Ask me about the ’80s, and I’ll show you what I was doing:
Madison.com on the big event tonight through Saturday night:
He has thought long and hard about what to say to the thousands attending the UW Varsity Band spring concerts this week at the Kohl Center.
Spectators want more than a show. They want to witness UW Bands director Mike Leckrone’s last “last”: the sold-out concert series — slated for Thursday, Friday and Saturday — that will cap an end to a storied 50-year career before he retires this academic year.
“This is the moment everybody is sort of looking for to represent the curtain coming down in a lot of ways,” Leckrone said. “Is that too dramatic?”
Leckrone’s speech at the end of the show, he’s decided, will be one of reassurance.
“This is the thought that everyone seems to be bringing to me now is, what’s going to happen next?” he said. “Where is the band going to go? What I want to do is assure people that there is a tradition. There are certain things the band has done over the years that I don’t see evaporating. There will be changes, yes, but there’s not going to be a complete change in the traditions.”
He paused, as if editing the speech inside his head.
“That’s kind of the gist of it,” he said. “I will hopefully say it much better than that.”
This entire year has been a last year since Leckrone’s announcement last August …
In March 1975, just five years into his career, Leckrone, then 37, decided an end-of-the-year gathering for his Marching and Varsity bands would be nice.
“Let’s have a party,” the kids said.
“Let’s have one last performance,” Leckrone replied.
Leckrone met the students half an hour before the concert began in Room 1341 of the Humanities building. On the blackboard, he scribbled down the songs students would play later that night in Mills Hall.
They had debated earlier whether to charge a dollar to attend.
“Nobody will pay a buck,” someone said.
About 450 people did.
He sweated through his red blazer by intermission. On went a gaudy blue and red splotched shirt he had brought to wear to the after-party as a joke.
The next year, he wore a red sequined vest, and his attire kept escalating in ostentatiousness from there.
The single-day show has morphed into massive, multi-day blowouts led by ringmaster Leckrone.
Saturday’s show sold out Jan. 14, the first day tickets became available. Friday’s show sold out the next day. Thursday’s show sold out three weeks later.
Those who can’t get tickets can still see the show when it airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on Wisconsin Public Television at go.madison.com/leckrone-concert.
Leckrone has few concrete plans to share when people ask him about his retirement plans.
“I haven’t had time to think about it,” he said. “It’s been a nonstop pace practically since I announced (my retirement).”
He gave up golf long ago. He doesn’t like to fish or hunt. He even considers eating a waste of time.
“I can absolutely guarantee I’m not going to pack up, sell my house and move to Florida or Arizona,” he said.
UW-Madison granted Leckrone, who never took a sabbatical in his 50 years working for the university, a paid leave next academic year.
He plans to spend part of it archiving some of his work with Mills Music Library. He looks forward to composing and arranging more music. He will also host a Wisconsin Alumni Association tour traveling through Europe next fall.
While Leckrone may be on campus from time to time, the sabbatical doesn’t change the sentimentality of his last year.
“I’m not going to have that day-to-day contact with the students,” he said. “That’s the finality of it.”
Leckrone has received between 400 and 500 letters from students and former students this year thanking him for the influence he had on their lives. Over his 50-year career, he’s accumulated file drawers’ worth of notes.
For a man who says he has never seen a perfect performance — the tubas came in too early in one song, or students sprung from their seats too quickly or the flugelhorns lacked fervor — these concerts are Leckrone’s grand finale.
The first meeting for this week’s shows took place in July.
His concerts have featured fireworks, blimps, confetti, strobe lights and a Fifth Quarter chicken dance, among other special effects. One year, sparklers attached to his hands accidentally misfired, burning a few strands of his hair. Another time a boxing championship banner caught fire.
Leckrone directs 280 students, along with scores of stagehands, electricians, sound technicians, pyrotechnicians and others. He says everyone knows what his or her job is but jokes that the only person who knows everyone else’s job is himself.
Leckrone’s entrances have become legendary. He has swung from a trapeze, soared over the stage on a motorcycle and ridden a bicycle across the Fieldhouse on a wire.
In 2017, he took it easy following double-bypass heart surgery. He characterized his 2018 entrances as “modest.”
His grand entrance this year?
“Oh that, I’m not telling!” he said. “But we’re going to blow the whole thing here.”
After the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, whose opening ceremony included someone flying into the L.A. Coliseum on a jet pack, Leckrone considered that for the band’s 1986 100th-anniversary concert in Camp Randall Stadium, but decided he didn’t have enough time to be properly trained on it.
Doug Moe adds:
Ask Mike Leckrone to sort through a half century of Badgers memories for a favorite and he’ll give you the 1994 Rose Bowl, Wisconsin’s first appearance in the modern era.
“It was so over the top,” says the longtime band director, who is in his final weeks as conductor. “We played every possible venue. We were on the Queen Mary, at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Then we won the game!”
Over the top? Leckrone conjures another indelible memory: the 1973 NCAA hockey championship at fabled Boston Garden. It was the first national title for the Badgers hockey team. The Wisconsin fans nearly stole the show, and not for the last time. Coach Bob Johnson — whose exuberance matched Leckrone’s — knew the fans’ value and would occasionally shout from the bench to his friend, “Get the crowd going, Leckrone!”
