Two free concerts will bookend the 4th of July weekend at the State Capitol. Tonight, it’s the Des Moines Symphony’s Yankee Doodle Pops. Sunday evening, the Des Moines Metro Concert Band will take the stage. The Metro Band is concluding its 69th season and Iowa Public Radio’s Rick Fredericksen prepared this Iowa Archives special, with technical assistance from John Pemble.
A couple hours after rehearsal at Drake University, the Des Moines Metro Concert Band relocates to the Iowa Capitol; the song birds and all the musicians are in tune for another Sunday evening performance.
“We start with our opening theme that was actually written for us, Music Under the Stars, and we opened the concert that way 69 years ago and that’s what we’re going to do tonight.”
Dan Stevenson plays clarinet, and is the band’s Executive Director.
“We we’ve have taken a very strong Iowa tradition, that is of the town band, and we’ve kind of done it up in a big town Des Moines way right on the steps of the state capitol, and we kind of think that it has significance not just for just Des Moines but for the whole state.”
There is no outdoor stage more distinguished in Iowa. Fans can reposition their lawn chairs for two magnificent backdrops: first, the capitol building basking in the evening sun, then, watching it silhouette the Des Moines skyline. All the while, the band plays amid the statues and water fountain, just like it did when Harry Truman was president. Clarence Padilla is the group’s seventh regular conductor.
“Well I think it’s definitely an American pastime, it’s similar to baseball we should be looking forward to these types of concerts every single summer and its free, not too many things are free anymore.”
After more than 300 concerts, stretching almost back to the end of World War Two, the song list still salutes the classics, variety and patriotism. The wool uniforms are long gone; today, band members are more likely to wear Aloha Shirts. The musicians are union professionals and come from all over Iowa; some with symphony experience in Des Moines, Waterloo-Cedar Falls and Orchestra Iowa. The fans are people who appreciate Americana.
“We came to Des Moines in '55 and my goodness I think we’ve come to about every band concert they’ve had here.”
Dick and Ruth Carey are from Sioux Center.
“There used to be a couple that would get right out here and dance, how ‘bout that?”
This 1963 performance, on a scratchy disc recording, stars three teenagers playing Bugler’s Holiday. One of them, Dan Hartzer, is now the senior member of the band.
“A lot of people didn’t have air conditioning. They’d bring their blankets out, and they’d spend the night sleeping on the ground at the capitol grounds. It was up on a hill and it was cool breeze and they’d spend the evening there.”
Karla Killinger is in the woodwind section. Her father was a long time conductor.
“I was reading one of the excerpts from back in 1946, the reason it was put together was to have bands during the summer times when children are out of school. And this article went on to say that playing an instrument keeps children out of jail.”
There was also a radio audience; this tape is from a KRNT broadcast in 1964, a year before the country would deepen its involvement in Vietnam. In 1969, fans gathered under the stars with distinguished company; just hours after man first landed on the moon. One refrain that keeps the band grounded is preservation.
“With the crunch from the last several years we’re I guess we’re struggling a little bit more people are having other things to do but they’re missing out on the greatest, best kept secret in town.”
Early on, musicians were paid $8 a day. Now it’s ten times that.
“So here’s what I’m telling you, the musicians are putting up $1,500 in a matching grant…”
“I think we’ll try to keep it going. The biggest problem is raising the funds for it.”
Dan Hartzer oversees the group's legacy.
“We’ll sure it’s an older crowd that comes to it. We try to get younger people by playing more current music and programming along those lines and having themes for the program, but it’s a family event and unfortunately a lot of families don’t do things like that anymore.”
The DM Metro Band wraps up its 69th year Sunday at 7:00, followed immediately by the Metro Big Band. The season closes out July 12th with the Iowa Military Veterans Band. In Des Moines, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.