.Watsonville Community Band Celebrates 75th Anniversary

The Watsonville Community Band kicked off its yearlong 75th Anniversary celebration Wednesday during a break in its regular rehearsal in the band room at Watsonville High School.

The date coincided with the very first rehearsal of what was then called Watsonville Sciots Band in 1947.

“We’re the only community marching band in the whole country, and we’re still going at it,” said director Eugene Smith, who has been with the band for 56 years. “It’s a great group of musicians.”

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo and former Watsonville City Councilmember Felipe Hernandez were on hand for the celebration. Alejo, who played alto saxophone in ninth and 10th grade under Smith in the Watsonville High School Band, presented a proclamation on behalf of the Monterey County Supervisors.

On Tuesday night, Watsonville Mayor Ari Parker presented a proclamation to the band as well.

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Louise Viales, who plays bass clarinet, said she has been in the band for 62 years.

“It just fills your heart,” she said. “Without music, I don’t know what I’d do.”

On Wednesday evening, band members enjoyed a fancy birthday cake and cookies. They also received patches, ballpoint pens, a band sticker and pins commemorating the 75th anniversary.

Since the 50-member band has been a class at Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education, that school’s director, Nancy Bilicich, was also present. 

“Gene and I went to school together since fourth grade at Mintie White School,” Bilicich said. 

She said she transitioned from playing the piano to drums and then to alto saxophone with the goal to play in the band at Watsonville High School. 

“Gene played a variety of instruments throughout the years and became the conductor of the community band,” she said. “What an accomplishment to provide the community with music.”

Aptos High School freshman Samuel Waite recently joined the band as a trombonist, an instrument he started playing in fourth grade.

“I really like playing in this band,” he said. “It is definitely more challenging than other bands. It’s fun.”1 of 8  

Key moments of Watsonville Community Band’s history include:

  • The first rehearsal of the “Watsonville Sciots Band” in the WHS band room, with Ralph “Slip” Bohnett as Conductor of 15 musicians.
  • July 4, 1947, first performance: Watsonville’s Independence Day Parade.
  • May 19, 1953, first appearance on television – KSBW-TV in the Salinas studio.
  • 1954, performed in San Diego at the national convention of the California-Nevada-Arizona Sciots, as the official band of the Pharaoh.
  • 1959, with a new name, the “Watsonville Band,” made the first of many concert and marching performances at the California State Fair in Sacramento.
  • July 1962, designated as the official representative of the California State Fair, the band performed in concert at the Seattle World’s  Fair and marched in the popular annual Sea Fair Parade, taking First Place in competition with over 40 other bands. 
  • July 1967, the band was the official representative of the California-Nevada Lions Clubs at the International Convention of Lions  Clubs in Chicago and were awarded the highest score of any band in the parade. 

The band has traveled to numerous countries in Europe, as well as Montreal and Alberta, Canada, Mexico City, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Hawaii. In Alberta, they performed in the Calgary Stampede Parade and field competition, where they took first-place honors and claimed $10,000 in prize money in 1982.

In June 1985, their first European tour included performances in West Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. They performed for U.S. military personnel in Mainz, Germany, and with a community band in Switzerland. In Hungary, they played a specially-arranged concert on Castle Hill, overlooking the Danube River in Budapest.

They were the first amateur group to perform behind the Iron Curtain, organizers say. 

In 1987 they performed a 45-minute concert for Pope John Paul II at Laguna Seca. And in 1996 in Washington, D.C., after marching in the National Independence Day Parade, they played a two-hour concert on the White House lawn to an estimated crowd of 8,000 with a 20-minute visit from President Bill Clinton and Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. 

In 2017, on their second trip to Washington D. C., they performed concerts at the WWII Memorial, Air Force Memorial, and the Veteran’s Retirement Home.

Overall, the band has marched in 518 parades, in competition in 397, winning 362 first-place awards, 24 seconds and 11 thirds.

They are now preparing for their Spring Concert Series in March.

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Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.
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