A Narrative History of the Bearcat Bands
Humble Military Beginnings
In the fall of 1920, Mr. Ralph A. Van Wye, a student in the College of Engineering, had returned to the University of Cincinnati after a recent two year tour of duty in the US Army as a bandsman during World War I. At the time, ROTC was compulsory for all male students at UC. Since Mr. Van Wye had only recently completed his Army service, he went to the commanding officer of the ROTC with his discharge papers and requested his ROTC requirement be waived. However, when the Commandant saw he was an Army Bandsman, he instead told Mr. Van Wye that he was just the man they needed. They wanted to organize an ROTC band, but had no one available to serve as bandmaster. That fall, Ralph A. Van Wye held his first rehearsal in one of the College of Engineering laboratories. At his first rehearsal, the band consisted of eight members. As Mr. Van Wye often said, “The only letter we could form was the letter I.” Van Wye would go on to lead the band as a student until his graduation in the spring of 1923.
Uniformed and Ready to Travel
In September of 1923, Sergeant Victor Norling transferred from Fort Thomas, Kentucky to the ROTC detachment at UC and became the second part-time band director. He remained in this position until 1929 during which the group continued to be administered by ROTC. In addition to performing at all ROTC functions, it also presented halftime performances at UC football games. At the Nippert Stadium Dedication Day game against Oberlin College on November 8, 1924, the band made its first appearance in uniforms. In 1925, the bandsmen initiated a coed band sponsor and elected Ms. Julia E. Sale to the first position. Also during Sgt. Norling's tenure, the UC Band began making trips with the football team to some of the away football games. Transportation at this time consisted of an open flatbed truck.
In 1929, Colonel R. A. Aderegg, the Assistant Dean of the College of Engineering, was appointed faculty advisor to the band. That fall, Mr. Merrill B. Van Pelt assumed the position of part-time director. At this time, the band changed from an ROTC band to a student activity for all male students on campus. Up to this point, all membership had been from the College of Engineering. Mr. Van Pelt immediately embarked upon an expansion campaign. Among his innovations was the development of "Varsity Vanities," a musical review sponsored by the UC Band in which students from across campus participated.
During the 1930's, the UC Band gained a national reputation at football games. Mr. Van Pelt and the UC Band were one of the first to use animated formations and dance steps in football shows. The band also traveled extensively during these years.
The World War II Years
When the rise of World War II put an end to football games after the fall season of 1942, the band stopped marching but it did not stop playing. The band played for all formal military formations and war rallies.
Throughout the first twenty-three years of its existence the membership of the band was exclusively male. However, in the fall of 1944, there were only two bandsmen left on campus from previous years. At this time, women were accepted for membership in the UC Band on what was to be a temporary basis. For the remainder of WWII, membership in the band remained predominantly female. In 1945, for the first time in three years, the red and black band appeared again on the football field, but with coed membership. With the return of many veterans in the fall of 1946, the UC Band had one of its most trying years to date: many of the returning men felt that the band should revert to its all male status. The women in the band plus a significant number of "enlightened" men won out and the band became permanently coed from that time forward, much sooner than many other college band programs which took until the 1970's to make this decision. This kind of progressive response to changing times became a trend of persistence and innovation that the students of the Bearcat Bands became very proud of through the decades that followed.
The 1946-47 academic year was highlighted by a trip to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas as UC Football made its first appearance in a major bowl game. In the spring of 1947, Mr. Van Pelt submitted his resignation in order to devote full time to his responsibilities as Supervisor of Instrumental Music in the Cincinnati Public Schools.
The Band Becomes a Band Program and Makes An Entrance
In 1947, Mr. Clarence E. Mills became the overall fourth and first full time director of the UC Bearcat Band. Mr. Mills had recently completed Army service as a bandmaster during WWII. He served until 1949 and completely reorganized the unit into the precise, intricate Bearcat Marching Band, two pep bands, and an intramural band. Varsity Vanities continued and a band clinic proved successful for area high school bands. During this time, a Concert Band aspect to the program was developed. In 1949, Mr. Mills departed UC and returned to the Army as Special Services Officer.
Mr. Robert Hamilton, previously band director at Walnut Hills High School very near the UC campus and at Ball State University in Indiana, served as director from 1949 until the spring of 1954. He introduced the "story-telling maneuver," adding a new dimension to halftime entertainment.
In the spring of 1954, Dr. R. Robert Hornyak became the sixth director of the UC Band. Dr. Hornyak had an influential role on the band’s tradition and pride that has continued to impact the band to this day. Among his innovations, he held the band to an even higher standard of excellence, initiated the famed CHARGE down the stadium steps, and in 1955 established both the Bearkittens drill team and changed the name of the organization to its current plural form, The University of Cincinnati Bearcat Bands, because of the increased scope of the band's activites.
The first preseason camp convened in 1958. Later that same year, the band was spotlighted on national television as they performed at Chicago's Wrigley Field for a Chicago Bears game. In 1959, the Bearcat Varsity (today Basketball) Band joined the Concert Band and Marching Band as one of the three basic units within the organization. A Stage Band, later known as Jazz Band, was initiated in 1964 and quickly grew under the leadership of Mr. John Defoor, a former arranger for the UC Bands. A Brass Band was discontinued in 1968 and absorbed by the Conservatory. The Bearcat Bands as a whole were incorporated into the College-Conservatory of Music as well. Due to increasing demands upon his time, Dr. Hornyak completed his tenure as director in the spring of 1970. He would eventually become Dean of CCM.
Innovation, Growth, and Transition
The two decades following Dr. Hornyak's tenure found the program seeking stability. During the 1970's alone, the band would see four very different directors.
