Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 26, 2013


It's Miller time!

I've often kidded husband Art that he was born old. I could have teased him again Saturday night, but I didn't.

Most music lovers prefer the style of music that was popular in their teenage years or that they had a great exposure to during those years. But Art is quite attached to a style that was fading fast by the time he was born. Today, it is commonly called the big band sound.

That attachment might be partly explained by the fact that this style was also his mother Donna's favorite and when he was a youngster, she had the radio tuned to stations that played the music she enjoyed. But that doesn't explain why most of the music of his teenage years left him cold or, in another twist, that his favorite big band was not one his mother was very enthusiastic about.

Still, if he hadn't been so fond of this sound, daughters Mariya and Katie, daughter-in-law Lacey, Art and I wouldn't have embarked Saturday afternoon on a two-hour drive to hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra. For some of us, it was the fourth time we had gone to see the group named after its leader who died four months after Art was born. It was also the band that recorded the very first record to reach the 1 million point in sales - "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

We arrived in Newton about 45 minutes before the 4 p.m. show - enough extra time to make a detour for ice cream cones before heading over to the theater. We found a convenient spot behind the theater just opposite the band's bus. We paused a few minutes so everyone could finish their cones. During that time, the first band members emerged. It was a bit of a shock to see how young they were. Yet the musicians in today's band are about the age of those in the original band. Miller's lead singer Ray Eberle was 20 when the band formed. Tex Beneke, a vocalist and saxophone player was under 30. Singer Marion Hutton was only 17, so Miller and his wife had to become her legal guardian so she could travel with the band.

Part of the reason band members are so young is that it is a grind traveling from place to place. In the 10 days remaining in July after its performance in Kansas, the band will appear in Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio and Maine. In a typical year, it gives about 300 performances.

The band's durability can in part be traced to Millerís rather average playing ability. Most of the better bands of that era were led by a musician who was outstanding. Once that leader was gone, their band faded. While an acceptable trombone player, Miller's talent seemed to have been mainly in his ability to choose musicians, arrangers and music that gave the public the sound they wanted.

As we Miller fans anticipated hearing that sound once again, even the theater helped transport us back to an earlier time. The Fox Theater is old and is in the process of being renovated. Once inside, it was clear that it was a work in progress, and certainly not fancy. But the bands of the Miller era often played in small towns where the facilities were less than top-notch. So, in an odd way, the theater helped set the mood.

As the orchestra took to the stage, it was clear that none of the musicians were even alive when the original group caught America's attention. But once the first few notes of "Moonlight Serenade," Miller's theme song, filled the theater, no one cared. They were playing Miller's arrangements and that was all it took to transport us back to a time most of us never knew.

Looking over the audience at intermission, while most people were older, only a few appeared to be of the World war II era. A younger woman behind us said to the person next to her, "I guess I was just born at the wrong time. I love this music."

After the show, we ran through the rain, two of us going to a nearby Chinese restaurant and the other three to one across the street serving Mexican food. Then we got back in the car to return to Manhattan, hoping to make it home before the dark clouds to the west reached us.

We were barely under way when Katie remarked how much fun it had been and added, "Thanks, Dad." The rest of us enthusiastically followed suit.

Glenn Miller was barely 40 when his airplane went down over the English Channel. He was on his way to make arrangements for his band to play for the troops fighting their way toward Berlin. Now, almost 70 years later, we had been entertained by the same music.

And maybe we should have thanked someone else too, someone who was very near Mariya and Lacey's age when she was listening to the music that we had just enjoyed so much. Without her introducing Art to this music, none of us would have had this special night together. Thanks, Donna!


Left: Art, Lacey, Mariya and Katie in line outside the Fox Theater; right: two of the saxophonists that, teamed with a clarinet, gave the orchestra its signature sound.



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