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Hobo Band marches to its own drummer

Breaking formation is half the fun for popular Allentown band

By Kathy Lauer-Williams Of The Morning Call

A performance by the Allentown Hobo ''Almost'' Marching Band is a lesson in organized chaos.

Meandering down Main Street during Freemansburg's Halloween Parade last Saturday, someone yelled ''seats'' and members bolted for the nearest porch and began playing ''In Heaven, There is No Beer.'' When a player hits a sour note, the band stops, someone yells ''tuneup'' and they begin anew.

''We feed off each others' mistakes and it becomes a whole comedy routine,'' says drummer Rich Lobach.

Sporting trademark colorful wigs, goofy hats and ratty clothes, the band of 20 drew a cheer from the crowd as they launched into a loud and brassy rendition of ''Basin Street Blues,'' one of their signature tunes.

They paused to tail an unsuspecting bystander and then lay down on their backs in the middle of the street, still playing at an ear-splitting decibel level.

''If we can't outplay them, we'll out-blast them,'' says trombonist Chuck Smith.

In Freemansburg, the group was so busy horsing around they neglected to perform in front of the judges' stand.

''We made a little boo-boo by not playing for the judges,'' admits Smith, who adds by way of defense that he didn't even see the judges.

But Smith notes the parade committee has already invited the band back for next year's parade.

''All in all, it was a pretty successful gig,'' Smith says.

The hobo band, a popular fixture at Halloween parades in the Lehigh Valley region, has been making merry and mayhem for nearly a quarter century. Little is taken seriously by the 30 members, who range in age from 11 (Smith's son, Colin) to senior citizens.

Most of the members played instruments in high school and are happy to get the opportunity to play. Entry requirements aren't too stringent.

Anyone who plays or wants to play an instrument is welcome to join, says band leader and ''grand pooh-bah'' Allan Trump.

Requirements are only that ''they have a heartbeat and be able to count to four,'' adds Smith.

New recruit Kurt Wunder says, ''I was just looking for a place to play my trumpet.'' Former member Robert Schafer says he was happy to return after taking time off while his children were small.

''We get to get the horn out, blow the dust off, oil it and oil us,'' says Smith. ''We're just a group who never lost our love of music.''

The members come from all walks of life firefighters to schoolteachers. Several have been with the band for more than 20 years. Trump notes that four of the original members from Pete's Gang, a six-piece dance band that disbanded in 1993, are members of the hobo band, including himself.

The band, which was incorporated in 1982, was an offshoot of the Original Hobo Philharmonic Precision Marching Band formed by students at Dieruff High School in 1974 to raise money to buy drums.

''The original band was all male and there were some women who wanted to join, so we broke off in 1982,'' says Trump.

Women are still in the minority, but Wendy Siegfried and Santina Leibensperger, both flautists, say being in the band is a lot of fun.

''We have a great time,'' says Siegfried, who has played in the band since she was in seventh grade. ''We're the favorite at every parade. They put us at the end because we can hold the crowd.'' Over the years, the group has performed for Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed the band's bass drum, and Miss Pennsylvania. They performed in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade in 1985, finishing 14th out of 75 brigades.

The band has played in the Allentown St. Patrick's Day parade, taken part in charity events, including Emmaus' annual bed race, and marched in numerous fireman's parades. The members will even admit to crashing wedding receptions of friends.

''We've been around,'' says Trump.

But it is during the Halloween season when the band really swings into high gear with 13 parades scheduled this year, some back-to-back on Saturdays.

Although the band has racked up more parade wins than he can remember, Trump says members aren't in it for the prize money.

''We don't make a whole lot of money,'' Trump says. ''We make enough to cover our travel expenses.''

''It's like stress release,'' says drummer Rich Lobach.

For the Allentown parade, the band was asked by organizer Everett Bickford to serenade Sally Starr, the famed Philadelphia television personality who has been invited to ride in the parade, with the 1966 chart-topper ''Mustang Sally.''

''We take requests but we usually ignore them and play what we want anyway,'' quips Trump. But he said the band is making an exception this time for ''Our Gal Sal.''

Last year, the Allentown parade was nearly canceled because of city budget cuts, but Bickford and others started a fundraising campaign to keep the parade alive. Bickford says he personally called the 83-year-old Starr, and she agreed to appear. However, Joe McDermott, spokesman for Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, said the city has not received confirmation that she will attend.

At a recent practice in Smith's Allentown garage, the gags flew faster than the notes, as the band added ''Mustang Sally'' and two other songs to a repertoire that includes standards like ''Soul Finger,'' ''Baby Elephant Walk'' and ''Peter Gunn Theme.'' The band is also debuting ''Sing, Sing, Sing,'' and ''Soul Bossa Nova'' from ''Austin Powers,'' complete with a yelled ''groovy baby.''

Smith says the band also plays the ubiquitous ''Louie, Louie,'' but is playing it less frequently.

''We started playing 'Louie, Louie' a couple of years ago and now everyone plays it,'' Smith says.

A joke about the friendly rivalry with Geryville Fire Company Hobo Band erupts into a riff from ''West Side Story,'' in which rival gangs the Sharks and Jets face off.

The group also has the reputation of being partiers and bystanders will frequently hand musicians a beer in the middle of a parade.

''Most bandleaders say 'horns up,' I say 'beers down,''' jokes Trump.

Marc Waldman, known for his rainbow-colored wig, says at one parade someone poured a beer in his tuba.

However, band members take their playing somewhat seriously and actually keep the imbibing during a parade to a minimum.

''I know we have the reputation, but if I drank, I'd lose my lip immediately,'' Smith says. ''We are musicians in our own right.''

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