Not all Cal Band magic takes place on the football field. Band performances have been adapted to a wide variety of venues, such as gymnasiums, ski slopes, concert halls, a swimming pool, back-yard parties, and city streets. People who might never have experienced the excitement and spirit of a Band performance on the turf of Memorial Stadium have thrilled to the sights and sounds of the Cal Band off the field.
“We would perform at various University functions. We would
have rallies on Wheeler steps and generally musically
participate whenever we could, even though on a much smaller
scale than prior to the war.”
-Herb Towler (DM ’43)
The University of California Straw Hat Band has been Cal’s portable voice for more than forty years. It has entertained grammar schools and foreign dignitaries, swept down ski slopes and sizzled at baseball games. It has cheered the Cal football team from Tucson to Boston and brought the spirit of California to many other Golden Bears-whether they are flipping at a gymnastics meet, bouncing in a volleyball match, or shooting the puck at Berkeley Iceland.
Before the Straw Hat Band existed, the Cal Band as a spirit group ceased at the end of the football season; the only Band activity after the Big Game-excluding the occasional Rose Bowl game-was the Concert Band.
However, Dan Cheatham (DM ’57) recalls that as a grade- school water boy for the marching band of the late 1940s he saw drummers garbed in nightshirts and strange hats dancing a Charleston on the ledge above the Greek Theater stage or playing leapfrog across the stage at bonfire rallies during the football season.
That enthusiasm and zaniness in the years following World War II led some enthusiastic Band members to form a loosely organized “pep band” to keep California spirit alive during the spring semester. In those days, any kind of a hat (provided it was unusual) was acceptable. Art Robson (’48) always appeared in his Confederate Army hat and Krehe Ritter (’51) had an old-fashioned German steel helmet adorned with an eight-sided spike. There were weird women’s hats and Don Noakes (’46) used to show up in a baby bonnet.
Leaving the confines of Harmon Gym, the Straw Hat Band plays at Evans Diamond on the campus.
That it became a “straw hat” band was something that just happened in those immediate postwar years. The Band often played at afternoon baseball games before Concert Band rehearsals, which were held next door in Room 175 Men’s (Harmon) Gym and the original straw hat appeared upon the head of Bill Fay (SM ’47) as he played in the stands at Evans Field in the spring of 1947.
One straw hat does not make a Straw Hat Band, but one hat soon begat others. The following September, Bill was accompanied to the California State Fair by Huntley Johnson (Sec ’47), Bud Barlow (DM ’49), and Don Lynch (SM ’49). After they returned to Berkeley, the four told their fellow Band members about their wonderful time at the State Fair, including the fact that Bill Fay had won $11.00 at the horse track. Others wanted to join in the fun, so the following year nineteen Band members made the trek to Sacramento. To keep track of each other in the crowd, they all wore straw boaters like Bill Fay’s.
Except for Fay’s appearance at baseball games, the hats were not yet associated with the Band’s musical activities. That came when the “corps of nineteen” showed up with their straw hats at the pep band performances during the 1948-49 basketball and ice hockey seasons. From then on, straw hats became the standard attire at the Cal Band’s various informal performances.
Huntley Johnson sporting one of the original Straw Hats.
Hat #1-Bill Fay passed the original straw hat on to younger Band member Bruce Browning to dress as a gambler to a costume party. Bruce passed the original hat on to Lester, his tuba-playing brother, who has now lost track of its whereabouts.
Hat #2-Don Lynch is now deceased, but his hat is in the care and custody of his daughter.
Hat #3-Huntley Johnson is currently a dentist in Berkeley. His hat is “at home in a closet complete with its original decorations and I still occasionally wear it.”
Hat #4-Bud Barlow got his hat from neighbor Chester Little, who used to wear it to his job as President of Bank of America. In the mid-’50s the Band put out a distress call for then unavailable straw hats. Rising to this crisis, Bud donated his hat to a now unknown Band member.
“They say home court advantage is worth 10 points. If so,
the Hatters have been worth 11 points to us on the road.”
From the beginning, the Straw Hat Band’s most important function was to support the Golden Bears basketball team in Harmon Gym. This they did with more than just their instruments. The Straw Hat Band became the creative center of the student rooting section, filling Harmon with cheers and catcalls that could intimidate any visitor. During half times at basketball games, the Straw Hat Band entertained the students by performing skits, gags, and Spike Jones- style parodies. They brought laughs, music, and spirit to those who saw them perform.
