New York Times       Sept. 29 2002

by Warren St. John

And the Band Misbehaved On. . .

Tiffany Christatos [Error in original article. Credit should go to Marlow Schindler. -ed.] INDIFFERENT DRUMMERS Columbia band members at the gasp-generating Sept. 21 game with Fordham. More jokers than musicians, they defend their irreverent capers.
IT'S 11 o'clock on Thursday night, and two dozen members of the Columbia marching band, the self-declared Cleverest Band in the World, have gathered in a campus dorm room to down chocolate chip cookies and tequila shots and to recap a week's worth of what most people would consider bad publicity. The trouble began during the halftime show at the Columbia-Fordham football game on Sept. 21, when the band's announcer made a joke about altar boys over the public address system that many at Fordham, a Jesuit university, took as a slur against Catholics. It culminated with an appearance by Andy Hao, the sophomore who wrote the halftime show, on the Phil Donahue program, being denounced by the president of the Catholic League as a "phony" and "typical Ivy League brat." But if you were looking for evidence that the halftime show was anything but an unqualified success, you would have to go elsewhere than the dorm room, where band members guffawed at a video of Mr. Hao's Donahue appearance. "We're going to keep doing it," Mr. Hao said. "We've gotten calls from alumni to say, `We're glad you're carrying on the tradition.' " The tradition is that of the "scramble band," a mostly Ivy League institution that has been entertaining -- and offending -- football crowds since the 1960's. Where state-university bands prefer martial displays with precision marching and lots of Andrew Lloyd Webber, scramble bands are aggressively ironic. Half the Columbia band members don't even play an instrument. "A scramble band is a band that doesn't march," said Thomas Berman, a junior who leads the Columbia band. "We just sort of run around the field while a joke is being read." After a decade of being hemmed in by campus administrators mindful of new cultural sensitivities, scramble bands are once again making noise. And while the scrambling is harmless enough, it's those jokes that often cause problems. Not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, the Yale band was booed by its own fans for a skit that involved jokes about bombing Afghanistan. The Stanford University band is just coming off a three-year ban from playing at the school's matchups with Notre Dame, after a halftime show that satirized the Catholic Church's past stances on evolution and geocentrism. And when Vice President Al Gore showed up at Columbia last year to teach a class at the journalism school, the band greeted him with a program of Monica Lewinsky jokes worthy of a Friar's Club Roast. "We get into trouble like this every five years or so," Mr. Berman said. Given the "sometimes tasteless" nature of the band's shows, he added, "this sort of thing is inevitable." Every Ivy League school but Cornell has a scramble band, as does the University of Virginia, Rice and Stanford. Most were started in the 1960's when participation in traditional marching bands fell off, a casualty of students' rejection of all things conformist. Scramble bands quickly made their mark. In 1967, the Columbia band performed "A Tribute to Birth Control," in which band members formed the shape of a condom and played "I Hear You Knockin' (But You Can't Come In)." Some shows had a political bent: in the early 70's, the band re-enacted the bombing of Cambodia, forming a flame at midfield. But most performances were just silly. During a live telecast of the Harvard-Yale game in the late 70's, Yale band members simultaneously dropped their trousers and waddled on the field in diapers, a commentary on what the band called President Jimmy Carter's infantile economic policies. Scramble bands have survived because they require fewer members, less practice time and less money than traditional bands. Indeed, if the University of Alabama has the Million Dollar Band, scramble bands are the blue-light specials. Instead of crisp military outfits with spats and epaulets, uniforms typically consist of rugby shirts and chinos, or in the case of the Columbia band, whatever the students are wearing at game time, which in the past has included a cow suit and a Jesus costume. Thomas Duffy, director of Yale's band for 21 years, said that early scramble bands prided themselves on their ability to shock. Bands that crossed the line found themselves censured by administrators, and most eventually crossed the line. Harvard's band, for example, was forced to submit its scripts to a dean for approval after a show in 1983 that included references to the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. In 1980, the Stanford band was put on a year-long hiatus after it deployed into the shapes of a spotted owl and a chain saw on the field at the University of Oregon, a move that offended both local loggers and conservationists. For Virginia, the last straw was a halftime show at Maryland in which the state's governor, then facing legal trouble, was depicted wearing a ball and chain. After many administrators began vetting scripts, Mr. Duffy said, "There was a move from the shock show towards cleverness and amusement." Today's scramble bands face a different challenge: figuring out who their audience is. Because students at Ivy League schools are largely apathetic toward their football teams, attendance is a hodgepodge of alumni, players' parents and locals, with a few students mixed in. "There's no average," Mr. Duffy said. "You take your chances." Taking chances often causes tension between scramble bands and traditionalists, derisively referred to as the "dot-the-i contingent," after the Ohio State band tradition of spelling the school's name and inviting a dignitary to speckle the i. Nowhere are tensions greater than at the University of Virginia. As the school's football team achieved national prominence over the last decade, the athletic department and some alumni started agitating for a conventional marching band. In 1993, the school tried to field one, but gave up when only 40 students volunteered. Since then, Virginia has taken to severely restricting what the scramble band can say during its halftime show, banning any references to drinking, dining halls, campus construction and "certain Florida State athletes' problems with the law," according to the band Web site. "What we want to do and what the athletic department wants us to do very often don't match up," said Adam Lorentson, a junior at Virginia who directs the band. "It's not that they don't have a sense of humor," said Andrew Rader, an associate athletic director at Virginia, who checks the band's scripts. "I think we need a louder, more intense and in-tune band." Most schools with scramble bands opt for a strategy of containment. Harvard and Yale have added full-time directors to keep their bands in check. Even so, when the bands leave campus, administrators reflexively expect the worst. Michael Huijon, a member of Stanford's band, said that when the band went to a brewery festival in China as part of a cultural exchange mission, members were taught a single phrase in Chinese: "Excuse me, I was wrong. I'd like to go to my consulate now." Mr. Huijon added: "There are definitely people who are loudly and vocally disapproving of the Stanford band in its current form." Among scramble bands, Columbia's seems to enjoy special status. In the late 1980's, when the university's football team endured a four-year losing streak, the band was the only bright spot during many a bleak Saturday at Baker Field. Today the band's most popular performances are not at the stadium but in Butler Library, at 11:59 p.m. on the night before each semester's organic chemistry final. The remark at the Fordham game came as an aside between a routine about Columbia's housing shortage (after announcing that the school was planning to lease cardboard boxes from local homeless people, the band formed a box and played "Living on a Prayer") and a jibe at Martha Stewart, a Barnard alumna. The altar boy joke even slipped past the Columbia dean charged with vetting the band's scripts. With only 3,865 people at Columbia's Wien Stadium for the night game, the band seemed most surprised that anyone had heard the remark at all. "That was what was really stunning," Mr. Berman said. From the perspective of band members, the best thing about the recent controversy is that it came during Columbia's first game, the scramble band equivalent of beating a ranked team in the season opener. Mr. Berman, for one, is delighted. "Everything that's happened is what I hoped for when I joined the band," he said.