An Infantry Unit of the Reserve Officers Training Corps was established at Boston University in 1919. By the next year, the group had been provided by the government with a complete set of instruments, and a band was formed. Fewer than 30 men were the musicians of the early B.U. R.O.T.C. Band. Rehearsals were held on Boston Common, and it was there that they first performed. From the start, the Band was a regular presence at and brought spirit to all home football and hockey games.
Supporting the BU teams has always meant traveling with them, as well. In an incredible display of loyalty to their school, over 250 Terrier fans made the trip to West Point for B.U.’s game against the Cadets in 1927. With the help of the Alumni Association, transportation to New York was arranged for by boat. Accompanying the passengers of the steamer was the BU Band, under the leadership of Sam Winograd. Their performance included “Clarissima,” to which the BU faithful sang along. When repeated the following afternoon at West Point, the home team fans gave a standing ovation.
By 1928, the BU Band had quickly become one of the finest college marching bands in the East. That year, 60 new uniforms were purchased for $3,000 and were proudly debuted at the dedication of Nickerson Field. Announced with a fanfare by the BU Drum and Bugle Corps, the full Band marched out in their brand new scarlet and white attire, complete with capes and berets. The crowd vigorously applauded the striking new uniforms and the outstanding performance.
Getting a response like this from the stands had become common for the Band. They could please even the fans of rival Boston College, when playing at Chestnut Hill, by spelling out “B.C.” on the field, then rotating the “C” to a “U.” Back on friendly turf though, the band made very clear which side they were on. Old Scarlet Night in 1936 was described at the time as “the greatest rally in the history of Boston University athletics.” Held the day before the annual gridiron battle against the hated Eagles, thousands participated in festivities celebrating their Alma Mater. The rally was brought to a close at old Boston Arena with pallbearers carrying a coffin containing a mock B.C. corpse. As the Band solemnly began to play Chopin’s “Funeral March,” laughter and applause filled the air.
Directly connected with the success of the Boston University Band was the arrival of nationally known trumpeter Walter M. Smith. From 1933, until his death a few short years later, Smith helped the Band develop in countless ways. The opportunity to play in the Band was opened to all University students. With the nucleus of the group coming from the R.O.T.C. Band, Smith worked closely with Lieutenant Alfred McKenney and Captain Julian MacMillan of the U.S. Army. These men provided leadership and taught complicated formations, complimenting Smith’s musical skills. The Band met regularly throughout the year, beginning with the football season and continuing until their performance at Alumni Day in June.
A defining era in the history of the Band began in 1939. Joining that year and serving as drum majorette for the next three seasons, Ruth Butterfield was the first female member. Twirling her baton, Butterfield was front and center when the Band performed everywhere from Fenway Park to the Polo Grounds. In 1942, when all the male band members were called into the armed services of the United States, there could be no band. On the page where the Band’s yearbook picture should have been, there is a letter from the University President explaining their absence.
As things were slowly getting back to normal after the war, the Band faced with the task of reorganizing and rebuilding to the level it had once been at. The 1946-1947 season was one of practice in preparation for their full-scale return the following year. For the first time, women were permitted to play in the Band. Several female musicians were among the more than 100 who marched the next fall. Starting over under the direction of Warren S. Freeman, the Band more than doubled in size.
The 1950’s saw a continued evolution in the talent of the Band. Renowned bandleader Edgar B. Gangware, Jr. took the group to a new level. Following him, the Marching Band peaked in size at 165. In 1954, Lee Chrisman came to BU from California, where he had directed the official Tournament of Roses Band for several years. With Chrisman as the new director, the University Band won praise on the football field and in the concert hall. He remained at Boston University for the next 40 years and played a crucial role in the revival of the Marching Band in the modern era.