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The Band Plays On in Long Beach as It Has Since 1909

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With his baton held aloft in front of the 37-piece Long Beach Municipal Band, conductor Larry Curtis is pouring his heart out for an appreciative audience in the city’s Los Cerritos Park.

Occasionally wiping sweat from his brow, Curtis leads the band through a medley of 1930s tunes from “The Wizard of Oz” and “Porgy and Bess,” as well as classics made famous by Duke Ellington.

Curtis and the band are richly rewarded by the cheers of 1,500 or so fans who have laid out blankets or set up lawn chairs under a canopy of shade trees on gently sloping hills above the bandstand.

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This is not just a band playing a free park concert.

This is a romance that began in 1909.

Through two world wars, the Great Depression and the 1933 earthquake that leveled much of Long Beach, the band has played on, and on, and on.

Each time Curtis lifts his baton for another evening of melodies, he keeps alive one of Long Beach’s most enduring traditions.

Now in its 90th year, the band describes itself as America’s oldest municipally supported professional band.

“Community bands are coming back all across the country,” said Curtis. “We just happen to be the granddaddy of them all.”

From week to week, the ensemble--trombones, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones and a tuba

dominate--moves through show tunes, patriotic music, swinging big-band sounds, jazz and soft rock.

When they aren’t entertaining in Long Beach, Curtis and his players scatter to work at movie studios, fill in with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and play at the Hollywood Bowl and jazz clubs in Southern California.

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But for four nights a week over an eight-week summer run, the band becomes much more than a collection of seasoned pros earning union scale pay.

They become a link to a different era, a throwback to small-town America, the cement that binds some families in Long Beach from generation to generation.

In Los Cerritos Park, close to the busy intersection of the San Diego and Long Beach freeways, the concerts draw residents from the nearby California Heights and Bixby Knolls neighborhoods.

Grandparents, moms, dads, kids and dogs fill the park’s hillsides. Many arrive by foot, pulling Radio Flyer wagons loaded with blankets, toddlers and well-stocked baskets.

Among a recent crowd were Marcia Fitzgerald, her husband, children, grandchildren and assorted friends. The group spread out over two large quilts for a picnic of linguine, chicken and salad.

“We meet here every Wednesday night during the summer,” said Fitzgerald, gently swaying to the melodies.

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Her daughter, Traci Stelter, developed an appreciation of the concerts from her mother. Now she is passing on the tradition to her 2-year-old son, Blake, who dances while the band plays and loves to wave his arms and pretend he is the conductor.

“I remember coming to the concerts and looking at the children, and longing to have a family,” said Stelter. The dreams became a reality when she married and become a mother. “Now Blake is a toddler, running around, and I am watching him grow up with the music.”

On Tuesday nights, the band alternates among various parks. Wednesday nights are fixed at Los Cerritos Park, and Thursday nights belong to Long Beach’s Marine Stadium, where fans in yachts and powerboats listen to the concerts at anchor. On Friday nights, the concerts are at El Dorado Park, on the east side, where the crowds are always the biggest.

“In Long Beach, when you are thinking sacred cows, this is it,” said Jana Ransom, a superintendent with the city’s Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, which manages the band program.

The band’s roots go back to the turn of the century. Midwesterners moved to Long Beach in such large numbers that the city became known as “Iowa by the Sea.”

But the immigrants found something missing: the cherished tradition of community bands. So they started one, fully funding it in the city budget. By 1914, city fathers boasted that the band was the largest in the West.

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In those days, band members were full-time city employees. At one time, the band played 300 concerts a year, mostly indoors or at a shell on the beach downtown.

City budget cuts during the 1970s and ‘80s made band members part time and reduced the season to a limited run during the summer.

With budget considerations in mind, donation buckets are passed around during intermission. Last year, concertgoers dropped $44,000 into the buckets at the band’s 32 concerts. That supplements the city’s annual $350,000 allocation for the band.

“We get great community support here, just great support,” said Curtis, who has been leading the band for seven years. He previously spent 25 years at Cal State Long Beach, where he served as director of bands.

And so the tradition lives on.

Carolyn Peacock, a grandmother, has been a concert regular for 23 years.

One recent Friday, she spent all day cooking a picnic supper for herself, husband Jim and granddaughter Lauren Hewitt, 15.

Lauren looked very hip with her satin Dodgers jacket. Musically, she said she likes to listen to rock radio, especially her favorite band, Limp Bizkit. But she also loves the band concerts, the teenager said, which in turn delights her grandmother.

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“At her age, it’s hard to get time with her, particularly on a Friday night,” Peacock said. “But she loves the concerts and so this was an easy sell.”

The Long Beach Municipal Band concludes its season Aug. 20. All concerts are free and start at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call (562) 570-1725.

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