The Straw Hatters as pictured in Mainliner, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, December 1961.
Harmon Gym was not big enough stage for the wild antics of the Straw Hat Band, and not long after its formation members began to travel far and wide in support of their team. In 1951, the Straw Hat Band made its first trip to an away basketball game in Los Angeles.
The Straw Hat Band proved a tremendous help to the basketball Bears, particularly when Cal played at the NCAA championships in 1959.
The Straw Hat Band prepares to march onto the Harmon floor.
Thirty straw hatters flew to Louisville, Kentucky, to play for the Bears in their semifinal match against Cincinnati. The Bears won the game, but the Band had a hard time outyelling the multitude of fans from nearby Ohio. The final game was against West Virginia, which was not expected to draw as many fans. The Straw Hat Band had an ingenious plan to woo the hometown crowd to root for California. Before the game, Band member Elton Butler (’56) came on the public address system and expressed the Band’s thanks for Louisville’s hospitality. The Band then struck up “My Old Kentucky Home.” With that, the crowd was won over to the Cal side and cheered the Bears to the National Championship, 71-70. When Cal basketball coach Pete Newell was asked the secret of the Bear’s success, he replied without hesitation: “The Straw Hat Band. They say home court advantage is worth 10 points to a basketball team. If so, the Hatters have been worth 11 points to us on the road.”
With unswerving loyalty, the Straw Hat Band has continued to support the California basketball team year after year. In the late 1960s, UCLA had powerhouse teams led by Lew Alcindor (who subsequently became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar); the Straw Hat Band-in a show of bravado if not sensitivity- repeatedly addressed him as “tall freak.” As UCLA’s dynasty extended into the early ’70s, the Straw Hat Band eventually tried to counter the southlanders’ dominance (and the difficulty of securing seats in the student section) by forming second and third Straw Hat Bands, seated in the south stands (the UCLA Band was not amused).
During the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Cal experienced lean years in its men’s basketball program. In spite of low rooter attendance, the team always could count on a strong showing from the Straw Hat Band. Many former Band members recall games where the Straw Hat Band nearly outnumbered all other Cal fans. In recent years, successful Cal basketball teams have sent the Straw Hat Band to NIT and NCAA tournament games across the country.
The Straw Hat Band has always tried to unnerve the opposition from the beginning of the game. In the spring of 1958, after the announcer read the names of each of the players of the opposing team, the members of the Straw Hat Band would chant in tempo with the announcer: “Who’s he? Drop dead! Turn blue! Orange juice .... SQUISH!” This custom continued into the early 1970s.
In 1972, the Band developed a gimmick to fluster visiting players during the game. That year, there was an excellent but nervous player on the UCLA basketball team-number 42. The Straw Hatters discovered that by yelling, “DROP IT, FORTY-TWO!” at the top of their lungs, they could ruin his game. In the three years that he played for UCLA, the Band continued to heckle him, shouting “FORTY-TWOOOO!” every time he had the ball. By the last year of his basketball career, he had become “FORTY TWOOOO-NA!”
Even after number 42’s days were over, Band members continued to pick on a skillful, easily flustered player in each game, naming him their “tuna for tonight.” Every time the designated player got possession of the ball, the Band- and eventually the crowd-would shout, “TOOOO-NA!” until he let go of the ball.
This tradition continued until the late 1980s, when the resurgence of Cal men’s basketball drew larger crowds to Harmon Gym. Loud cheers for the winning Cal Bears are now a continuous roar from the opening tip off to the final buzzer.
The Straw Hat Band and “Granny” Natalie Cohen perform the “Axe Yell” at the Rossmoor Big Game Kickoff.
There is no time of year when the Spirit of California is more evident than during Big Game Week. Band members don their Straw Hats and perform all over the Bay Area to spread Bear-mania. Currently, these performances include campus rallies, the Rossmoor retirement community, the Guardsmen Luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel, class reunions, the Berkeley Breakfast Club, and the Washington Square Bar and Grill. When chemistry professor Sam Markowitz performs the almost magical “color change” (the transformation of a two-level red and clear solution to blue and gold for his freshman chemistry class), the Straw Hat Band makes a surprise entrance to help “catalyze” the reaction.
