- by Tom Eastman
Strike Up the Band
Stroll by North Conway's Schouler Park on a warm Sunday night in July and August, and you more than likely will hear the music of brass and wind instruments wafting across the park on the summer wind Drawing closer to the recently restored Conway Community Center, you will find an audience comprised of persons of all ages who prefer Sousa marches to disco, sitting in their folding chairs or on blankets on the lawn, waiting for the Mt. Washington Valley Band to strike up another tune.
Leading the group of 20 to 35 musicians is director Michael Hathaway, resplendently dressed in one of the band's new $15 red uniforms vests, and fully in command. A large man who teaches music at the high school during the school year, he raises his right hand, gesticulates, and as he does so, the band swings into action.
The musical quality of the weekly performances is not always smooth by Boston Pops standards, but it can and often does approach excellence in comparison to most community bands. Now entering its seventh year, the band is comprised of a core group of 15 to 20 players along with an ever changing number of walk-ons and Valley visitors. Some of the players are of junior high age and still learning; others are local residents with strong musical backgrounds from their college days while a few are former professional musicians now retired. They come from all walks of life, with such local residents as disc-jockey Dana Bates, businessman Bob Duncan, contractor Sumner Rupprecht, and Dan Stimson performing regularly with the amateur band. They share in common a love for playing music, particularly bandstand music, and also maintain a relaxed attitude and sense of humor.
The band plays on Sunday nights throughout the summer until Labor Day in North Conway, and this year will also be performing on Tuesday nights at the Community Center in Conway. The hour long performances commence at 6:00 pm Sundays and 7:30 pm on Tuesdays, and usually feature 15-20 selections which vary from week to week, with new numbers mixed in with the traditional Sousa marches and other stand-bys.
Musical director Hathaway notes, however, that he never really can be sure just what the band will play until he walks up to the quaint gazebo, build in the 1920's by North Conway native and wealthy philanthropist Harvey Gibson. "It's really kind of pointless to plan ahead too much when you never can be sure just how many players you're going to have to work with on any given night. Sometimes you're missing a strong horn section, other times there aren't any woodwinds. We just adapt with what we've got, and it usually sounds good. It keeps it interesting," he stated, adding that the relaxed attitude found in the band is what makes it especially enjoyable for him in contrast to the more pressurized job of teaching the school band. "We have no rules, really. It's nice to have rehearsals, since we like to have players improve their proficiency, but the emphasis is on fun. It's a very upbeat, positive atmosphere, and enough people usually show up both for the rehearsals and performances to have a good time and play some good music."
The relaxed setting Hathaway referred to tends to lend itself easily to occasionally embarrassing and usually amusing incidents. and most of the older band members have their favorite tales. Trumpeter Stan Pappe, a member of the present band since it was formed by Charlie Toor in 1947 and also a player for the old Community Center Band during his junior and senior high school years in the 1950s, likes to tell of the time the band was riding in a parade on the back of a truck, hanging onto the sides and playing, when a girl trombone player lost her slide right out of the instrument during a song. During this year's Fourth of July concert, the brass section was also left without an important piece of equipment - their sheet music. Explains Stan, "Everyone hates the job of organizing the music sheets, so we rotate the job each time. Well, something happened, because when it came time for us to play the National Anthem, there weren't any horns because there wasn't any music sheet for us to follow. Needless to say, out rendition sounded a little funny."
Stan is typical of many of the band members in terms of his musical background. While a player during his school days, he didn't touch his instrument for 10 years after his graduation. Modest of his own talents, he said that he answered an advertisement placed by Charlie Toor for band members seven years ago simply because he missed playing, and adds that he gets a kick out of the group's camaraderie.
"We have a group of people who really get along well with one another, helping each other out. I'm not too talented by any means, but we do have some people like Mike Hathaway and the other music teachers who are exceptional musicians who can really carry the band. Even more importantly, they usually show up pretty regularly," Stan said prior to a practice at the John Fuller Elementary School in North Conway, adding that the quality of the performances all depends on the number of players who do attend the concerts.
