On Wednesday summer nights since 1934, locals and travelers have visited the Catskills to gather around a pavilion encircled by pine trees in Callicoon Center, NY.
As a child, I spent those Wednesday evenings sitting with my great-grandmother, Agnes VanPut, to watch my Nanny, Judy VanPut, perform.
This was a family tradition for us, just as it was and is for so many other families that continue to enjoy the music today. They bring chairs or sit on the benches and wait for the Callicoon Center Band to serenade them with waltzes, polkas and more.
According to historian Charles Hicks, the tradition of town bands in our area dates back to the 1800s, and began to emerge when the early settlers—mostly of German descent—began establishing townships. Their love and appreciation of music inspired the idea of forming town bands. Hicks notes that other towns, such as Jeffersonville and Youngsville, also had organized town bands that performed regularly, but the Callicoon Center Band is the only one that continues to perform in our area today.
Casper Gilbert, a German immigrant—who reportedly couldn’t even read sheet music—is credited with forming the first town band in Callicoon Center, named after Gilbert himself.
The Gilbert Band eventually became known as the George F. Wagner Band, until 1934 when Alfred Kastner stepped in as lead conductor and gave this town band the name we’re all familiar with today: The Callicoon Center Band.
Clarence Krantz, a hamlet resident, school teacher and self-taught clarinet player, became the official organizer of the band. He was a beloved mentor to the band’s many talented musicians and even performed with them well into his 80s. He was the “caretaker” of the band: he handled the financial aspects, acted as the conductor when needed and inspired many young musicians to participate and follow their budding passion for music.
The official conductor of the band at this time was Ray Shaara, who, like many conductors of town bands during this era, would play his clarinet while conducting the entire band. Shaara conducted the band in 1939 when they were asked to play for the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Unfortunately, Shaara suffered a stroke in 1976 and James Newton, a musician who performed with the band, was asked to step in and finish out that year. He continues to conduct the Callicoon Center Band today.
“That’s what I’ve been doing since 1976—finishing the year,” said Newton.
Newton is no stranger to music. The first instrument he picked up was the bassoon, but when he joined the band in 1974, he chose to play the French horn.
According to Newton, the band has changed in many positive ways over the last 43 years he has been conducting. The band itself has increased in members of all ages ranging from 19- to 80-years-old. There are long-term members, like my grandmother Judy VanPut, who have been with the band for 25 years now; of course, there are also newer members who are entering their second or third year, or just starting out with the band.
Judy VanPut joined the band after her son, Lee Van Put—then, only in the sixth grade—was offered a spot as a trumpet player. She plays the clarinet, but at that time had not picked it up in years. However, she was inspired to play music again, and continues to play to this day.
Judy added that the band changes every year and that now, more high school and college students are getting involved. Participating in the band gives these students encouragement to pursue music as a career—and most of them do.
“I have to say, Jim Newton is the best conductor I’ve played for and I’m a much better musician today because of him,” she said.
Alan Charney is now in his third year with the band. He became involved when he and his wife bought a second home in Liberty, NY, and a neighbor of his mentioned how he performed every Wednesday with this band in Callicoon Center.
Back in the day, Charney was a drummer who performed at esteemed venues in New York City. Until his involvement with the Callicoon Center Band, he hadn’t played the drums in 45 years, but he is ecstatic to be playing music again after his long hiatus.
“This is just an incredible opportunity. I’m not an ‘Americana’ kind of guy, but is a chance to be a part of a community,” Charney said.
Being involved with the Callicoon Center Band also led to other performance opportunities, such as getting to play in the pit orchestra for the Sullivan County Dramatic Workshop’s production of “Into the Woods.”
A Columbia graduate, Charney was fortunate to play with Julliard student-musicians, perform with summer stock theaters in the Poconos and play with bands all over NYC. According to Charney, the talent and professionalism he experiences with the Callicoon Center Band is of the same caliber.
“I never dreamed I’d be playing the drums again,” Charney exclaimed with a genuine smile.
Newton explained that throughout the years, the audience members have always been as dedicated as the musicians that perform. In the past few years, the band has gained new regulars, and has begun to attract a younger crowd.
“It’s just the place to be on a Wednesday when the weather is good,” he said, “It’s just… It’s a happening. It’s hard to explain [in words].”
Since the band performs in an outdoor pavilion, you would think that the weather deters people from attending the concerts, but according to Newton, audience members will bring umbrellas or sit in their cars. He figures that they must think, “If the band is going to play, we’re going to be there,” and they are.
Being a non-profit organization, Callicoon Center Band has to find ways to gain the funds needed to keep performing. They apply for the Decentralization Grant through the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance, which has helped them a lot. In addition, they raffle off pies through the Callicoon Center Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary, as well as pass the traditional cigar box, in which audience members place their donations.
Today, Newton is working on ways to keep the band traditional, while also adding some more contemporary musical pieces into the mix.
Although the world around us is constantly and rapidly changing, the Callicoon Center Band is a tradition that stands the test of time, and reminds us that music connects us.