Sweet and swingin': 'unique' big band show a labor of love

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

McKenzie Turley, right, sings "City Lights" with other performers in this year's Celebrate America Show, "In the Miller Mood."

Eleanor Wellings

LOGAN — Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania in the heart of New York City. It’s the big band era, circa 1940. Steaming dinners fill plates on rows of round tables. Animated dancing girls wink and smile, filing off the stage as a crooner steps up to set a romantic mood. Couples, dressed to the nines, sway cheek-to-cheek to the latest Miller and Goodman tunes. The brass in the band glimmers, the bandleader taps his foot and raises his instrument to direct the others. The swelling music swims through the air and the lights seem to get lower as the packed dance floor slowly thins out.

Now welcome to the Celebrate America Show, circa 2011.

You find many of the couples’ hair tinged gray or white. An elderly man hoists himself from his chair, straightens up and announces to his wife, ”I’ve been saving up for this, dear!” before hopping onto the dance floor. You see some college students walk by the entrance of the “hotel.” But as you sit eating a fine pot roast, watching the old-time variety show in its swingin’, doo-woppin’, golly-gee-glory, finding that you’re itchin’ to get up and dance, you could swear that — just for tonight — you’ve stepped into 1940.

This show can trace its big band roots to 1978, when Richard Watkins and Jan Benson created An Evening with Glen Miller, a production sponsored by Utah State University’s performing arts department with live music by the Crestmark Orchestra. As has been common for many schools in recent years, the university had to make some cuts, including the performing arts department, taking the show's funding with it.

However, the show continues to be held in the Evan Stevenson Ballroom in the university’s student center. The award-winning USU Catering provides the food —this year's menu included chicken breast privia and oven-baked salmon fillet — for those who purchase tickets for both the show and dinner. Many of the cast members and musicians are or have been USU students. The university still plays a prominent role in the production.

“If it weren’t for their cooperation, I don’t see how we could do the show,” said Brenda Anthony, production director.

Anthony had been involved with the Celebrate America Show as part of some other festivities in Logan that celebrated Constitution Week in 1999. She explained that the loss of funding for the big band show at USU had left a void in the community that needed to be fulfilled. The Celebrate America Show stepped up to the plate with a big band theme in 2000. Starting with less funding and fewer resources, it gradually carried a much-loved community tradition on to become a full-scale, hours-long production.

This year, the Stardust Singers and Stardust Dancers, backed up by the smashing Larry Smith Orchestra, put on entertainment that includes an annual military tribute, swing dancing, a barbershop quartet, plenty of big band standards and even Brylcreem commercials. More than 40 people performed on the stage.

There’s a new theme every year. Last year’s was “Hooray for Hollywood,” offering plenty of nods to the silver screen, from a performance of “Who’s on First?” to a Shirley Temple tribute. This year’s theme settled on the most classic of big band jazz. “In the Miller Mood,” a tribute to Glenn Miller and the show’s Miller roots, was set in the Hotel Pennsylvania. The show took the audience on a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis to New York by way of hit songs associated with the areas.

“She started on a shoestring and built it into a real nice production,” Jan Benson said of Anthony’s work on the show and what it is today. Benson still attends the show himself. In fact, two of his daughters performed in this year’s production.

Anthony’s daughter, Aprilrae Anthony Critchfield, has been a key performer for the past 12 years. Larry Smith’s son, Ned Smith, plays the drums in the orchestra. Other family members and couples work on the show together. The production can really be called a family affair, and other performers who aren’t related by blood rightly feel like family by the end of the production.

“It’s definitely a part-time endeavor,” said Michael DuBois, the host for the show, comparing it to a part-time job on top of the full-time one he already works. He said the rehearsal schedule, especially in the few weeks before the show, can be “pretty grueling.”

“I haven’t had a Labor Day for the last 12 years,” said Critchfield. The show is always scheduled for the Tuesday after Labor Day. Set up and rehearsal time on Labor Day is crucia to the evening's success.

Critchfield and DuBois both commuted from Salt Lake City for rehearsals. One performer ended up moving to St. George in the midst of rehearsals but kept her commitment and made the drive.

Gene Thomson, business manager for the show, discussed how he’s been asked to do “this and that” for about 10 years. Thomson has not only overseen funding and finances, but has also done voice-overs and even helped build a set one year.

