South Royalton Town Band celebrates 150 years of music

  • The South Royalton Town Band, which was established in 1869, is shown in a 1907 photograph on the South Royalton green. Community bands are said to have flourished in the late 19th century as the middle class prospered and community spirit abounded. (Courtesy Royalton Historical Society) Courtesy Royalton Historical Society

  • Richard Ellis directs the South Royalton Town Band, just as he has done for 60 years, at the town green on Thursday, July 13, 2006. (Valley News - Travis Dove) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Travis Dove

  • As the sun begins to set, concert-goers watch the South Royalton Town Band perform on Jun 24, 2010. The band's roots trace back to 1869. (Valley News - Patrick T. Fallon) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Patrick Fallon

  • A stereoview photograph of the South Royalton Town Band, taken in the late 1800s, near the town green. The band's roots go back to 1869. The row of buildings in the photograph burned in an 1886 fire, replaced by the brick structures where South Royalton Market and other businesses are today. (Courtesy Royalton Historical Society) Courtesy Royalton Historical Society

  • Lester Corwin, 55, of South Royalton, Vt., crosses North Windsor Street from his apartment to the green where he will play sousaphone with the South Royalton Band for the opening evening of Old Home Days on July 8, 2004. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

For the Valley News
Published: 9/13/2019 10:00:20 PM
Modified: 9/13/2019 10:00:08 PM

After 150 years, the South Royalton Town Band is finally showing its age. It remains iconic, as American as village greens, lawn-chair chats and tapping your toes to a familiar tune as the sun takes a final bow.

With a long history behind it, fans hope a rich history lies ahead. But there’s that age thing: Band members aren’t getting younger, and young musicians don’t seem to be waiting in the wings. The trend is as obvious as the abundance of gray and white hair up on the bandstand.

With the 2019 performance season over, conductor Phyllis Kadlub, of South Royalton, who has been with the band since 1959 and led it since 2015, has announced that she’s ready to pass the baton. Simply put, it’s time. One band member says he’ll take over if no one else volunteers, leaving the future an uncertain proposition for now.

“It’s a tradition,” said Peter Kaplar, a part-time Upper Valley resident who has made himself available if another conductor doesn’t come forward. “It’s a tradition I’d like to see continue … it has to continue,’’ he told the Herald of Randolph newspaper.

That tradition originated in Europe, and came to America with British army military bands, according to Jason Hartz, who wrote a master’s thesis on community band history and is now an assistant professor at Adrian College in Michigan.

American community bands had a golden age in the latter part of the 19th century as the middle class prospered and boosterism abounded, he wrote.

But disruption followed with the invention of audio recordings and the rise of radio in the 1920s, which made live, local music less compelling. The Great Depression and World War II put many lives, and the arts, on hold.

A resurgence came after the war, when instrument makers found a younger market, which popped with the baby boom. School music programs and high school and college marching bands flourished. When piccolo and tuba players finished with that, many kept their skills sharp by joining community bands. Hartz wrote of the creation of a “band-friendly atmosphere in all aspects of American culture.”

Which brings us to Royalton. Kadlub said the South Royalton Town Band doesn’t have extensive historical files, but its roots can be traced back to 1869. The Allentown Band, in Allentown, Pa., founded in 1828, claims to be America’s oldest community band. The Lyme Town Band which got its start in the 1840s, according to the band’s website, might be the Upper Valley’s oldest.

Dick Ellis, the longtime conductor and director of the South Royalton Town Band who served for decades before Kadlub, was himself a link to the past. His longevity may never be bested: He started conducting in the early 1940s and stayed on the job until age 91, in 2015. Kadlub said he played with the band as a teenager and talked of someone having been with the band for 50 years when he started. They easily logged more than 100 years between them.

Ellis, who died in September 2015, was a Vermont legend, playing in bands around the state after turning down a chance to tour with Gene Krupa’s fabled big band. He founded Ellis Music, which got musical instruments into the hands of countless area schoolchildren. Performing “was his life,” Kadlub said. “He loved being in the spotlight.”

The South Royalton Town Band starts rehearsing in March and performs eight Thursday night concerts in the summer, plus special events such as Old Home Days. Bowing to modern sensibilities, Kadlub said, concerts are a little shorter than they were years ago, at close to an hour, and start at 7 p.m. rather than 8.

It’s said that in the past some listened to the music from their cars in the parking spots around the South Royalton green and the bandstand and honked their horns in appreciation. “We joke about that,” said Kadlub, but it doesn’t happen now.

These days, the green hosts two bandstands, the newer one named for Ellis, and background noise is more likely to come from motorcycles that rumble around the green, or trains that rattle on the nearby tracks and sound their horns. Kadlub said she used to have the band play through, but now it cedes the audio right-of-way to the trains.

The band once wore black pants and white tops, but due to climate change or fashion trends, members wear tan bottoms and white tops, or even pastels. “It might not look better, but it’s cooler,” said Kadlub.

The wide variety of music remains. Kadlub said they play plenty of marches, with John Phillip Sousa still king, and everything from jazzy tunes to Broadway hits. An Andrews Sisters medley still swings, and crowd favorites come from the scores of such shows as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

The band has about 50 members, of which 25 can be entirely counted on, which brings up a challenge for a conductor. He or she has to assess on the fly what players and what instruments have shown up for a concert, and adjust the repertoire accordingly. Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein didn’t have to be so flexible.

Sometimes performances don’t go perfectly and a song never quite comes together. Kadlub has been known to follow a rocky piece with, “Well, that’s our version of it.”

Kadlub said the band is welcoming and supportive of new players. The point is to learn and practice together. “They like each other. Everyone is having a good time,” she said.

In fact, she said, playing music with a friendly group is not only a way for players to hone their skills, but is fairly therapeutic. One visiting musician who joined them for a night told her, “I don’t have any stress left in my body at all.”

Pauline Barnes, of Randolph, who is Kadlub’s sister, said Kadlub “put her heart and soul into the band.” Barnes herself has played in it for 42 years, on the flute and piccolo. “I enjoy the challenge of playing the pieces and working with the group as a whole,” she said. “It kind of lifts up your soul, your spirit.”

“I love the town band,” declared Ria Blaas, of Sharon, a clarinet and alto sax player who said her music teacher suggested she join. “It’s fun, it’s relaxed, no one’s going to hit you if you play a wrong note,” she quipped. And just as with social skills in kindergarten, you have to learn to play with others as a musician. “You’re in a community playing music, not just on your own,” Blaas said.

Still, there’s a worry. Young players give the town band a try, but few seem to stick. The longtime performers who’d love them to do so aren’t sure why that is, but younger people seem wary of commitment, which the town band, with its busy summer schedule, certainly is.

Audiences remain receptive.” It brings people together,” Kadlub said. “In the old days, there was a term for it: to visit.” She said it’s good for people to “sit and greet each other and chit-chat and listen to the music.”

She hopes the music and sense of community don’t fade away. “It’s a great tradition,” Kadlub said, “but I can’t do it forever.”

Dan Mackie can be reached at

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