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The Big Reds Marching Machine – Then, and NOW! Part Four

Photo Credit: Times Herald

By Pat North and Kathleen Knowles

Originally Published on May 22nd, 2018.

This is the fourth in a series about how the city of Port Huron came together and made the impossible possible. If you’re old enough to remember, the Port Huron Big Reds Marching Machine (BRMM) went to the Olympics in 1972. With the benefit of a few years, the 250 members and chaperones who went have realized just what a feat it was – to engineer a plan for a mammoth project which included raising a staggering sum of $1,120,000. in today’s money,  persevering through nine months of sweaty work to gain the skills to succeed, and finally achieving their goal.  

In our articles, we’ll be talking to the people who made it happen and how it changed our lives in the process. This week’s article, Preparing for Olympic Competition, talks about the musical and physical training as well as field rehearsals… and countless performances the BRMM held in the few months before the competition.  We’ll also be looking at what the current Big Reds Marching Machine (BRMM) is up to and the people making them successful.  This week’s article, And Now! talks about their recent trip to Nashville, the upcoming Spring Concert, next year’s new BRMM members, and the kickoff of the new PHHS Bands Alumni Project. We celebrate a packed and successful year for the BRMM!  We remember how fortunate we were and want to do everything we can to ensure their ongoing success.

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To see earlier articles in the series, click here.

The Impossible Dream”

Preparing for Olympic Competition

Pictured above: The 1972 Big Reds Marching Machine, George Rinderspacher Drum Major, on Lansing Capital steps after Proclamation Ceremony of “Port Huron High School Big Reds Marching Machine Month.” The BRMM performed several pieces on the lawn and sweltered in the heat. The band uniforms had two layers of wool.

With the money raised for the trip to Europe out of the way, the Port Huron High School Big Red Marching Machine could now turn their attention to preparing for the Olympic Marching Band competition.  Once the Spring Concert was concluded, the Honors Band was once again transformed into a Marching Band. The repertoire for Europe would include much more than just the competition show. The Marching Machine would march in numerous parades as well as several standstill concerts.  The competition show itself made up only one-third of the band’s entire repertoire. The rest would be used for parades and concerts. Rehearsals were held in the band room and the music was practiced and perfected as the end of the school year approached.

The “Formal” Spring Concert Program. A full hour and a half of concert music, and Oboe Solo performed by Mary Helen Wright, accompanied by Scott Smith. The gentlemen wore the tux jacket & pants from the marching uniform with white stud shirts and black tie. The ladies wore evening gowns. Photo: Luann Horan Jobbitt

The first order of business was to decide when and how long the Marching Machine would practice.  Band director, Eric Payton decided practices would be held in the morning to avoid the extreme heat of the sun in the afternoon. They began at six o’clock sharp and ended at approximately nine o’clock in the morning.  They were held Monday through Friday. This schedule allowed the kids in the Marching Machine who had jobs to work out their schedules with their employers. Although the community had produced most of the money for the Big Reds’ trip,  students were responsible for paying the first $200.00 of their total expense. Once again, the businesses in Port Huron came through, hiring Big Reds for the summer so they could raise their portion of the funds.

The Best Marching Band Season:
Begins with ONE Step …

Parade practice drills began immediately. Here the band is rehearsing “close ranks” for some exceptionally narrow Amsterdam streets. We discovered you can’t move much in this formation without crashing your instrument into the person next to you. More people in Europe would see the BRMM in parades than at the Olympic Competition. Parades had to be just as polished as the competition. Photo: Eric Payton, from “Payton’s Perch” Click the image to enlarge the photo

Practice on the Olympic Competition Show began as soon as the school year ended. However, it started without music! The band had not yet received Bill Himes’s musical arrangements for the competition.  A little thing like “no music” did not stop the Big Reds from practicing the competition show.  The drill to go with the music had been received from Joe Dobos. So, without instruments, Marching Machine members hit the field and spent their rehearsal time counting, marching and learning the drill.  When the music arrived, rehearsals were held in the band room. Work began on the music for the competition.