Professor Sam Markowitz, with the help of the Straw Hat Band and his unique Big “C” lyrics, performs the annual Big Game Color Change for his Freshman Chemistry class. According to Markowitz, the titration “always works.”
“We are Sons of California,
Fighting for the Gold and Blue.
Psalms and story and titration
Soon will be all through.
Stanford’s men will soon be routed
And when we stir this goo,
Their red will turn to blue,
In this hour of Chemistry.”
Typical of the Band’s Big Game Week performances is this one for the Bond Club Rally in the Peacock Room of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, 1971.
On the night before the Big Game, the entire Cal Band performs at the bonfire rally in the Greek Theater. Although they wear full uniforms, this performance is very much like the other events of the week. The Band leads a spirited parade through the streets of Berkeley and plays Cal songs for the dormitories, encouraging the students to come to the rally. At the rally, skits, music, and stories inspire loyalty and pass on the traditions of this great football rivalry. After the rally, the Cal Band splits up into four groups and plays at more class reunions in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley.
Even natural disasters cannot stop the Straw Hat Band. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down a section of the Bay Bridge, severing the link between San Francisco and the East Bay. The Band was scheduled to play for Cal fans at the Washington Square Bar and Grill. The students made phone calls and arranged to sail across the Bay on a ferry boat from the Blue and Gold Fleet (not to be confused with its competitor, the Red and White Fleet).
“At my 80th birthday, my ever loving wife and two daughters
put on a surprise party for me at Rossmoor. And who should
appear but the University of California Straw Hat Band. What
a thrill it was. I couldn’t keep the tears out of my eyes.”
-Charlie Richardson (DM ’26)
The Straw Hat Band has played at many festive occasions. Here the Hatters play for the wedding of Band alumni Kathy Smith (’85) and Eric Heilmann (’84), 1989.
The Straw Hat Band is more than just another rooting section. As its activities ranged farther afield, it carried the voice of California off the basketball court and into stadiums, malls, and community functions. Band members are emissaries for the University, a visible connection to all members of the California community.
The Straw Hat Band traveled to Seattle to play on California Day at the 1962 World’s Fair. The Band also makes appearances on campus for noon concerts before football games. When the Cal Band travels on the road to away football games other than USC, UCLA, and Stanford, it appears at the stadium in the form of the Straw Hat Band. The Straw Hat Band also appears at any miscellaneous event that it deems appropriate. At the end of the fall semester, a group of Band members has played Christmas carols around the malls in San Francisco. The Band also has played at victory parades for the San Francisco Forty-Niners, the opening of the California Lottery, and for grammar schools.
Because the Cal Band has to raise money to help fund its daily operation, the Straw Hat Band frequently performs in exchange for a donation to the Cal Band. Usually these performances are for Old Blues who are more than happy to help the Cal Band in exchange for some Cal spirit, songs, and memories. The Band has played at birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, and garden parties. In addition to donations to the Band, the hosts usually provide free food and drinks to the Band members, who eagerly accept these flavorful gifts.
Since its postwar beginnings, the California Straw Hat Band has carried the Cal Spirit through songs, skits, chants, and high jinks. The Straw Hat Band of today is more than just support for Cal’s athletic teams; it spreads the kindness, joy, and enthusiasm that continue to make the Cal Band the Pride of California.
Every April the Cal Band takes a trip to Davis for the annual Davis Picnic Day. It is an event unique in the Band’s calendar. As befits its special place, the Band wears a special uniform. In years past it was straw hats, white shirts, bow ties, and rally shorts, but as the supply of shorts has dwindled, the Band has turned to other costumes like Band T-shirts or Hawaiian tops. The day’s festivities consist of a parade through downtown Davis in the morning and the “Battle of the Bands” in the afternoon.
The one-and-one-half-mile parade weaves through the UC Davis campus and Davis’ central business district while thousands of spectators jam the streets. After delighting the reviewing stand by high-stepping to traditional Cal songs, the Band stops at nearly every corner to serenade the crowd. In the afternoon, university bands assemble alongside Putah Creek to participate in the Battle.