“I think they do it because they love to,” he said of all of the performers and directors. And that sentiment is strong from Thomson, Anthony and down to every last participant.

“I have every intention of continuing to participate as long as she (Anthony) will have me,” DuBois said.

Anthony is grateful the performers, many of them professionals in their own right, keep coming back and said that everyone involved is “worthy of a lot more than we can afford to pay them.”

The show is mostly funded by way of ticket sales and the Cache County RAPZ tax. Anthony was quick to remind that they can’t make it on ticket sales alone. It’s not a cheap show to put on. Donations by some local businesses and loyal audience members have been particularly helpful.

Von Freeman has made generous donations over the years and the 86-year-old has driven 1,500 miles from Tyler, Texas, to come to the show every year. Originally introduced to it when he and his wife were visiting friends in Utah, he was hooked.

“It’s a clean, enjoyable show,” he said. “I know that it’s going to be a good show.”

Freeman explained that, regrettably, the couple's ages have caught up to them and this year’s performance would be the last he could attend. Because of his fierce love of the patriotism and clean nature of the show, he has a donation to the event included in his will.

The Friday night he attended, Freeman said the show “bordered on professional” — the best he had seen yet.

The backbone of the professional show was, as many cast, crew and audience commented, the music. It’s not every day that you get to hear live big band music with a full band.

Larry Smith, leader of the Larry Smith Orchestra, estimated the band puts in about 12 hours of rehearsal together before the show.

“We just start playing the stuff (at rehearsal),” he said with a laugh. “Hopefully it will sound good.”

In reality, the musicians are extremely familiar with most of the tunes. The orchestra, which outside of the Celebrate America Show goes by the name of the Kicks Band, is made up of USU faculty, former students, current music teachers — it’s basically a group of friends who like to play together once a week for nine months out of the year.

“The reason we keep playing together is that we love to play,” Smith said. “That’s why it’s called the Kicks Band. We play for kicks.”

The 16-member orchestra certainly brought life to the show. The program took off when the big band standard made famous by Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” was performed. Ned Smith on drums and Greg Wheeler on the clarinet pulled the audience in for a wild ride, leaving them thoroughly committed to the rest of the show.

“People like the music,” Smith said of Miller’s big band tunes, pointing out how it never seemed to lose popularity. “It’s sweet, but it’s swing.”

Freeman counted the music alone as one of the reasons he’s kept coming back.

“I can talk about music from that era all day long,” Freeman said. “It’s just marvelous music.”

It seemed it had a truly marvelous effect on the audience that evening.

Cast members agreed as that evening's post-show dancing commenced that there was a special feeling to the night. When the program had finished and the stage became a dance floor, the band and singers performed hits from Count Basie to Nat King Cole. The stage and back dance floor were both filled.

Women in golden, glittery or sequined dresses twirled in their dancing shoes. A man brought his granddaughter up with him to teach her some steps. Young couples swing-danced together, gaining an appreciation for a memorable era while people in their 70s and 80s gained a fresh hop in their step and twinkle in their eyes. There were waltzes, there were cha-chas and it all had a jazzy flavor that brought a smile to everyone’s faces. Most touching was how many couples swayed in each others' arms under the red and blue lights, eyes closed, remembering.

“Glenn Miller is it. They hear that music and it all comes back to them,” Smith said.

“You know why I think we come here?” one man remarked as he caught his breath before taking his wife out for another round of dancing. “I think it’s because we feel younger.”

Because of the dancer’s stamina, the event lasted for about four hours before clean-up duties began.

“We strive to go beyond entertainment,” Anthony said.

What they have is an evening full of delicious food, blissful dancing, a near-professional show put on by people who love what they do and a heaping helping of nostalgia.

DuBois cited audience interaction and post-show dancing among many things that really set the Celebrate America Show apart from other entertainment.

“This show, in my opinion, is really a unique performing opportunity that I don’t think you can find anywhere else in the state.”

Critchfield agreed that it is true from the audience standpoint as well.

“If you were to come to the show and see what it is all about, you would see that there is nothing like it in Utah,” she said.

For more information about Celebrate America Show, visit http://celebrateamericashow.com/. To follow updates about casting and production for next year’s show, visit the group's Facebook page.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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