Kissner’s saloon, sometimes sarcastically referred to as the Tea Room, in Defiance, Ohio was packed Halloween night 2015, the bar patrons anticipating the arrival of the Bud Widmer Rube Band after the musicians completed the parade route. The after-parade jam session is a Kissner’s tradition dating back to the 1930s. The band’s lofty price for performing is free beer for as long as they can remain standing and playing, an old custom going back to the day Bud Widmer and crew first marched in the town’s Halloween parade led by a drum major wearing a clown outfit and using a toilet plunger for a baton. The band earned its irreverent reputation by playing local and regional parades and afterward entertaining saloon crowds; a reputation that got amped up even more by their Mardi Gras shenanigans. They were once dubbed the official band of New Orleans. People claimed the more the band imbibed, the better the sound of their instruments and voices. Of course the patrons often heard through alcohol impaired ears. |
Neither Bud nor any of his original band members remain in the quick; however, I swear Widmer’s ghost and the spirits of the original Rubers were at Kissner’s that night. Bud constantly recruited new members to replace those who moved away, lost their chops, and/or died. The musicians have always consisted of local high school and college band directors, professional musicians (retired and active), and local virtuosi. They play anything from complicated marches to “head” arrangements of Dixieland/swing jam tunes. For the latter, one musician starts a riff and the rest fall in to improvise around the melody. The look and sound of the band is constant. There are usually 35 to 50 members with 25 to 40 typically showing up for gigs. The band’s present leader, Marvin “Doc” Blanchard, told me presently they are 50 strong. Twenty-seven showed up for the 2015 Halloween parade with about half that many attending the Kissner jam session. Why only half? It seems today’s younger musicians can only play from sheet music, and haven’t yet learned how to jam.
For this particular haunted Halloween night, Thom, a trumpet player who started playing in the Rube Band as a high school student in the 1960s, flew in from San Diego to play one last time. Blanchard led Thom’s high school band(s) back-in-the-day and asked him to return to Defiance for his swan song. As it stands, Blanchard could be the final leader for the Rubers. After Widmer’s death the band went silent for several decades until Vince Polce, former Ohio State band director picked up Widmer’s baton and mustered any band members still available for Widmer’s posthumous induction into Defiance’s hall of fame. Forty former Rubers showed up, played a concert, and enjoyed the experience so much that they started anew. Ten years later Polce became a victim of cancer and passed away. Enter Doc Blanchard, also a longtime trombone/trumpet Rube member, to lead the group. However, although Blanchard still possesses the tone and volume of a virtuoso brass player, he is deep into his 80s. Will there be another leader to step up after Blanchard? It seems doubtful. All with a personal thread to Bud are either too old or dead.
Back to Thom: It turns out he contacted a cancerous disease called multiple myeloma a few years back, which in addition to creating runaway plasma to attack his immune system, affects his lung capacity—something a trumpet player requires in spades. It was his desire to lay it all out there one more time for the Bud Widmer Rube Band and the patrons of Kissner’s. He didn’t disappoint.
At about eight-thirty a dozen or so of the Rube Band members straggled into the saloon with the parade still passing by in front of Kissner’s. There they unpacked, set up, and took a long pulls of beer in pitchers on a table before them. Those old enough to remember swear they heard Bud Widmer exclaiming, “Let ‘em know who we are!” just before they played the band’s theme song.
It was very rare for a high school musician to a) be invited to play in the Rube Band, and b) have his parents’ approval to hang out with rowdy, older musicians wearing goofy outfits. Predictably, Thom’s parents didn’t like the idea, but attended the same church as Widmer, and reluctantly gave their approval. It also helped that Thom’s trumpet playing classmate, Craig Andrews, joined the band at the same time. Both young horn players later became prominent, and went west. Craig had a long career in Las Vegas as a show orchestra member playing both trumpet and piano. Thom continued to play with the Rube Band when in the area, while Craig retired his trumpet, and moved back to Defiance where he still plays piano on occasion.
From the first chord progression the band’s late founder must have entered the room. I never heard them sound as good—not even years ago. The trombones, Bud’s instrument, always punctuated the group’s personality each playing with the blasting volume heard when one listens to the Four Freshmen’s Bob Flanagan. Three trumpets, sounding like eight, drove the band to new heights each fighting to find a pure harmonic tone that makes people feel joy and get goose bumps at the same time. Percussionist Mugs Davis worked so hard that sweat splashed off his drumhead. After the first set I said to myself, “There’s nothing left after that.”
But Blanchard overheard me and smiled. He said to the band, “Let’s blow anyway. There’s always something further down the line.” He raised his trombone and led the way.
They blew, they writhed, they sang, they tried hard after Blanchard’s explorations attempting to find that elusive perfect riff that can’t be described because it’s so pure. Marty and I sweated at the table, drank beers, and told them to GO, GO, GO!
Sometime in that night, musicians, bartenders, waitresses in shorts—everyone—was totally spent. Thom collapsed into a seat before me. He was gray, his eyes were vacant, and he was barely able to stay upright. He was an empty shell, and no longer a bright young musician. The effort had taken its toll on his lungs because he left it all in that room. He blasted his trumpet, matching Alan Kent’s trombone note for note, and sang his heart out that night; gave it all because he knew it would be his final time. I was sad because neither his late father and late mother; wife, daughter and granddaughter; nor our brother was there to witness a valiant musician falling on his sword; blowing out chunks of his lungs. They’ll never know what they missed. I’m also saddened that I’ll never hear him play again.
Somewhere in San Diego there is a closet or an attic that contains a sturdy, but somewhat battered tan-colored horn case. It contains a King Super 20 trumpet built in 1934. Its owner has played his last gig, and unless a new owner is found, that particular instrument, Thom’s noble companion since his tweener years, will remain forever silent.
An old cliché is that all good things come to an end. If that’s so, for Thom Myers October 31, 2015 was THE END.
By Gene Myers, an untalented, but appreciative brother and music geek.
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