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From Mardi Gras to Berry Hill: Kids in the band hang together

South Boston News
Former HCSHS band director Robert Wall, in a photo from an early 1970s high school yearbook.
SoVaNow.com / August 08, 2013
Forty years is ample time to mangle a memory or two. But some things stick out in people’s minds as if they happened just yesterday. For David Powell, one such moment came in high school, when he and fellow members of the Comet marching band were sweating it out, literally and figuratively, on the hot city streets of New Orleans.

Powell must have cut an especially striking figure in his heavy blue-and-white wool uniform, considering the batch of medals that hung from his chest: all-regional band, all-state band, plus various other soloist and ensemble honors. At any rate, he caught the eye of a Naval officer. The Navy man would have stood out, too, as an official parade judge amid the colorful mayhem of Mardi Gras.

The officer strode up to Powell, a high school junior standing with bandmates in tight formation, and bent down to untie his shoelaces. Why? To remove the spats that covered his shoes for an impromptu inspection. To succeed in the Mardi Gras competition, it wasn’t enough to simply toot a horn. Bands must strut with style and evince excellence. Had the Marching Comets bothered to shine their shoes from heel to toe before setting out on their five-mile parade march?

“It was scary,” remembered Powell, today a HCHS alumnus in his late 50s living in Raleigh, N.C. “We hadn’t been told anything like that would happen. I’m not sure even Mr. Wall [band director Robert Wall] knew that we’d be inspected that closely. He was up there on the judges’ stand. I don’t know if he knew what was going on.”

Luckily, Powell’s shoe leather was polished to pitch-black perfection. The Comet band passed the Navy’s white-glove test with flying colors. Not only that: Halifax County came in third in the Mardi Gras national competition. The Comets were one of only 16 bands selected to participate in the event.

Today, four decades after the New Orleans experience, Powell and old band mates are organizing a reunion of the Halifax County Senior High School band for Oct. 19 at Berry Hill Resorts. Members of the marching band from 1968 to 1978 are invited to take part.

The 1973 Mardi Gras competition falls at the midpoint of the 1968-1978 continuum, but the organizers settled on the time frame for a different reason: It represents the period when Wall was high school band director.

“Partially, I see this as a tribute to him,” said Powell, “because he did so much for the band program.”

Wall, who has resided in Blacksburg ever since leaving Halifax County, got a call from Powell a few months ago urging him to attend the reunion. Health and weather permitting, the former band director says he’s planning to be there.

“As far as I know,” said Wall yesterday via telephone. “I’m one of those guys who has few years on him, so I have to make sure a few things are in order.”

All the reunion participants may have a few miles on them, but age cannot diminish what in many ways was the heyday of the high school marching band.

Wall describes the Mardi Gras competition as one of the three highlights of his career in Halifax County, the others being the band’s 1976 trip to Disney World to participate in a bicentennial celebration and a Camarata competition that sent the school singing group to Canada. But the visit to Mardi Gras came first. The way Powell remembers it, the band’s ambitions got a boost after one of its members, the late Dennis Dawson of South Boston, was selected in 1970 to the McDonald’s All-American Band and marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

“That’s probably where all that talk started,” said Powell, referring to the idea, planted in many minds at the time, that the entire Halifax County Senior High band should try to wrangle a Thanksgiving Day invitation to the Big Apple. Ultimately, the powers-that-be decided such a trip would be too expensive, Powell recalled: “And there was a lot of concern about [having] teenage kids in New York City.”

From such a vantage point, sending teenagers off to Mardi Gras might not seem like the obvious fallback option, but the Comet marching band was pining for more glory that it could gain by dominating local competitions. “Winning the Clarksville Christmas parade doesn’t count,” said Powell with a chuckle. Band director Wall was thinking along similar lines: He courted the attention of scouts for the Krewe of Mid-City Parade Competition, the official name of the Mardi Gras battle of the marching bands.

“In those days it was huge because it was a restricted event. You couldn’t just be some band and go,” said Wall. Members of the parade committee visited South Boston to witness the Marching Comets in performance before agreeing to extend an invitation, Wall said. What would the committee have seen? The HCSHS band was filled with hard workers, “great, committed kids from top to bottom,” said Wall.

