City bands uphold their tradition in Fox Cities

Local city bands know a thing or two about dedication. The Appleton City Band and Neenah Community Band have entertained the Fox Cities for more than 150 years combined. During this time, the efforts of several individuals have organized the ensembles and maintained their success in the local community.

Appleton City Band

Organized during World War I, the 121st Field Artillery Band — now the Appleton City Band — played 10 concerts each summer for the community. That same series of 10 summer concerts still exists today, a testament to the commitment of several individuals over the last century.

Ike Spangenberg will be the first to praise these esteemed band members. “In 1940 the band split up as members went to war, but George Klein (clarinet player) kept the band alive,” says the director of the Appleton City Band from 1967-2011. Klein rallied the remaining members together and sought out more volunteers, which paved the way for the modern era of the Appleton City Band following World War II.

The ensemble has since played under many directors, including Peter Heid, Buck Jensen and Frank Comella, former Appleton High School band director. All three are accomplished musicians who maintained the group’s spirit during their tenure.

Today, the Appleton City Band has grown to around 50 volunteer members, including music teachers, members of the armed forces, Marines and college students. The ensemble consists of woodwinds, brass and all components of the typical concert band.

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The band also offers volunteers a chance to rediscover their musical passion. “People joined in high school and don’t want to give up their instrument,” says An Gehrmann, band president and first clarinet player. Gehrmann is a prime example, as she played clarinet throughout high school before spending 40 years as band director at various schools in the area. Apart from playing her clarinet, she cites the social aspect of the group and community support as being most rewarding.

Conductor Jim Thaldorf, current Appleton North High School band director, has brought a high level of energy to their concerts. Weekly themes, such as “Guest Conductor Night” and “International Night,” keep the audience on their toes and band members loose. On July 8, assistant conductor Michael Ratsch directed a Beatles mash-up near the end of the concert, as the group transitioned between Beatles hits for more than 10 minutes. The band performs at Pierce Park Pavilion every Tuesday from 7-8 p.m. through Aug. 12.

This fall, Pierce Park Pavilion will undergo a significant transformation, which will enhance the experience for the audience and performers. The exterior stage and band shelter will be expanded to accommodate larger groups. With an upgraded venue, the summer of 2015 and beyond looks to be bright for the city band. “I can’t see this ever dying,” says Spangenberg of the ensemble. “It is a bit of Americana that we have to preserve.”

Neenah Community Band

The Neenah Community Band has a deep history of its own. The ensemble has been active since 1966 and even made three trips to Europe in that time. Band members were able to perform in Romania and Austria, Greece and Yugoslavia, along with Poland and Czechoslovakia.

According to the band’s history, the rallying point came in 1964. The Neenah High School Band Alumni performed a show to raise money for a current Neenah High Band trip to Canada. Les Mais, director at the time, and other members were determined to play more shows. Several lead musicians created the idea of forming an adult community band of volunteers. The City Council welcomed their vision and the band became official in 1965. Since then, nine directors have sparked a passion in band members that is very much active today.

Martin O’Donnell is concluding his fourth year as Neenah Community Band director and echoed the same sentiment as Gehrmann. “Many band members haven’t played since high school. I think the main reason (people join) is because music has been so special for them. Members aren’t learning their instrument, but getting back into it.”

This is a rewarding experience for O’Donnell, who embraces his role of helping members as both teacher and motivator. “We really enjoy him. He challenges us, but we work through it all,” says Doris Seymour, charter band member and alto saxophone player. Seymour has played in the ensemble for the last 48 years, but is just as connected to music as the day she picked up the alto sax. “Music is really important to me, it is just a big part of my life,” she says.

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Concerts are held every other Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Neenah’s Riverside Park. The next performance on July 15 is titled “Pop Culture Milestones,” which is destined to bring in a large crowd. Many also are looking forward to the “Band Member Favorites” Concert on Aug. 12.

The community band entertains throughout the year as well. The group performs for Armed Forces Day in May, at the Wisconsin Veteran’s Home in King each summer, and hold one major indoor concert before Christmas and at the start of spring in Pickard Auditorium. There is plenty to enjoy for members of the audience and band alike. “It’s a lot of fun and we all just enjoy playing,” says Seymour. “It makes you feel good.”

— By Reid Trier

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