Thursday, November 25, was Thanksgiving Day here in the United States, a national holiday when families and friends gather together for fun, food, and fellowship. This year, we were blessed to have our whole family together for Thanksgiving, something we missed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in the midst of the pandemic storm, we all have so much for which we are thankful.
This year, our grandson, who is in kindergarten, brought home a fun assignment for Thanksgiving weekend. It was a kind of scavenger hunt—watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and check off a list of things you see. Marching band, clown, singer, baton twirler, drums, turkey, big balloon. You get the idea. It was a fun little project that Caleb completed in about three minutes. But it didn’t take a scavenger hunt for our family to watch the whole parade. We watch it every year because in 1972, I was marching and playing trombone IN the parade. And in the Tournament of Roses Parade every January 1.
In 1967, McDonald’s Corporation established the McDonald’s All-American High School Band. In its early years, it was a marching band with 101 players—two high school students from each of our 50 states and one student from the District of Columbia. Over the years, the band grew to include members from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and eventually, McDonald’s added a jazz band to its All-American Band program. In 1992, McDonald’s discontinued the All-American Band although it continued sponsoring its All-American basketball teams which it had founded in 1977.
In the fall of 1972 I began my senior year in high school; by then I had been a member of many high school honor band and orchestra groups. These were in both New York State—where my family lived in Queens and Valley Stream until my father changed jobs and we moved to New Jersey in 1970—and in New Jersey, where we lived in Oak Ridge. All-County Orchestra and All-State Band (New York), Region Wind Ensemble and Orchestra, and All-State Orchestra (New Jersey), and All-Eastern Orchestra. Unbeknownst to me, my high school band director nominated me for the McDonald’s All-American Band.
I vividly remember the day in September 1972 when I was sitting in English class (my favorite class in high school, with my favorite teacher, Mr. Patrick Clancy) at Jefferson Township High School in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, and a call came over the loudspeaker for me to come to the main office. Puzzled—getting called to the office was not a regular thing for me—I headed down to the office and was surprised to see my mother running up the hallway to meet me. She was holding an envelope and when we met, she breathlessly handed it to me. I took one look at the return address and my heart skipped a beat. I furiously tore open the envelope and this letter was inside:
For a 17 year-old high school kid, this was big. Really, really big. Me, an All-American High School musician? An all-expenses paid trip to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day? Seriously?
My name badge for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, 1972–1973
I took the bus from our home in Oak Ridge, New Jersey to Manhattan to join other members of the Band for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. We were drilled in marching by Al G. Wright, Director of Purdue University Bands. There were 16 trombones in two ranks that led the parade. I was assigned to the second rank. I was a little disappointed, since what trombone player doesn’t want to be in the first line, leading the band? But my disappointment changed to joy when Al Wright pointed to the player in front of me. It was clear that he had two left feet. After a couple of rehearsals, Al Wright pointed to him and barked, “YOU! MOVE BACK TO THE SECOND RANK. NEW JERSEY! GET UP HERE NOW!” I was now in the front, and I made sure Mr. Wright knew that I had a left and a right foot. Yes, sir!
Promotional flyer about the McDonald’s All-American High School Band that was handed out at New York metropolitan area McDonald’s restaurants, fall 1972
The conductor of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band was Paul Lavalle, the celebrated music director at Radio City Music Hall who had also led the Cities Service Band of America from 1948–1956. While we were in New York, the band attended a show at Radio City Music Hall where we saw the newly released movie, “1776” and saw Mr. Lavalle conduct Radio City’s orchestra and its famous dance team, The Rockettes. We also gave a performance at the famous ice rink at Rockefeller Center.
Each band member wore their own band’s uniform and then McDonald’s gave each of us a hat and overlay that was emblazoned with our state name. The parade in New York City was a blur. It was cold. I remember that we got up at 3:00 in the morning to be bussed down to the Macy’s store at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue for a rehearsal in front of cameras. All of the brass players were playing on plastic mouthpieces so they did not freeze to our faces. As the parade kicked off, spectators often called to us, “Hey, New Jersey! Do you know Fred Jones in Bayonne?” Ha! We marched, we played, we were proud. My parents and my girlfriend (now my wife of 46 years) and her family watched me on TV. It was a great, great day.
Jeffrey Venho, trumpet (Glen Rock High School, New Jersey), Betty White (television host of the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade), Paul Lavalle, Salli Noren (Tournament of Roses Queen, 1973; her name is often misspelled as “Sally Noren”), Douglas Yeo, trombone (Jefferson Township High School, New Jersey), November 1972.
