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"The President's Own"

 

"The President's Own"

United States Marine Band

Colonel Jason K. Fettig, Director
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The Dream Hour, Revisited

By Master Sgt. Kristin duBois | United States Marine Band | April 4, 2018

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It seems that the Marine Band has always been at the leading edge of technology – whether using the newest, most modern instruments and digital recording techniques, traveling around the world wherever railroads, motor coaches, or airplanes would take it, or, beginning in 1889, experimenting with Edison’s new recording equipment. It should not have seemed surprising that the band would also get involved in radio while it was still in its infancy. It is the band’s early foray into radio that will be celebrated in concert at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 8 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park with Marine Band Director Col. Jason K. Fettig, conducting. The performance will stream live at www.youtube.com/usmarineband.

“These historical broadcasts were not only a very important part of our history as a musical organization, they were also a major chapter in radio history and touched the lives of millions of people across the airwaves for so many years,” Fettig said. “In many ways, the Marine Band’s performances through radio in the 30s and 40s brought the band to a whole new audience in the way that our first national tours under the baton of Sousa did in the 1890s.”

 

“When selecting the program for this special concert, I looked at all of the programs from the broadcasts and tried to select music that would be very representative of what would have been heard on the radio those many years ago, including featured solos for Marine Band musicians, patriotic marches and some of the most often requested classical works in the history of the program. We will even conclude the program with a traditional hymn, as was done at the end of every broadcast. Additionally, in an effort to evoke the spirit of these original broadcasts, we always feature the exact text that was read during the broadcasts back then, including some colorful vocabulary and style that is so very evocative of the time.”

 

Special guest Robert Aubry Davis of WETA and XM Radio’s “Millennium of Music” will serve as the moderator and announcer. “Mr. Davis will embody the spirit of those broadcasters from the 1940s to bring back to life the golden age of radio and an incredibly exciting time in the history of ‘The President’s Own,’” Fettig said.

Davis is a long-time friend of the Marine Band and is looking forward to this new collaboration with Director Col. Jason Fettig. “I have had the great honor of working with the Marine Band extensively in the past, particularly under Col. John Bourgeois,” he said. “I am thrilled there have been recent concerts dedicated to his tenure. Being a multi-generation Washingtonian—my grand-parents, great-grandparents, and many other family members are buried just steps from John Philip Sousa’s tomb at the Congressional Cemetery—I am deeply aware of the band’s importance both to this nation and my hometown.”

He also explained the significance of radio as a medium in the early 20th century:

“We often opine about how the nation was more united when there were only four television channels, and everyone would experience things together as a cultural phenomenon. But even at its peak on television, something like the Mary Tyler Moore Show may have had a 23 or 24 ‘share’—the number of households as a percentage who watched. As a comparison, today’s top television programs rarely break a 3 share.”

“But if we look at the 1942-43 radio season for this concert, both Bob Hope and Red Skelton had higher shares than 40. That is to say, 40% of all radios were tuned into those shows when they aired. These were not the Roosevelt Fireside Chats or anything special, just regular folks needing a laugh at a tough time.”

“Having worked in my career in both television and radio, we were taught early on about why radio is the best medium: the pictures are better. And once upon a time, these radio pictures united a nation.”

“My Uncle Johnny worked for the Armed Forces Radio Service during the war (I remember his collection of those big old 16 inch transcription discs), and no one was more excited than he was about my early efforts to get into the radio world.”

Taylor Branson, Assistant Director from 1921-27 and Director from 1927-40, also showed a great interest in the radio world, and is likely responsible for leading the Marine Band into the forefront of early radio broadcasting. On May 17, 1922, the Marine Band made its very first radio broadcast from the Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington, D.C. The show actually featured a small orchestra due to the size of the studio, but the band very quickly became the main ensemble used in future transmissions.

The broadcast turned into a series with weekly concerts being aired through Sept. 13. Branson, although he was the Assistant Director, led almost all of them. The next year, on Feb. 14, the broadcast took place in the band auditorium at Marine Barracks Washington and became the permanent site for all indoor broadcasts.