Dr. Robert Wojciak became the seventh director in 1970 and the band performed at Cincinnati Bengals and Reds games. He would eventually become chair of winds and percussion at the University of Southern California.
In 1972, Mr. Harry McTerry improved the driving marching and playing style and the band performed at the '72 National League Playoffs and World Series baseball games. Mr. McTerry would go on to have a successful career conducting on the university and public school levels, particularly in Detroit, Michigan.
Professor Woodrow Hodges became ninth director in 1973. The band traveled considerably during his time and received acclaim with trips to Philadelphia, Disney World, Athens, Georgia, and Louisville. The band was consistently received with tremendous enthusiasm and praise. Additional performances occurred a the '75 National League Playoffs and '75/'76 World Series for the Cincinnati Reds and on Monday Night Football for the Cincinnati Bengals. Mr. Hodges placed more emphasis on the basketball Varsity (later to become Pep) Band. Under "Woody's" leadership, the UC Band utilized a high-stepping marching style, original musical arrangements, and a powerful sound. After the four action-packed years of his directorship, Mr. Hodges departed for a position in Wisconsin.
The fall of 1977 marked the arrival of the tenth director, Professor Glenn Richter, former assistant director of the University of Texas Longhorn Band. Mr. Richter introduced the "show band" techniques of southern marching bands and initiated the UC Band Flag Corps (later to be known as the Color Guard), adding a new color and dimension to the band's performances. After two years at UC, Mr. Richter accepted a position as director of the University of Michigan Marching Band.
In 1979, Dr. Terence G. Milligan, former director of the Northwest Missouri State University Bands, became the eleventh director of the band. “Doc” left behind many notable impressions during his tenure, including the switch to the glide step style we use today, he reintroduced the famed CHARGE down the stadium steps that had not been done in recent years, and introduced a rifle line to complete the UC Color Guard. In the winter of 1986, a "Varsity Clown Band" was organized to entertain the crowds during basketball season; this was disbanded after two years. Varsity Vanities, which had been phased out, returned for several seasons. Dr. Milligan would go on to become the longtime Associate Director of Wind Studies at UC’s College Conservatory of Music. In 1987, Mr. Eugene Corporon became director of a newly organized Wind Studies program at CCM. His position included oversight of the Bearcat Bands and so in the fall of 1988 he instituted a Campus Band, designed as a year-round concert band open to students, faculty, and staff. Due to a reorganization within the Athletic Department and the introduction of the UC Dance Team, the Bearkittens were disbanded in the fall of 1989.
In 1993, the Bearcat Marching Band and the rest of the program did not receive an operating budget and were severed from CCM affiliation. For a brief period, the band found itself completely independent of university association and funding. The actual existence of the band was in doubt. Mr. Matthew McInturf, a CCM graduate student, served as director. McInturf would eventually go on to become Director of Bands at Sam Houston State University in Texas. The band program was eventually transferred to the Athletic Department.
The Modern Band
In the fall of 1994, Dr. Terren L. Frenz, Sr. was installed as the thirteenth director. Dr. Frenz had just retired after a very successful 30-year public school career in the Canton, Ohio area. Under the baton of Dr. Frenz, several changes helped the UC Bearcat Bands evolve into a much more effective unit. The leadership was transferred from the students of band council, who had been running the band operations in recent years, to Dr. Frenz. A Jazz Band was reintroduced to the program and the program saw its first full time Assistant Director who was hired in 1999, Mr. David Martin.
The decade of the '90s were a time of great improvement in the image of the UC Band. New uniforms in a contemporary style gave the band a much-needed facelift and were debuted at the 1997 Boise, Idaho Humanitarian Bowl. This was the first bowl trip for the band since the Sun Bowl of 1956! New sousaphones were purchased in 1998 along with the replacement of a number of other instruments. 1999 marked the first appearance of the UC Band at a professional football game in quite some time; the performance was at the Bengals' last game at Riverfront Stadium. Also, and most critically, in 1999 the band became a permanent unit within UC Student Life (today Student Affairs).
In the spring of 2000, the band received a temporary space in Armory Fieldhouse. This was the first "home" for the Bearcat Bands in almost 25 years and replaced its previous lodgings in the basement of Laurence Hall. More bowl appearances followed as UC Football rose to previously unknown levels of national prominence. Band membership more than doubled under the leadership of Dr. Frenz.
On May 26, 2005, the Rockwern Band Center was officially dedicated as the band’s permanent facility after years of fighting for a home. That same year, Mr. Nick Angelis was hired by the university as an additional Assistant Director. In 2010, Mr. Martin’s departure brought in Dr. Jody Besse as the band’s Associate Director, keeping the band staffed with three full time directors.
The Tradition Continues
With the retirement of Dr. Frenz in January of 2017, Dr. Besse was appointed as interim director while the search for a new head director took place. In the summer of 2017, Mr. Christopher Nichter was welcomed as the fourteenth director of the UC Bearcat Bands after working for 10 years at West Virginia University as Assistant Director of Bands. Since his arrival, the UC Marching Band has grown in size with a very audience-friendly, but pedagogically demanding approach to show design. Concert Bands have grown in number, size, and stature. Jazz Bands continue to flourish. A Beginning Band offers everyone at UC the chance to learn an instrument. Mr. Angelis was promoted to Associate Director and talented Assistant Directors joined the staff over the years such as Mr. Ander Peterson, a former band graduate assistant, and Dr. Krista Mulcahy.
Thanks to the hard work of so many for so long the comprehensize University of Cincinnati Bearcat Bands program continues to increase in size and prestige with a vision for UC to be the most musical campus in the United States.