Video: The BRMM practices stepping off the goal line into the first formation and into the “fiddle” for the “Old Man River” portion of the show. The out and back move was one of the requirements of the competition committee, and the formation that one of the judges missed seeing. The video clips throughout are converted from the Super 8 movies of the time. A grateful thanks goes to the families of Sally Slumpff Basnaw & Nancy Eveningred Nunez who searched until they found these.

Payton would break the band down into sectional rehearsals according to instrumentation. With the help of John Dell, Doctor S. Davis Smith and Drum Major, George Rinderspacher, they would work on the music with their section.  Later, they would all be brought back together for full rehearsal. Each member of the band had to memorize every note of every song of the Olympic Competition, as they would not be allowed to carry any music out onto the field. They played the entire repertoire for the above mentioned individuals. A chart was posted in the band room and a star was placed beside each band member’s name under the name of each tune.  Not one student went to Europe without memorizing all of the music.

The music was then put with the drill and the kids practiced rain or shine, unless there was a total downpour or thunderstorm, which then forced the marching band to rehearse in the bandroom.  Early morning practices continued throughout the summer.

Feet … Together!
Stomach … In!   
Chest … Out!   
Shoulders … Back!   
Elbows … Frozen!  
Chin … Up!   

Band Booster parents built a platform on a trailer far above the field where Director Payton with his bull-horn could scrutinize the drill.  It had a partial railing and an umbrella to ward off the sun. It was quickly dubbed “Payton’s Perch.”  The director could see the movement of the entire Marching Machine.  If he saw something he didn’t like or needed to be corrected, he would use that bull-horn to catch the attention of John Dell or Howie Furman to correct it on the field.

Pictured right: Precarious “Payton’s Perch” It was mobile so he could also watch parade rehearsals that took place in different areas of the PHHS sports fields. Photo courtesy of a BRMM parent, Payton’s collection.

An occasional prank was needed to break the tension of tough rehearsals. Whether it was the director playing one on his Marching Machine or they playing one on him was anyone’s guess.  Payton remarked about how warm it could get perched way up there above his troops, so one morning when the heat had already risen to a sweltering eighty-three degrees, someone in the band climbed up “Payton’s Perch” and set a six-pack of beer on the platform before Payton arrived on the field.  Discovering the beer and well aware his kids were watching him for his reaction, he popped open one of the beers and took a swig to the delight of the entire Marching Machine.

Video: Movies were rare and very few people even owned a movie camera. Here, Payton Carefully climbs to the “Perch”. Parade drills began immediately and corners were practiced and practiced. Cars lined up at the crack of dawn along the fences to watch.
Pictured right: After Gov. Milliken read the proclamation, Scott Magneson, Pres. of the Band, presents Gov. Milliken with his caricature of a BRMM member “marching” to the Olympics. Photo: Eric Payton

Despite the early hour of the Machine’s practice drill, they had gained quite an audience of parents, supporters and curious citizens who came out to watch. Some even brought over coffee and donuts along with chairs to sit and watch the band’s drill. Not everyone was happy or supportive of the early morning practices.  One man, who worked late at night, tired of being wakened by the strains of the band. He marched across the street, headed right for “Payton’s Perch” and angrily shouted at its occupant, “How am I supposed to get any sleep with this noise? Which one of you people is Eric Payton? Knowing the individual was not happy and wanted to chew him out, Payton pointed at Howie Furman. “That’s him, over there!”  The man proceeded to head for Furman, and chewed him out for ten minutes!

“You know, if I can survive Marching Band, I can survive anything!”
Nellie McKay

Video: The Big Reds Marching Machine marches in the Kitchner Parade and goes all out as the lead-off band in the Blue Water Festival Parade.