In 1924 the regular outdoor summer concerts began to be broadcast and by 1925 almost all of the Wednesday night concerts at the U.S. Capitol building and Thursday night concerts at the Sylvan Theatre, on the grounds of the Washington Monument, were broadcast by WRC. In 1926 all Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra concerts in the winter and band concerts in the summer were broadcast by WRC.

Other radio series the Marine Band performed include “Marine Corps Communicates with Mr. Night” which premiered on Dec. 21, 1923, the “School Band Educational Series” which began in Dec. 1928, and the 4-H Club “Farm and Home Hour” music appreciation series which began on June 22, 1929. In 1930 the band or orchestra could be heard typically three or four times a week on WRC and the NBC networks.

Without question, the longest running and most significant radio series was the “Dream Hour for the Shut-ins” program. Originally called the “Hour for Shut-ins,” the “Dream Hour” was broadcast once a week and featured a typical Marine Band concert with marches, orchestral transcriptions, patriotic tunes, and a soloist and were performed before a live audience. There is not a lot of primary source documentation of the creation or development of the series except that programs were generated by listeners’ written requests. Friday, June 12, 1931, is listed as the first “Shut-in show” and it was broadcast from 10-11 a.m. on WRC-NBC. During the second broadcast the following week, the show’s announcer, sent over from NBC, was a young Arthur Godfrey, who later went on to become a household name in America as both a radio and television personality.

These broadcasts were done amid the band’s busy schedule of concerts, funerals, ceremonies, and events at the White House. The “Shut-In Hour” broadcast was weekly from June 12 through the end of the year with only the period for the band’s tour being missed.

The popularity of the program was tremendous. The Marine Band broadcasts and possibly others by the newly formed Army and Navy bands may have been the only programs on the radio where listeners could request specific compositions and actually expect to have a decent chance to hear them. Unfortunately, none of the hundreds of request letters and cards addressed to the band over the years have survived but Private Donald Kimball’s response to one particular letter did.

Kimball was only 19 years old when he joined the Marine Band as a euphonium player in 1932. He was also single, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the radio announcer Arthur Godfrey. In the early years of the “Dream Hour” show, the script was largely written by Godfrey and when he couldn’t find anything to say about a particular piece he often improvised. In the summer of 1933, after one of Kimball’s solo performances, Godfrey began to ad lib by describing Kimball over the air as an eligible young bachelor and encouraged the young ladies in the audience to write a fan letter to Pvt. Kimball. One young lady, Miss Lucille Sadler from Cleveland, Ohio, was listening and did indeed write. Donald replied and enclosed a picture of himself wearing his Marine uniform and holding his double-bell euphonium. A little over a year later, the young couple was married in Cleveland before moving back to Washington, where Pvt. Kimball was eventually promoted to principal euphonium and the Kimball family was profiled in Life magazine.

Euphonium soloists were a popular feature of the Dream Hour concerts beginning with one of the first broadcasts in 1922 when euphonium player Charles Viner was featured with the band performing American composer James Bland’s popular song “Take Me Back to Old Virginny” over a local Virginia radio station. The second half of the April 8 concert will feature the newest member of the Marine Band’s euphonium section, Staff Sgt. Hiram Diaz performing Ermanno Picchi’s virtuosic showpiece “Fantasie Originale.”

Picchi is remembered primarily as an Italian opera critic and scholar. He also tried his hand at composing, completing at least two operas and this “Original Fantasie,” which is representative of the many Italian opera-themed solos of the late-19th century. While it is unclear which instrument this piece was originally written for, it was arranged for euphonium in the early 20th century by the Italian-American euphonium virtuoso and Sousa Band alum Simone Mantia.

In addition to performing with the Sousa Band, Mantia also played in the famous bands of Arthur Pryor and Victor Herbert. He went on to win the principal trombone chair in the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, a position he held for 35 years, performing with legendary conductors including Arturo Toscanini.

Another piece featured on the second half of the program was the most frequently requested piece in the mid-1930s—not a Sousa march, or a transcription from the orchestral repertoire—it was the popular “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing” that many know today from Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room attraction. Why was this song so popular? By the early 1930s artists, musicians, and writers had been visiting Hawaii and other islands in the South Pacific for some time and their art and music reflecting island life began to make their way into popular American culture for the first time. Between the grip of the Great Depression and the tragedy of the Midwestern Dustbowl, average Americans at the time yearned for a tropical escape and Hawaiian style music accounted for a large percentage of recorded music at the time.   