Perhaps nothing says over the top quite so much as the three-night extravaganza known as the University of Wisconsin–Madison Varsity Band Concert. Slated for April 11-13, this sold-out edition is the 45th, and Leckrone’s last. He directed the first one in March 1975 — six years after arriving on campus — and helped turn it from an impromptu gathering at Mills Hall into a pyrotechnic, multimedia spectacular at the Kohl Center.
It won’t be the true swan song for Leckrone, 82, who last August announced he’d retire at the end of this school year. The band will play at commencement in May. But the three nights of spring concerts figure to be particularly memorable. Leckrone said 150 or so alumni band members might return for a riff on “The Music Man” he has planned.
Mike Leckrone has taken an over-the-top approach almost from the beginning. When he was a kid, Leckrone and his dad had a comedic musical act that wowed service clubs in rural Indiana. Leckrone blew some specialty notes on trumpet and his dad played intricate piano pieces with mittens on.
“It looks harder than it is,” Leckrone says.
Leckrone explored other avenues — chemical engineering and coaching — but music kept its grip on him. He earned a music degree at Butler University and later became the school’s band director.
That’s where UW–Madison found him when Ray Dvorak retired after leading the UW bands for 34 years. At the time Leckrone thought, “How could anyone do 34 years?”
While Leckrone was considering the Madison job, he and his wife, Phyllis, got a tour of the campus. It was the Vietnam era and there were protest signs and broken windows in sight.
When Leckrone announced he was taking the UW–Madison job, his wife burst into tears. “She was an Indiana farm girl and didn’t know what she was getting into.” Phyllis warmed to her new home and became known as the “Badger band mom.” Her death in August 2017, after 62 years of marriage, was a crushing blow.
When they arrived in Madison in 1969, Leckrone himself took some time to acclimate. His duties expanded beyond marching band. He began teaching. Early on, Leckrone was asked to assemble a pep band to appear at indoor sporting events. That led to the season-ending varsity band concerts.
Every year — for 50 years now — 100 to 150 new students have attended tryouts for the celebrated UW band. Do the math: Leckrone has met and mentored more than 5,000 young men and women.
Dr. Frank Byrne, retired president of St. Mary’s Hospital and a member of the UW alumni band (although he went to Notre Dame; it’s a long story), is a friend and fan of Leckrone.
“What you learn in marching band is accountability and teamwork,” Byrne says. “You’re accountable to each other.” Leckrone held them accountable — but he always had their backs.
“He’s entertained millions,” Byrne continues. “But he’s changed the trajectory of thousands of lives by giving them the opportunity to get engaged with music.” …
Prominent in Leckrone’s memory bank is directing the varsity band concert just weeks after his double bypass heart surgery in January 2017. “I’ll never forget the day I walked back into rehearsal,” he says.
Leckrone had prepared everyone for his not being there. That’s what he’s doing now, preparing people — himself especially— for his retirement. He’s been too busy to really think it through. Leckrone will be on a Wisconsin Alumni Association cruise down the Danube River in Eastern Europe in September. After that, only one thing is certain. “It will have something to do with music.”
I’ve been thinking about that this week. There were football halftimes — turning boos into a standing ovation from 100,000 fans at Michigan; what I considered to be a perfect (at least error-free) performance at Illinois, the one bowl game I got to march in. There were also football games — beating Ohio State twice — and other games — a triple-overtime game against Indiana in 1987, beating Iowa in 1985 (preceded and followed by an amusing five seconds with a group of Hawkeye fans), and UW’s going 9–0 in overtime hockey games the five years I was at UW.
I can’t remember all the shows I marched, but I remember a number of them. The 1984 rock show, which included “Sh-Boom” and “Tequila,” got performed four times — at Michigan, at Illinois, at Homecoming against Minnesota and at the bowl game. (All UW losses.) I marched “West Side Story” in high school (since our director was a field assistant) and at UW. The next year, we did “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
There were other moments. A 1987 Marching Band practice was interrupted for about 10 seconds by a tornado warning — five seconds of Leckrone’s announcing the tornado warning, followed by five seconds of tuba players’ yelling “Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It’s a twister!” There was the day coming back from a concert in Merrill where we had to push our bus through an intersection in Madison to get to the hockey game we were playing in that night. There was the brief drag race between Leckrone and myself on South Park Street going from the Fieldhouse to the Dane County Coliseum from the former’s basketball game to the latter’s hockey game. There was the night after an exhibition basketball game against an Eastern Bloc national team where a group of us tried to find the team at a series of Madison hotels, but failed. There was having an entire hotel in Indianapolis to ourselves coming back from the 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl, where the bowl game was replayed in the halls at 2:30 a.m., and the right team won.
There is another reason to bring this up. Leckrone’s final three concerts will include a contingent of alumni playing part of “The Music Man.” I will be one of those alumni band players, so if you are at one of the concerts, or you watch on Wisconsin Public Television taped or WPT.org live, you may see me playing. That is a bit ironic since I’ve only played a couple of alumni events since I graduated, but on the other hand I enjoyed playing in the concerts more than watching them, I get my chance tonight through Saturday night.
I’ve written here before that 30 years after I graduated I still have dreams about getting thrown into either football games or UW band concerts, lacking most of what I need for the performance. It turns out the dreams (nightmares?) came true.