As if the Marching Machine didn’t have its hands full getting ready for the competition; they received invitations from all over to march in summer parades.  The Pickerel Parade in Algonac was first. The Marching Machine then crossed the Blue Water Bridge and marched in the Kitchner parade in Canada, which was televised. They were followed by the Blossom Festival Parade and a parade in Marysville.   The busy parade season continued with Cros-Lex, and Sparlingville parades. However the highlight was undoubtedly Port Huron’s own Blue Water Festival Parade.

Pictured right: Showing off months of practice in polished form, the BRMM marches down Huron Ave. leading the Blue Water parade. The first “Big Reds Marching Machine, Port
Huron Mich. USA” banner would be unveiled at the “Farewell” performance, Aug. 9 that was held to thank our community. Just how high can you raise those feet? Front Page, Port Huron Times Herald, Aug. 15, 1972 published the day we arrived in Amsterdam.
Photo: Ralph Polovich

Mother Nature did not shine down on the Big Red Marching Machine.  It poured rain throughout the parade with the temperature in the high eighties.  The streets were lined with what was probably the largest crowd the Festival had ever drawn, as well-wishers proudly cheered on their hometown band.  The crowd never thinned out regardless of the weather. Port Huron remained to support the Big Reds. A new drum cadence to be used on the European trip was introduced in the parade.  It was created by Port Huron High School alumni, James Stanley Jr. and Peggy Payton. It should be noted the Marching Machine won first place in every parade they marched in that summer.

As the summer moved into August, Eric Payton and Dave Smith felt the Machine could not head for Europe without thanking the community for making an “Impossible Dream” come true.  It was decided the entire Olympic Competition show would be presented to the Port Huron Community.  They had the perfect venue in Memorial Stadium to perform the show. Furthermore, it would also serve as a dry-run for the competition.  Permission to hold the “Farewell Performance” was given by Superintendent, Robert Coulter.

Band! Take the Field! The Big Reds Marching Machine struts 
their Olympic Competition in “Farwell” Performances 1 and 3 at Memorial
Stadium a few days before leaving for Europe. The opening
U.S. Fanfare was written for them by Alumnus, Bill Himes. Photos:
Payton collection, courtesy of Band parents. Click on the image to enlarge
Pictured above: Ticket & Program courtesy of Chris Neilson & Louann Horan Jobbitt

Memorial Stadium has a capacity of 2500 people on each side, and every single seat was full that night.  A program for the “Farewell Performance” was printed, announcing the schedule of events for the evening, and was passed out as people entered. It began with pre-concert entertainment from the Port Huron High School Royal Reds Jazz Band as everyone filed into the stadium.  Margaret Touma sang The Star Spangled Banner.

Video: The BRMM enters the field for the Farewell Performances. This is the only portion of the Farewell Performance we could find in video.

The dignitaries attending that night included: Former Governor John Swainson, Representative William Jowett, Attorney General  Frank Kelly, Port Huron Mayor Oliver “Scotty” Hanton, Superintendent Robert Coulter, George Lang, Gunther Schultz, and Henry Meyers.  Sheriff Norm Meharg and his deputies, along with the Port Huron Police handled crowd control in and around the stadium.

Drum Major, George Rinderspacher conducts the
band during the “Farewell” performance. George
wore a new specially made uniform that was a brilliant
white highlighted with red and blue in honor of
the U.S. It accentuated his bent backward marching
style. Photo: Payton collection

Principal Chet Wydrzynski introduced Representative Bill Jowett.  Along with Jowett, Frank Kelly and Port Huron native, former Governor John Swainson all spoke before the highlight of the night entered the field … The Big Red Marching Machine.  They marched out onto the field and performed the actual Olympic Show for the citizens of Port Huron, which would be used in competition in Europe. Normally a band’s show in a stadium is perform to one side, but on this night, after performing to the one side, Payton ordered his Machine to reverse and perform the show again for the other side.  This way both sides of the stadium would see the show as it would be performed.

