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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

I didn't inherit my father's performing gene. Through the years in which he ran the Big Band Academy of America, I had been content to help out behind the scenes and leave the spotlight to those who wanted it. Now, in the aftermath of his death just a month and a half prior to the 2004 Big Band Reunion, I was stepping into his shoes as the event's master of ceremonies, as well as taking on the job of interim president.

It was a thrill to be brought on that afternoon in front of a packed house at the Sportsmen's Lodge by BBAA board member and legendary big band radio host Chuck Cecil:

I introduced a montage of musical selections associated with my dad in one way or another:

Trumpeter Buddy Childers was among those who came to the microphone to reminisce about Milt:

I even took the opportunity to ad-lib a joke at the end:

It was a day of two major accomplishments: presenting a show that had to go on and celebrating my father's life at the same time. It was also the last high-water mark for the Big Band Academy.

Newly possessed of a couple of hours of experience as an emcee, I was comfortable with the almost immediate suggestions that another Big Band Reunion be mounted the next year. Indeed, there was a 2005 gathering. The program had its moments, such as pianist Tamir Hendelman's tribute to his mentor, Joe Harnell, a member of the BBAA board of directors who was too ill to attend:

And by then I had dropped the adjective "interim" from my title. I was the president of the Big Band Academy of America without qualification, in every sense of the word. But time was catching up with big bands. The 2005 Reunion did not sell out as had the previous year's event, nor did the Reunion that followed, in 2007. As name performers of the big band era passed from the scene, attracting the necessary audiences became correspondingly harder. Prospective ticket-buyers would call me about a forthcoming Reunion and the first question out of their mouths was invariably, "Who's on the bill?" I longed to tell them the Dorsey Brothers and Ella Fitzgerald, but it couldn't be.

I began reaching out to music and entertainment figures whose connections to big bands were more tenuous: film composers who had apprenticed in the genre early in their careers, songwriters I admired, even notables from the world of comedy. Most said no politely or didn't respond. I learned that you can't summon honorees to a banquet as though it's jury duty.

Among those who did accept my offer of a salute by the BBAA was the great humorist, actor and recording artist Stan Freberg.

In all aspects of his work, Stan had employed big bands, including my dad on many occasions. And I was a fan.

I anticipated an afternoon of nothing but bliss once the announcement went out that Stan would appear on stage at the 2008 Big Band Reunion.

The reality turned out to be different.

For starters, tickets didn't sell any better than they had for the two preceding affairs. Disappointing, but at least the day itself would be heavenly, right?

I arranged a car and driver to pick up Stan Freberg and his wife at their home in West L.A. on the morning of the Reunion, bring them to the Sportsmen's Lodge in time for a rehearsal with the band and deliver them back home at the end of the afternoon. The driver showed up at the appointed address and time, but the Frebergs weren't there. Without telling anyone and fully aware that a limo driver was on the way, they had decided to take a stroll to a neighborhood restaurant for brunch. The driver waited in front of their house five minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then called me at the venue from his car, asking if I had a clue where the passengers were. The Frebergs didn't carry cellphones, so it was impossible to know their whereabouts.

Finally, as the driver was about to give up and leave, here came the Frebergs ambling along the sidewalk into view. They got into the car, made no attempt at an apology and the driver proceeded with them to the Sportsmen's Lodge. The driver later told me the Frebergs sniped at him from the back seat all the way to the Valley, as if he had done something wrong.

Arriving late at the venue meant Stan missed most of his designated rehearsal time, plus which he was still grumpy over the car-and-driver business. Disappointing, but at least the show itself would be heavenly, right?

In part two of this series, I mentioned that the Empire Room came with a built-in stage. While it was a useful feature, the stage didn't extend out far enough toward the audience to accommodate a big band, singers or other performers standing in front of the band, and a podium. For events like the Big Band Reunions, the staff of the Sportsmen's Lodge would attach a portable stage extension to the permanent stage, thus creating the extra stage space needed. But the extension didn't seal tightly against the built-in stage; there was always a gap of an inch or so between the two. With the gap located immediately in front of the first row of the bandstand, anybody walking past the bandstand was liable to trip and fall into the saxophone section, or worse. It was an accident waiting to happen.

A highlight of Stan Freberg's portion of the program was his performance of "Take an Indian to Lunch" from the 1961 album "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America":

I bestowed on Stan the Big Band Academy's lifetime achievement award, the Golden Bandstand:

Stan then turned away from the podium and moved toward the stairs to come down from the stage, but he was looking out at the audience, not in the direction he was walking. That's right, the gap:

We were all actually very lucky. Stan tumbled backward into the first row of the bandstand, where his fall was broken by a music stand and one of the saxophone players. Had he fallen forward, he would have gone completely off the stage and hit the dance floor about 10 feet below. My flippant remark moments before about lifetime achievement awards being a leading cause of death nearly proved disastrously prescient. As you hear, Stan was on his feet again and talking in a matter of seconds. My heart, however, took a little longer to resume beating.

Then, anticlimactically, I fulfilled my obligation to close out the program:

After all that, the Frebergs were still mad at the limo driver I'd engaged and told me they would get a ride home from a friend who was in attendance.