As time went by improvising by the announcers became far less common and the shows developed a dedicated radio script. In addition to providing program notes for the music, the announcers had also begun actively recruiting for the Marine Corps: “if one wants variety – the spice of life – there is no better place to find it than in the United States Marine Corps.”

The Dream Hour’s time slot varied greatly and was cancelled some weeks on account of events such as the World Series or other newsworthy occasions. This may give another hint to explain why there was not a lot of knowledge about the series. The band was made available without charge—a non-commercial program which frequently took a backseat to sponsored programs.

Despite that fact, the band’s broadcasts honored many different occasions. The March 28, 1940 broadcast featured the retirement of Captain Taylor Branson as the Marine Band’s 20th Director. He was the pioneer and moving force behind getting the band on the air and making it a priority in the band’s schedule. It was a fitting tribute to honor his over 40 years of service to the Marine Corps in a radio broadcast. Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcombe, 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, attended the on-air ceremony with President Franklin D. Roosevelt sending a letter of appreciation which was read over the air as part of the ceremony.  

The first broadcast of 1942 was called the “Patriotic Dream Hour for Shut-ins,” following America’s entry into World War II. The cancellation of the Marine Band’s annual concert tours during the war allowed the band to remain on the air without a break and regular broadcasts continued throughout the war years. Other unique Dream Hour broadcasts included the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band, a group of exceptional female Marine musicians, hand-picked for the service and mentored by members of the Marine Band, who made their debut on a broadcast Nov. 1, 1944. A somber memorial program was played on April 13, 1945, marking the death of President Roosevelt, and the Marine Band celebrated its 150th anniversary over a broadcast on July 11, 1948, with actor Edward Arnold of the “Mr. President Radio Show” serving as the announcer.

Except for periods of time when the band was out of Washington for special trips or on tour, the “Dream Hour” aired live through 1949 and in December 1950 and January 1951 the Leader log indicates that, for the first time, the “Dream Hour” program was recorded for later broadcast.

The broadcast on June 8, 1951, featured a special celebration of the 20th anniversary of the “Dream Hour” with announcers Mac McGarry and Kennedy Ludlum. The program opened with The Marines’ Hymn and featured the ever-popular “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing” and a telegram of congratulations from NBC president Joseph McConnell.

Recordings were made weekly from Jan. 8 through to the final show on Sept. 3, 1954, the 952nd program in the series. That episode concluded what was then the longest continuing series on network radio.

The Marine Band continued to be a presence on the radio with the “Marine Bandstand” from 1951-58 and live and recorded concerts for CBS radio from 1959-62 and National Public Radio’s “Greatest Bands in the Land” show hosted by John Ogle in the late 1980s. NPR has also featured many Marine Band recordings over the years on “Performance Today,” hosted by Fred Child, which is now produced by Minnesota Public Radio.

In 2008 former Marine Band Director Col. Michael Colburn initiated the new tradition of Dream Hour reenactments with announcer Dennis Owens of WGMS radio in Washington, D.C. Other reenactments followed in 2010 with Mark Shields of PBS NewsHour, and in 2013 with Mike O’Meara of the nationally syndicated Don and Mike Show. Davis’ knowledge of early music from his “Millennium of Music” show makes him an ideal addition to the “Dream Hour” tradition.

“When the Band began, there was only early music,” he said. “All of those first marches and dance pieces were from the Baroque era or before and while over the decades the Marine Band has modernized, it has also stayed both traditional and loyal to its roots. I always remind the audience that the Marine Band is the musical organization with the longest unbroken history in this young nation; in a country where I feel we are insufficiently attentive to the story of our own evolution musically, the United States Marine Band is a foundation stone of the harmony of America.”

Master Gunnery Sgt. Michael Ressler, USMC (ret.), Master Sgt. Mark Jenkins, and Gunnery Sgt. Kira Wharton contributed to this story.

Complete program and notes

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