They are Boy Scouts in a world without old ladies and intersections. They are Penelope, faithfully awaiting Odysseus' return. They are the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, together and performing Still, two years after Bob Irsay's tacky elopement to Indianapolis with the NFL Colts. Despite becoming, overnight, an oompah-ing warehouseful of unclaimed merchandise, this troupe is marching on.
A lesser band, similarly bereaved, might have long since hocked its instruments. Not so the Colts band. "All we want," says band spokesman John Ziemann, 39, "is to show the NFL that Irsay was wrong, that the spirit and enthusiasm for NFL football is very much alive in this city." That is the gist of Ziemann's "Statement from the Membership of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band," a brief manifesto that he typed up after the team bolted Crabtown for Naptown in March 1984. The statement is part of the band's publicity packet, which comes complete with articles about the band, thank-you notes from dignitaries (several mayors and a U.S. president, Gerald Ford, among them)—even a "Brief History" (some highlights: The Colts band performed at the 1948 Miss America Pageant, the 1961 National Lions Club convention and four NFL championship games).
Traditions like these don't snuff out easily. Thanks to recruiting drives, the ranks of the band have swollen by 30, to 160, since "the highjacking," as Baltimoreans refer to the franchise shift.
This band cannot disband. It was the first one in the NFL to use a color guard, flag lines and cheerleaders. In-band romances have yielded numerous marriages, which ensure future band members. Three generations of one family, the Kochs, have played in the Colts band. Ziemann met Charlene, his wife, through it. She was a majorette; he played bass drum. Most of the band attended their wedding.
September 28, 1986
In 1951 and '52 the band was also teamless, after Colts president Abraham Watner withdrew the franchise and sold the team's players to the NFL for $50,000. To stave off rust, that version of the Colts band played at concerts, parades and halftime shows for other NFL teams. During this drought a quiet young sousaphonist by the name of Art Schmersal signed on. Thirty-four years later, Schmersal, now 50, is band director.
When the bomb dropped in '84, the band incorporated to prevent Irsay from appropriating its name. Business manager Dick DiStefano devised a repayment schedule for the band's $5,000 in debts. The band booked dates—concerts, festivals, an Orioles game—and kept on practicing.
Rehearsals are on Wednesday nights at a parking lot in Woodlawn, Md. Some band members drive more than 100 miles to make them. There are truckers, an antique-shop owner, steelworkers, pro musicians, students, a cop and, until her recent departure for the convent, an aspiring nun. The parking-lot lights under which they drill are timed to click off at 9:30 p.m. If more polishing is required, members pull their cars around the "field" and hit the brights.
Their uniforms are eight years old. Too often, seamstress Mary Horsley finds herself awake on the wrong side of midnight, mending on deadline. "She never turns us down," Ziemann says. Horsley has also done her part to people the band: Three of her children play in it.
The grounds crew, whose members Ziemann calls "our unsung heroes," is first to arrive and last to leave. ("To be our unsung heroes—now that's unsung!" says Jack Vaeth, the band's personnel director.) Practice can't start until the grounds crew has laid down the "field"—cloth stripes that simulate the lines on a gridiron. At parades, the grounds-crew members track down runaway sheets of music and retrieve dropped drumsticks, hats—even people.
"Fainters," Vaeth explains. "We have a lot of fainters."
Color guard captain Lou Graber, 56, marches with a plastic tube in his nose and an oxygen tank strapped to his side. Two years ago, doctors gave Graber 18 months to live when it was found he had chronic emphysema. Graber swears that he will live to see another team in Baltimore.
In 1984, the football team's first year as Hoosiers, the band subsisted on parades, concerts and pep rallies. But that was like asking Bubba Smith to live on alfalfa sprouts. Band members complained. On the night of the mayor's Christmas parade two Decembers ago, the band explained to Vaeth, "We need to do some halftimes."
Enter Marge Blatt, the cigar-chewing, gravel-voiced Colts p.r. assistant of 11 years. Blatt, who died of cancer last October, offered to use her influence around the league to arrange halftime appearances for the band. She phoned the New York Giants, and G.M. George Young excused himself from a meeting to talk to her. "I wouldn't not take a call from Marge," he says. As a result, the band was scheduled for a preseason game between the Giants and the Packers on Aug. 17, 1985.
Fans at the Meadowlands gave the Colts band a standing ovation. Similar raves awaited the band in Philadelphia that October—to its surprise. "We were warned about Philadelphia fans," says Vaeth. "They boo priests. They boo Santa Claus." They cheered the band, though. "We knew we were over the hump after that," says Ziemann.
Among other gigs, the band will perform in Cleveland this season at a Browns game. It will perform—or else. Blatt, you see, left pointed instructions before her death. "Keep the band together," she told Ziemann the last time they spoke. "It's important. If you don't," she warned, "I'm gonna come back and kick some tail!"
The football Colts have been gone from Baltimore for two seasons now. "I'm drained of my bitterness," says Ziemann. He isn't. With his next breath he's asking, "What did we ever do to the people of Indiana? Let them get their own traditions." Baltimore still hurts, too, but not as much. Hangings in effigy of Irsay are down, as are sales of Bob Irsay dart boards. Like Macbeth, Irsay is now the target of "curses—not loud, but deep." The city has dropped its eminent domain suit. Hopes for a local franchise rest on getting the NFL's nod when, and if, the league expands. It is toward that sweet moment the Colts band marches.
Colts band logic: If we play loud enough and persevere, a team might come along and adopt us. (It worked once.) Baltimore, meanwhile, must be kept warm for that new franchise. The wrath of Marge Blatt must be avoided at all costs.