That was enough for me. The shrinking audiences, the vanishing big band idols, the time, the trouble and now a reminder of the liability the Big Band Academy would face if somebody were injured at one of our gatherings combined to persuade me this was the final Reunion.

I never formally announced an end to the Big Band Reunions. I didn't have to. Even the most ardent big band lovers on the mailing list gradually stopped asking me when the next Reunion would take place. Trombonist Si Zentner came right to the point when he commented, as preserved in the second audio clip from part three of this series, "I've outlived my market." And that was the 1992 Reunion. These get-togethers now clearly belonged to another time.

The Big Band Academy still comes up occasionally in conversation. If I'm chatting with someone who wasn't fortunate enough to experience a Big Band Reunion in person, I'll try to describe the atmosphere, the excitement, the never-to-be-duplicated parade of big band superstars. In the end, though, I usually just shrug and say, "Well, you had to be there."

I'm indebted to my father for making the mid-career detour that led to the travel agency and the Big Band Academy. Emceeing the last four Big Band Reunions was bracing and gave me new perspectives that continue to guide me to this day.

That said, I think I'll still leave the spotlight to those who really want it.

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

The 1992 Big Band Reunion was the last my mother Martie attended. She was in the hospital the night of the 1993 Reunion and died the following month. While my father continued as president of the BBAA and emcee of the Reunions, the popularity of the annual event set about on a slow decline at that point, as did my dad's health. With my mom no longer there to prod him to see a doctor, my dad chose to ignore and deny symptoms -- at first minor -- of a failing heart.

Compare the strength of my father's voice at the 1994 Reunion ...

... to his opening remarks in 1997, which he precedes by clearing his throat before delivering a single word ...

... and then to the palpable struggle for air he exhibits in 2002, his next-to-last show ...

The comment in the 1997 clip about "last year's dinner" refers to the aborted 1996 Reunion, called off when the intended honoree of the evening, Artie Shaw, pulled out at the last minute. That saga alone would require a lengthy essay.

My father's philosophy of life was self-reliance in the extreme. From at least the time of my earliest recollections, he would chide my mother for "running to doctors," the implication being that to seek medical assistance was a sign of weakness. Bolstering this philosophy was the fact that my dad had never faced serious illness himself or been hospitalized. And I have to give him grudging kudos for staying true to his belief even when his own health began to break down. As the '90s gave way to the early 2000s, my father's cardiovascular issues now included swelling of the feet and ankles, along with shortness of breath while sleeping on his back, in addition to the decade-long symptom of gasping for air while speaking, especially publicly. Yet despite the flashing red lights, he remained resistant to getting even a cursory check-up.

Two months after the 2002 Reunion, those of us urging my dad to see a doctor finally prevailed. He agreed to go to an urgent care center, but in typical Milt Bernhart fashion, he insisted on going alone and driving himself, telling us he expected to be given a clean bill of health and sent back home. Instead, the staff at the urgent care center took a single blood pressure reading that was so low (80/50) they immediately called for an ambulance and my father was rushed to the nearest hospital.

A week later and about 30 pounds lighter thanks to diuretics, my dad came home having been formally diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It was a blessing that he'd been pulled back from the brink of death, but we knew his long-term prognosis was poor.

Remarkably, he forged ahead one more year in charge of the Big Band Academy, serving as host of the 2003 Reunion. Though his gaunt appearance startled some and his voice was weaker than ever, he kept an upbeat demeanor and went the distance, from the top of the program ...

... to the words that turned out to be the last he would utter from the stage ...

Even more remarkably, my father actually went on to make plans to emcee the 2004 Big Band Reunion. As of the second full week of January -- less than two months before the March 7 event -- he had signed the usual contracts with the Sportsmen's Lodge and the Musicians Union, mailed out ticket order forms and already received some checks in return, completed a few but not all of the many other preproduction tasks and announced that this show would be his farewell both as master of ceremonies and as president of the BBAA.

Then he abruptly took to his bed.

I don't know what imminent death feels like, but it was overtaking my dad. He spent a week in bed without eating, drinking, complaining or asking for assistance of any kind. Clearly he had become prepared to depart this life. My sister and I, however, weren't ready to give up; we decided on January 18 to have him taken to the hospital. He didn't want to go, but he didn't fight us either. He died in the hospital four days later.

The Big Band Academy had no plan of succession for its presidency. There were a couple of logical candidates on the board of directors, but both had declined the job at the time my father announced that he would retire following the 2004 Reunion. Similarly, no one came forward in the hours after my dad's passing. I understood. The Reunion was only six weeks away and too many commitments had been made to permit the notion of canceling, while simultaneously a great deal of the work my father would have otherwise finished by then remained to be done. Whoever ended up at the helm of this floundering ship was going to have their hands full.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I volunteered to step in and at least get the organization through the Reunion. I wasn't qualified to serve as interim president for any reasons related to big bands or the music business, but having observed the master at work since 1986, I knew the things that needed to be done. And I was willing to assume the role. It wouldn't be so bad. The extra activity would help take my mind off of my father's sudden absence.

I also agreed to emcee the Reunion in my dad's stead.

That was more daunting.

To be continued ...

  • 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 ...

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