History of the Allentown Band

Allentown Band taken in 1880

Photo - Allentown Band circa 1880


The Allentown Band (Pennsylvania), the oldest civilian concert band in the United States, has played a continuously active role in the musical life and cultural fabric of the community since its first documented performance on July 4, 1828. While it is clear that the band has been in continuous existence since 1828, there is good evidence to indicate that the inception of the band occurred before that time. An early newspaper, "The Republican," published a story that the "Allentown Military Band" performed as a fife and drum corps as early as early as 1822. In the same article, the band is referred to as the "Northampton Military Band." Confusion is further prevalent because both the band and the town were referred to by different names throughout the early nineteenth century. Prior to 1838, the community now known as Allentown was officially Northampton. The schedule of fifty annual paid engagements per year includes concerts, church picnics, dedication ceremonies, and university and college commencement ceremonies. The band, which is self-governing, owns its own building where the venerable organization rehearses on Monday evenings throughout the year.

Members: Over the years John Philip Sousa recruited no less than twenty members from The Allentown Band for his own professional band. These men brought back many stories of Sousa's interpretations and performance practices which have been passed on to Allentown Band members and persist to the present. The most influential of these Sousa alumni was Albertus L. Meyers, who after performing as a cornet soloist with the Sousa Band returned to conduct The Allentown Band for fifty-one years. Arthur Pryor, Patrick Conway, and Liberratti are among other professional band leaders of the golden age of concert bands who recruited members from The Allentown Band. The current sixty-five members of the band represent a true cross-section of population -- doctors, engineers, teachers, business people, merchants, sales personnel, service professionals, and students. The membership also ranges from high school students to senior citizens with more than sixty years in the band. While none of the members makes his/her living through music performance, all bring a professional attitude to every rehearsal and performance. Candidates may be nominated by the conductor to the board for membership after a trial period of playing with the band for a minimum of one year.

Conductors: For a period of ninety years the band was under the leadership of only two conductors -- Martin Klingler (1886-1926) and Albertus L. Meyers (1926-1976). Ronald Demkee, who joined the band as a tuba player in 1964, was elected Conductor in 1977. A chronology of conductors follows: No published reference to any conductors prior to 1851 has been found, Anthony Heinicke, 1851-52; Major Amos Ettinger, 1853-60; William Minninger , 1861-78; Lucas Westmeyer, 1879; Prof. Waldemar Grossman, 1880-85; Martin Klingler, 1886-1926; Albertus Meyers, 1926-76; Ronald Sherry 1977; Ronald Demkee, 1978- present.

Guest Conductors and Soloists: The list of musical luminaries who have appeared as guest conductors and soloists reads like a "Who's Who" in the band world. Space here does not permit a complete roster, but the list of conductors includes: Edwin F. Goldman, Guiseppe Creatore, Herbert L. Clarke, Henry Fillmore, Arthur Pryor, Ernest Williams, Peter Buyes, Paul Lavalle, Lucien Cailliet, Leonard B. Smith, Donald Voorhees, Thomas Darcy, Samuel Laboda, William Santleman, John Bourgeois, Eugene Allen, Bryan Shelburne, Lew Buckley, Keith Brion, Arnald Gabriel, Gary Lamb and Frederick Fennell. Some of the soloists who have appeared with the band are: Milton Cross, Paris Chambers, Joseph Deluca, Walter Smith, Del Staigers, Herbert L. Clarke, Leonard B. Smith, Scott Shelsta, Tyrone Breuninger, and Frank Kaderabek.

Youth Concerts: A very important aspect of the band's active performance schedule is its education outreach program, which includes youth concerts that reach thousands of young listeners each year. These programs are designed by Conductor Demkee especially for young audiences and are offered free of charge to students in schools from throughout the Lehigh Valley area.

Recordings: In recent years the band has distributed twenty-four volumes of "Our Band Heritage" that have reached listeners in all fifty states and seventeen countries. In addition to being heard on local radio broadcasts in the U.S., these recordings are heard regularly on a weekly radio program featuring band music in Sydney, Australia. "Our Band Heritage" is an ongoing project of recordings produced by The Allentown Band. All of the band members donate their services for this project so that proceeds generated through the sale of these recordings may be used to perpetuate the operation of The Allentown Band. The practical aspect of the project is secondary however, in that the series of recordings provides a literal archive of the sound of the band through this particular part of the band's history.

Performances: The Allentown Band has been televised in concert on numerous occasions by Public Television WLVT- TV, Channel 39 and Cable TV- RCN. WLVT-TV's 1986 production, which aired on both the local channel and Pennsylvania Public Television, received the "Best Documentary Award" from the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters. In 1991, Charles Kuralt's "CBS Sunday Morning" included a segment about The Allentown Band and in 1992 the band was featured on national television's The American Experience documentary "If You Knew Sousa". The band has made three recent trips to Europe, playing concerts in Lucerne, Weggis, St. Moritz, and Davos, Switzerland and Mondsee, Salzburg and Schladming, Austria. The band has performed in concert as the Showcase Band for the New York Band and Orchestra Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2007 and in the same capacity at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010.

Awards: The prestigious Sudler Scroll Award, presented by The John Philip Sousa Foundation to concert bands "exemplifying an exceptionally high standard of musical excellence on a national level," was awarded to The Allentown Band in 1990. In 1991 the Allentown Arts Commission honored the band with its "Arts Ovation Award." And the "Sudler Historic Community Band Award," which is "North America's most prestigious award for community concert bands," was presented to the Allentown Band on April 7, 2001, by Col. L. Bryan Shelburne, USA(ret.) on behalf of the John Philip Sousa Sudler Silver Scroll Committee. The purpose of this international recognition is to identify, recognize, and honor a community band that has been in existence for more than 100 years and for its impact on the present-day community band effort.

Allentown Band Uniform: Every now and then we get inquiries about the significance and style of the uniform worn by The Allentown Band. Even a casual glance will tell the observer that the uniform closely resembles the uniform worn by a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. This is the style of uniform John Philip Sousa wore at the end of his career as a professional band conductor. The service bars, resembling military battle ribbons, worn above the left front coat pocket designate the number of years of membership in the band. For example, after one year, the member wears a red/yellow/green ribbon. A gold star is added to the ribbon for every five years of service. Up to four stars can be displayed on each ribbon. Therefore a member with two bars containing eight stars would have at least 40 years membership in the band.

Preserving the American Concert Band: Whether playing a televised concert from Allentown's Miller Symphony Hall, a concert in the Kunstplatz in Lucerne, Switzerland, a commencement for Muhlenberg College or Lehigh University, a concert at the city's West Park or a local church picnic, The Allentown Band is committed to its mission of preserving the cultural heritage and musical traditions of the American concert band.

Last updated June 4, 2014