TALLMADGE, Ohio (AP) — On a recent chilly evening in Tallmadge, the Venue Banquet Center was mostly empty as the oldest big band in Akron prepared for its Spring Gala.
The Moonlight Serenaders were founded in 1951 and have been keeping the hits of the era alive for 68 years. The 20 members’ ages and tenures span a wide range, but only one has been on the bandstand for the group’s entire history.
Mona Schaeffer, a 96-year-old trumpeter, mother and grandmother, has played more gigs in more bands than most of her bandmates combined, and she’s still going strong.
Schaeffer’s tenure is as unique as her entry into the Serenaders. The band was founded by the local Masons, who at the time did not allow women to perform.
“They had to get a special dispensation … so Mona could play with them,” said band publicist, producer and alto and baritone saxophonist John Smith.
Schaeffer doesn’t recall that detail.
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that. But I was the only woman in the group,” she said during a rehearsal break.
She never had any problems from her all-male bandmates. “No. I’ve been with men all my life,” she said laughing.
The Serenaders were rehearsing for their Spring Gala, and the old-school bandstand was set up and the room already decorated. Director/conductor Karl Tittl led them through the set list, with a few false starts and some suggestions from members about tempos. Five singers — three ladies dubbed the “Serenader Sisters” and two men — waited their turn to step up.
First the band ran through the dinner set, which Smith referred to as “the soft, quiet, go-to-sleep music,” promising that they’d “pick it up in the next set.” The tunes included familiar classics “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” one of several to feature a melodic spotlight for the slight-of-build Schaeffer, who admitted, “I don’t play as well as I used to.”
She may not have the power she once had, but she still has the energy, as she currently plays in four different groups: the Serenaders, two concert bands and a German band that mostly plays Oktoberfests.
Schaeffer first picked up the trumpet as a teenager, though not quite voluntarily: “My mother played the clarinet and the sax, and my aunt played the sax and clarinet and accordion, and so they needed a brass player and that was me.”
After graduating from Central High School at 19, Schaeffer married a musician, studied music at the University of Akron and then went pro, playing in a swing band with her mom and aunt.
“That’s what I started with, all girls, long before you were born,” she said with a chuckle.
“I played with a professional band. I joined the union when I was 19 and played with The Co-eds, which I’m sure you’ve never heard of. But they were pretty popular during the war because the fellas had all gone to war, so we did a lot of playing. We played in Cleveland and Youngstown and Gary, Indiana, all during the war,” she recalled.
During the day, she worked at American Rubber.
Just as her mother and aunt passed down the musical genes, Schaeffer taught her daughter and granddaughter. She’s proud that her granddaughter works in the music department at the Library of Congress.
Anyone looking for her full resume won’t get it from Schaeffer. “I’ve been in so many bands, I can’t remember them all,” she said. She counts jazz icon Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis among her favorite trumpeters.
As for retirement, at the moment Schaeffer seems open to the concept. “I think it’s about time, don’t you? I’m 96,” she said.
On the bandstand, the camaraderie was evident, bassist Tim Coerver and pianist John Ruggles cracking jokes and playfully ribbing other members. “Hey, could you guys please watch your hip movements,” Ruggles said to singer Don Howdyshell and his wife, Cindi, as the couple wiggled in unison to the groove of “La Cucaracha.” ”You’re distracting the band!”
When the rehearsal ended, everyone agreed it was rough, but “whenever the rehearsal is a bit ragged, you just know the show will be flawless,” Smith said reassuringly as they packed up.
Mother Nature was in a foul mood on the night of the show, and the rain was continuous. But a little sky water couldn’t stop the packed house of dancers and music lovers, some dressed in evening wear, others rocking a more casual look. They came as couples and in groups, some with wheelchairs, walkers or canes, all ready to enjoy the music they’ve loved for decades.
The band ran through the soft stuff with Schaeffer getting her moments in “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You,” and Howdyshell and young singer Luna Villano doing a delicately lovely duet of “Unforgettable.”
For the band, this wasn’t just another gig. Alto saxophonist Bud Snow was the second longest tenured member of the Serenaders with about 20 years of service. But at 85, trying to keep nighttime and bad-weather driving to a minimum, he had chosen the Spring Gala as his retirement party.
Second altoist Allison Antalek, a relative newcomer, was also celebrating after enduring 20 operations on her foot. The former competitive dancer determinedly left the bandstand to cut a rug during the Serenader Sisters’ peppy rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” dancing for the first time in several years. Robert Feldbush, the longtime music director for Cuyahoga Falls High School’s Gold Tones jazz ensemble who taught nearly half the current Serenaders, guest-conducted a few numbers.
At one table were Jim and Nadia Clifford of Hudson, longtime fans of the Serenaders and good dancers with a solid variety of classic styles in their rhythmic arsenal. “We like the era they play from and we know a lot of the big bands in the area, so when there’s a good one, you come, because they don’t play all the time and this band has a certain sound that’s different from everything else,” Jim Clifford said.
“I think it’s romantic, the lyrics are romantic,” Nadia Clifford said, noting that having a live band has an atmosphere unlike a DJ or jukebox. “And band members have told us that they derive energy from the dancers. It’s a wonderful synergy and we really love to dance. So this music kind of gets under your skin. Not that we don’t enjoy contemporary music.”
“You ought to see her get down,” her husband interjected. “She can wobble with the best of them.”
During the dinner set, the guests ate, then got up to slow dance, the more advanced dancers deftly navigating the entire floor.
After a short break, the uptempo dance set got the joint jumping. Schaeffer swung the lead melody of “Tuxedo Junction,” and dapper singer Bruce “Mr. Excitement” Ballard’s gritty takes on “Blues in the Night” and “Mack the Knife” drew cheers from a lively group of ladies from the Inn at Belden Village.
When the show ended, pianist Ruggles, a self-described rock ‘n’ roll and blues player who joined the Serenaders about three years ago, talked about the band experience.
“I enjoy the camaraderie and getting 20 people to play the same song really good. That’s a joy, and some of the songs we played tonight were probably the best we’ve played them,” he said.
He’s impressed with Schaeffer. “I just told her it’s always a pleasure to play with her. I hope that I’m still breathing at 96. She’s been in music all her life. She’s an amazing woman. She doesn’t get around much anymore but she can sit and play.”
Trombonist Al Mothersbaugh calls joining the Serenaders “the best thing I ever did. … There’s a lot of big bands in this town but nobody has more heart than this band because we all care about each other. The fact that we have heart, that’s what makes people go bananas,” he said.
As for the senior trumpeter who sits directly behind him: “She’s great. She has a solo in ‘Stardust.’ It’s just the way she plays it. It’s a little wobbly, because she’s old, but it’s also heartbreakingly beautiful.”
It was nearly 10 p.m. when the gig ended, and time for Schaeffer to go home.
“I’m tired. This was a long one for me,” she said while packing up her trumpet.
With hundreds, perhaps thousands of shows on her resume, the subject of possible retirement came up again.
“I’ve thought about it, but that’s all I’ve done,” Schaeffer said.
“Music keeps you young. And, what you don’t use you lose, so just keep playing. I don’t play as well as I used to, but I’m still playing.”