THE ROBBINSDALE CITY BAND
1906 – 2006
By Kay Anderson
In 1906 Robbinsdale was a small community on the northwestern edge of Minneapolis. Its citizens were eager for the community to grow and the Robbinsdale City Band became a force to promote that growth. Members of the Grenell and Swift families were instrumental in starting a band consisting of a dozen or so members of all ages known as the Robbinsdale Civic Club Band. Over the years the name was changed to the Robbinsdale City Band (RCB), the name in use today.
The earliest bands were comprised of family members of all ages. Mid century, when the band was especially known for its marching, the band was made up of teenagers and young adults. The age of present day band members is more diverse than it was 35 years ago. The marching band has members ranging in age from 15 through 50’s. For the concert unit, “post high school adult” has come to mean age 18 – mid-80’s. Their histories and life stories are just as varied with educational backgrounds in biology, engineering, education, medicine, business, accounting, design, music, homemaking and more.
In spite of their differences, these people have found something essential to their lives in common with all of the others. They love music! Through it they have found a way to feed their souls and make a well-rounded life. Public education is cited by many as the only way they were able to learn to play an instrument. The fact that they are still enjoying music and contributing to the community with their playing after 40 – 50 – 60 years is evidence that money spent on music education has been well spent.
The band has been known as a closely knit friendship group. Members celebrate together for events such as weddings, births, and birthdays. They have held reunions and annual banquets, some with hired dance bands. They have been present and eager to assist at the time of illnesses and funerals. Many describe the RCB as “family.” They joined the band because of music but found enduring friendships and a supportive, caring community.
The band has been led by a series of directors, who have put their personal stamp on the band as it evolved into a highly ranked precision marching unit and a musically excellent band. The roster of directors is comprised of William Henry Grenell and his son, William Francis Grenell, (founders of the band), Louis Spotten, Miles Sery, Clarence Hegg, Paul Larson, William Allen Abbott, Robert Mendenhall, Roy Olson, Don Schiermer, Roger Thompson and the present director, Michael Serber.
THE MARCHING BAND
Throughout its history the band has been in great demand around the state for parades, celebrations and concerts. The band was invited to take part in the first Minneapolis Aquatennial parade and was named “The Governor’s Own Band” in 1938 and 1939. The band has played in every Aquatennial since its inception in 1939. During those years the band has been chosen Grand Open Champion 21 times and Torchlight winner 17 times. It is the only band to have won the title of State Champion Band at the State Fair for 7 consecutive years.
While the entire band both marched and played concerts until 1969 when the concert band was established as a separate entity, it was as a marching unit that the band first attained renown for itself and for the community of Robbinsdale. Early directors, drum majors and assistants honed the marching skills of the members into a finely tuned precision corps.
An example of the band’s noteworthy competition was the 1941 Aquatennial Northwest Band contest where the band received a score of 100%. The judge, Dr. Frank Simon, formerly solo cornetist under John Phillip Sousa, gave the band high praise. He said, “The music, marching and showmanship of this band is superb. Of all the bands I have listened to and judged, I have never come across a band that is, as a unit, so nearly perfect. …I couldn’t have seen and heard a better show if I had gone to New York or Radio City. It was the most enjoyable half hour I have ever spent. The director [Paul Larson] showed outstanding showmanship.”
Bob Mendenhall proved he knew what the judges were looking for in preparing his bands for competition when he brought home many awards. Mike Serber tells of helping Roger Thompson measure the streets of downtown Minneapolis so as to execute precise steps and turns.
In 2004, Mike Serber faced the reality of dwindling interest in marching. Unable to compete in school categories and unable to compete with the large non-school units, he changed the style of marching to a small “combo” that provides parade entertainment.
In 1969 Roger Thompson, the new director, created a separate concert band for post-high school adults only. That group started with a handful of members and quickly grew to a membership of 20 – 25. Present membership is 50 – 70. Some members of the concert band are also members of the marching unit.
The concert band performs regularly in Robbinsdale and its surrounding suburbs. Concert venues include parks, senior residences, shopping centers, city hall and schools. Favorite away-from-home concert sites include Como Park in St. Paul, and Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. The band’s broad repertoire allows it to select pieces that are especially suited to a particular audience. Jazz, classics, polkas, show tunes, patriotic numbers and kids’ favorites are all options. Some audiences love to play “Name that tune” and others enjoy a sing-along. A concert may offer the option of doing a polka with the queen candidates or a March Around the Park!
The band has given generously of its music within the community, taking an active part in celebrations within and around the community of Robbinsdale. The concert unit uses its own portable band shell. The use of this shell enables the band to perform in any of the city parks, shopping centers or public spaces three seasons of the year. It also performs many concerts in one of the school auditoriums.
Mid-century Armistice and Memorial Day celebrations were lengthy and patriotic. The whole community, with fresh memories of the loss of loved ones and service participation, took part. Those of us who now play for audiences made up of senior citizens have the privilege of playing for those same people. They truly know what patriotism is all about and still set an example for all of us.
100th Anniversary – 2006 For its centennial celebration, the band commissioned Shelley Hanson, a local composer, to create a piece called Whiz Bang. Director Michael Serber also composed The RCB Centennial March in honor of the occasion. Both world premiers are a part of our musical repertoire. Our hope is that they will be be published and made available to other bands throughout the country.
The Robbinsdale City Band is more than a series of concerts, parades and awards. It is a vital part of its community. It is described by its members as a “family.” Sharing the love of music is at the core of its existence. But its uniqueness might best be summed up by the many concert attendees who describe concerts and events as “the way our country used to be.” We take pride in showing that it is the way our community still is!