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Trojan Hoarse

With a Demon's Voice and a God Complex, USC Band Director Art Bartner Has Built a Legend

October 29, 2000|ROB FELTON | Rob Felton is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. This is his first storyfor the magazine

THE EARTH TREMBLES WITH THE RUMBLE OF DRUMS. THE BEAT IS WARLIKE, INTENSE AND FORCEFUL. it crescendos. In crisp unison, horns snap into playing position. A blast of brass. The tubas and trombones bellow, ponderous and powerful. The trumpets attack with higher notes, spitting out vicious, biting phrases that scorch the small street in front of the band office at the University of Southern California.

Art Bartner, the man directing it all on this fine spring morning, basks in the muscular energy of "Tribute to Troy," the signature song of the USC marching band. The Trojan musicians arrayed before him are just warming up, and the players are dressed casually, most in T-shirts and red baseball caps. Their trademark metallic warrior helmets are in storage, along with the band's cardinal-and-gold uniforms. This is the off-season; their purpose today is simply to spice up a low-key charity event across campus.

But this is "Tribute to Troy." To Bartner, the school anthem is nothing less than sacred. And from the corner of his right eye, Bartner has spotted sacrilege. He whips his head around and narrows his eyes. His face contorts and reddens. Veins bulge. His arms flail wildly. He screams ferociously at a young man lounging 15 feet away. A few roaring words rise above the drums and brass: "STAND UP, STAND UP!"

Embele Awipi leaps to his feet, rigid and wide-eyed, painfully reminded that, in Bartner's world, everyone stands at attention during "Tribute to Troy" and those not clutching an instrument must give the two-fingered victory salute. Even when they're just warming up. Even in the off-season. Even if they're Embele Awipi, a member of the band's prop crew.

*

ARTHUR C. BARTNER IS NOW IN THE 30TH YEAR OF HIS REMARKABLE REIGN, WITH HIS screaming-zealot image firmly intact. Since 1970, he has used that persona to impose his immense will on thousands of rambunctious college students, molding a band recognized across the country for its showmanship.

In the process, Bartner has become a legend. He's aloof. He's a control freak. He's a tyrant. He's a chameleon. And those are just Bartner's own descriptions. His wife of 38 years calls him "Mr. Mellow" at home, and one of his six much-beloved grandchildren called him "Grampa Band."

The feel-good nicknames end there. While his students address him as Dr. Bartner to his face, they often use more profane nicknames elsewhere. But those same students voluntarily sweat, strain and strut for him, sacrificing nearly every other aspect of their college lives to play a part in what they call "The Greatest Marching Band in the History of the Universe."

They both despise and revere the gravelly voiced 60-year-old man who might rage at them from the three-story-high observation platform they call the "God Tower," and then a moment later wade into their midst to nimbly teach them the Charleston.

Millions have seen Bartner in person in front of his 250 sunglasses-wearing, gold-helmet-topped disciples, and millions more have viewed the band's performances for Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan and during four Super Bowls. When St. Louis wanted a conductor for a world-record 5,000-member marching band to dedicate its Union Station, Bartner got the call. When 2.5 billion television viewers turned on the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, there was Bartner in front of a marching band made up of students from the country's best ensembles.

His style is unmistakable. The fireworks begin with the first downbeat. He drives the music. He points. Saxophones enter. He jabs. Trumpets blast their phrase. The trombones growl out a line. The music, in turn, drives Bartner. His legs and hips swing in time, and he pulses to the rhythm of the drums. His head bobs with each note.

"You can't take your eyes off of him," says 1998 band alum Beth Finsten.

Bartner commands his band through four loudspeakers that face the practice field in the center of campus, bellowing down from his God Tower or from a closer perspective on the portable six-foot "Jesus Tower." He lashes them three or four times a week with the most recognizable voice on campus, an amplified rasp that carries well beyond the practice field:

"IS THAT THE WAY YOU'RE GOING TO SELL THIS SHOW? GET FIRED UP. COME ON BAND, GET UP FOR THIS GAME! . . . EXCUSE ME. I WILL GET THIS RIGHT EVEN IF YOU DON'T CARE. I CARE. ARE WE TIRED?"

"No!"

"IS IT TOO HOT?"

"No!"

"WHO ARE WE?"

"Trojans!"

"WHO'S GOING TO THE ROSE BOWL?"

"Trojans!"

"BAND, I LOVE IT."

*

SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS LOVE MARCHING BANDS FOR their pageantry, for the alumni-rousing fight songs, for their entertainment and PR value. "It's an absolute status symbol to a university," says Al Wright, director of bands emeritus at Purdue University and chairman of the board of the John Philip Sousa Foundation. "It's like a label on clothing. You go out and buy a dress by Givenchy, it makes the dress that much better."

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