The bands take turns playing songs in front of five thousand spectators. Although there is no formal judging of the bands, the crowd acts as the scorekeeper by applauding after each performance. The winner is the band that stays the longest. The only rule for the bands is that no band may play a song that another band has already performed.
In the fall semester, the Cal Band’s practices in BRH and at Edwards Track Stadium are all aimed at the goal of performing its best at the Saturday football games. But what happens when the football season ends? Band rehearsals do not end when there is no longer an audience of thousands to excite and thrill at Memorial Stadium. The early part of the spring semester provides a time for the Band to form a Concert Band and experience a change of pace.
The Concert Band in a performance in Harmon Gym, 1939.
The Concert Band dates back to the spring of 1926, when the Cal Band decided to put on a concert in the Greek Theater. Instead of Cal songs and martial music, the Band played adaptations of classical music. The next spring, 1927, professor Modeste Alloo was asked to help direct the new Concert Band, which received complimentary reviews in the Daily Californian for fine musicianship. Cal Band spring concerts in the Greek Theater became an annual event through 1949.
In 1950, Professor Cushing established the Concert Band as an academic course in the Music Department and opened its membership to anyone who wanted to perform, not just members of the Cal Band. This included people who did not have time to march in the fall or who played non-marching instruments like the oboe or bassoon. Also, women were allowed to perform in the Concert Band. After Cushing’s retirement in 1953, James Berdahl took over as the Concert Band’s instructor. Under his baton, the Concert Band made spring concert tours to many cities throughout northern California. When James Berdahl retired in 1977, the Music Department failed to find a replacement director from its faculty, and Robert Briggs reestablished the Concert Band permanently as a Cal Band-sponsored activity. Because it is no longer a university course, however, Concert Band members receive no academic credit.
In addition to its winter concert in Hertz Hall, the Concert Band plays in the Spring Show, as here in 1985.
In its present form, the Concert Band commences its rehearsals in BRH at the end of winter break. More than half of the members who perform during football season return to participate in the Concert Band. A few students who did not march in the fall also audition to take part in this music- making activity. The Concert Band follows Briggs’ baton and works hard for six or seven weeks to produce a concert of diverse band music.
Recognizing individual talents, Briggs encourages members to step forward into the limelight and perform solos, ensembles, and guest-conduct the Concert Band. During the month of February, the Concert Band presents its concert in Hertz Hall.
It is not too difficult to see why the Concert Band is a popular activity. Concert Band provides a chance for Band members to play music without the constraints of marching and the opportunity to perform on a non-marching band instrument, such as the oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet, timpani, and all types of mallet percussion. The Concert Band offers its members another opportunity to do what they love so much: play music.
One of the Cal Band’s most popular spring activities is the Jazz Band. A traditional big band composed of five trumpets, five trombones, two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, one baritone saxophone, and a full rhythm section, the Jazz Band provides talented musicians with an additional outlet for musical expression. With a musical repertoire that typically ranges from swing to fusion, gospel to progressive, and blues to funk, the Jazz Band is an exciting and unique group.
After David Tucker left the Cal Band and started the UC Jazz Ensembles, some members of the Cal Band decided that they would like to start a Jazz Band of their own. Under the direction of Robert Briggs and with the help of student Randy Biagi (’72), the fledgling Jazz Band quickly grew into a quality performance group.
The Jazz Band developed a repertoire of dance tunes and performed for fund-raising parties before the 1976 Bicentennial Tour. After the tour, the Jazz Band lost momentum and ceased to exist. After several years, the Jazz Band was resurrected under student leadership. Presently, Band members can audition for spots in the Jazz Band or apply to the Executive Committee for the position of Jazz Band director.
Performances for the Jazz Band include appearances in the annual Cal Band Spring Show, participation in the prestigious Pacific Coast Jazz Festival, and usually a noon concert held in lower Sproul Plaza. Certainly, the highlight of the year is the annual Pacific Coast Jazz Festival held in Zellerbach Auditorium. At the festival, each band performs three pieces for up to ten minutes and one sight- reading piece. The Jazz Band has scored consistently well in this challenging and highly competitive festival.
The Cal Band Jazz Band gives members of the marching band yet another chance to perform in front of large and enthusiastic audiences and is an integral part of the Cal Band’s spring activities.