Honk if you like the music.
Abilene Municipal Band plays every summer Thursday evening at the Harold Royer Band Shell in Eisenhower Park. People sit on the benches, in lawn chairs or on blankets on the grass and in their cars.
Applause and car horns are acceptable accolades.
The band offers old-time marches and new concert band pieces every Thursday from the middle of May to the last Thursday in July.
Special concerts include Fourth of July, which falls on a Thursday this year, and a Christmas concert at the Eisenhower Center.
The July 11 concert will be an exchange with Salina Municipal Band, and July 18 will be a big band jazz concert.
The band has played at the War Veterans Memorial in Abilene Cemetery since at least before World War II, said Tom Miles, band historian, former director, baritone sax, clarinet and percussion player and general jack-of-all-trades for the band. Miles and his wife, Maryjo, also are the librarians for the band.
“It’s just important,” said Toby Weishaar, director, about the band. “Music is a big part of my life. It’s important and it’s unique, a unique thing we’re still doing.”
It’s been a part of his life for a long time. He started playing in the band when he was 14, and he’s been playing or directing the band for 35 years.
He took over conducting from Miles in 1996, who had stepped in for a year or two when he came back to Abilene. Miles has been in the band nearly as long, but not continuously.
Until 1920, the band went through 10 different directors. Then Harold J. “Pearlie” Royer took up the baton. Royer led the band until 1983, 63 years. The new band shell was named in his honor.
Like Abilene, the municipal band’s history involves cowboys, fires, bank robbers and presidents and is about as old as the town.
This band can trace its direct roots to 1881, which makes it the second or third oldest municipal band in the state, said Miles.
But Weishaar said Abilene has supported bands longer than that. There are photos of bands from the 1870s and he thinks even from the 1860s, he said.
“That’s a sense of history we don’t grasp,” Weishaar said.
One of the early incarnations of the municipal band was the Abilene Cowboy Band. Then there was the Wild Bill Hickok Cowboy Band. C.W. Parker, of carousel fame, sponsored a Parker Amusement Band. And there were numerous bands just for boys.
In the rehearsal room at the band shell is a photograph of the Abilene Baseball Band taken at the train depot on July 4, 1900, Miles said. The group would go to nearby communities, play a game and then play a concert.
Bands were one way communities were built, Weishaar said. In the 1800s and early 1900s, unless you were rich and could hire musicians to come into your home, bands were the only way you heard music.
The band used to rehearse in the county courthouse and play in gazebo-type bandstands near there, probably around Northwest Third Street, Miles said.
The courthouse burned in 1882, and Miles said he thinks there was one other fire around the turn of the century.
“Fires don’t do much for the music,” he said.
The last fire was Feb. 15, 1989, in the band shell built in the 1930s by the WPA where the Royer Band Shell is now, Miles said.
The fire was probably started by a short in a water heater, and was during an ice storm, to boot. The band lost everything in the rehearsal room, including music, some of it signed by the composers John Phillip Sousa and J.J. Richards, and the cowboy band uniforms, Miles said.
Until the fire, band members wore chaps and cowboy hats when they marched. That was what they were wearing when they marched in the inaugural parades in Washington, D.C., for President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and 1957.
“Ike took an interest in this band,” Miles said. “He was pleased we supported him.”
Bill Robinson, trombone, is the only member still active who marched in the inaugural parades. Melvin Leckron, trumpet, marched in the parades but he retired from the band this year.
After the 1989 fire, “We had lots of people looking out for us and helping us out,” Miles said.
Former band member Bill Jeffcoat from Jeffcoat Studio replaced many of the early band photos after the fire, Miles said.
Then-Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum’s staff helped the band get a $10,000 grant from AT&T. A music publisher donated $400-$500 worth of music.
A reformed bank robber heard about the fire and, through Abilene native Marlin Fitzwater, donated $50,000 in spring 1990.
Air Force Lt. Del Dunmire was 24 and stationed at Schilling Air Base in Salina when he robbed Commercial State Bank in Abilene of $2,251 in 1958. He didn’t even make it out of town before he was captured. After serving two years in Leavenworth, he made millions as an industrialist.
As Miles tells the story, Dunmire was talking to Fitzwater at a party in Washington and said he figured $50,000 would atone for what he had stolen, plus interest, if Fitzwater would come to Abilene to accept it.
Dunmire flew into the park on a helicopter as the band played Sousa marches. He had with him a satchel that he let kids reach into and pull out cash. Each of the 33 band members also received a $100 bill, Miles said.
“City bands are drying up and blowing away,” Miles said.
Wamego lost its band this year when it couldn’t find a trumpet player, he said.
“We go back and forth between the Junction City Community Band and Salina Municipal Band, which I direct.”
Abilene Municipal Band gets money from the city, Miles said.
“We pay about $7.50 a credit. If you come to rehearsal and play at the concert you get $15. You don’t do it for the money, you do it because it’s fun.”
The Abilene band has more than 100 musicians on its roster, but 40 to 50 show up for a summer concert, Weishaar said.
He likes looking at the band and seeing a 14-year-old sitting next to a veteran like Bill Robinson.
“To survive, you really do need to attract younger members,” Weishaar said, and the money helps because so many teens have jobs.
Contact Jean Bowers at email@example.com.