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A Penn Yan Band in Chicago (1933)

All I could think of as I did the newspaper research for this article was the Charles Dickens line about it being the best of times and the worst of times. It was late Spring of 1933. The country was still mired in the Great Depression. FDR took office in March but the New Deal was just starting to have an effect. Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party had just come to power in Germany and some experts were already predicting trouble in Europe. The Japanese were on the Chinese mainland and had just withdrawn from the League of Nations. Locally, however, things were looking pretty good. Penn Yan had just celebrated its centennial anniversary, residents were looking forward to the end of Prohibition, and the Penn Yan Academy Boys Band was going to the World’s Fair in Chicago to compete with high school bands from across the country.

For my mother (then Norma Fox; PYA Class of 1933) it was “the best of times”...she was eighteen and about to graduate from high school, had good friends in the band, a steady boyfriend in Geneva (who would eventually become my father), and she was going to Chicago! It was called the Boys Band, but she was a member along with seven other girls. There had been a girl’s band at PYA, but there were not enough to make it go so they successfully petitioned to be included in the boys’ band. Whether the girls made the difference or not, Penn Yan had an exceptionally good band that year. Had it not been for Canandaigua’s band, they would have been the best in New York State. That Spring, they finished a close second to Canandaigua at the District Competition at Watkins Glen and again in the State Competition at Syracuse. Both bands were rated “Superior” at the state level and were invited to compete in the national school band contest at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago.

They had ten days to raise $2000 for the trip....in the midst of the Great Depression. Half was raised from band members and their parents. The rest was the result of an intensive fundraising campagn.....door-to-door soliciting, members selling tags which read “I’m Helping the Band to Chicago”, and benefit concerts sponsored by businesses in town. They ended up raising over $2300.

On Wednesday, June 6, 1933 at 5 a.m., 49 band members led by faculty member Lester Bascomb and 21 adults (chaperones, parents, and other community members) boarded three special cars of the New York Central Railroad at the station along the Outlet in Penn Yan for the trip to Chicago. In Canandaigua more cars were added for their band. They arrived in Chicago at 7 pm that day and were bused to the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL where the competition was held with 73 other high school bands from across the nation. The Penn Yan band members stayed in college dorms and private homes. The competition was held on Thursday, Friday they attended the Century of Progress in Chicago, and on Saturday all 74 participating bands marched in a parade through downtown Evanston and held a massed band concert in Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium which was nationally broadcast on NBC Radio. The competition went well for Penn Yan. The band was awarded honors and one of it’s soloists (Ken Brainard on the baritone) won a gold medal and was rated “highly superior”. Sunday was the long ride home. The end of that ride was what band members remembered best from the whole experience. Their train came up the track from Dresden just after midnight. They expected to be met just by their parents at that late hour. The track was lined with fireworks. They were greeted with sirens, bells, and whistles. As an eyewitness reported in the Chronicle-Express...”At least a thousand people stayed up to greet them. They made so much noise that another thousand or two couldn’t sleep so they joined the milling throng. Added to these were several more hundred who found the night too hot to sleep so they too joined the crowd. Believe me, there was a hot time in the old town last night!” Hundreds of automobiles with horns honking paraded through town with the band members, Bandleader Bascomb was hoisted on shoulders and paraded through the business district, and an impromptu ceremony with speeches was held on Elm Street in front of the Elmwood Theater. Things finally started to quiet down around 2 a.m.

The week following the return of the band, the Penn Yan Democrat ran a special section where they asked each individual band member what he or she remembered best from the whole experience in Chicago. They mentioned the quality of the other musicians, the displays at the Century of Progress, the friendliness of the people, the massed band concert at Northwestern. My mother commented on the architecture of the buildings at the World’s Fair. Over the years, however, I’ve heard her tell of the extreme heat the day of the massed band concert and how several members in other bands needed medical attention. There was a funny story of the day they all got to go to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. They were told to meet at a particular time in front of a restaurant, the Century Grill. It turned out that there was a Century Grill on nearly every corner of the fairgrounds and the kids were scattered all over, creating some headaches for the chaperones. Then of course, that enthusiastic welcome back in Penn Yan. Those were memories to last a lifetime.

by Rich MacAlpine


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