Raising My Glass to a Class Act.
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 1-2-2005.
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A phenomenon rolled into the Santa Clarita Valley in 1961 that would have a major impact on the lives of an entire generation at Hart High School.
No, it wasn't what you might think of events in the 1960s. It wasn't drugs, or sex, or even rock 'n' roll. What came to town was a new music and band teacher at Hart High School (and Placerita Junior High, later).
Mr. Robert K. Downs and family had arrived, all the way from Xenia, Ohio. We, simple residents of the Santa Clarita Valley, were in for a shock.
I know. The auditorium at Hart is named for the successor to Bob Downs. That's OK, but the music program Mr. Downs built was the one that Larry Thornton inherited.
What a gift he got.
In 1961 my sister Alyce was still at Hart. She graduated with the class of '62. Being in band was about the last thing anyone wanted.
I remember going to the Christmas concert at the High School. (Yes, it was still called a "Christmas" concert.) The chorus was good. The band lacked many things intonation, rhythm, you name it. It also lacked numbers. It was about the size of the "pep bands" of later years, maybe 40 people.
Downs was a "people person." He could handle a large class or a small one. He got results from those who were thought to be without talent. He built the program at Hart High and, to some extent, in the entire district.
I had the joy of being in his program from 7th grade until I graduated from Hart in 1968. Marching band. Orchestra. Stage Band. Pep Band. We had it all.
I really think more folks came to the football games to see the half-time shows than to see the games. By 1967, Downs had molded the music program into an almost 200-member marching band, and a stage band that went to the Hollywood Bowl. We took prizes and trophies all over the state. Even the captain of the football team was a member of the band.
Stage Band was "homeroom" for those of us in that band. We rehearsed in the morning before school started, and then we had our Stage Band class, and then we had marching band practice after school. There were also music theory classes, which I attended. Downs taught us at the college level in those classes. I took the music Theory proficiency test at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge), and was told I had completed all the music theory requirements for a degree in music education.
There has never been a band teacher like him at Hart since he left there in 1969. I've never talked with another former member of his music program who has had anything but good to say about Bob Downs.
He was like a father to many of us. At least, we often saw more of him during a typical week then we saw of our own parents. We even went to summer school so we could be in band with him.
I really believe that if the summer school band didn't show up for the Fourth of July Parade in Newhall, he would have marched down the street, playing his clarinet. But we couldn't let him do that. Every year, we took summer school band. I still can't believe we gave up much of our summer vacation time to do it. It was simply, when Mr. Downs asked, we said, "OK."
We had concerts at Hart Park in the summer. The junior high band members were allowed to sit in on those. Wow! I got to be in a band that was conducted by Bob Downs, and included Gary Downs, with Dave Downs on tuba. Later, when Gary went off to college, Andy Downs came into the band. He plays a mean trumpet.
What teacher does that today? (Maybe Gary and David do.) I'm not sure how Lois, better known to us as Mrs. Downs, put up with all the time he put into the band. Arranging music. Writing music. Rehearsals. Games. Concerts. I wonder if they still play the same arrangement of "Indian Love Call" during games? Bob Downs somehow turned that ballad into the unofficial fight song of the school. (He didn't think much of the original one).
I still feel guilty when I don't practice my clarinet enough as a member of the Tidewater Concert Band here in Virginia.
It fell on Bob Downs to tell me that my mother had died.
I was "up at the Downs," as I used to tell my mother, on the day she passed away.
I know he gave a report to her about me when he left this life for the next.
So, it is a New Year 2005. While Mr. Downs is blowing a hot lick or two with the Heavenly Jazz Ensemble, I know he is somehow still helping to direct each and every one of us who sat under his baton.
His teachings about music and life are still with me and with all of us of the 1961-68 Hart High bands.
Raise a glass, say a prayer, do whatever you do to welcome the New Year. No matter what you do in life, make a resolution to do it like Bob Downs did:
Change your part of the world for the better. Be a phenomenal phenomenon.
May the New Year be healthy and peaceful for you and yours.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.
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