Among the things we did in New York was have our photograph taken for local and national publicity. The other person selected to play in the Band from New Jersey was trumpeter Jeffrey Venho from Glen Rock High School (I recently learned that Jeff attended the Juilliard School of Music and since graduation in 1977, he has been an active freelance player in New York City, and trumpet professor at Hofstra University). We were photographed with Betty White (yes, that Betty White) who was the television host of the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1 (John Wayne was the Parade’s Grand Marshall), Sally Noren, who was the 1973 Tournament of Roses Queen, and Paul Lavalle. When we arrived in California, we were given a copy of our photo, signed by Mr. Lavalle. Also while we were in New York, members of the Band had the opportunity to audition for Gunther Schuller, President of New England Conservatory of Music. NEC was offering two full scholarships to Band members. While I did not win one of those positions, I finally did get to NEC, as a member of its trombone faculty from 1985 to 2012 for all of the years I was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The cover of the official program for the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade
The 1973 Tournament of Roses program listing for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band
A two-page advertisement for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, pages 33–34, 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade program.
If the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York was a surreal experience, nothing could have prepared me for the Tournament of Roses Parade. I flew from JFK International Airport in New York to Los Angeles International Airport where a limousine was waiting to take me to the UCLA campus where we would be staying. A limousine? For me? I recall, as I got to curbside at LAX, stopping and looking for a moment at a palm tree, the first palm tree I had ever seen (except for watching episodes of “Hawaii-Five-O” on television). Having left snowy and cold New Jersey a few hours ago, that palm tree got my attention. While I had been born in Monterey, California (my father was in the US Army, stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey from 1953–1955), my family took the long train east to Queens, New York, after my father was discharged—when I was just a few months old—so for all intents and purposes, this was my first trip to the west coast. Al Wright drilled us in marching all around the UCLA campus, and the Band went to see a performance of Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass at the Los Angeles Forum.
The McDonald’s All-American High School Band marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena, California, January 1, 1973. I am in the front rank, third from the left (marching on the double line in the street).
The commemorative patch that I and other McDonald’s All-American High School Band members received after the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California
January 1, 1973 dawned bright and clear, and I had never seen so many people as I did on that day, lining the parade route, cheering and shouting. It was truly an unforgettable experience, marching in the front rank of the Band. Little did I know what my life and career would bring going forward. I didn’t march in any more parades, but I did take many more trips to places around the world as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1985–2012), and in the years since my retirement from the BSO. Those kinds of trips started with the McDonald’s All-American Band. And all because I had a trombone in my hand.
When I returned home, the rest of my senior year flew by. McDonalds had given all of us a Ronald McDonald watch (I still have it and it still keeps good time). My mother was especially proud of the certificate I had received. My experience in the Band was memorable beyond words, and each year, when we watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade, I remember with a smile on my face what it was like to be there nearly 50 years ago.
The Ronald McDonald Watch that was given to me as a member of the 1972–1973 McDonald’s All-American High School Band. It still keeps great time.
As I was getting ready to write this article, I learned that a group of alumni of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band formed the “The All-American Alumni Band” in 2019 (unfortunately, McDonald’s would not let them use the corporate name in the name of the group). I had long wondered if there was a way to connect with former members, all of whom I lost touch with over the years. So I will reach out to this new group, as a proud alum of the Band. I would love to have the opportunity to reminisce with other members of the Band, as I’ve done with my good friend, Wycliffe Gordon, who was in the Band in 1984–1985. When Wycliffe and I were most recently together in 2019, playing in an All-Star brass ensemble sponsored by Yamaha Corporation at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, we talked about our time in the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, and what it meant to us. There certainly were many others in the Band who went on to notable careers in music and other professions, and it would be fun to meet with (and maybe perform with) others who had the same life-changing experience as I did on Thanksgiving Day 1972, and New Year’s Day, 1973, thanks to the McDonald’s All-American High School Band. I’ll always be grateful to McDonald’s for giving me an unforgettable experience in the All-American High School Band. And I tip my had to all of the players in bands that march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Tournament of Roses parades each year, as I am very well aware of how that experience is shaping this generation of young musicians, just as it shaped me.
Two happy alumni of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band program: Douglas Yeo (New Jersey, 1972–1973) and Wycliffe Gordon (Georgia, 1984–1985)