Monday, Aug. 25, 2008

Glenn Miller Orchestra at the Pabst Theater

By Evan Rytlewski
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In the increasingly rare moments that my grandfather remembers what I do for a living long enough to make conversation about it-I write about music, among other things, I tell him when he asks-he'll pose a follow-up question: "What's your favorite band?"

I never have an answer for this question, but my grandfather always does. "I know mine," he says, proudly. "The Glenn Miller Orchestra. The greatest band of all time." He'll then break into an announcer's voice, reciting some snippet of a live broadcast or album from way before my time-"Live from the Glen Island Casino," he smiles, "we bring you the sounds of the Glenn Miller Orchestra." He finishes off his nostalgic rant by reciting the names of his favorite songs: "'In the Mood', 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'" I know this rant by heart.

Glenn Miller himself, of course, never lived long enough to see who won World War II, but his orchestra still tours regularly, making annual stops at the Pabst Theater. I had the honor of escorting my grandfather to Saturday night's performance. Needless to say, I was in the minority of audience members who weren't part of the greatest generation, though making me feel less alone were two representatives of Milwaukee's proud rockabilly scene: a pompadoured young man and his presumptive girlfriend, who wore the simple black dress, elegant curled hair style and tiny black hat of a 1940s actress. They looked great.

Filling in for Miller is director Larry O'Brien, a 75-year-old silver fox who makes gentle jokes while introducing the orchestra, and occasionally picks up a trombone. He directs from a music stand with his name on it, presumably so casual (or forgetful) fans don't mistake him for Miller. Save for O'Brien, the big band is remarkably young, with several members who look appear fresh out of college. That's part of the orchestra's appealfor over 50 years, the music hasn't changed and the band hasn't aged.

The evening was, of course, fueled by nostalgia, with familiar Glenn Miller hits dominating, but O'Brien made an effort to showcase soloists with local ties and to mix up the setlist with Miller rarities, a couple of original songs and some big band-era American songbook staples. I was particularly happy to hear "Tangerine" and "All of Me." My grandpa was happy to hear everything. There was hardly a song that he didn't mouth the vocals to, even the instrumentals. He clapped loudly and jumped on any and all audience participation opportunities, singing along with "Pennsylvania 6-5000" and every other song that afforded him the chance. When O'Brien dedicated a song to all the veterans, my grandfather briefly stood along with the dozens of other vets in the crowd to receive some applause of his own.

As I drove my smiling grandfather home after the show, he shared stories of the first time he saw the original Glenn Miller Orchestra back at the old Eagles Ballroomor maybe it was the Milwaukee Roof. The venue changed each time, but the point of the story was the same.

"There will never be another band like the Glenn Miller Orchestra," he said.

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