Pictured left: The BRMM performing Old Man River in the formation of a paddle wheel river boat. Unlike the “stand and play” bands of the time, the BRMM played during transitions between formations and incorporated movement in their formations. The river boat’s paddle wheel turned and smoke came from the stacks. Photo: Payton collection.
The Thunderbirds and “Lollipops” sign bearers made
up the paddle wheel in the Old Man River formation.
Photo: Payton collection.
Pictured left: Under the glow of the lights for the third performance, the BRMM performs the Missouri Waltz in a fiddle formation, complete with moving bow. Memorial Stadium was still overflowing. Photo: Payton
The Thunderbirds are main stage for ‘This is My Country’. Photo: Payton collection.
Director Eric Payton, conducts the finale piece, ‘Climb
Every Mountain’. Photo: Payton collection

That should have ended the evening’s performance, but the Big Reds had a problem!  The parking lot was still full of people who had come to see them off in their farewell performance.  It had not been planned, but it was decided to escort the crowd out of the stadium by the back gate, and allow those that were lined up outside the stadium on the 24th Street side to enter.  Unbelievably, both sides of Memorial Stadium were once again filled to capacity! Ten thousand people attended the “Farewell Performance” that night!  

With the performance behind them, next on the Big Red Marching Machine’s agenda … Munich, Germany and the Olympic Tour and Marching Competition!

A band is not proud because it performs well; it performs well because it is proud.”
George Parks

Next up:  The Trip

And NOW!

Every March each position must be auditioned for in the Big Reds Marching Machine. This year, some 37 band members from Central Middle School and Holland Woods Middle School received the coveted letter of acceptance from Dir. Scott Jones to be in next year’s BRMM. Congratulations to the P.H. upperclassmen who also won their auditions, as well as Dirs. Angela Larner, Shawna Manhart and their up and coming BRMM students.  They look forward to their first intensive Band Camp starting July 23rd where the year’s drills and music are learned.

Throughout the year, BRMM members save up money from their own efforts in BRMM fundraising projects. Every two years the BRMM travels to Nashville. Expenses are paid by the members from their own fundraising accounts. This year in April, they attended the Grand Ole Opry, visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, and did two recording sessions in the historic RCA Studio B. Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, and Dolly Parton are only a few who recorded hundreds of hits there. The BRMM recorded the P.H. Fight Song and the P.H. Alma Mater.

Pictured left: Band camp’s “Welcome Home” performance held at the close
of camp, shows off the BRMM’s hard summer’s work. They
perform the fall’s half time show and drills they learned.
Photo: Scott Jones

Presenting the new 2018– 2019 Big Red’s Marching Machine members from Central Middle School. Congratulations! Photo: Shawna Manhart
The Annual Spring Collage Concert is always a popular affair. Photos: Scott Jones
    • The Spring Collage Concert is Port Huron High School’s Annual highlight concert and was held May 17th, at the PHHS Performing Arts Center at 7:00pm. It was quite a gala featuring the Wind Ensemble, Concert Band, Symphonic Band, Royal Reds “Zero Hour” Jazz Ensemble, Choir, Guitar Ensemble, and Drumming Ensemble. Not a boring affair.
    • The next time you’ll see the Big Reds Marching Machine will be at the Port Huron Memorial Day Parade, Monday, May 28th.  You’ll hear that characteristic BRMM wall of sound before you see them. Spot those new marching instruments and look for those fancy trombones.
    • PHHS Graduation is always an honored affair for senior band members. Graduating senior band members will be playing with the band for the last time and Senior Drum Major, Kevin Hilliker, will be conducting the band to end his High School career. The band is a featured part of the graduation ceremony and will be playing several poignant pieces, adding drama and grandeur to the occasion. Graduation will be held at the McMorran Arena on Wed. June 6th.
  • Summer isn’t Summer in Port Huron without the Blue Water Fest Parade kicking off Boat Week. Held on July 11th this year, the BRMM will be sporting their Summer uniforms. Clothing may be lighter, but there is no scrimping on their performance and spirit.

