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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

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 ...

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

Following his ascension in 1986 to the presidency of the Big Band Academy of America, Milt Bernhart moved quickly to remedy the absence of a band at Big Band Reunions. He engaged BBAA board member Pat Longo to assemble and lead a band made up of L.A.'s finest freelance musicians, many of them former colleagues of my dad's from his studio days.

In another ambitious step, my father relocated the Reunions from the small-scale banquet room of a Burbank restaurant to the Empire Ballroom of the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. The Empire Room offered seating for nearly 800, several times the capacity of the event's previous home, and came with the uncommon feature of a built-in stage, ideal for large musical ensembles.

On top of these upgrades, my dad seized the opportunity to step back into the spotlight as a performer by emceeing the proceedings, utilizing his own original material.

His vision of a bigger and better Big Band Reunion was vindicated by the first two affairs under his administration: a tribute to Glenn Miller in March 1987 and a salute to Stan Kenton that September. Both sold out soon after tickets went on sale and suddenly Milt Bernhart was receiving acclaim as a master of ceremonies.

I know of no audio or video recording from either 1987 event. Having spent decades as a working trombonist and struggling even with his own union to ensure that musicians were fairly compensated for their performances, my father was sensitive to the possibility of surreptitious recordings being made from the audience, perhaps followed by unauthorized duplication and distribution. He was so concerned that he decided to set a good example and instructed the house sound engineer not to roll tape at all, even if only to save a recording for my dad's personal reference.

From today's vantage point, it would be thrilling to have a few actualities from those first two shows. And admittedly, a principled stand was a little easier for my father to take because documenting events for posterity in general couldn't have meant less to him. But he made an ethical decision and I respect him for that.

By 1989, my dad would come around to the value of preserving at least the audio from these you-had-to-be-there nights. Beginning that year, the house engineer recorded each concert and delivered a dub to my father a few days later.

That practice continued beyond my dad's death in 2004, into the presidency of a most unlikely successor and through the final Big Band Reunion in 2008. More about that unlikely successor to come.

For a long time, I believed the 1989 Reunion was the oldest to have been recorded. After my father's passing, however, I found a jumble of cassettes in a shoebox in one of his closets. This was his idea of archiving. (Fortunately, the dubs of Reunions from '89 onward were stored a bit more carefully and survive to this day.) One of the shoebox cassettes was marked -- in someone else's handwriting -- "BBAA 1988" with no other identifying information.

While the recording was made from the audience just as my dad had feared, the party with the recorder must have been a friend and felt comfortable passing the tape along to my father. I'll be forever grateful to that nameless figure for the preservation of the 1988 affair. And I'm pleased to be able to present here my dad's opening remarks and the band's first number from that earliest known audio recording of a Big Band Reunion.

Click the link below, close your eyes and let yourself drift back to the evening of Monday, March 7, 1988. You're at the Sportsmen's Lodge, seated at a table near the stage, surrounded by several hundred fellow big band lovers. You've just finished a delicious dinner of vulcanized chicken, the wait staff is clearing dishes and serving coffee, and Milt Bernhart has started to speak from the podium. You surreptitiously pull out your trusty microcassette recorder and capture the following:

True, the sound isn't broadcast quality; if this recording were a book, it would be termed a "reading copy." But like a reading copy, this clip is perfectly listenable and conveys the essence of the early Big Band Reunions better than any attempt one might make to describe them to somebody who wasn't there.

As the '90s dawned, the BBAA and its annual bash only continued to grow.

To be continued ...

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

By the early 1970s, my father Milt had toiled as a trombonist in the Hollywood studios for twenty years. The pressure from orchestra leaders, fellow musicians and himself to play perfectly on every take was making him a nervous wreck and he was growing increasingly reliant on tranquilizers, showing up to recording sessions under the influence of Valium and more than once experiencing adverse consequences.

This was the circumstance in which it became clear he would have to find another line of work. The realization must have been crushing to my dad, as he had never wanted to be anything but a musician since he was a child. But there was no getting around the anxiety that took hold each time the red light went on.

After a lifetime of being told what to do by others, he decided in 1973 to become his own boss. The subject of travel intrigued him, so he found a travel agency for sale in the venerable Taft Building at Hollywood & Vine, purchased it, then set about learning how a travel agency operated. That was typical of the order in which my dad did things throughout life.

Another tenant in the Taft Building was a man named Leo Walker. Leo worked as a sales representative for Flecto, the company that manufactured the wood finish Varathane, but his passion was the music of the big bands. As soon as Leo heard that the trombonist Milt Bernhart had just bought Kelly Travel Service, he made a point of coming into the agency to introduce himself. That meeting would eventually lead to my father's emergence as an impresario and master of ceremonies under the banner of the yet-to-be-created Big Band Academy of America.

At the time the two men got acquainted, Leo Walker had been hosting for several years an annual gathering of big band luminaries in the modest-sized banquet room of a Burbank restaurant; a "Big Band Reunion," he called it. Leaders, sidemen and singers would get up and tell stories, interact with fans, a dinner was served and a splendid evening was had by all. But there was no music. Once the travel agency and Leo Walker came into our lives, my parents began attending the event and first heard the question that was whispered around the room every year: "How can you have a big band reunion without a band?"

Adding a band to an already complicated undertaking was simply more than Leo wanted to tackle. And the Big Band Reunions of the 1970s and the first half of the '80s were sufficiently popular, even without live music. In 1983, a new organization, the Big Band Academy of America, was formed for the purpose (among others) of presenting affairs such as the Big Band Reunion on a larger scale and/or more frequently. The name of the entity was my dad's idea and he was appointed to the board of directors, but Leo Walker became president and, as a result, the Big Band Reunion remained limited to a couple of hundred attendees and no band.

In 1986, Leo Walker announced his retirement from Flecto and the Big Band Academy. He offered the presidency of the BBAA to my father, who accepted. At first, I was unhappy with the decision. My dad and I had become essentially partners in the day-to-day activities of the travel agency and I was not looking forward to shouldering a lopsided share of the workload due to his new responsibilities with the Big Band Academy. But he had just turned 60 and I gradually recognized that this was a chance -- probably the last -- for him to be a performer again. Not in the way he had been as a trombonist, but perhaps at the helm of the BBAA he would find a different outlet for his creative urges.

To be continued ...

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