Town gone, its band plays on Polkas and ghosts of bustling Daniels

November 01, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

It's another Monday evening and the brassy punch of the Daniels Community Band transforms the Gary United Methodist Church, a century-old Victorian-Gothic place perched high above the Patapsco River, into one jumpin' joint.

"OK now, gimme a four," barks Bill Webb. At 81, he's the musical maestro and one of two baritone horn players in this loyal klatch.

He punctuates the four count, stabbing the air with a right hand crooked by age and a touch of arthritis.

The crashing swoon of "New York, New York" belts around the nave, out the windows and down the hill to the stretch of land along the river and the ghosts of the once-bustling mill town near Ellicott City called Daniels.

The town is now gone, burned and flooded into history's footnotes.

But the band, glued together by the mysterious muse of music and an appreciation that it is part of a 114-year heritage, plays on.

And play they do: Peppy polkas, toe-tapping play and movie scores, swinging big band dance numbers -- and, of course, marches. After all, the band once was known as the Daniels Marching Band.

But with many members now in their 60s, 70s and 80s -- drummer Bob Haas is 86 -- "we don't march anymore," says Mr. Webb, a Catonsville resident. "Besides, one march sounds a lot like another."

Only band member Michael Vickari has a professional musical background. He's a music teacher for the Anne Arundel County school system. You'll find him playing the flute "and occasionally" the trumpet in the Daniels Community Band.

Many band members, like clarinet player Larry Conley, played in military bands while in the service. Mr. Connelly played in the Naval Band stationed at Pearl Harbor during World War II. Others played in their high school or college marching bands.

Catonsville resident Leo Somazze, 71, is typical of the members of the Daniels band, who, after leaving military and school bands, set their musical interest aside for career and family. That until one day they hear the band belting out a number at a public appearance and their love of playing music floods back.

"It had been 50 years since I played any music," recalls Mr. Somazze, who played in his high school band in Clarksburg, Va. One night several years ago he was invited out by a friend to hear a band performance at Catonsville Community College. He obliged half-heartedly.

At the end of the performance he asked Mr. Webb if he could try his hand at the clarinet. "My hearing's not what it used to be, and I've got a little arthritis in the fingers, but I do like to play," says Mr. Somazze, now retired from his 43-year career at the Calvert liquor distillery near Arbutus.

Fun and tradition

At 46, Gary Rudacille, is one of the youngest band members. His father and two uncles played in the band before him.

Today you'll find him in the five-man trumpet section, an ornery bunch, who rib one another between tunes.

"We're not that good and we know it. I'd sure hate it if I had to miss this," says Mr. Rudacille, a Catonsville resident and dentist.

"We have an awful lot of fun just giving each other a hard time and playing the music. If we were a serious outfit, I'd doubt it would be half as much fun."

Mr. Rudacille speaks for many band members when he says it's more than comradery and the kick of playing an array of fast-paced music that draws him to the church nave on Monday nights.

History beckons, too.

"It's often said we're one of the oldest continuous community band in the country," says Mr. Rudacille.

Started in 1879 as a town band performing on the local outdoor band stand, that statement is hard to haggle over. What matters for members is that playing as part of a band with such a deep history makes them feel part of something grander than who they are individually.

"The band is really a cut out of the past. Sometimes when you're playing you sort of feel like your evoking another era," says Mr. Rudacille.

"I like being part of that tradition and history. You are hard-pressed today to find a community band like this. It used to be every town had a community band. It was a focal point for the people."

While most of the band's musicians have been loyally at it with the Daniels Community Band for 12 to 15 years, only Mr. Rudacille and Mr. Webb, who's been playing in the band 50 years, were born in Daniels.

The rest of the group hail from Baltimore, Catonsville and Ellicott City.

Few band members say they'd ever even heard of Daniels until they listened to the band play publicly and joined up.

Between 1940 and 1968, the band, heck the whole town, was owned and operated by C. R. Daniels Inc., makers of duck cotton. Before the Daniels company bought the town, it was named Alberton. The band was then known as the Alberton Cornet Band -- in the days before jazz and trumpet horns put cornet horns in the closet.

In 1968, the company decided that the upkeep of town buildings and homes was too expensive. It relocated the 500 residents and burned everything to ashes, save the collection of mill buildings.

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