Acclaimed Lake Band marches again
June 1, 2012
By Gian Pogliano
Marching feet will pound the sports field at Greendale High School and the air will ring with the bright tones of brass instruments at the Greendale Summer Festival later this month. One of the festival’s performances will hold special significance for those who remember the South Shore’s acclaimed Lake Band. Former band members, including some who were members of the original 1952 start-up, will take to the field to celebrate a dazzling note of Milwaukee’s rich historical repertoire, the founding of Lake Band 60 years ago.
The band’s story begins in the late 1940’s in the Town of Lake at A.E. Burdick School when music instructor Anthony Erickson organized the Town of Lake Municipal Band to encourage his students’ participation beyond the classroom. He invited adults to join his new concert band. They did, and sometimes parents played alongside their children.
When Erickson switched gears and became a Town of Lake Supervisor, George Cerwin became band director. Trumpeter Harold Zimdars remembers Cerwin as a “frizzy haired kid” fresh out of college. Early rehearsals under Cerwin’s leadership were fraught with tension, in part because there was resistance by the old guard to new leadership and “We kept resorting back to ‘that’s not the way Tony Erickson would do it,’” Zimdars said.
Cerwin made a deft, bold move in 1952 and dissolved the original band, then chose new students to form The Town of Lake Recreational Band. (It was renamed The Lake Band when the Town of Lake was annexed by Milwaukee in 1954.)
Cerwin prepared his students to march in parades and taught them field drills. A group of 30 boys and girls dressed in straw hats, white shirts, red neckerchiefs, and blue jeans performed at the Wisconsin Spectacle of Music in South Milwaukee in 1952.
Nick Contorno and Jan Liebenstein performed in the 1952 Spectacle. Alluding to the band members’ inexperience and youth, Contorno, who joined the band at age nine and was a member until he entered college observed, “We got beat up pretty good.” Liebenstein, who played French horn, said the band performed well enough to march in the parade the next day, however.
The following year the band members were outfitted in traditional marching band uniforms and began to beat high school bands. By 1953, the band’s popularity was drawing children to the program from outside Burdick School. Adult musicians joined the band. Before long, the band had its own library of band music and a board of directors.
Despite a rocky start, Cerwin became well liked. “He had a wonderful rapport with the students and a wonderful rapport with the parents,” recalled Contorno.
Competition, which included the concert, inspection, parade, and field show categories could be lost by one one-hundredth of a point. Every detail counted. A single blade of grass stuck to a boot during inspection might spell disaster. A missed note in a concert performance caused a deduction, or a dropped piece of color guard equipment in a field show could mean the difference between first and third place.
The full band rehearsed Tuesday nights at the water tower on Sixth and Norwich streets, but members were expected to practice nightly at home, zeroing in on parts they didn’t play well and hammering them to perfection. “We worked hard to have fun,” chuckled Contorno. The Lake Band was funded primarily by sponsorships, donations, and dues from each member, but they also relied on prize money, Contorno said.
Cerwin resigned as director in 1962. A long list of subsequent directors followed, and some took the band to unimagined heights. Erwin claimed that Harold F. Lorenz “put Lake Band on the map nationally” in the early 1970s, but many players cite the tenure of Robert V. Awe as the era of the band’s zenith.
From 1974 through the early 1980s, Awe led the band on a remarkable streak of national championship wins. They competed in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Orlando. The won a National Championship in 1984 at the Traverse City Cherry Festival, a competition that at that time was the pinnacle event.
The band adapted, changing with the times. Joyce Gardiner, who began playing clarinet in the band in 1975 and who later directed the Lake Band, recalled the band’s traditional marches being paired with jazzier pieces and arrangements of contemporary pop songs, both in concert and on the field. Intricate maneuvers became an integral part of field show and parade performances. Concert music was chosen based on its level of complexity. These kinds of challenges added to the value of being in the band, and created a sense of connection between members that is difficult to repeat.
Life as a band member was demanding. The Lake Band participated in about 35 performances per year in its hey day—eight on July 4th in some years. They competed against 20-some Milwaukee bands as well as bands in southeastern Wisconsin and others from Ohio and Illinois. “Milwaukee was a hotbed of musical education back then, recalled Kim “Mik” Erwin, who played trumpet in the band during the 70s and was an instructor until 1985.
There is a long and distinguished list of former band directors, including (alphabetically) Barry Applewhite, Alan Gaulke, Mark Grauer, Dennis King, Sue Neiderheiser, Ron Price, Pete Roth, Fred Schoessow, Nick Scaffidi, and James Wilson, as well as other directors and instructors. Directors of the Lake Cadets (formerly Lake Junior Band), a companion band that provided an opportunity for younger players to compete, included Sharon Awe, Pat Gerber, and David Miles.
Former band members who are organizing the reunion estimate that approximately 1,800 people participated in the Lake Band over the past 60 years. In some cases, multiple generations of family members played in the band. As the band grew, band members came from all over Milwaukee and beyond. Parents shuttled and supported the young musicians and many dedicated themselves to the organization.
The Lake Band dissolved in 2005 due to economics and other complications. “It was very expensive to charter the buses and pay for uniforms,” Erwin said. Gardiner agreed, but added that kids wanted to earn money and began working over summer break and didn’t have a lot of time left for The Lake Band.
Another contributing factor lamented by former band members were the steep budget cuts that chipped away at local music programs resulting in smaller numbers of students participating in summer programs. “If you take music out of grade schools there’s no interest in middle school or beyond,” Gardiner said.
Some of the band’s artifacts are still being used today. Contorno, who was the band director at Marquette University when the band dissolved, arranged to have the Lake Band music library donated to MU. But many of the band’s accouterments were lost in the shuffle. Some of the instruments were sold to local schools and churches. “I can’t even tell you where the trophies are,” Contorno sighed.
The Lake Band required hard work and rewarded that work with impressive victories. The Lake Band way is what taught me to do things for my entire life,” she said, and referenced one of the bands mottos, “Do what is necessary to excel.”
Many band members’ best memories center on friendship. “Put 150 kids together…on five Greyhound buses and there’s always gonna be stories you hope your parents never find out about,” laughed Erwin. “But it was all clean fun with the best friends you could hope to have.”
“To relive it, I would do it in a minute,” Contorno said.
For a few hours on June 30, he and the others who called The Lake Band their own will have a chance to do just that.
Patty Pritchard Thompson contributed to this story.
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