Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Crackerjack Evening at the Ballpark

Sebastian enjoyed about two minutes of fame on Tuesday night as he and the other members of the Troubadours, the Northfield Youth Choirs’ all-boys group, performed at the Minnesota Twins game.

The choir led the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.  At that time, the Twins trailed the Cleveland Indians 2 to 4.  But in the eighth inning, after the boys’ performance, the Twins rallied and ended up winning the game 6-4.  A coincidence?  No, I’m sure the boys are partly responsible.  It was a fine demonstration of vocal music’s power to inspire.

The Troubadours, up on the big screen.
Sebastian, on the far right.
The performance last night got me wondering about the history of the song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which was first published in 1908.  I found out some interesting facts thanks to the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Encyclopedia and the Major League Baseball website.

• The song’s lyrics and music were written by two men who had never attended a professional baseball game.

• It ranks behind “Happy Birthday” and “The Star Spangled Banner” as the most easily recognized song in the United States.

• Two verses of the song are about Katie Casey (her name was changed in a later version to Nelly Kelly), a young woman wants her date to take her to a baseball game instead of a show.

• It’s been used more than 1,500 times in TV and movies, including the 1949 musical, Take Me Out to the Ball Game," starring Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams and Gene Kelly.

This sheet music, published in 1908, is in the Library of Congress holdings.
The song doesn’t mention nachos, hot dogs or super pretzels, which were on the menu for our ball game dinner.  But it does mention Cracker Jack, which we also shared at the game Tuesday evening.  And that makes me think of an earlier blog post I wrote about my great-grandmother and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where Cracker Jack was introduced.  According to the Library of Congress site I mentioned above, Cracker Jack was first sold at ballparks in 1907 and became more popular after the song was published the next year.

My great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs, studied piano in Chicago during the time of the World’s Fair and attended several World’s Fair concerts.  I don’t know if she or my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, were baseball fans, or fans of the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  In the decade that it was published, she and my great-grandfather were making a living in Crookston as musicians, and Islea’s first cousin, George Frederick "Peaches" Graham, was playing baseball.

Islea and her cousin George both grew up in Aledo, Ill.  “Peaches” played seven seasons of professional ball over a span of 11 years.  He debuted in 1902 with the Cleveland Blues as a second baseman, and he pitched one game for the Chicago Cubs the following year (it was a loss).  He went back to the minor leagues for a time and returned to the pros in 1908 as a utility player for the Boston Doves.  In 1911 he was traded first to the Cubs, and then to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he ended his baseball career after the 1912 season.

George’s time in the amateurs included a few years in Minnesota.  From 1905-07 he played for the Minneapolis Millers, who at that time held games at Nicollet Park in south Minneapolis (the Millers folded in 1960 with the arrival of the Minnesota Twins).  Did G. Oliver and Islea ever make it to a Millers game to see George play?  If they did, they didn’t make note of it in the family scrapbook.

This is a photo of "Peaches" Graham from a 1911 Boston Rustlers baseball card.
In addition to winning the game Tuesday night, the Twins also became the American League Central Division champions – an exciting achievement!  If the Twins need some crackerjack, rally inspiring musical entertainment as they move into the playoffs, I know at least one Troubadour who would be happy to assist, especially if sweet and salty snacks are involved.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If You Donate, They Will Play

The Star Tribune had a great article Sunday about how more schools in Minnesota are supplying band and orchestra instruments to students who couldn’t otherwise afford them.  As a result, more students are participating, and the ensembles are becoming more representative of the student body in terms of diversity and income levels.

(I would include a link to the story, but it’s one of the Star Tribune's new Premium articles only available online to subscribers.  If you're already a subscriber, you can view the story online after entering your account information.  Otherwise, if you have access to a print copy of the Sunday paper, look on the front of the twin cities + life section for the article, “Not Tooting Their Own Horns.”)

Sometimes schools own a few instruments – bigger, expensive ones like baritones, French horns and tubas – that students can use.  But usually students are expected to buy or rent their own instruments.  This can get pricey, especially if you have more than one child in band or orchestra.  According to the news story, because not everyone can afford the monthly rental payments on a new or used instrument, some directors are acquiring more instruments – either by buying them or by seeking donations – and then renting them to students for a low annual fee.
Louisa, second from left, marching with other members of the Northfield High School Band during the Defeat of Jesse James Days parade.  If we didn’t already own a French horn, she’d probably use one owned by the school.
The Minnesota Music Educators Association has shown an interest in this issue lately; it partnered with Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station last April on a Play it Forward drive that resulted in the donation of more than 600 band and orchestra instruments to 300 schools.  Another drive is planned for spring 2011.

I think it’s a great idea to make instruments more available, so anyone who’s interested in playing has the chance to learn.  The affordability of instruments has been an issue for band directors at least since since my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs directed his first band in the mid-1880s.  Throughout his career, he worked at getting instruments into people’s hands, and from 1926-28, he worked for instrument manufacturer C.G. Conn, which got heavily involved in the national school band movement beginning in 1923.

My great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, is pictured in this Conn advertisement; he’s in the middle row, on the far left.
G. Oliver and his wife, Islea, on a business trip in 1927.  G. Oliver organized school bands for Conn from 1926-28.  If you look closely, you can see the Conn sign in the window of the car.
G. Oliver’s last band directing job was at Red Lake High School.  At the time of his death, in January 1946, he had been so successful in organizing the high school’s first band that there weren’t enough instruments for all the students who wanted to play.  He explained this in the last letter he wrote to my grandfather, Ronald:

“I have 47 boys and girls signed for band.