It soon became apparent that Stan's words rang with truth as the skeleton band swung into a practice version of "Catch the Tiger" inside the school. It was All Star night, and many of the band's regular members must have decided to catch the game instead. Still, Hathaway seemed unperturbed, explaining that he also takes a night off every now and then to to to stock car races in Maine, Noting the distinct lack of clarinet players that night, band member and elementary music teacher Bill Gibson suggested a drum solo to pick up the slack. After two experimentations, the song's performance sounded polished enough. "That's what we call "emergency training" for those nights when we are short," Hathaway laughed as the band moved onto the next tune, "Ain't She Sweet," or something to that effect.
Despite the idiosyncrasies and relaxed atmosphere, the overall quality of the band's concert performances are quite good, and continue the fine musical tradition nurtured by the community brass bands formed throughout New England after the Civil War. While the exact date when the first brass band was formed in the Conway area is unknown, former band player and Conway resident Maurice Lovejoy recalls that his father used to play in the Conway Brass Band as early as 1896, if not earlier. The Conway band was comprised of residents and workers from the Conway Lumber Company, Maurice remembers, and played at various social functions such as baseball games, political rallies, and the usual summer holiday celebrations. That first Conway band went into a decline, however, in the decade following the closing of the mill in 1918, and finally disbanded due to lack of interest soon thereafter.
The Conway band remained inactive until 1927 when Maurice contacted other players in the Valley about the possibility of reforming a brass band. A good number of former professional musicians had moved into the area at that time, and the interest in forming such a group was strong. Since the band was comprised of musicians from throughout the Valley, the new band was christened the Carroll County Musical Association, and appointed Walter "Scotty" Scott as its first leader. A former first cornetist and assistant conductor of the Salem Cadet Band of Salem, Massachusetts, Scott had lost his front teeth and was no longer able to play, but led the group well.
Dana Farrington took over from Scott in 1932, and the band was kept busy giving concerts throughout the Valley each summer. The group's services were in demand for carnivals, lawn parties, and the like, and the group earned a reputation for its superb players. Foremost among them was an outstanding solo trumpeter and cornetist named Bob Levay, a former serviceman who had gained a good deal of training in the navy. Maurice himself was known for his versatility with any instrument, and today relates that most of the 38 playing members also were of above average caliber.
The Carroll County Band had received $500 each year from the town to help pay for expenses in return for the good publicity and boost the band's music gave local tourism. Following the Second World War, however, Conway voted to cut back on taxes at its town meeting, and the band was one of the victims of that budgetary tightening. The band continued a year or two more, playing on Memorial Day and other occasions, but interest in playing diminished over the years since the incentive to rehearse for the summer concerts was then gone. Members moved away, others had been killed in action in World War II, and that band also disbanded.
Some band activity was resumed in North Conway in the 1950s by the late Charlie Zumstein, founder and former owner of the Bernerhof Inn. Zumstein had been enticed to play in the Valley at Harvey Gibson's Eastern Slope Inn after the noted philanthropist had heard the musician and his colleagues at the World's Fair in New York in 1939, and stayed. He founded the Community Center Band in the early 1950s, and also co-directed the Kennett High School Band for a few years. Current Mt. Washington Valley Band members Danny Stimson and Stan Pappe played as youngsters in this band, as did other local residents such as Briggs Bunker and Jean Fickett. The Community Center Band also died a slow death, however, as members moved and many of the youngsters turned to the improved high school band for their training instead of the community band in the early 1960s.
The bandstand remained quiet until 1974, when talented musician and former local printer Charlie Toor led efforts to restart a band, the current Mt. Washington Valley Band. The amateur group's popularity with listeners and musicians alike has grown every year since, and the prospects for a year-round band are also promising, according to Hathaway. "We had a spring concert for the first time this year, which was a success, and I think that the Valley is now a large enough area to support cultural groups and similar concerts in the future. There seems to be a renewed interest in the old big band sound now, and some of us have talked of the possibility of forming a dance band which could play at local functions. We're encouraging our members to form splinter groups as well which could play chamber music and the like," the director stated, adding that the possibilities are endless for the band.
As for its current status, Hathaway said, "The music is good, both the musicians and the audiences enjoy the concerts, and the dedication shown by some of our players just to get here every week is really rewarding. If we can enjoy ourselves while providing a good community service in the ideal setting which we have, then I think it's great."