Originally published in the program for the 37th Annual Spring Concert honoring Dennis Frey
April 27th, 2013
Tonight you'll see Dennis Frey in the same, familiar spot - first chair, first trombone - that he's had for 37 spring concerts, countless Fun Days shows, nine Christmas concerts and other performances the Boyertown Alumni Band has given.
But the first time he picked up a musical instrument nearly 60 years ago, it wasn't a trombone. It was a bass drum stick. The person who told him to play bass drum: Mr. Arlen Saylor.
"We had half-day school sessions back then when they were adding on to the old building on Fourth Street," Frey said. "He was holding what they called special band then. We had no junior high school band. I was just starting seventh grade. Mr. Saylor knew me through my brother (Richard, who helped with the color guard) and saw me siting in the auditorium before school as I listened to the band. He saw me sitting out there and yelled at me to come over. He said, 'How about playing bass drum?' I said sure no problem, but I never played bass drum before. He said, 'That's OK, you just need to keep the beat. We're playing a march.'"
The first march Dennis Frey ever played was "Activity March". "I couldn't read music. All I did was keep the beat on the bass drum and I did pretty good," Frey said.
Later that school year, he began playing trombone. His first trombone was an old silver Conn that was donated to the school by the Keystone Band. "The slide didn't work real good," Frey said. After getting a few private lessons from Arlen Saylor, Frey then began taking lessons at Lamb's Music Store in Pottstown. He bought his first trombone, a Getzen, through a program at Lamb's.
Frey tells a story about his second trombone... "We had a neighbor who had a store across from the high school, Dan trout, and he played trombone in entertainment bands that played wedding receptions," Frey said. "He used to play quite often. He was a really good trombone played. My parents told me, 'Go down to Dan Trout. He wants to show you a trombone.' He took me into the house and he showed me this horn. It was really nice - a King Liberty 2B. That's the one I play in the jazz band. It's the same (type of) horn that Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey both played. I play that horn today. It's a really good jazz horn."
Private Teacher - Frey started giving private lessons shortly after graduating high school at the encouragement of Mr. Saylor. "He wanted me to teach the young elementary students," Frey said. "He wanted me to teach them the basics."
In addition to Saylor and Bill Lamb, Frey also had as teachers Tommy Lambert, who was a band director at Spring-Ford, and Tyrone Breidinger, who ended up being the principal trombone player for the Philadelphia Orchestra. "You don't know it at the time, but when you're being taught by people of that caliber, you are learning," he said.
Frey has been a private teacher for 50 years. He taught at Green's Music Store in Boyertown and Lamb's Music Store in Pottstown and also did teaching out of his home. Many of the low brass players that have come through the Boyertown Area High School Band have been taught by Frey. "I just had such a small part in it," he said. "My part was only to get them started and do what Mr. Saylor asked me to do. Get them grounded that, when I could pass them on to other teachers, they were ready for that other teacher."
The Army Years - In 1967, Frey was drafted into the Army and was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. "They brought us from the train station in Columbia, South Carolina on buses into Fort Jackson and herded us all together and passed out uniforms," Frey said. "They gave us an interview, and I was talking to the sergeant and we told the guy what we did." Frey was working at Morysville Body Works at the time. "He asked me if I did anything else," Frey said. "I said, 'Well, I play trombone.' He said, "Do you want a band audition?' I said, 'Yes, I'd like to have a band audition.' He said, 'Well, if you don't pass the band audition, you're automatically in the infantry.' "I looked him in the eye and said, I'll pass the band audition.'"
Frey spend two years with the Army Band at Fort Jackson. Several of his bandmates went on to play professionally, including Pete Solano, who has a popular dance band under the name Pete Lawrence in the New York area; Mike Carubia, a music arranger; and Ron Toolie, who was the first lead trumpet player with the James Brown Band.
"I keep on learning all the time," Frey said. "Even though I didn't have a college education in music, over the years I learned so much from those people. It was just incredible."
Boyertown Alumni Marching Unit - Frey isn't one of the founders of the Boyertown Alumni Marching Unit, but he was been involved since the unit's first performance. "In 1976, we had a Bicentennial Parade in Gilbertsville," Frey said. "The founders of the alumni band - David Fridinger, Dennis Prutzman, Candy Babb Heydt and Sandy Smith - were forming this to do it in a parade in GIlbertsville. I got a phone call. I wasn't involved with the very forming of it. The phone call ironically came from a guy named Tom McHugh. That's how I got involved - because Tommy asked me to do it."
