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Tradition Plays On : L.B. Municipal Band in Crisp Form at Age 79

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The concert began with a spirited rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Next came a rousing march by John Philip Sousa.

The audience, munching chicken and sipping white wine on blankets and folding chairs, showed its appreciation by clapping hands and stomping feet.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 18, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 18, 1988 Home Edition Long Beach Part 9 Page 3 Column 1 Zones Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Singer Margie Gibson, who performed recently with the Long Beach Municipal Band at Marine Stadium, was identified incorrectly in a photo caption in last Thursday’s Southeast/Long Beach sections.

But that is where the tradition ended at this recent appearance by the Long Beach Municipal Band at the Colorado Lagoon.

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Once composed of elderly men poised stiffly in military-like uniforms, the 79-year-old band now consists of 40 youngish musicians--nearly half of them women--dressed in everything from baseball caps with jeans and polo shirts to turquoise miniskirts with black high heels. And where once the band played mainly what director Marvin Branson describes as “old orchestral transcriptions of the classics,” its repertoire now ranges from Sousa marches to modern jazz.

“What I’m doing is exactly what I think Sousa would be doing if he were here,” said Branson, 41, who teaches music at California State University, Long Beach, when he is not directing the band. “Keeping current.”

In fact, the story of the Long Beach Municipal Band entails much more than keeping current. It is the story of a renowned musical group--once touted as the only full-time city-sponsored band in the continental United States--that over the years turned feeble, barely survived a financial crunch 10 years ago, and underwent a radical reorganization to emerge with a vengeance in the 1980s in crisp form.

“We’re part of the tradition of Long Beach,” Branson said. “People want things to happen here that they can be proud of. I’d put this band up against any in the country.”

That tradition had its roots in the early part of the century when a number of local concert bands competed for attention in what was then a sleepy seaside village of 2,000. Foremost among them was the Long Beach Marine Band, a popular group that gave free concerts every day and played for dances three times a week at a charge of 25 cents per couple.

Eventually, bowing to local arguments upholding the supposed supremacy of foreign musicians, the group was supplanted by an all-Italian entourage called the Royal Italian Band, which in turn succumbed to financial pressures a few years later.

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It was then that the City Council, besieged by public sentiment, drafted an emergency ordinance “urgently required for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety” calling for the creation of an all-American municipal band. A man named E.H. Willey, who just a few months earlier had started his own band in Los Angeles, applied for the directorship and was given the job. So in March, 1909, his group--incorporated into the city’s Recreation Department--became the first Long Beach Municipal Band. Initially supported by paid subscriptions, the band began receiving public funds in 1911 after voters approved a tax to permanently maintain it on a full-time basis.

Over the years, the band’s reputation grew.

On one occasion, according to newspaper accounts, the city was visited by the great Sousa himself on tour with his own famous band. Several of Sousa’s players, the papers said, heard a performance by the new local group and later praised its abilities. One of them, star cornetist Herbert L. Clarke, eventually returned to become the Long Beach band’s third director. His 19-year tutelage brought the group some measure of national fame.

“In the old days Long Beach was known more as a band than a city,” recalled Harry Fleig, 69, who was with the group for 14 years as an oboist and later its assistant director.

Low Pay for Musicians

But there were problems. Giving free daily concerts at parks, beaches and schools, the band was highly visible. Yet its musicians, who as city employees were considered civil servants with lifetime job security, were not highly paid nor motivated. As a result, Fleig said, there was a “terrible lack of discipline,” which by the early 1970s resulted in dwindling audiences with equally dwindling musical standards.

“At its worst,” Fleig said, “the band was better than it needed to be. When everybody was disgruntled and angry and played half-heartedly, it was still accepted as adequate by the people who listened.”

Then in 1978 the ax fell. Proposition 13 slashed property taxes, creating a severe financial crunch. Initially the city decided to simply eliminate the band, which was then running on an annual budget of nearly $600,000. After residents protested, however, the City Council decided instead to continue the group on a part-time basis with a budget of $100,000.

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Since then, the annual funding has risen to $200,000, about $15,000 of which now comes from private donations, gifts and fund-raisers. But where a decade ago only about 900 people a year attended the band’s concerts, according to Branson, the group now plays to a total annual audience of 12,000. And where it used to appeal primarily to senior citizens with conservative musical tastes, he said, it now attracts wide audiences with varied, and in some cases sophisticated, interests.

“Branson has taken the band a step beyond playing safe into playing quality,” said David Barton, superintendent of program services for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Turnover of Personnel

No longer constrained by Civil Service regulations, Branson said, he was able to achieve a complete turnover of band personnel within three years of assuming the directorship in 1979. As a result, he said, today’s band consists of a more professional group of musicians who supplement their municipal band incomes by playing at various other major venues including theaters and movie studios in Los Angeles.

“The band is suddenly something that people realize is a citywide treasure,” said Barton, who oversees the group’s annual 46-concert summer series concluding this week. “Everybody wants it (in their neighborhood.)”

That certainly seemed true at the park overlooking Marine Stadium earlier this week, where hundreds of music lovers smiled and swayed to the band’s harmonious rhythms.

“I love everything they play,” said Kim Filley, a 28-year-old teacher from Westminster. “I’d rather do this than go out to a movie or dinner. There aren’t that many great things like this that are free anymore.”

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Said Doug Otto, 39, a local attorney who has been attending the outdoor concerts for seven years with his wife and children: “This has become an integral part of people’s lives. It’s part of what makes (this city) a community.”

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