Last Roundup Stock Show & Rodeo band marches into the sunset

Photo by James Warden, a Stock Show Rodeo Orchestra trumpet player

Photo provided courtesy of Mark Gheen

The 20-piece live rodeo band that accompanied riders, horses and livestock at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo has played its last roundup.

The band was informed the week of July 11 that the show will go on with pre-recorded music. Fort Worth Stock & Rodeo officials characterized the move as a “tough decision,” saying live music will be discontinued beginning with the 2017 show.

The first official public announcement of the orchestra’s termination appeared inside a Stock Show & Rodeo newsletter story, without fanfare, under a small “TOUGH DECISIONS” sub-headline on page 8.

Citing a decision based on costs, benefits and relevancy to delivering a fun experience, the Stock Show management opted to go with digitally produced music for “creating a lively and fast-paced rodeo performance. Its ability to allow rodeo production staff to quickly react to the dynamic, anything-can-happen nature of the sport provides a thrilling and entertaining fan experience. Unfortunately, an orchestra has limitations in this environment, thus the decision was made to discontinue its use in 2017 rodeo performances,” according to the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo management statement.

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Benje Bendele, the show’s longtime sound and light consultant, will develop the new music for the show.

Barnes said the decision was a tough one, “but the use of digital music gives us greater ability to utilize video and other tools to create exciting experiences and features.”

Now orchestra ex-director Rick Stitzel said the Stock Show’s cost for the orchestra’s total annual 22-/23-day run came to about $92,000.

Show officials declined to say how much the show will be paying next year for expanded digitally generated music, sound effects and lighting.

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Stitzel said he’s skeptical that the orchestra decision was based on saving money.

The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo Orchestra dates back at least 100 years – probably closer to 110, according to members. Among the many instrumental talents was internationally renowned saxophonist, composer and conductor John Giordano, now retired, but former conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony. He played in the 1960s-era rodeo orchestra.

“They called and said they’re going in a different direction,” said Rick Stitzel, the rodeo orchestra’s director since 2010 and an orchestra veteran. From 1977-1992, he played piano with the orchestra; since 1992, he also has composed and arranged music for its performances.

The band has been versatile, playing Sousa marches, The Magnificent Seven movie theme, the Gunsmoke TV western theme and the classic William Tell Overture segment used as theme music for The Lone Ranger. The band has also adapted short energetic flourishes from hundreds of other well-known tunes and original compositions.

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Although there were some hints of a possible orchestra termination, some of the musicians were surprised by the firing.

“I kept thinking, ‘This rodeo legacy has been around a hundred years.’’’ said Susan Ishii, who with husband Tim Ishii played saxophone with the orchestra. “I just could not think about giving up on that tradition. It’s a shame.” Susan began as a substitute sax player in the late 1990s and became a regular in 2002. When not playing for the rodeo, she has been a clarinet, piano and saxophone teacher.

“They’re taking a key piece of the tradition away,” Tim Ishii said, adding that the Stock Show Rodeo now appears to be aiming more at “stimulating the crowd” with a “frenetic” sound performance with a DJ, rather than music to add entertainment.

The “more modern, slick techno” approach seems more like Las Vegas, and that sort of fits with the Stock Show Rodeo’s scheduled move into modern, sleek new arena complex facilities in two-three years, Ishii said. “I get it.”

However, he said, by staying with its longstanding marketing themes of family entertainment and tradition, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo “could have capitalized on touting the ‘longest running live rodeo band in the country’.”

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has moved in the same “techno” rodeo direction, he said. “There’s nothing legendary about a DJ.”

The 2017 Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo will run from Jan. 13 through Feb. 4.

Playing in a demanding band

The orchestra, whose repertoire includes some 50 years worth of arrangements and compositions by two of its directors, has seen its workload grow over the last 25-30 years from 17 performances over a 12-day run to 35 or 36 performances over 23 days.

“It’s such a hard gig,” said Rich Stitzel, Rick’s son, a professional musician who has been the orchestra’s tympani and percussion player for 16 years.

