“When the Penn Band plays the Penn Band March, only an invalid or a certified sourpuss can remain still.”
By Dan Rottenberg | Whenever I visited my father during his last years, I often arrived in late morning to find him resting on his bed. Our conversation usually went something like this:
Me: Dad, you can’t lie in the same position all day. If you don’t get up and exercise a little, your muscles will atrophy. The more you lie in bed, the harder it is to get up.
He: What do you want from me? I’m 95. Give me a break.
This verbal jousting lasted less than a minute. Then, having failed to motivate Dad with words, I’d turn to a more potent tool: music. Specifically, my CD of the University of Pennsylvania Marching Band, for which Dad played clarinet in the 1930s. More specifically, the “University of Pennsylvania Band March,” which no less an authority than John Philip Sousa once proclaimed one of the best marches ever written, “except my own.”
That’s usually all it took to win the argument. Upon hearing those first notes, Herman Rottenberg C’36’s face would break into a big grin. Almost immediately, he’d rise from his bed and begin marching around his bedroom—and sometimes the whole apartment—singing the words and shouting “Crash!” for the cymbals, while I followed with his portable CD player in hand. When the Penn Band plays the “Penn Band March,” only an invalid or a certified sourpuss can remain still.
At the time of his death last November at the age of 97, Dad was, I believe, the Penn Band’s oldest living alumnus, followed closely by his roommate Herb Gold W’36, who played piccolo and died in 2011. (Another pal in their class, Lazar Levinthal C’36, tried to join his Brooklyn buddies in the band despite his lack of musical training; as Lazar later recounted the story, when he applied for a position as a bass drum player, he was told, “Beat it.”)
Dad insisted to me that he was never much of a clarinetist. He was accepted into the band, he said, only because, at his audition, the bandleader was momentarily distracted and simply waved Dad through without listening to his playing. But I owe my existence at least in part to Dad’s clarinet: When he was 15 he met my mother (a violinist) at a chamber music rehearsal, a not uncommon activity for teenagers in those days before pop culture and instant electronic entertainment.
On the day he auditioned for the Penn Band, Dad was an impressionable 16-year-old freshman walking into what seemed to him a scene of total chaos. Then the bandleader entered, tapped his baton, and the assembled musicians launched into the Penn Band March. From that point, Dad was a goner.
The trouble with band music—or any good music—he used to say, is that it’s so stirring that it’s hard to maintain the detachment necessary to play your instrument. During his senior year, in 1935, the 101-piece Penn Band—an impressive ensemble by Ivy League standards—traveled to Ann Arbor for the Penn-Michigan football game. At halftime, as the Penn musicians marched onto the field in some 10 parallel lines, the truly gigantic Michigan band, with its hyper-loud sousaphones, took the field from the opposite side, dovetailing with the Penn musicians by prearrangement as both bands played in unison.
“I got such goose bumps that I couldn’t get a sound out of my instrument,” Dad later recalled.
Dad was a pre-med major as an undergrad, but on the Saturday of his medical school aptitude test, he elected to spend the morning playing with the Penn Band at the old Earle Theatre on East Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, where the band had been hired to perform between movie screenings. You will not be surprised to learn that Dad scored poorly on his test later that day, or that he was not terribly disappointed by his low score.
The band was the sort of mind-boggling experience that Dad yearned to transmit to me. “If you play in the band,” he often told me, “you can get into the football games for nothing!”
“I’m going to be on the team,” I always replied. I never really believed that—it was just something I said to put off music lessons. Finally, in ninth grade, my resistance wore down. I dusted off Dad’s clarinet, found a teacher, and developed sufficient competence to master the 20-second clarinet solo in the “Young Prince and the Young Princess” movement from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (which isn’t as difficult as it sounds).
But I never developed Dad’s enthusiasm, so I dropped the clarinet after one year. Just as well: In one of those inexplicable twists of fate, I actually did wind up on the Penn football team.
One night late in my sophomore season—1961—after practice and dinner at the J. William White Training House, my Penn teammates and I were making our way up Spruce Street toward our dorms and fraternity houses. We were in a foul mood. We were losing games week after week, and to our minds the whole university seemed to have abandoned us. Angrily we denounced the faculty, administrators, and students who we felt had turned their backs on us. At just that moment, the Penn Band members emerged from their rehearsal in Houston Hall, and some of the musicians, coming up Spruce Street behind us, spontaneously struck up the Penn Band March, cowing us instantly into silence.
“Well,” one of my teammates finally allowed, “Penn does have some nice songs.”
Dad never did become a doctor. Instead he went into the ladies’ knitted-wear business, and once he’d put my brother and me through college he sold his company to create an international folk dance troupe that toured the globe for 35 years. Herb Gold, his piccolo-playing roommate, became a real estate developer on Long Island and, later in life, a patron of the Manhattan School of Music and of major performers like the soprano Renée Fleming. I don’t think I ever actually heard Dad or Herb play their instruments. In adulthood the passion kindled by their band years manifested itself in other, more entrepreneurial, directions.
One day in 1998, I was walking across the Penn campus when I passed a stand that a few undergrads had set up on Locust Walk. They were hawking a centennial edition CD containing the Penn Band’s favorite songs and marches. I forked over my $10 on the spot. Nowadays, whenever I play it, that CD takes me back—just as it took my father back, just as it got him out of bed when he saw no rational reason to do so.
It may be the best $10 I ever spent.