The band plays a featured role in PHHS graduation. Photos: Courtesy PH Times Herald.

Congratulations go to Brady Butler! Brady was one of the BRMM members you’ve seen and heard from in this series of articles.  He will be the 2018 -2019 Big Reds Marching Machine Senior Drum Major.

The Big Reds Bands Alumni Project

Pictured right, the BRMM’s first “official” logo. 1972 by Scott Magneson Photo Courtesy: Eric Payton

To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Port Huron High School, the “Big Red Bands Alumni Project” will share the stories of the thousands of students who have been a part of the Band Program at Port Huron High School. ANYONE can participate! It will be fun to see what our band friends are up to now.  Your story can include what your role was in the bands at PHHS, a brief biography of your life after PHHS and a photo (if desired). Be sure to add what years you were in band. Remember, your friends are interested in you. Whether you’re CEO of a company or CEO of your home makes no difference.

Until now, there has been no register of students who devoted so much of their time to the BRMM and the band before the BRMM was formed.  When the Germany Band wanted to have a reunion, the feat of finding people took months of friends knocking on doors, people calling elderly parents, and internet research. It was well worth it for us. In conjunction with the Alumni Project, Dir. Scott Jones is planning festivities celebrating the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the formation of the Big Reds Marching Machine.  More to come on this!

What to send for the Alumni Project:

    • Your name, including maiden name
    • Brief current biography
    • Graduation year
    • What you did in band. What instrument, instruments, and other role you played.
  • Photo (if desired)

Where to send it:

Put on subject line:  For Alumni Project

Send to: Scott Jones, Director

Email:  sjones@

Next Time:   

    • Wrapping up the BRMM’s year.
  • What we all can do to give a hand to all our schools with their music programs.


Pat North, a native of Port Huron, graduated from Port Huron High School and is a proud alumna of the 1972 Big Reds Marching Machine Germany band. She holds a Bachelor’s of Music in Flute Performance from the College Conservatory of Music, Univ. of Cincinnati, with graduate studies at the Univ. of Illinois where she also received her Pilot’s license. Pat was apprenticed to professional flute builder, Jack Moore, and later started her own company, Cincinnati Fluteworks, in 1980, specializing in the technical and acoustical aspects of the construction of the flute as well as branding. She authors a quarterly technical and promotional newsletter for the company. In addition to her passion for the flute, she hosted and produced community radio and TV programs, focused on civil rights and justice issues. Her other passion is for Standard Schnauzers. Pat produced and was co-editor of The Standard Schnauzer Club of America’s Source Book 4, as well as several other educational interactive and print publications for them. She lives in Cincinnati with her very own home bred Standards, but once a Michigander, always a Michigander.

Kathleen Knowles is a life-long resident of Port Huron and a 1973 graduate of Port Huron High School. After attending St. Clair County Community College, she has worked for credit unions all of her life as well as a professional dog show handler, known for handling Pekingese. Kathleen has been writing fiction for years as a hobby, having posted many stories online.

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Bob Daniels May 25, 2018 at 1:03 pm

You guys have done an absolutely great job with this series of articles. I was there and am surprised by how much I didn’t know or simply forgot . . . such as doing the appreciation show for BOTH sides of the stadium. And the writing itself is outstanding. You are both very good writers. Thanks, Pat & Kathleen. You’ve reminded me how great 1972 was and how much I enjoyed it and of the great relationships I had with bandmates.

Susan Gruel Agee May 27, 2018 at 10:41 pm

Your writing totally encapsulates the spirit of that time. Gotta give all of you “kids” so much credit for your fortitude on everything from fundraising to practicing and performing. I was just a little sister who tagged along. Very impressive, but of course on a most impressive story! Kudos!


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