Pitt Band History Robert L. "Ace" Arthur
Robert L. "Ace" Arthur

Director: 1939-1971 Director Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh Bands

Robert L. "Ace" Arthur began his long association with the band in 1937 when he was appointed assistant to Theodore Finney. At the time, Ace was a senior music instructor at South Hills High School. He was lured to Pitt by Lockhart, who was director of instrumental music for the Pittsburgh Schools. Arthur became director in 1939 and remained head of the University of Pittsburgh bands until his retirement in 1971. No other director has had as much influence on the band program.

The Arthur years were glorious ones for the thousands of musicians privileged to play under his baton. Among the many unforgettable memories are performances on national television and an appearance before the President of the United States.

These triumphs were inspired by Arthur's leadership and the hard work that characterized his three decades at the helm of Pitt band music. He was the Pitt band program for all those years except during the World War II suspension.

In 1943, the bandsmen put their instruments aside for two years while Arthur served in the U.S. Navy. The Pitt Marching Band did return in 1944 at the Pitt-Penn State game. There was a motion among the student body, led by the Pitt News, to have the band return to replace the group of Army Air Corps musicians who were filling in at the football games. A cry went out for student musicians and approximately 40-45 showed up. They rehearsed and marched all during the fall and were finally given the green light to appear on the field for the Penn State game. Upon his return in the fall of 1945, the band came to life quickly in the form of a 60-piece aggregation. The world was at peace. It was a time for new beginnings, and the stage was set at Pitt, as at other colleges, for tens of thousands of returning war veterans. Campus life would never again be as it had been before the war.

The resurrection of the Pitt Band began in earnest during the summer of 1946. Plans were laid to ensure an intensive band program for the fall. Every effort was made to revive student interest and improve the quality of the performances.

This endeavor was highlighted by the first Band Camp. A week before the fall registration, a group of 150 male students, some former members of the band and the great majority freshmen, arrived at Camp Kon-O-Kwee, some 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Although soft-spoken and kindly, Arthur was a strict disciplinarian, a perfectionist. He worked the students long and hard, requiring two practice drills and three music rehearsals each day. With nothing to distract the bandsmen from their work, a great deal was accomplished in a short time.

The Pitt Marching Band was invited to play at the Steelers football game at Forbes Field on September 23, 1946, but there were some objections. Professional football had not yet won national esteem and the relationship between the National Football League and universities was not what it is today. So the matter was referred to the chancellor. After serious consultation and deliberation, he ruled that it would not be proper for the band to open the season and "put in its first stellar performance for another organization."

The late '40s--a time when the campus was overflowing with students --were good to the band. So great was the interest that membership had to be restricted to upper classmen. Freshmen had their own 120-piece band which made occasional appearances at football games when the visiting band didn't attend.

In the period from 1946 to 1949, the band acquired a complete matched set of musical instruments. Part of the cost was defrayed by the donations of E.V. Babcock and the remaining expenses were picked up by the university. It was the Babcock contribution that initiated the project.

Ben E. Benack, who later became one of Pittsburgh's best known bandleaders, began a long association with the Pitt Band in 1949 while working on a master's degree at the university. He was employed as a full-time arranger and later, after receiving his degree, remained as a part-time assistant.

The '50s were glorious years for the hand. The organization was set at 120 men--women were excluded in those days--and made three trips to out-of-town games annually. One of the highlights of this period was the band's appearance at the Sugar Bowl in 1955. Its spectacular half-time show earned a standing ovation from the crowd.

Ace had the ability to drive a hard bargain when necessary. This talent became evident during the Pittsburgh Bicentennial Celebration in 1958 when the Herald Trumpets caught his eye. The elongated instruments were used during a concert of bands directed by Meredith Wilson at Pitt Stadium. Ace thought the trumpets would be a nice addition to the Pitt Band, so he contacted the music store in McKeesport that had supplied them for the occasion and purchased them for $100 apiece.

Another memorable day occurred in 1958 when the band provided a presidential escort for Dwight D. Eisenhower at Fort Ligonier. Ike was favorably impressed and advised the Pitt bandsmen in a letter that "your famous marching band" more than lived up to its reputation.

The Stadium Review, a tradition that is very much alive today, began in 1946. It serves as the grand finale of the football season, featuring the best of the half-time music over the year. The first review was staged at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and subsequent performances have been held there and at Carnegie Music Hall.

By 1960, the Pitt Band had won its spurs as a proud and integral part of the University. That was another milestone year in which the band's many successes were recognized at the dedication of the new $100,000 band headquarters in Pitt Stadium. The band was then able to move to its new surroundings from its quarters on the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Learning.

Four years later, the band's achievements received national publicity in Time magazine and on television. Pitt's first game in 1964 was televised nationally on the National Broadcasting Network. It proved to be a milestone for TV as the Blue and Gold staged the longest half-time show ever done on television up to that time (15 minutes and 11 seconds). The performance was a hit and it evoked congratulatory cards, letters and telegrams from appreciative viewers across the country.

The band scored another memorable triumph in 1968 when Pitt played Miami in the Orange Bowl. Spectators were so thrilled by the half-time performance that they gave the Pitt Band a standing ovation, something no other band had received before in the Florida stadium.

In 1971, Arthur put his baton away and became director emeritus. At that time Dr. Jack B. Anderson, who had been Ace's assistant for 18 years, also departed from the staff. Arthur was succeeded by Edmund Williams, who moved to Pitt from the University of Illinois. He brought Robert Kidd III with him as a full-time assistant, but Williams stayed in the post only one year and was succeeded by Donald E. Hower.