The Blue Band: Marching Through History
For many alums, halftime at Beaver Stadium is not the time to go to the concession stand or run to the restroom. They are glued in their seats watching the halftime show put on by one of the iconic symbols of Penn State and “the best band in the land”—the Penn State Blue Band.
From the drum major’s flip to the floating LIONS to its innovative halftime shows, the Penn State Blue Band has been wowing audiences for 113 years. The 300-member Blue Band is made up of some of the best of the best musicians. Each year, more than 200 incoming freshmen audition for a spot in the Blue Band—and only about half make it.
Like thousands of their predecessors, current band members become woven into a grand Penn State tradition that affects the rest of their lives. Being a part of the Blue Band is mostly a fall endeavor, though some musicians take part in band performances later in the year for special events (like Blue-White Weekend, for example). Students receive one class credit for the fall semester—an amount that belies the extraordinary required time and effort.
O. Richard Bundy, the Blue Band’s director since 1996 and only the fifth director in Blue Band history, says student musicians are willing to put in the extraordinary amount of required time because they get back so much intrinsically.
“In generation after generation of students, I’ve seen an incredible attachment back to the University through their experience being in the Blue Band,” said Bundy.
The Blue Band has been part of Penn State for 113 years. And this year, the band is celebrating several milestones. It’s been 40 years since the majorettes, known as “Touch of Blue,” joined the band and 50 years since Blue Band alumni have been an officially chartered group with the Alumni Association. In July, the Alumni Blue Band will celebrate the anniversary with a reunion and performance during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.
Since 1899, the Blue Band has grown from a six-member drum and bugle corps initiated by student George H. Deike to a brass band known as the Cadet Band and College Military Band in those first years. In 1923, the band purchased new uniforms to replace the military-style khaki outfits worn for the previous eight years. The new uniforms happened to be blue, and the students wearing them came to be known as the Penn State Blue Band.
Until the band grew to a certain size, it didn’t have a drum major. That position was officially added in 1947. During the 1950s and 1960s, drum majors mostly improvised their performances. Jeff Robertson ’74 changed that when he inadvertently created one of the band’s most distinctive features: the pre-game flip. Uncomfortable with the customary drum major baton tosses, Robertson strutted onto the field before a 1971 home game and surprised the crowd with a back flip. Fans loved it, so he kept doing it.
Eric Felack, the next drum major, learned how quickly traditions take root in Happy Valley. He didn’t perform the flip while drum major for two seasons in the mid 1970s, and fans booed him. Every drum major since has performed the flip—which became a more difficult running front flip, followed by a split. In the 1980s, the second flip at the south end of the field was added.
So far, only men have worn the tall drum major’s hat—called a “shako”—and performed the pre-game flip. Women weren’t part of the Blue Band’s marching ranks until the early 1970s, although women did substitute for men during World War II when men were in short supply. In 1943, 19 out of 80 members were called up for military service, and in desperate need of musicians, then-director Hummel Fishburn allowed women to be in the marching band. They were the only women to do so for almost 30 years.
In early 1972, Judy Shearer ’74 marched into Blue Band history when she auditioned to be the band’s first majorette. James Dunlop, the director at the time, was so impressed with Shearer’s skill he decided to add 12 majorettes to the previously all-male band. Shearer also performed as the feature twirler during some halftime shows.
At the same time the majorettes were added, a debate raged on campus between traditionalists intent on preserving the band’s men-only membership and “women’s libbers” seeking equal opportunity in campus activities. At the 1973 pre-season band camp, eight women went through the grueling, weeklong tryouts. Five made the final cut. By the Blue Band’s centennial year in 1999, nearly 40 percent of the musicians were women.
By 1989, ability rather than gender was the defining factor in selecting a new feature twirler. Unable to decide between Lori Branley ’92 and John Mitchell ’92, the judges chose both. Mitchell and Branley captivated Beaver Stadium crowds with their routines for three seasons before Branley’s graduation left Mitchell as the lone feature twirler for the 1992 season. Mitchell was the only male to hold the feature twirler position until 2011 with the selection of Matthew Freeman.
Accolades and Firsts
The Blue Band was honored as the best band in the land with the 2005 Sudler Trophy, the most prestigious award a collegiate marching band can receive. In 2005, the Blue Band became the first college marching band to perform at a major fashion show when 100 students marched down the catwalk of the designer Marc Jacobs’ event during Fashion Week in New York City. That same fall, members of the Blue Band appeared in photo spreads published in Vogue and W magazines, including a photo by world-renowned artist Annie Leibovitz.
The Penn State Blue Band has appeared at nearly 40 bowl games including appearances in the Rose, Orange, Cotton, Sugar, Fiesta, Outback, Blockbuster and Citrus bowls—and the band has even performed during a Buffalo Bills game on Monday Night Football. In addition to marching in multiple bowl parades, the Blue Band marched in the Bicentennial Constitution Celebration Parade held in Philadelphia in 1987. The band has also performed in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., in 1995 and in 2009.
Widely known for its well-choreographed and expertly executed halftime shows, the Blue Band had its most highly lauded show in 2009. It was titled “The Moving Picture Show,” and featured the band moving in and out of formations related to popular movies, such as Superman’s “S” and two fighters representing Rockie.
The musical arrangements and choreography of the Blue Band’s shows begins each June and involves many people. “All the people who work with the band are invited to participate,” said Bundy, “including graduate and volunteer assistants. For the planning, we like to get as many minds together as possible to come up with creative ideas for shows. And we ask students for suggestions for show tunes and concepts.” Then, the actual writing for the halftime shows is split between Bundy, Assistant Director of the Blue Band Greg Drane ’06g, and Blue Band graduate assistants.
A portion of the band—the 15-member Penn State Pep Band—travels to all away football games and plays for Friday night alumni mixers for local and visiting Penn Staters in town for the game. And the Pep Band is a cornerstone of the pre-game pep rallies before each away football game.
The hardest challenge of the away-game weekend, Bundy says, is gaining permission from the host schools to allow Penn State’s Pep Band to enter the stadium with their instruments and play during the game. More often than not, that permission is not granted. If they get in the stadium, Pep Band members play it up with gusto and then mingle good-naturedly afterward with the hosting band.
“At the end of the day, our students know those other band members work as hard as they do,” said Bundy. “It’s not about a competition.” Training students that they are public representatives of Penn State is a part of his job, he said, and it’s something the students have always taken very seriously.
More information on the people, performances, and traditions of the Blue Band can be found on the Blue Band’s website or in two books written by former Blue Band members Thomas E. Range III ’89 and Sean Patrick Smith ’90: The Penn State Blue Band: A Century of Pride and Precision (published in 1999 for the Blue Band’s centennial) and the sequel, Into the Game: The Penn State Blue Band, 1999–2009.
Or follow several Blue Band hopefuls from the end of high school along the hard road to that first game at Beaver Stadium, in “Making the Blue Band” a documentary produced in 2008 by WPSU-TV and sponsored in part by the Alumni Association. Watch a trailer for the documentary, or purchase it online.