Why LB Started a Municipal Band

By: 
Gerrie Schipske

A heated discussion is taking place about whether or not the Long Beach Municipal Band should perform in all of the nine council districts. This isn’t the first time, the Long Beach Municipal Band has been a focus of controversy in the city.

Long Beach was long touted as the only city in America to have its own municipal band funded through a tax on its residents. It didn’t start out that way. 

Music was always important to Long Beach. From its beginning, bands played music in the parks and on the beach. One of its first bands was the “Cuthbert Family Band” founded by former Civil War surgeon (and first Long Beach Public Health Officer), William Cuthbert. Three men and two women family members played with “four out of towners.” They toured early Long Beach and performed at church events such as the Methodist “Chautauqua” each summer in the 1890s.

In 1889, a 13-member band was formed under the direction of Mr. Dickover. Records do not indicate how long that band lasted but the desire for community music sound was soon met by a group formed as the union military “Long Beach Marine Band.” That 30-piece band was under contract with the city to provide afternoon and evening concerts all year long. Additionally, they performed in the bathhouse, skating rink and the streets of Los Angeles that became the route of the Pacific Electric Railroad.

By 1905, some residents had grown weary of the band and urged the city not to renew the contract. The Marine Band was asking the city for exclusive rights to the new auditorium and sun pier, where dances were held. Competing with the Marine Band for a contract, was “Donatelli’s Royal Italian Band.” 

The Long Beach Chamber of Commerce signed a contract with Nicola Donatelli to lead the “municipal band,” replacing the Vesselia band that had played on the beach. Donatelli provided a 30 piece band and a string orchestra of 10 pieces. A group of ministers and congregants petitioned the council to stop music and dances on Sunday in the auditorium.

Eventually, complaints were raised that the band was comprised of Italians and not Americans. However, the reality was that Long Beach’s “taste in music” did not match the Italian band. As a reporter wrote in 1906: “Long Beach is no longer a struggling seashore resort, and the pockets once open for donations to popular attractions remain closed. The band music lost its charm for Long Beachites and visitors like popular and patriotic music that stirs the warm blood, and the Italian band plays this only under compulsion, preferring classic themes, understood and enjoyed only by the musical minority. It will, therefore, occasion no surprise if within the week the Royal Italian Band becomes only a pleasant memory.”

In 1907, E.H. Wiley organized an “American” Long Beach Municipal Band. Voters were asked to pay a tax to support the band in 1908 and 1910, after the mayor cut funding out of the city budget. But when the tax failed in 1910 because of a three-fifths vote requirement, Wiley announced his final concert. A referendum passed in 1911 and the band was funded and band members became city employees.

The band was used to promote the city by the sea as a way to attract “the best blood of the nation.”

 Thousands flocked to Long Beach just to hear them perform. Wiley remained director until 1915 when Osa Foster took the baton. In 1923, the city hired Herbert Clarke, former assistant director to John Philip Sousa.

The LB Municipal Band expanded, hiring no Italians and requiring the band members to be city employees. By 1930, the city was spending $100,000 for the band, while only contributing $5,000 for the Long Beach Symphony. The Depression forced the city to let the band go. But when the 1933 earthquake hit, band members re-assembled and offered to play free concerts for the victims who were homeless.

After the Depression, the LB Municipal Band continued with full city funding until 1978 when after Prop 13, the council cut support to $100,000 a year and concerts were limited to only summer.

The LB Municipal Band continues to struggle each year for funding. The city council approves the budget for the LB Municipal Band, which in turn determines how many concerts it can offer.

The issue of whether or not the Long Beach Municipal Band should perform equally in each of the nine council districts remains unsolved. What matters most is that this 100 year plus tradition continue.

gerrie@beachcomber.news

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