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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

You Had to Be There, Part 5

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.

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