Each Fourth of July, revelers lay down their blankets and set up beach chairs at dawn in the city of Avalon. As the sun rises over Santa Catalina Island, the harbor overflowing with yachts, every hotel room has been booked for months and the main drag along the beach is packed.
On this year’s holiday, the USC Trojan Marching Band, which arrives aboard the Catalina Express, will lead the Independence Day parade down Crescent Avenue, beginning at the island’s famed art deco Catalina Casino.
Trojans sail over and raise their USC flags and hit their [ship] horns.
This year marks the 25th consecutive time the band, clad in its distinctive uniforms, trademark helmets and sunglasses, has made the hour-long voyage across the channel. Before 1990, when the unit began performing on the island, it was a quaint celebration for the locals.
“Before the band started coming, it was a small local parade. The U.S. Army Band came some years, but it was hit and miss,” said Tom Sutherland, event chairman of the Rotary Club of Avalon. “The parade was just golf carts coming down the street.”
That all changed when Jack Wall ’51, a local retired dentist, had the idea of bringing the USC band over to the island. “He reached out to Art [Bartner, the band’s director] and had a couple of meetings. He did all the fundraising himself and set up all the arrangements,” said Rocky Wall, his son.
Jack Wall was an ardent Trojan fan who had worked on the teeth of USC football players and coaches free of charge during John McKay’s tenure. He moved to Avalon after retirement with his wife, Nita, who had been a Hollywood actress, appearing with Judy Garland, Tony Curtis and the Three Stooges. Appropriately, they had met in 1949 aboard a steamer to Avalon.
During the first few years, band members stayed in the homes of supporters and slept on the floor of Avalon High School. Each ensuing year, Wall enlisted more businesses to contribute and eventually booked the band in hotel rooms. He continued to organize the event until he turned the planning over to the island’s Rotary Club in 2001 because of his age. The club raises more than $10,000 for the expenses, with the band covering the rest.
Wall passed away in 2005, but the tradition he began carried on and now, after 24 years, Catalina’s Fourth of July festivities have become a USC tradition, a way for Trojan fans to get their USC fix with the football season still weeks away.
“It’s all about the Trojan Family as the years have passed,” said Bartner, in his 44th year as director. “Trojans sail over and raise their USC flags and hit their [ship] horns that play the fight song when we pass by.”
Concerts by day and night
The band now plays two concerts in addition to the parade. The first is an afternoon set in the plaza in the center of the city and then at night in the ballroom of the Catalina Casino before the island’s fireworks show. The ballroom once hosted the top jazz acts in the country, including Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton.
For years, the USC band had its own accompanying jazz musician, Frank Blair ’42.
Blair, also a retired dentist, was a well-known figure among the residents of Avalon. Most nights he could be found on his porch serenading passersby with the USC fight song and taking requests.
While working his way through school in the late 1930s, he played in the USC band and local dance bands, graduating from the USC Dental School. Fifty years later, he once again played with the band, soloing on soprano saxophone on his favorite piece, “Avalon,” the 1920 Al Jolson jazz standard. He also welcomed band members to the island, playing the fight song on the dock as they disembarked.
Each year, Blair gave each band member spending money, mindful of the financial difficulty he had during college.
“He had to work his way through school and knew how hard it was to be a musician and make enough money,” said his daughter, Nancy Blair. “So he gave his money to USC band members.”
Though Blair passed away a few years ago, his widow, Ruth, carries on the tradition and hands each band member spending cash each year.
Sun and sandals
The Trojan Marching Band’s musicians who stay in Southern California during the summer look forward to the performance, which gives them a chance to entertain the Trojan faithful during the off-season. For the incoming drum major, the student leader of the band, it’s also the first time he dons the trademark armor and sandals. With a Trojan crowd cheering while marching in the hot sun, it’s good preparation for the upcoming football season.
Beyond the performances, band members enjoy the time hanging out with their musical mates.
“It’s a very small town, so you always run into your friends when you’re walking through,” said Chris Reimann, the incoming drum major. “It’s just a great place to spend a holiday with your friends.”
This year, like their first few times on the island, Trojan Marching Band members will be camping out, taking up the entire ballroom of the casino. They will also stay an extra day and perform a concert at Descanso Beach on July 5.
The band will return home the next day, sailing the “26 miles across the sea” back to the mainland. But as the 1958 Four Preps song promises, “Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ ” their return to the island the next Fourth of July.