After the parade, the foundation was set to pursue the formation of the alumni marching unit. "The enthusiasm was so high after that parade," Frey said. "A bunch of people came for that parade. We got together and had a meeting and they asked me to be a band captain. We started to form the marching unit."
Now the alumni unit's president, McHugh, had much to say about what Dennis Frey has meant to the unit over the past 37 years. It's impossible to list or to remember how much this man has done for me and the Alumni Marching Unit," said McHugh, who happens to be Dennis Frey's nephew. "Being the president of this organization has had its share of great moments and trying moments. The one person I could always count on for advice, and I called him or met with him often, was Uncle Den. His advice was always exactly what I needed to hear and helped me make informed decisions. He has so much feeling for people and that we should always search for the good in them. He lives by the saying, 'look at the glass half full, not half empty.' I've asked countless people over the 37 years to come out and join the Alumni. But I knew in my heart that getting Uncle Den involved was key to the success of the marching unit. He was not sure at first when I called, but I put some pressure on him and it worked. I got him!"
"He has the gift to make you feel so good about yourself," McHugh continued. "Even those of us that are not the best musicians or marchers were made to feel that what we were doing was just what the unit needed. He makes everyone feel important. He's always given his heart to the Boyertown area. He may be Boyertown's biggest fan. He truly believes in the Boyertown way of life and the spirit the community has with its people. He's always very proud to say - "I'm from Boyertown.'"
"I could go on and on about what this man has done for our family, the community, the Alumni Marching Unit, and me personally, but there's not enough space on this page to do that. I just want him to know that he is someone we should all look up too. I'm not sure where the Alumni Marching Unit would be if it weren't for the contributions by our Uncle Den. He is 'THE GLUE!' Thanks Uncle Den!!!!"
Frey was the unit's band captain for 15 years. sandwiched around two 2-year terms as unit president. Now he's the band librarian, with all the music stored at his home. "We couldn't replace a lot of the music we play today if something would happen to it," he said. "It really is something that we have (the amount of music) what we have. We have the Pottstown Band complete library. The amount of history we have back there in that room is incredible."
Highlights With Alumni Band - Frey said the most memorable thing he's done with the Boyertown Alumni Marching Unit was the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Remembrance Concert - "Ten Years Later: A Time to Reflect, Our 9/11 Tribute" on September 11, 2011.
But two other performances stand out in his eyes - and both had ties to the Vietnam War. On September 24, 1988, the marching unit participated in a parade in Reading that honored Berks County Vietnam veterans with the dedication of a Vietnam Memorial. "There were seven graduates from Boyertown High School who died in Vietnam," Frey said. "I had their names in my pocked when we marched in that parade."
The following spring, on April 8, 1989, for it's 13th annual concert, the unit honored Boyertown-area veterans of the Vietnam War. A bronze memorial plaque honoring seven fallen servicemen was dedicated to the high school. Photographs of area servicemen were projected on a movie screen during a film salute to the men from the area who served. The program was arranged to say "welcome home and thanks." "(That was) the concert we did with all the Gold Star mothers there," Frey recalled. "They were in their white dress. That was really a good concert."
What the Alumni Band Means to Him - Frey said the best part of having a group like the Boyertown Alumni Marching Unit is that it provides an outlet for members to play their instruments. "I needed a place to go play my trombone," he said. "I was an electrical lineman and I'd come home from work and I couldn't wait sometimes to get to band rehearsals. It becomes and outlet. The reason I helped keep it going was because I wanted to play my horn."
He also has enjoyed watching generations grow up through the unit. "Over 37 years, I watched these families grow through good times and bad times," he said. "For me to see Tommy (McHugh) and his boy and other members of the band who have kids who've played with us, it's great to see that. I know people who haven't played their horns in 12 years came back and started playing their horn," he added.
Frey marched center guide in the first rank for many years, but health reasons forced him to strop marching in 2010. His last parade was when the unit marched in Gaitlinburg, Tennessee for the Smokey Mountain town's annual Midnight July 4th Parade.
"What better outlet could there be than what our group is," Frey said. "You can make different friends, there's a common goal, working as a team and still having that same pride that we were raised with performing in the high school." And 37 years later, Dennis Frey still loves what he does with the Boyertown Alumni Marching Unit. "It's life's work," he said. "I had a separate job. I worked 33 years with Met-Ed. It was such a release. I wasn't getting paid for this. It becomes life's work. This is involved in your lives. No one is paying you to do this, and we're involved that way with the alumni band for the love of it. It's meant that much to me.
By Mike Spohn
Alumni Marching Unit Member