When the invitation materialized in 1972, the work began — starting with drumming up money for the trip. “We had about a year and a half of fund-raising,” said Powell. “We sold everything from a Chevy Vega with raffle ticket.” No one put in more time than the band’s seniors — students who would be gone long before the parade occurred the following year. “I remember how hard the Class of ’72 worked to raise money,” said Powell. “All of us saw it as our obligation to raise that money. And I remember everybody worked pretty darn hard at it.”

Naturally, the marching band spent long hours developing a routine, which combined the rigors of a long march with the precision of a street show at the judges’ grandstand. “It was a total movement drill — I don’t think they were in any one location for more than four to eight steps,” said Wall. The music consisted of a medley of four or five songs, each with a connection to New Orleans.

“I remember we played ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’ — that’s how we began the show,” said Powell. “We were always moving, never still.”

After long, wearying months of practice (“The lights would be on in the football stadium, and we’d march around the track until our shoes would melt,” said Powell) the Comet band set off for a two-day drive to the Big Easy: four buses carrying the band, the rifle corps, the flag corps, the Comettes (“Someone was smart enough to keep them in a separate bus,” chuckled Powell) and chaperones, including then-principal Dr. Lacy Venable and other high school staff. For quite a few band members, it was the first time they had ever set foot outside Halifax County. Wall was careful to quash any notions that the trip to New Orleans was party time: “We told the kids that even though we were in New Orleans, we had to act like we’re Halifax County High School,” said Wall. “We had to have that discipline, we had to have that order.”

The band director remembers the chaos of the Mardi Gras streets — including how there were two other marching band competitions taking place on the same day (each were lesser events, he believes). “We had to stop twice while the other parades crossed our route,” said Wall. Although it was late February, Wall and Powell both said they wore down in the New Orleans heat. “That parade was something else. It’s not one you do unless you’ve got a lot of energy … The kids got extremely hot, blistered, like that, but they had an extremely good time,” said Wall.

After it was over, band members returned to the hotel, where later in the day the news arrived: Halifax County had placed third in the event. “We had quite a celebration at the hotel,” said Wall.

Powell, who would go on to graduate from HCSHS the next year and continue his music training at the prestigious Julliard School — he ultimately opted for a career in finance —continues to keep in touch with about 20 friends from the Comet band, four decades after their pinnacle achievement. In the ensuing time period, he has witnessed, with some sadness he said, the declining status of high school band programs. Being a part of the Marching Comets band allowed him to bond with older and younger kids, representing every part of Halifax County society (“There were kids in the band who were so poor their families didn’t have automobiles”), in pursuit of a common goal: the show-stopping performance in front of the crowd. Venturing far away from home that day in New Orleans, the Halifax kids delivered.

“I don’t remember a lot about government class or Algebra II,” said Powell. “But I have lots of memories of being in the band.”

(The Halifax County Senior High School 1968-1978 band reunion will take place Saturday, Oct. 19 at Berry Hill Resorts in South Boston. All members of the Comet band during that the time period are invited. To register for the event, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Organizers will respond by returning a registration form via e-mail.)









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"...the Comet marching band was pining for more glory that it could gain by dominating local competitions... Band director Wall was thinking along similar lines..."

Understatement of the day. IIRC (and I was contemporary with the 68-78 timeframe), after the band's participation in these high-profile competitions, Wall would often snub local parades as "not big enough".

Don't get me wrong. The Blue Comet Marching Band did the school proud, but among non-band kids Wall was widely compared to Harry L. Dinkle.

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Tom, thanks for the trip down memory lane. I am looking forward to the reunion.

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I was a band wannabee but greatly influenced by Mr. Wall to be the best musician I could be. I took the chorus route but worked with Mr. Wall in the difficult 1969/70 school year transition into an integrated school, having our music appreciation class taken away. In spite of that, I went on to become a music education major and now am filled with songs every day. It is because of him that I carry on "my song" as Elementary School Music Teacher/Private Instructor/Church Choir Director and Accompanist and advocate for music in everyone's life! He made the music special for all of us who knew him in the classroom and outside---his legacy is for us to "carry on the song" that he put in our hearts. Bravo, Mr. Wall---you are more than you imagine!!!

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Mr. Wall also had us march closer by our home turf. He didn't always refuse invitations. I remember almost freezing in Brookneal for a nighttime Christmas parade. In concert competitions at district festivals, he led us to earn excellent ratings on grade VI (the most challenging) music. They were the glory days for Halifax County Bands.


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