Now here is a problem for you to figure out for me,  47 members and 26 instruments.  I got a much larger band than [Superintendent] Ose thought possible.

At present we are having more than one taking their instruction on one instrument.  He (Supt) appears to be afraid of his school board or someone else.  He cooperates with me fine on most things.

I have made a request for enough instruments to supply each band member with an instrument.  Mr. Thorson has been of great help to me and after my Thur (3 to 4) meeting made a written report to the Supt. And I think Mr. Ose sees the situation differently now.”

Although there are days when my kids would gladly give their instruments to someone else so they can skip practicing, we don’t have any extra instruments to donate at the moment.  Sebastian rents his viola from a local business, String Solutions, and he has a nice Bach trumpet we’re purchasing on Schmitt Music’s rent-to-own plan.  Louisa plays a French horn that Steve and I bought on eBay several years ago.  Steve and I both played French horn in high school, and I played for two years in college, but neither one of us had ever owned our own horn.  We’d always played horns owned by the school.

I hope anyone out there who does have a flute, clarinet or other instrument gathering dust in the closet will consider donating it to a worthy music program in their area, so more kids have the chance to express themselves through music and learn skills that will benefit them into adulthood.

For more information, you can call the Minnesota Music Educators Association at 763-566-1460.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jamming with the Greatest Generation

When I started researching the life and career of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, in 2006, I was thrilled to discover that some of his former band students were still alive.  I’ve been fortunate to meet a few of them, like Leonard Jung and Francis Schellinger, and hear firsthand what it was like to play in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band.  Sadly, I've missed out on meeting others who have died within the last decade, including Chester Heinzel, Herb Streitz and now, Adrian F. Opitz.  All of the men I just mentioned served in the U.S. military during World War II and are part of what’s become known – thanks to Tom Brokaw – as the Greatest Generation.

Many of G. Oliver’s former pupils who made it back from the war continued to perform in bands, like Opitz, 94, who died July 28, 2010, at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Cloud.  I didn’t know anything about him until after his death, but because he had Alzheimer’s disease, it’s unlikely I could have interviewed him about his band experiences.  Thankfully, John Decker at the Stearns History Museum conducted an interview of Opitz several years ago, and the transcript is at the museum (I hope to get my own copy soon).

Opitz joined the boys’ band in 1923, at age 8.  He was a drummer in the original band G. Oliver formed when he came to St. Cloud from Bemidji.  Opitz played in the band until he was 21, and then assisted G. Oliver with the band until G. Oliver retired in 1944.

“He’d have something doing and he’d have me come down there and help in the drum section,” Opitz said in the Stearns History Museum interview.
I'm guessing that Adrian Opitz, who played drums, is in this 1929 photo of the St. Cloud Junior and Senior Boys' Bands.  G. Oliver is in the back row, on the right; his son Percy is on the left.
Opitz’s daughter Pamela said her father also told a story about how when he was 21, he and some other former boys’ band members got together with G. Oliver for a drink and a jam session, and G. Oliver told them how nice it was that they finally were old enough to socialize with him.

I’ve never heard this story from anyone else, and I think it’s great fun to imagine G. Oliver jamming with these young men, whom he had instructed since they were barely old enough to carry an instrument.

Optiz served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II on Iwo Jima.  He returned to the St. Cloud area and continued to play in bands until he was in his 60s. 

His daughter Pamela told me recently, “I believe his love of music came from starting out in your great-grandfather’s band.”

It’s rewarding to hear comments like that, not just because I feel a responsibility to preserve my great-grandfather’s memory, but because this project is about something bigger than one larger-than-life type of man.  The men G. Oliver taught are part of his life story, just as he’s a part of their stories.  Woven together, they are a testament to the belief that one individual’s actions do make a difference, and that when people work together, they can accomplish great deeds that inspire future generations.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Jumping on the Band Wagon

Louisa got fitted last week for her new Northfield High School band uniform, which she'll wear on Sunday when the band marches in the Defeat of Jesse James Days Grand Day Parade.

Louisa didn’t need her French horn at school yesterday since it was the first day, but she did bring home a calendar of band performance dates for the year.  The band only wears the marching uniforms twice, in the Defeat Days parade, and at the Memorial Day program in May.

Band is an every day class this year, unlike in middle school, and Louisa had to lug her horn on the bus this morning.  As I watched her leave the house, I was reminded of a story about Louis Dinndorf, one of the members of my great-grandfather’s St. Cloud Municipal Band Boys’ Band.

My dad, William, played in the St. Cloud Municipal Band with Louis before Louis’ health required him to retire from the band in 2006.  Dad remembers Louis telling him that he joined the band when he was only 8 years old.  As Louis told the story, when he asked G. Oliver Riggs if he could join (most boys were between the ages of 10 and 18), G. Oliver responded that if he could carry his horn, he could play in the band.

What my dad and I didn't know until last week was that there was another part to that story. A friend of Louis’ and a longtime band supporter, Dick Egerman, told us over lunch in St. Cloud that the reason little 8-year-old Louis was able to transport his tenor sax to band practice by himself was because he pulled it in a wagon.

“In the winter, he put it on a sled,” Dick explained.

This, to me, gives a whole new meaning to the word bandwagon, which according to this site was coined in the mid-19th century as the name for a wagon that carried a circus band.

Incidentally, the 1953 movie The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, features a song called “I Love Louisa.”  Loosely adapted from a 1931 Broadway musical, the movie originally was going to be called  I Love Louisa.  Our Louisa used to hate it when we played the song for her.  She somewhat tolerates it now, but I wouldn't go as far to suggest that she's jumped on the “I Love Louisa” band wagon.