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The Glenn Miller Orchestra is “In a Christmas Mood” LIVE! at the Strand Theater

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

As the audience enters the Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ this chilly December 12, 2017 evening, there’s excitement in the air as New Jerseyans are presented with an opportunity to relive warm memories of a simpler time with a live Christmastime performance by the world-famous Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Glenn Miller was America’s #1 best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1943, leading one of the best-known big bands in the world. In just four short years, Miller scored 23 number-one hits — more than Elvis Presley (18) and The Beatles (20) each achieved in their entire musical careers!

Miller was born in Iowa in 1904, but as a child, moved with his family to Missouri. By the time he was 11, Glenn had made enough money milking cows to purchase his first trombone. After moving to Colorado, during his senior year of high school, Miller became interested in a new type of music called “dance band music.” He was so taken with it, he formed his own band with some classmates. By the time he had graduated, he decided to make his mark as a professional musician.

After college, Miller went to New York City where he found work as a trombonist with musicians including Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. He also performed as a Broadway pit orchestra trombonist and on recordings with artists like Bing Crosby. After marrying his college sweetheart, Helen, in 1937, he started his own group. By 1938, however, the group had disbanded.

Discouraged, Miller experimented with musical arranging and, in the process, created a new sound where he had a clarinet and tenor saxophone play the same part while three other saxophones played harmony together within a single octave. This magical combination of instruments differentiated his band from all others in the late ’30s, prompting Miller to explain, “The fifth sax, playing clarinet most of the time, lets you know whose band you’re listening to, and that’s about all there is to it.”

After signing with RCA Victor’s Bluebird Records, Miller’s group had a string of hits including “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which was awarded the first-ever gold record. His music made fans out of other prominent musicians at the time including Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Mel Torme.

In 1942, at the peak of his musical career, Miller decided to volunteer for the armed forces. He formed a 50-piece Army Air Force Band, which he took to the UK in 1944 to present over 800 performances. While in England, he also recorded at Abbey Road Studios, his music being used for the purposes of entertainment and building morale for the troops.

While flying from the UK to France to make arrangements to move his band there, Miller’s aircraft disappeared in 1944 in bad weather over the English Channel and was never found. His wife, Helen, accepted his Bronze Star medal on his behalf.

In 1946, the Miller estate authorized a band which was led by Tex Beneke; this edition of the band toured until 1950. Following the release of the motion picture, The Glenn Miller Story, in 1956, the Miller estate authorized yet another band led by Ray McKinley, the original version of the current orchestra that still tours today.

At the Strand, the curtain rises to reveal the 16 musicians of the Glenn Miller Orchestra — all dressed in grey suits with red ties — as they open tonight’s show playing one of Glenn Miller’s signature songs, “Moonlight Serenade,” a song composed by Miller himself.

Led by bandleader Nick Hilscher, the group’s performance sounds similar in nature to the Grammy-inducted 1939 recording of the tune, but it is crisper, fuller, and even more alive! The old-time vibrato of the saxophones can be appreciated more than ever as the woodwinds contrast with the trumpets’ and trombones’ punctuating countermelody here in the acoustically-superior Strand listening environment.

Counting off a jazzy version of Roy Anderson’s holiday classic, “Sleigh Ride,” Hilscher directs the band to swing — especially the trumpet section, as they employ their white and maroon hats as mutes for their horns! Following a series of tip-top instrumental solos, the number ends with the famous trumpet “horse whinny” to great applause.

One of many highlights of this evening’s performance is the group’s rendition of “(I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo” starring the orchestra’s vocal group — The Moonlight Serenaders.

Featuring luscious five-part harmonies — all supported by one of the world’s most celebrated big bands — the audience feels as though they’ve stepped back in time to a different era where melody, harmony, and clever lyrics ruled the day.

Following enthusiastic applause, Hilscher greets the audience before introducing a song he says was written for the 1944 film, Meet Me In St. Louis.

Here, he and The Glenn Miller Orchestra perform a lovely rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” featuring Hilscher’s rich baritone voice complimented by the group’s top-notch big band arrangement.

Moving on to a song written about a place where Hilscher says Glenn Miller lived for a time when he was in New York City — The Pennsylvania Hotel — the group performs a rollicking rendition of “Pennsylvania 6–5000,” the audience joining in chanting the song’s famous title each time it rolls around.

Female vocalist Maria Schaffer’s smooth and velvety voice is featured on “Mean to Me.”

Schaffer follows this up with a joyful rendition of the Christmas classic, “Let It Snow.”

Another highlight of the evening is the band’s performance of Miller’s 1938 #1 hit, “Tuxedo Junction.”

The trombones rumbling, a growling trumpet solo, and the tinkling of the piano’s ivories all set to a swingin’ beat get the audience members’ toes a-tappin’!

Hilscher explains that the group’s next number is one which was recently found in the Glenn Miller musical archives — 1939’s “At Sundown.” The musicians follow that up with “The Nearness of You,” the beautiful melodies of each highlighted soloist floating above the band.

The trumpets are featured on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and the Moonlight Serenaders vocal group takes the spotlight again on “It Happened in Sun Valley,” the song’s ultra-quick lyrics accompanied by fast-moving instrumental playing.

Explaining that The Glenn Miller Orchestra performs all over the world “48 weeks every year, averaging five shows per week,” Hilscher takes a moment to recognize all of the veterans in the audience before dedicating the group’s next number to them. The song, “American Patrol,” is a 1942 Glenn Miller tune which combines original themes in addition to such well-known American melodies as “Dixie” and “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean.”

