to report on the spectacle. She wrote: “Over a thousand trombones, instead of just 76, split the air over Mason City today as this town threw a lollapalooza of a dual celebration … the first national competitive marching band festival and the world premiere of Warner Brothers’ film of Meredith Willson’s Broadway hit, ‘The Music Man.’
“I doubt if Mason City or Willson will ever forget this day. Nor will this writer, if only because she got to see the corn growing again, sat under huge, dark green shade trees and on velvety lawns, and smelled the wonderful scent of the meadows and clover … and when this disciplined and talented young America proudly paraded with heads high, playing beautiful music, much of it patriotic, something said to us, ‘Don’t worry, all is well with our youth.’
A total of 121 bands participated in that memorable festival, with the musicians from Lockport Township High School in Illinois taking top honors. Second place went to Bossier City, Louisiana; third place to Lebanon, Pennsylvania; fourth to Plainview, Texas; and fifth to Sidney Lanier High School of Montgomery, Alabama.
In 1968, the 30th Band Festival was held, and once again Meredith Willson returned to lend a helping hand. But a little band from a nearby city that had recently endured tragedy stole the show.
On May 15, 1968, a tornado ripped through Charles City in neighboring Floyd County, and much of the town was in ruins. Somehow, the high school had been spared.
Despite the troubles at home, Charles City High School band members voted unanimously to participate in the North Iowa Band Festival less than a month later.
Understandably, not all band members could come. As Band Director Robert Gower explained at the time: “Several of our members have construction jobs as a result of the tornado, and could not be here.”
The next 20 years saw subtle changes in the Band Festival, most brought on by changing times. In the 1970s and 80s, gone were the days of 100 or more bands participating.
School districts were merging, creating one school where there had once been two, and dwindling school resources made lengthy travel a luxury many districts could not afford.
Still, fewer in numbers but no less melodic or enthusiastic, the bands played on.
In 1985 and 1986, the festival was switched to a fall date but in 1987 was returned to its traditional spring format … the first Saturday in June.
That meant that in the 1986-87 school year, there were two festivals, one in October of 1986 and one in June of 1987. So, a half-century after it all began, the festival was still experiencing “firsts” … the first time there had been two festivals in one school year!
Civic progress also prompted a slight change for the festival. No longer could bands march straight down Federal Avenue. In 1984, Southbridge Mall was built – on the parade route.
So the parade has shifted slightly, but only on concrete, not in spirit.
Also in 1984, Meredith Willson, the very life and breath of music in “River City”, passed away. He died in California but fittingly; his funeral and burial were in his beloved Mason City.
At his funeral, Mason City Mayor Ken Kew must have been remembering Willson’s fun times in his hometown’s Band Festival when he eulogized the musician known around the world this way:
“From this day forward, whenever I hear thunder rolling across the sky like timpani and bass drums, I’ll say to myself, ‘There’s Meredith. He’s leading another big parade.’
The 1987 parade, back in its June costume of summer- like temperatures and short-sleeve shirts and blouses, drew national attention once again when the Los Angeles Times paid a visit to River City
The writer told of the Meredith Willson heritage in Mason City and said: “Not surprisingly, Mason City High School has one of the top music programs in the nation and the Mason City High School band consistently ranks among the best in America.”
In 1988, the 50th Band Festival was a three-day celebration that included the spinning of the Iowa State Lottery’s giant “Million Dollar Wheel”;, televised statewide, live from Central Park in Mason City.
Also, the weekend featured a live stage show featuring North Iowa actors, actresses and musicians performing Broadway hits and jazz favorites. “Middle School Mania”, a party in the park for sixth, seventh and eighth graders with games … and, of course, lots of music, was begun in 1988.
It is this fascinating process of continuously blending the old and the new that has been a hallmark of the Band Festival from its earliest days.
Among those attending the 50th festival were Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Willson’s widow, Rosemary, and Kew, now a former mayor, who was master of ceremonies for the Band Festival Queen competition.
It was a brave “last hurrah” for Kew, who was critically ill and died of cancer a month later.
A highlight of the 1989 festivities was an appearance by Bill Haley’s Comets, named for the legendary 1950s singing-group. North Iowans “rocked around the clock” … or at least for a few hours … in a memorable Saturday night concert that prompted spontaneous “jitterbugging” by many in the audience who were caught up in the nostalgia and excitement. The second half-century of band festivals off to a rousing start!
In 1989, the illustrious event began its “Second 50 Years” by keeping with an old tradition … great music … and starting an exciting new tradition: the awarding of four $500 music scholarships to high school musicians who performed before judges to earn the scholarships.
In 1990, the unthinkable occurred: It rained! A drizzle that started shortly before the 10 a.m. start of the parade became a full-fledged downpour by the time the last of more than 100 parade entries marched down State Street.
Ventura High School queen candidate Jody Schichtl, riding in a convertible that was the 114th parade unit, said: “Right as we got into downtown, it really started to rain. My umbrella blew up, pulled me forward, and hit driver in the head.”
That’s not the only reason Jody will remember the 1990 Band Festival. Later in the day, she was crowned festival queen … creating another Band Festival first!
