Clown Band looking for some new clowns as it begins 2024 practice season

February 6, 2024

Scottville Clown Band, July 4, 2023. Photo by Brad Reed.

Clown Band looking for some new clowns as it begins 2024 practice season

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

SCOTTVILLE — Tonight, the Scottville Clown Band begins its annual winter/spring rehearsals, a tradition that has been nearly continuous since 1947. The members of the band are welcoming musicians to join in and consider being part of a 121-year-old west Michigan tradition.

While the band has always had a strong membership, it is always looking for new musicians who like to have some fun and be part of a cause that supports young artists. Over the past few years the band has developed a recruitment plan that is more inclusive than previous efforts.

Scottville Merchants’ Band, 1910, predecessor to Scottville Clown Band.

“A few years ago we started to look around at the demographics of the band,” said George C. Wilson, chairman of the band’s recruitment committee. “We have a long history of having a variety of ages in the band, our oldest member is 101 years old and our youngest is 15. It’s not unusual to have two or three generations of the same family playing at the same time. But, the medium age of our membership certainly is closer to the higher number than the lower number. We realized that we need to make more effort to attract a variety of age groups.”

Wilson grew up in Scottville and now lives in Rockford, but owns a summer home in Ludington. His father, “Big George” Wilson, was the leader of the band for over 60 years, joining the band when he was 15 years old in 1947. George C. has taken over the role of his father as one of the street leaders and masters of ceremony of the band, along with one of the organization’s directors.

Traditionally, members were typically invited into the band by other members.

“While this effort has sustained the band for over 120 years, the band’s leadership realized that we probably need to have an alternative approach, so we have opened up our recruitment to any musician who would like to join us as a guest with the possibility of applying for membership.”

Musicians must have a high school proficiency in music. While the band does have younger members, minors must be accompanied by an adult and are considered as student members until the age of 18. Adult members typically participate as guests for their first year and then may apply as members. Members are granted voting rights in the organization.

Clown Band President Herb Early, of Idlewild, said the Scottville Clown Band has changed over the years but is still about having fun and supporting children in the arts. Early, who is a life member of the organization, is coming into his 30th year with the band. He was the first black member of the band and has witnessed many changes.

“In 2019 the band accepted its first female member,” Early said. “Since that time, we have had several women join seamlessly. We are now seeing couples joining the band and it just adds to our family atmosphere. It’s been really great.”

The roots of the Scottville Clown Band date back to 1903 when a group of musicians in Scottville, then a village, gathered to perform for local gatherings. That group dressed in hobo costumes and called themselves the Scottville Merchants’ Band. Clown bands, in which the musicians would dress in funny costumes, were actually common throughout the country in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, some of the costumes became a little more risqué, and many of the male performers dressed in drag. The band was known at the time as the Ladies’ Band, a name that dwindled away during the Great Depression and gave way to the unofficial name of the Scottville clown band.

Scottville Clown Band in downtown Ludington. File Photo by Todd Reed.

The band’s last performance was the Scottville Home Harvest Festival in October 1941, a month before the United States declared war on Japan. For the next six years, there was no festival in Scottville and no band. In September 1947, the Scottville Harvest Festival was re-started and downtown merchant Ray Schulte, who had performed in the previous band with his brother, uncle and father, decided to restart the band. This time it was officially called the Scottville Clown Band and had performed continuously every year until 2020 when the pandemic resulted in no performances.

The band grew drastically in the 1960s as many other similar bands dissolved around west Michigan.

“We gained many new members during that time from areas such as Muskegon, Traverse City, Grand Haven and Grand Rapids,” Wilson said. “The band went from a dozen or two regular members to over 100.”

The Scottville Clown Band gained a reputation of being a fun band with crazy antics. It also gained a reputation of being a party organization, which is not so much the case any more.

“Our predecessors certainly had a reputation of having a good time, which was typically fueled by alcohol,” Wilson said. “But, like the organization’s membership demographics, we have changed with the times. Drinking to that extent is no longer who we are. Many band members still enjoy an adult beverage, but we honestly spend way more money on pop and water.”

The band also makes considerable contributions to support youth music education, which is part of the organization’s mission.

In 2023, the Raymond Schulte Memorial Scholarship Fund awarded $12,000 (in honor of the band’s 120th year) to middle school and high school band students attending summer performing arts programs, such as Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and Interlochen Center for the Arts. The band also annually awards the Robert F. Pinkerton, Jr. scholarship of $1,000 to a performing arts student at West Shore Community College.

Ray Schulte, founder of the modern Scottville Clown Band

The band’s endowment with the Community Foundation for Mason County, the George F. Wilson Memorial Endowment, helps support school music programs in Mason, Lake, Oceana and Manistee counties. Through the endowment’s annual dispersement,  the band awarded a $5,900 Founders’ Grant (in honor of the members who joined in 1947) to Mason County Central and Mason County Eastern band programs.

While rehearsal season begins tonight, the first performance of the season is scheduled for Saturday, March 16, the Clare Irish Festival. To date, the band has 20 performances booked for 2024 and expects to book more throughout the season, which goes into October.

“One of the great things about the Clown Band is that we have a very loose attendance policy,” Wilson said. “Basically, you show up when want to. It’s a formula that has just worked for over 120 years and is probably one of the secrets to our longevity and success.”

The Scottville Clown Band practices weekly at the Mason County Central Middle School band room beginning at 7 p.m. One Tuesday a month, the band practices at the Grand Haven Eagles Club (that scheduled is to be determined).

For more information about the Scottville Clown Band, go to its website, www.scottvilleclownband.com.

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