The Big Band Academy of America would have never gotten off the ground without the benefit of near-perfect timing. While the big band era had ended four decades prior, many of its celebrities were still very much alive in the mid-1980s. Most of them were no longer working much, if at all, and were more than willing to accept Milt Bernhart's invitation to perform at a Big Band Reunion for no pay, perhaps a few comped tickets to the event. In turn, minimizing the cost of entertainment enabled the BBAA to keep ticket prices affordable for the average fan. The symbiotic result was (a) stars of the big band years thrilled to once again get up in front of adoring audiences and (b) audiences thrilled to be gotten up in front of.
The popularity of the Big Band Reunions reached a climax in the early '90s. A show would sell out as soon as the date was announced. With my dad running the Academy from the travel agency office, the phone lines into the agency would be jammed with calls from folks seeking big band tickets instead of airline tickets. For weeks, the mail would bring dozens of checks a day. It became clear that the Big Band Reunion could fill a venue even bigger than the Empire Room of the Sportsmen's Lodge. The decision was made to hold the 1992 festivities in the cavernous (and appropriately named) Academy Ballroom at the Burbank Airport Hilton and Convention Center.
It was a great evening. It rained, as was often the case on the first Monday in March during those years. But almost eleven hundred came out anyway for "Big Bands on Record," a program honoring big band recordings that had been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Here are a couple of my favorite moments from the show, beginning with the beginning:
Despite hitting a pinnacle of success that night, this would be the only Big Band Reunion held at the Burbank Airport Hilton. The need to have a portable stage brought in and set up in the ballroom caused more than a few headaches. I recall overhearing one attendee from Bel Air complaining about having had to "schlep" all the way to Burbank. And my father and the BBAA board of directors found the Hilton's corporate bureaucracy challenging. They missed the casual mood of the Sportsmen's Lodge, along with its built-in stage. The following year, the Reunion returned to the Sportsmen's Lodge and never strayed again.
And there's something else. Lurking behind the great music and glittering atmosphere of the 1992 audio clips, my dad's voice is starting to sound ragged. The difference from four years before isn't dramatic, but those who knew him well could tell he was working hard to take in the volume of air necessary over the course of a two-hour emcee job.
As time passed, he would have to work still harder.
To be continued ...