Her mother, Judy, was 1954 Band Festival queen, representing Corwith High School. Jody’s “coronation” in 1990 marked the first time a mother and daughter have each been crowned as queen.
Another “first” in 1990 was formation of an “alumni band,” made up of former Band Festival musicians, led by Mason City School Superintendent Dr. David Darnell.
Activities concluded with a Saturday night concert-featuring singer Ben E. King, who performed in the North Iowa Area Community College auditorium instead of in the rain-soaked park.
Band Festival music, like all music, is a mirror of the times. We look at the music and we see ourselves. Through the years, we’ve looked in that Band Festival mirror and we’ve seen Broadway and Hollywood. We’ve seen spunk and spirit. And in 1991, we saw pride and patriotism.
In the space of the year between the 1990 and ’91 festivals, America had been at war … and North Iowa had been affected deeply. The 1133rd Transportation Division of the Iowa National Guard, based in Mason City, was called to active duty by President George Bush the previous October and had been in the Persian Gulf for eight months
In Mason City and throughout the country, trees were adorned with yellow ribbons, a silent tribute to the troops overseas. Most of the people watching the 1991 Band Festival had a friend or relative serving in the Persian Gulf or knew of someone who was.
In the afternoon festivities, they were treated to a concert by the Strategic Air Command Band, a 60-piece group from Offutt Air Force Base, who saluted all the armed forces with a rousing medley of military anthems.
A year later, in 1992, the Band Festival, like a tall, gangly child outgrowing his clothes, was outfitted in a new “wardrobe.”
The new look included a new parade route … east on State Street from the downtown area; a new activities center … the spacious East Park; and new entertainment …a crafts show, a car show, music to delight people of all ages … and 3,000 root beer floats!
That’s how many were sold by volunteers manning the “Root Beer Garden” Saturday afternoon and evening.
The Band Festival Committee was busy planning for more root beer floats and all the other activities for the 1993 festival when the unthinkable happened again: it rained 23 days in May, saturating East Park.
On Wednesday, June 2, the decision was made to move the festival back downtown … to drier grounds. But in order to accomplish this, city council approval was needed for all the necessary street closings … and the law required 24- hours notice before a council meeting!
Mayor Bill Schickel convened the city council at 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 3.The council adjourned at 4:10, having approved everything necessary to move the Band Festival. At 4:30, a bandshell was being constructed downtown, and a little more than 24 hours later, thousands of North Iowans were rocking to the music of the Backstage Band and Soft Thunder as the 55th Band Festival was well under way. And by Sunday night, 4,200 root beer floats had been sold!
A highlight of the 1993 festival was presentation of the first Band Festival Service Award to 101-year-old Dan Klempnauer. Klempnauer, who had managed Damon’s Department Store downtown, was the first chairman of the festival in 1936 and served in many capacities in the festival’s early years to help get it off the ground. Nearly 60 years later a crowd of several thousand, most of them several generations younger than him, gave Klempnauer a standing ovation as he was presented with the first service award.
Rosemary Willson, Meredith’s widow, returned to Mason City in 1994 to be the grand marshal of the parade 10 years after her husband’s passing. The service award was presented to Dolores Kew, widow of Ken Kew, the former mayor and the man who had delivered such a stirring eulogy to Willson a decade earlier.
The 1995 festival was highlighted by the most popular parade unit in festival history — a spunky brass band called “Top Chops” that provided crowd-pleasing antics and interplay with the spectators as they marched and played their music. “Top Chops” also performed in the park later in the day — but their performance in the parade was so well-received that they were booked for the 1996 festival before they even left town — the first time a parade entry would ever return by popular request.
But the 1996 festival will be remembered for only one thing – the biggest rainstorm in the history of the festival that started about 20 minutes after the parade started, and lasted six hours.
Local historian Art Fischbeck, a spectator at almost every festival, said afterwards, “I’ve seen it rain before the parade, I’ve seen it rain after the parade, and it has sprinkled from time to time during the parade. Never have I seen it rain as hard or as long as it did on the parade of 1996?
As if Mother Nature was providing a “make-up call” for the rains of 1996, the festival of 1997 was blessed with bright sunshine for four days of activities, including a classical concert on Thursday night. In 1997, the Band Festival experienced another first: Kings joined queens in the annual parade. For the record, Rockford High School had elected a king beginning in 1995, but 1997 marked the first year other schools joined in.
No account of the success of the North Iowa Band Festival would be complete without some mention of the crowds it attracts. Police have said that as many as 30,000 spectators watched the parade on some festival days. A “small” crowd would be 20,000.
From its beginnings … six bands entertaining folks on the streets of Mason City in 1928 … through the incredible Meredith Willson era … to the present-day anticipation of what’s ahead, the North Iowa Band Festival has always been a crowd pleaser.
It is no wonder that William J. Petersen, writing about plans for the 25th festival in 1963, wrote:
“Everyone was looking forward to the 25th. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that there would be a 30th, a 40th and a 50th. For music is an important part of the very existence of Mason City.”
It is for that very reason that we know with certainty that there will be a 75th, an 80th, a 100th …