The crowd not only applauds the veterans in the audience but also enthusiastically claps throughout this appealing patriotic number.

During a short intermission, we take a moment to chat with Glenn Miller Orchestra vocalist Maria Schaffer.

A native of Long Beach, CA, Schaffer reveals, “It’s a wonderful experience performing with The Glenn Miller Orchestra,” noting, “It’s amazing for me to get to sing some of the arrangements that Nelson Riddle wrote for Ella Fitzgerald,” and acknowledging, “I love getting to hear the power of the horns behind me!”

We also chat with an audience member, Fred from Manchester, who reveals, “I was a member of The Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1957 to 1959 when Ray McKinley led the group.”

Fred’s wife, Avis — originally from Preston, England — adds, “In 1957, I went to a Glenn Miller Orchestra concert in England and there, I met Fred — who was playing in the band at the time — at the stage door.”

The two fell in love and were married. Their daughter, Lisa from Manasquan, brought the pair to tonight’s concert — the first time her father has seen the Orchestra since he left the group in 1959!

When asked how he’s enjoying the show, Fred — a professional saxophonist — says, “I love this band! They sound great,” before adding, “especially the saxophone section!”

As the lights dim, Act II begins with a marching cadence played on the drumset as the group performs W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Stressing dynamics, the band increases in volume, bowing as they play and, then, rising up slowly.

After counting off the next tune, Hilscher sings the old-fashioned “I’m Doing My Christmas Dreaming a Little Early This Year.”

Saxophones open “Little Brown Jug” — a rollicking swing version of the well-known 1869 folk tune — arranged for the band in 1939. Then, the group segues into a rare performance of the Johnny Mercer/Hoagie Carmichael number, “The Rumba Jumps,” featuring Maria Schaffer on vocals and bandleader Nick Hilscher on a whistling solo.

Schaffer continues to entertain the audience with her lovely rendition of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” — her understated vocal style deftly supported by the band featuring the trombones performing a nostalgic vibrato effect.

Miller’s 1941 #1 hit, “A String of Pearls,” is next — the glistening saxophones opening with that infamous melodic strain which is answered by the trombones.

Sleigh bells introduce the next number, The Glenn Miller Orchestra’s arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” which starts with a swing rhythm and then transforms into a Latin feel as Hilscher sings such lyrics as, “Down in Mexico/We don’t have no snow!”

Following avid applause, a cacophony of sound opens Miller’s 1941 hit, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Listeners enjoy the wah-wah of the muted brass and the doot-doot of the clarinet as it whistles into the microphone. Singing and swinging to the infectious melody, the audience cheerfully claps along while The Moonlight Serenaders croon in five-part harmony, all playing up a storm.

Yet another highlight of the evening’s musical feast is the band’s performance of one of Glenn Miller’s signature songs — his 1940 hit that topped the charts for over three months — “In the Mood.” Its soft dynamics growing to the loud blasts of the trombones help to create the classic sound for which this legendary musical group is famous.

The audience happily claps along to the beat, and one older gentleman in the audience can even be seen jitterbugging with a partner in the aisle!

Hilscher and the Orchestra conclude tonight’s stroll down Memory Lane with a reprise of “Moonlight Serenade,” another Glenn Miller classic that can’t help but bring back memories of a simpler time, as “snow” softly falls onto the stage.

After a rousing standing ovation, Hilscher and the Orchestra play an encore of Glenn Miller’s swinging “Pagan Love Song,” the audience hooting and hollering during a stellar swing drum solo and sending all the big band music lovers in the house home with smiles.

As we make our way out of the auditorium, we chat with several audience members who share their opinions of tonight’s In a Christmas Mood performance by The Glenn Miller Orchestra.

First, we meet up with Mark from Toms River, a grandfather who was treated to this evening’s performance by his daughter and grandchildren.

“I enjoyed the show,” comments Mark, explaining, “I knew all the songs — I have them all on vinyl.”

Mark’s granddaughter Natalie, 12, from Clinton Township remarks, “I thought it was really good — and I play the trumpet, so I really liked hearing the trumpets play.”

Mark’s other granddaughter Jasmine, 8, agrees with her sister acknowledging, “They did really good — I liked how they all played at the same time.”

And Mark’s grandson, Trent, 14 — a saxophone player himself — reveals, “I especially liked the tone of the brass — and the rhythm section, too.”

Lastly, Mark’s daughter, Michelle, concludes by exclaiming, “It was a great experience for the whole family!”

Out in the lobby, we get to chat with another audience member, Michael, 83, from Toms River.

“I was a fan of Glenn Miller, Tex Benecke, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and all of the big bands,” explains Michael, “so I’m a real fan of real music.”

“The Glenn Miller Orchestra tonight was fantastic,” states Michael. “When the music is played correctly, it makes you want to move,” revealing, “I have arthritis, but it doesn’t bother me when I dance!”

“I just can’t see how you can’t get up and dance to this music,” continues Michael, before disclosing, “All night, I was trying to get someone to dance with me and, finally, Janet from Whiting did the jitterbug with me!”

Concluding, “I just love it here at The Strand — the people here are great!” Michael says he had a great time enjoying The Glenn Miller Orchestra because, as he explains, by being able to dance to their music in the aisle, “I had the best seat in the house.”

To learn more about The Glenn Miller Orchestra, please go to glennmillerorchestra.com. For information on upcoming concerts at The Strand Theater — including Elvis! Ready to Rock starring Elvis Presley tribute artist Richie Santa on Jan. 6, 2018; The Cast of Beatlemania on Jan. 27, 2018; and Three Dog Night on Feb. 9, 2018 — please go to strand.org.

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