Snohomish’s merry musicmakers the Sauerkraut Band hit 50
Snohomish Sauerkraut Band trombonist Gordy Taylor performs along with the band in the 2014 Kla Ha Ya Parade. The band’s musicians and supporters will be dressed to the nines for their 50th appearance in the parade this year.
SNOHOMISH — When the Snohomish Sauerkraut Band sets off for a 50th anniversary march in the Kla Ha Ya Days parade, expect kooky costumes and general silliness.
This band isn’t so much about precision as it is about partying, polka-ing and pleasing the crowd.
And on July 21 it will also be about legacy.
The legendary Sauerkraut crew will reunite with 92-year-old Grand Marshal Gil Schwarzmiller, an original member of a family band that started unexpectedly in 1968.
“That’s pretty great” about being grand marshal, Schwarzmiller said. “I’m getting pretty old, that’s what it boils down to.”
Schwarzmiller said he was rusty, but from members’ accounts, it’s the kind of band where that doesn’t much matter.
“They don’t know what sheet music is,” he said with a laugh.
Fans know the repertoire well though, from the “Beer Barrel Polka” to the Mickey Mouse Club “Alma Mater.”
Today, about three dozen of 50 members march in the band, which has performed all over the region and in Canada.
Their eccentric costumes garner as much attention as their creative playing.
For the Kla Ha Ya Days show, they’ll be going old school, sporting drawn-on handlebar moustaches, lipstick-tinted rosy red cheeks, black vests and bowler hats.
Thinking back to those first days, Gil said he joined because “I just love music. I played drums and glockenspiel and where ever they needed me.”
It all started with Gil’s brother Art Schwarzmiller, a custodian at Snohomish High School. When Art found out a local parade was band-less, he enlisted some family and friends and scrounged up some school instruments.
Thus was born Schwartzmiller’s Sour-Kraut Society and Marching Band.
The band has a posse who wave pom-poms.
The first performance was… memorable.
“It was so bad! It was all just so sour and with the kids running around with pretzels and sauerkraut, people were laughing ‘til the tears come out of their eyes,” said current bandmaster and trombone player Gordy Taylor.
Another trombone player and longtime member, Brian Mills, has his own unforgettable memories.
“I recall a time in Williams Lake, British Columbia,” Mills said. “We were playing and moving from club to club and somebody thought it’d be a great idea to use a shopping cart for me to ride in: Then we came to a hill,” Mills said with a laugh, “and the person pushing me kinda let go. The only thing I kind of remember is handing off my trombone because I didn’t want it to be crash with me.”
All these years later, it’s clear it wasn’t only his brother Art or the band that needed Gil - the community did. He and the band have raised money for decades to help charities, a tradition that continues today.
Schwarzmiller’s daughter Gayl Smith described her dad as a character with conscience.
“He has collected donations for the VFW for 30 years. And at 92 he still stands at the Safeway entrance come Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Dad put all his love into his family…well most of it. Fishing on the Snohomish River was right up there,” she said.
Family has always been at the heart of the band and it was family that led Taylor to join the madcap group.
The band “went down the street the next year and my dad was playing. I was going ‘look at this, this is the coolest thing!’ I go down (to play) with the SHS band and after I was done — I’m in full uniform still — I said, ‘I’m going to play with my dad and I ran back to the street, that’s where I began.” His mom, not one to miss the fun, paraded too, leading the pack with a golf club as a baton.
Over the years, he earned the nickname “Animal,” which he thinks is because he’s animated. He wanted the crowd “to be part of the band and I would get them singing” and they would “just follow us, we’d be like the pied piper and the crowd would be like the rats,” Taylor said.
All are welcome at what will be the highlight of the band’s Kla Ha Ya Days performance — the after party.
A sauerkraut attack is on the schedule. That’s a free-flowing polka party that takes members from one tavern to the next, playing a couple songs before a finale with cake and a slideshow at Collector’s Choice Restaurant. The band has invited about 125 former members to the big 50th anniversary bash.
After nearly half a century performing, Taylor said “we look at each other and think ‘I can’t believe it’s gone that far,’ we’re just going ‘wow,
how did we do this?’”
The answer? With signature Sauerkraut style.
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