Does the sound of “76 Trombones” make your feet stir and, perhaps, you want to do a little tapping or a little marching? If so, you might be interested to know that we had the predecessor of the famous Henry Hill, the “Music Man,” right here in “River City,” San Jose. He lived here about 40 years before Meredith Wilson wrote the wonderful hit Broadway musical, “The Music Man.”
Robert Olmstead led his band in the 1920s and 30s and because it was composed of so many children, the band was known as “Olmstead’s Juveniles.” In 1930, it was photographed in front of the old Victorian City Hall across from where the Fairmont stands today, and 120 young musicians posed for the photo. Fancily painted on the side of the bass drum in big red letters was: “Olmstead’s Juveniles.” The boy band members were outfitted in white shoes, white slacks with a red stripe down the side of each leg, white cap, white shirt, dark red tie and cardinal red cape with white lines. The girls wore the same uniform except for a dark red skirt. Each child featured their instrument in the photograph: trumpet, saxophone or clarinet. etc.; there were also five accordions and one tuba, but only three trombones.
The fame of the colorful band spread far and wide. Fox Movietone News sent a special camera crew to film the band in 1929 and 1930. In the Fiesta de las Rosas Parade of 1930, they received a huge ovation when they appeared on a float, riding and playing. The parade extended from the town of Santa Clara three miles down The Alameda to central San Jose, where it disbanded near Fifth and Santa Clara Streets.
Many of San Jose’s leading citizens of later years were band members as youngsters. Clyde Appleby was a stalwart as were Jack Bariteau, Hester DeLisle, Bill Cilker, Dick Dietz, Arne and Cliff Swenson, and Julius and Nathalia Ramponi.
Olmstead taught music for a fee and sold band instruments and sheet music. While many of the youngsters were musically inclined, some of the others couldn’t play a note. Olmstead actually sold the beginners a cheap starter instrument. When parents became concerned about the lack of ability of their offspring, and the cost of depression-era music lessons, Olmstead countered that they should have a more expensive trumpet, clarinet or whatever, explaining that the more expensive instrument would make a better musician of their child.
Dick Dietz told me a story about the band on the Fiesta float. All band members were on the float, whether they could play or not, but those without ability had their reed or mouthpiece temporarily confiscated by Olmstead so they couldn’t spoil the sound. He also hid some good professional adult players in the bowels of the float to “improve” the sound!
Perhaps Olmstead really was the original Music Man and Meredith Wilson’s musical started right here in San Jose.