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Ghosts of Christmas Past III

HUERFANO — Of all the sensory delights of the holiday season, it is probably our hearing that is the most attuned and happy. This is, of course, because of Christmas carols and hymns, instrumental or vocal or both, and the images they bring to each person’s memory. Back in the 1800s, before talking machines or radios, much emphasis was put on creating one’s own music. Children and young people were encouraged to learn to play at least one instrument and to raise their voices in song. Families entertained themselves with their small bands or orchestras, and few social gatherings were complete without some sort of musical offering. Back when just a violin and a cornet were acceptable for a dance orchestra, it’s easy to see folks were not only easily entertained but also imaginative. Once fall rolled around, the local musicians would start plans for staging some type of holiday performance in which the entire community could participate. Most communities had at least a brass band, used for all events from greeting important passengers arriving on the train (or stage), to heralding exciting news right up to providing dirges for funerals. Even the coal camps had bands of some form, with membership open to all ages. Some

localities could even boast a drum corps, and several had German bands. Brass bands might not be suitable for some Christmas songs, but they would do. They were possibly drowned out anyway by the enthusiastic singing of their listeners. Walsenburg always had music teachers, from the 1880s to the 1960s. These operated independent studios, specializing, usually, in specific instruments. It was not until the 1930s the schools began organized music programs. The first newspaper mention of any local and youthful musical group was in 1934 when the Junior Band, under the directorship of H.F. Scott, marched in the Colorado State Fair Parade. Young Ralph Levy was drill leader. Huerfano County High School’s program was led by Kenneth Bender in 1934 when there was a 25-member orchestra. Bender was also the director of the CLTA community band. CLTA was a Depression-era organization, the Commission on Leisure Time Activities, striving to keep the population engaged and entertained despite hard times. While the band’s chief purpose was to provide music for school events, it became, along with the choirs, the main feature of Walsenburg’s official opening of the Christmas season, when the mammoth tree at Sixth and Main streets, along with all the merchants’ window displays and other decorations, were turned on. By the mid 1940s HCHS boasted a large band, Washington School a junior band, and St. Mary had a high school band and glee club and an eighth grade glee club. Two years later the DeMolay added its choir to the festivities. A highlight of the season for each school, and many of the grade schools, were musical programs. These ranged from the religious to fantasy, and involved all the grades. In 1948 there was a major presentation at HCHS, with the band, boys and girls glee clubs, and the mixed chorus all joining together for a delightful musical tribute. Ralph Levy Jr., the former drill leader, returned in the early ‘50s to direct the high school bands. He built the group to 81 students from the junior and high schools by 1952 when they gave their annual Christmas concert. In 1954 the then 80-piece band and 60-voice choir appeared on KCSJ TV with their melodic Christmas program, which they also performed for local residents in the high school gym. The groups maintained an excellent reputation and repeated their television performance for many years. By 1962 Frank Montera had taken over as director. While the band shrank to 72 members and the mixed choir to 50, their reputation only grew. Not only did they present their holiday concerts on KCSJ, they won numerous state awards. This led to playing for dances around town and their first appearance during a Bronco game halftime in 1968. Frank Montera was named “Man of the Year” for his efforts by Walsenburg citizens. The following year, band membership jumped to 128. In mid-December 1970, the band returned to Mile High Stadium and no doubt rendered some Christmas tunes along with their usual fare. Some 50,000 fans, including 450 from Walsenburg, appreciated the program. Of course, not only the high school musicians and singers were featured at Christmas. Those early annual Christmas dances generally relied on “out of town” music makers, the “out of town” bestowing a certain cachet, as in, “This is not your usual entertainment”. The local musicians stayed busy playing for smaller crowds all around the county, and being the “out of town” orchestra in other places while giving the locals their expertise at the Christmas season opener in Walsenburg. Occasionally, some of the members of the band and choruses would gather to form a caroling group that would entertain around the city. Groups such as the DeMolay, Rainbow Girls, scout troops and, later, the Teen-Aids, made this an annual event in the 1950s through the ‘70s. Even Rotary Club had its own quartet. In 1980 a Community Choir was formed. Its members presented a Christmas cantata as one of its performances, the first to be held in many years, if not decades. This same Christmas brought the living nativity scene with humans and animals “at the east end of Elm Street”. During the 1970s the tradition of Christmas dances faded into history. No longer could a family attend such a social function as a unit, and no longer was it acceptable for parents to leave their children without supervision. Instead, New Year’s Eve took over as the major holiday event for adults. This ended a long run of adult-centric entertainment. As early as 1939 certain organizations were sponsoring jitterbug dances for young people while still maintaining the more staid old-time dances and fiddlers’ contests for the older ones. By the late 1960s, the teenagers were clamoring for their own events, ones where those darned old folks (over 21) weren’t welcome. This ushered in Christmas school dances as well as the Rainbow for Girls annual formal ball. Only the parents and teachers who were chaperoning were allowed. The Walsenburg Elks Lodge offered teen dances in their “ballroom” but required suitable attire, which was accepted in the ‘60s but became increasing burdersome for attendees in the following years. Who owned a tie? For that matter, who could tie it properly?