He said demands on the musicians were extraordinary as the band worked hard to capture the tone of the rodeo.

The standard show began with the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, followed by The Cowtown Overture (an arrangement by Rick Stitzel using passages from Big Balls in Cowtown, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind and Deep in the Heart of Texas). Then came the grand entry piece, a custom arrangement of Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite, a classic march. Legendary orchestra director Lew Gillis was the arranger on many of the pieces, according to Stitzel.

Pianist Mark Gheen, Tim and Susan Ishii and Rich Stitzel said the biggest challenge came from the high instrumental performance standards set and maintained by the three longtime orchestra directors since the late 1950s: Lew Gillis (for 25-plus years), then Jack Cobb (retired in 2010) and until last week, Rick Stitzel.

Gillis raised the bar high, and Cobb was equally demanding on stage, Rick said.

“When Jack Cobb called me to sub, I was just beyond thrilled,” Susan Ishii said. “It was a huge honor.”

When Cobb called her husband and saxaphonist Tim Ishii to play the rodeo, “I was just thrilled to death,” he said.

Now Tim Ishii exits the job as a 25-year veteran Stock Show Orchestra player. “You planned your year around it,” he said. And he has been a music and sax teacher for years, more than 12 years at Texas Wesleyan and 13 years at the University of Texas at Arlington. He’s associate chairman of UTA’s music department and director of its jazz and saxaphone studies.

“There was no room for not being the best – there wasn’t,” professional pianist Gheen said, citing talent and stamina demands for persistently abnormal playing speeds on numerous custom arrangements, speed sight-reading of constantly changing music often every 8-12 seconds and the intense control needed to get the best from your instrument. Gheen started as the orchestra piano sub – “the show must go on” – for Rick Stitzel in 1993, and he took the annual pianist job as a regular in 1996-1997.

That was a lot of demand for the most recent pay received, about $100 per musician per complete rodeo performance/installment; small raises had often come over many years. The occasional sub, due to emergency filling-in for a player absent due to illness or other urgent reason, could earn somewhat more, maybe $120.

And just about any musician wanted to be called by Gillis, Cobb or Stitzel, despite the pay being significantly less and often as much as half what could be earned in a musical play gig at Casa Manana or the Dallas Summer Musicals.

But it was more than just being an honor to play with some of the best musicians around, the ex-rodeo musicians said.

Stock Show Rodeo work, they said, came during the traditionally slowest work time of the year for most musicians – January-February. And earning more than $3,000 for three-plus weeks of work was not bad in slow times.

New talent often came from the music schools and departments of the University of North Texas, UTA and TCU, among other universities.

That talent often went on to national or even international prominence as trumpet, sax, trombone, piano, guitar, drums and other instrument players.

In addition to Giordano of the Fort Worth Symphony, here are just a few of numerous talented Stock Show Orchestra alumni:

• Trombonist Tom “Bones” Malone played stints with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers and the band for Late Night with David Letterman.

_* Saxaphonist Lou Marini has also played with Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Blues Brothers.

_* Saxaphonist Harvey Anderson, a legendary musician with a comic flair, had one of the top dance bands of the 1930s-1940s before he played with the Stock Show Orchestra.

• Trumpet player “Little Joe” Rodriguez has a long list of professional gigs and achievements and is a well-known California musician and leader of a musicians union.

“We’ve benefited from the highest levels of musicianship,” Rick Stitzel said, adding that Stock Show Orchestra alumni have played with Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Count Basie bands and with the Fort Worth, Dallas and other symphonies.

For Chicago-based musician Rich Stitzel, the 2017 rodeo gig would have been his 17th here to play and also visit family, friends and his former band-mates in Texas.

“It’s been my opportunity to get home,” he said.

Adding that he understands the advantages of using electronics for the music and sound, Rich Stitzel and the other now ex-orchestra members said it would have been better for the rodeo to use a combination of digital- and human-delivered music.

“What a bummer!” he said, and posted this on Facebook: “I am going to miss the dust & mud, bulls and blood, and the roar of the Sunday crowd. . . .very strange. very sad.”