Cal Band Alums

On a return visit to Brussels this year, veterans of the Cal Marching Band's 1958 European tour pose at the Atomium, an enduring symbol of Expo ’58. Second from right in front row is Hugh Barnett, who was the band’s co-manager and arranged the reunion trip.

Band on the run marks its 50th reunion

The Cal Band of ’58 was all over the map: from Berkeley to Brussels and back, with a quick detour to the Russian pavilion

| 02 October 2008

Weekend wisdom on tap

Reunions (like that of the 1958 “Brussels Band”) are just part of the picture on Homecoming and Parents Weekend, Oct. 3-5. The entire campus community can sample Berkeley’s academic excellence at a range of faculty seminars on Friday and Saturday. Seminar subjects include the memory-aiding benefits of sleep, the U.S. and China’s role in climate change, an historical perspective on Election 2008, challenges of and hopes for global poverty, an overview of the Energy Biosciences Institute’s 50 programs, and recommendations for an aging population.

Faculty and staff will be admitted to all the weekend’s seminars without charge; campus ID is required, however. Complete list and schedule >

Blues, Old and otherwise, recall 1958 as the year that launched the Golden Bears into the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1959 — the last time the team got its postseason ticket punched for Pasadena.

But to the surviving members of the 1958 Cal Marching Band — the gold turned to gray, perhaps, but Blue as they ever were — that was the year the band became musical ambassadors for the United States on an unforgettable trip to the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium. And in connection with this year’s Homecoming and Parents Weekend (Oct. 3-5; see box this page), some 45 members of the ’58 band are high-stepping back to Berkeley for the 50th-anniversary reunion of what will forever be known as the “Brussels Band.”

Dan Cheatham, a Class of ’58 forestry student who served as the group’s drum major that year, says the U.S. State Department invited a number of college marching bands to represent the nation at Expo ’58, but with one potentially deal-breaking proviso: The band would have to finance the entire trip itself, without help from the government. In an adventure as improbably improvised as The Play in 1982 — replete with a fundraising fiasco at a Hillsborough mansion, a sparsely attended concert at the Greek Theatre, a 10-day “playathon” in San Francisco, and a climactic appearance on the TV game show Truth or Consequences — the Cal Marching Band met the challenge.

That’s right: It was 50 years ago today — give or take a few months — Uncle Sam forced the band to pay.

The effort, by all accounts, was well worth it. “I have great memories of both events,” says Cheatham, referring to the Brussels excursion and the Rose Bowl. But Cheatham — a one-time waterboy for the band who claims he’s tone-deaf and “can’t carry a tune” — views the journey abroad as historic, a Cold War footnote in which Cal spirit trumped Communist bluster. Outside the Soviet Union’s Expo exhibit, he recalls, was a replica of Sputnik, the recently launched satellite that had boosted the Soviets to No. 1 in the space race. But the exhibit’s trumpeting of Red Russia’s achievements was regularly upstaged by the twice-daily Blue-and-Gold performances outside the nearby U.S. pavilion.

Cal band historical photosTop to bottom: Ralph Edwards, Cal alum and creator of Truth or Consequences, surprises the band at the steps of Wheeler Hall; in Brussels, a square dance (with sousaphones) to “Farmer and the Cowman,” a number from Oklahoma; bass drummer Grove Thomas and admirers at Bergedorf, Germany.

As UPI reported of one such show, the spats-sporting marching band’s uptempo mix of fight songs and Broadway show tunes — the repertoire featured a wide selection of Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers, including a square dance from Oklahoma — “dried up the stream of visitors into the Russian pavilion like the turning of a tap.”

“We were really unique over there, because European bands were primarily military bands,” explains Hugh Barnett, a trombonist and co-manager for the ’58 group. “To see a band doing these kinds of dance steps and performing this kind of music — and doing it at a faster tempo than they would normally do it — was quite unusual at the time.”

The band made such an impression, adds Barnett, that the Russians, weary of watching the crowds flock to America’s building day after day, “got a little envious and decided to invite us over there to play in their theater.”

Adds tuba player Larry Augusta, who’s in charge of organizing this week’s reunion: “I have to say, in all modesty, that the crowds at Expo ’58 adored us.” He also recalls “a large, enthusiastic, and heartwarming reception wherever we went” on a European tour that included stops in Hamburg, Germany, and Copenhagen and Aalborg in Denmark.

“I’ll never forget the response that first day,” says Augusta. “We formed up in back of the American pavilion in block-parade style. As we marched around the pavilion and came around to the front, marching to the Cal Band drum cadence, people ran from every direction to see what and who was making that commotion. People poured down the steps of the Soviet pavilion, which was just across the fountain from the American one.”

At Rebild National Park near Aalborg — curiously, thanks to strong multi-generational ties with Danish immigrants to America, the site of an annual Fourth of July celebration — the band took part in a torchlight parade in honor of U.S. independence.

“That,” says Cheatham, “was my highlight.”

So successful was the trip that the band was welcomed home at a Capitol Hill visit with both of California’s U.S. senators, Republicans William Knowland and Thomas Kuchel, along with the state’s foremost Cold Warrior, Vice President Richard Nixon.

To Barnett, financing the trip was every bit as memorable as the trip itself. He and his fellow band members spent five months beating the bushes for traveling funds, an effort that kicked off with a $1,000 donation from Robert Gordon Sproul — who’d been contacted by Chancellor Clark Kerr, soon to succeed him as UC president — and fizzled from there.

Barnett remembers eking out “a couple of thousand dollars” via a 10-day “playathon” at San Francisco’s Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, shuttling bandsmen — and, indeed, they were all men in those days — from Berkeley to San Francisco and back again for two- or three-hour shifts. The show at the Greek was a financial bust, as was a performance at the Carolands Chateau, a 68,000-square-foot Hillsborough mansion owned by the late Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini. With a small audience in a cavernous space, Oski Dolls, on hand to serve as ushers, found themselves with little to do but enjoy the music.

With just days left to raise the rest of the needed funds, Cal spirit came to the rescue. ASUC Director of Activities Arleigh Williams, Class of ’35, reached out to his old classmate Ralph Edwards, creator of the popular TV game show Truth or Consequences. Soon enough, in a scheme known to only a few members, the band was directed to gather on the steps of Wheeler Hall to play some tunes — only to learn, from Edwards, that their performance had been videotaped for the program. The Cal alum also arranged for three buses to transport the 97-man group to the East Coast for its overseas flight.

Barnett, who’s been organizing the group’s five-year reunions since the 1980s, says the trip to Europe — not to mention the grueling cross-country bus rides themselves — created a lasting bond among the bandsmen, “as attested by the fact that we still all get together after all these years.” The time away from classes, he admits, caused “a hit on grade-point averages,” his own included. But he credits the leadership skills he acquired with getting him into business school at what he laughingly calls “that other institution down the Peninsula.”

Grad schools aside, Barnett remains a Cal season-ticket holder and a lifelong Blue. This year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the group’s original trip, he mustered 15 bandsmen (along with 14 spouses and significant others) for a return trip to Brussels and Amsterdam.

And along with 44 other members of the fraternity known as the Brussels Band, he’ll be at Memorial Stadium on Saturday — which happens to be Alumni Band Day — when the group is saluted during the alumni show.