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Never-say-die band returns to beloved sidelines Colts group to play at game tomorrow


The band without a team hasn't missed a note for eight years.

Since 1984, the Baltimore Colts Band have shown the sports world that you don't need to be on the sidelines to make good music.

"Whether there's a football team or not, there will be a band," said Jack Cathirell Jr., a grounds crew member for the band. "If a football team comes to town, it'll be just a little more gravy on the meat."

The band is in its 45th season.

It existed once before without a team, when Baltimore was between franchises in 1951 and 1952.

And at 7:29 p.m. tomorrow, the band will march onto the field at Memorial Stadium with flags waving and horns blaring for its first appearance before a local pro football crowd in nearly a decade when the Miami Dolphins play the New Orleans Saints in an exhibition.

Said band president, archivist and drummer John Ziemann: "Bob Irsay did what he had to do, and we're doing what we have to do."

In his nocturnal haste to wing the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984, team owner Robert Irsay forgot to take the band uniforms out of storage.

The band had no trouble claiming them from the sympathetic dry cleaner; the vilified owners' wife persuaded Mr. Irsay to let the group keep its instruments; and the musicians marched "The Baltimore Colts Fight Song" into an unchoreographed future.

"I was at band practice the night the team left, and when I came home my mother-in-law looked like somebody had died," said Mr. Ziemann. "The moving vans were on television, and the band started ringing my phone off the hook. They said: 'We're not asking you, John, we're telling you -- we're staying together.' "

To this day, they practice every Wednesday night, in the cold and sometimes in the rain; they march in Fourth of July parades and pass old fans who cry on the sidewalk at the sight of blue-and-white horseshoes; they play "Lullaby of Broadway" at charity gigs for the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland; and they are kept in strict formation by the obsessed and fatherly hand of Mr. Ziemann, who has passed 30 of his 45 years on Earth playing drums for the Baltimore Colts Band.

As someone who actually marched and played for the Baltimore Colts, Mr. Ziemann is in a distinct minority. Most of the band, about 140 of the 160, joined after the team left town.

"When I joined in 1962, the auditions were held at Druid Hill Park behind the zoo's old snake pit," said Mr. Ziemann, married to a former Colts cheerleader. "Back then the Colts were our football team. We can tell our children and our grandchildren about Johnny U and Artie Donovan, but you can't relive the past or just live on the name. We learned to live and survive on our own."

Some members are third generation.

"When I was real young, my grandfather was music librarian for the Colts," said xylophonist Karen Koch, 26. "I played the flute, and I remember being at his house and going through the music. He had all the sheet music in big cases, and I'd go digging through it and try to play the 'Pink Panther' and 'Rhinestone Cowboy.' "

Her grandfather, Erich Koch, played bass drum before becoming the band librarian, and her father, Rick Koch, was a saxophone player.

Other members fell in love between sheets of music.

After watching Melo Jean Soriano march in the flag line back in 1987, drum major Jack Vaeth asked her to the opera.

She now plays a xylophone as Mrs. Melo Jean Vaeth.

There are numerous brother-sister tandems in the band; a few mother-and-daughter teams; and father-and-son combos like the Cathirells.

"I was bringing my son to practice so much they put me in the grounds crew," said Mr. Cathirell, a carpet cleaner from Catonsville whose son blows baritone horn. "We walk along the side during parades and make sure they have plenty of ice water, spray them down if it gets too warm. It's a joy to see people dance in the streets."

For locals from the old school, the joy is never sweeter than it is when the Baltimore Colts fight song soars over the Patapsco.

Said Morton Klasmer, a retired trumpet player: "It's 'The Star-Spangled Banner' -- the national anthem!"

Excuse Mr. Klasmer the hyperbole.

His father, Benny Klasmer, wrote the song as a vaudeville violinist at the Hippodrome Theater in 1947, the year pro football first came to Baltimore.

Mr. Klasmer is thinking of honoring his dead father by joining the Colts band.

If so, he will be invited to benefit crab feasts and bull roasts held by the great extended family, he will meet players from the glory days who recruit volunteers for the band, and he will perform during half-time shows in alien National Football League cities while Baltimore waits for a new team.

The band's most recent triumph was a standing ovation received during halftime ceremonies at the Hall of Fame game Aug. 1 in Canton, Ohio, when former Colt tight end John Mackey was inducted among the greats.

It's next will be tomorrow night on 33rd Street.

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