Mockin' Droll Band

Times Staff Writer

Practice was supposed to start at 3 p.m., but the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band doesn't run a tight ship, from the looks of things.

Empty instrument cases are scattered across the floor. Six saxophones are stored in a red plastic tub with rope handles. An inflated rubber raft is docked on top of a sofa next to the overturned ice coolers. A Twister game is laid out on the floor next to a row of rusted lockers.

Propped up against the far wall is a huge green-and-white highway sign that reads: "Gerald R. Ford Birthplace." Another one says "Open Trench." Signs identify the two restrooms: One says, "Ladies -- No Pets"; the other, "Danger -- Explosives -- Keep out."

Discarded sheet music is ankle-deep on the floor of the one-story temporary building that serves as band headquarters. It is the epicenter of a certain kind of student pop culture, where mayhem meets music and some very bright college students try to create social commentary that will make people gasp, laugh, clap, cheer, jeer, fire off nasty letters or simply walk out.

The band found itself in hot water this season because of a halftime show against Brigham Young in which performers made fun of polygamy, introducing several female band members in veils as wives.

Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland apologized to BYU and its fans.

Stella Cousins, the band manager, said the skit was harmless, although the band did suspend its own announcer for one week.

"Blown out of proportion," said Cousins, a biology major and mellophone player from Ceres, Calif. "We never specifically mentioned Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the state of Utah or even Brigham Young."

Some consider the band a collection of instrument-carrying anarchists. Others see a talented bunch of wiseacres.

"If 200 of us are not having a good time, we're not doing a good job," Cousins said.

Sometimes they have too good a time. Gordon Henderson, vice chairman of the music department at UCLA and the person in charge of the Bruin marching band, warned the band against any future BYU-like productions that might come at UCLA's expense.

"If they do something like that, they won't have a field to practice on," Henderson said.

In 1999, the band riled UCLA by forming a human handicapped-parking sign, spoofing UCLA football players who had illegally used the window placards.

Henderson said the UCLA band is always treated with respect when it performs at Stanford, because crowds there "don't get to see a real band very often."

Stanford's band is a real band, of course, just not a typical one. It is a "scatter band," one whose members don't wear formal uniforms or march in precision. The Stanford band members run onto the field in a screaming frenzy, race from one formation to another during the announcer's monologue, then play a song. They repeat this a couple of times, then scamper off the field.

The band is student-run. Would-be members don't even have to know how to play an instrument; band members will teach them. Members decide who gets in, arrange all the music and determine the on-field antics. The only oversight comes from a script-reader in the athletic department, who is the first and last line of defense in defining the exact place where music, free speech, political satire, commentary and good taste can get together. Or not.

"Because of their reputation, they attempt to walk a fine line," said Bob Carruesco, an assistant athletic director who reviews the scripts for each football performance. "Sometimes, it comes off as poor taste. It's always a test for me every week to make sure I'm up on current events. They have so much innuendo and hidden meaning."

Carruesco says he is getting more gray hairs than he wants, but isn't sure the band is totally responsible.

"Hey, we do what we can do," said Dan Bentley, a master's candidate in computer science and a tuba player from New Providence, N.J. "Our mission is to have fun and show people another way to look at things and not to take things too seriously. We're sad more people don't get it."

Stanford had a traditional band until 1963, when members chucked their uniforms in favor of red blazers, black pants, shades, floppy white cloth hats, rock 'n' roll songs and controversial halftime shows, and dropped all pretense of marching.

There are a few rules, among them: No urinating on the field, an act that led to the band's first suspension, in 1986; and no serenading of incoming freshmen with the Tubes song "White Punks on Dope" -- a tradition barred in 1989 by the administration because, according to a university statement, it gave the impression that Stanford students are "spoiled, privileged children who exult in the radical exclusivity and use of drugs."

Tim Delaney, an assistant professor of sociology at State University of New York at Oswego and an expert in sports psychology, defends the band.

"The Stanford band is good for levity and entertainment," he said. "Humor and trying to make light of issues that are otherwise real lengthy and complicated is a good thing. I think people are taking things a little too seriously."

Bentley agrees. He says the band uses music for satire, pointing out that if, for instance, another school were enmeshed in a cheating scandal, the band would be likely to play the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends."

"Sometimes it escapes people," Bentley said.

Sometimes it doesn't. In 1990, the band was booed off the field at the University of Oregon's Autzen Stadium because it spoofed both the logging industry and the environmental movement.

The skit ended when a band member cut a stuffed owl in half with a chainsaw.

Perhaps the most infamous stunt came at the 1997 Notre Dame game. The band mascot, a person in a tree costume, ran onto the field at Stanford Stadium wearing a nun's habit as the band's announcer called Notre Dame the "Blightin' Irish," referring to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s.

The band introduced "Seamus O'Hungry," and described the Irish as a people whose "sparse cultural heritage consisted only of fighting, then starving."

Advice columnist Ann Landers demanded an apology and Fighting Irish fans were unhappy, as was Notre Dame President Edward A. Malloy. Then-Stanford President Gerhard Casper and the band apologized.

The band still cannot go to games in South Bend. Carruesco was asked when the Notre Dame probation is supposed to end. "There are a lot of probations lined up," he said. "It's hard to remember."

The band plans to perform during Saturday's Big Game at California. The matchup produced a legendary highlight in 1982, when Cal's Kevin Moen scored the winning touchdown on a game-ending, five-lateral kickoff return that ended with him plowing over Stanford trombone player Gary Tyrell.

Dan Bernstein, a trombone player in the Stanford band from 1968 to 1971, said what he and his bandmates did in those years was innocent, compared to the potato famine show. Bernstein, a columnist at the Riverside Press-Enterprise, remembers the 1970 opener at Arkansas when the band members dropped their pants at halftime, revealing surfer shorts.

"We didn't urinate or anything," he said. "We weren't that far advanced."

Carruesco, the script overseer, knows he has his hands full.

"Infamous is one word, but let's just say they are known around the U.S.," he said. "People say, 'Hey, there's the Stanford band.' They're like rock stars. No, don't put that in. I don't want them to read that."

On a recent afternoon, band members headed for the practice field dressed in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, or no shoes at all. Chris Holt, an English major and trumpet player from Madison, N.J., knows why he's in the band: "I like running around and I like making silly jokes."

Lori Karns, a mechanical engineering student and drum major from Honolulu, practiced in a '70s-style Brady Bunch mom's blouse, orange pants trimmed in sequins, ankle bracelets of white feathers and a clear shower cap.

Once she blew her whistle, it was all business, if you don't count the musicians who were chased and tackled by bandmates for being late.

Karns kept the energy up, bouncing around as if she were on springs. Her face was beaming.

"I am a rock star," she said. "My parents paid for piano lessons for 10 years, and this is what they got."

She laughed at her own joke, Stanford-band style. The fervent hope at practice was that sooner or later, everybody else would get the other jokes, too. And, if not, well, there's always another apology, followed by probation.

There may be a few more unusual turns in store. Next year's band manager is Tom Hennessy, an archeology major and tenor sax player. His father, John Hennessy, is Stanford's president.

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