by Patricia Wheeler
a founding member of the Friends of the Golden Gate Park Band
The Golden Gate Park Band was founded in September of 1882, the same year that outlaw Jesse James was killed. San Francisco wanted to be like other majors American and European cities and have their own community band.
The Golden Gate Park Band started with 12 musicians, conducted by Yusave Fuchs in its first months. This group grew quickly with the addition of the members of the 2nd Artillery Regimental Band. This band was originally a support unit for the San Francisco “F” Company, a part of the California National Guard. Today, all 30 members belong to the Musician’s Union “Local 6.”
The first bandstand, built in 1883, was a small, wooden structure on an elevated area in front of a larger opening where people could come with their horses and carriages to hear the Band. There was also a walkway lined with benches for pedestrians. The concerts were quite popular with San Franciscans, and the series was expanded in 1883 when I. C. Coggin was appointed manager. The band was enlarged to 25 members, and regular contributions were pledged by the Park Commission, local businesses, and the Market Street Cable Railway Company which encouraged citizens to come to Golden Gate Park and hear the band.
But the wooden bandstand and surrounding area for the audience soon were insufficient for the concerts, and a new band shell was built in 1886. This area could hold larger crowds and had space for more horses and carriages. Although the band gave both Saturday and Sunday afternoon concerts, Sunday was clearly the preferred day with thousands of people packing the area each weekend. The band continued playing year-round, with a few exceptions, until 1980 when it gradually cut back to 25 Sundays a year, due to limited funding.
The Temple of Music, which still stands today, was built on the Music Concourse in the heart of Golden Gate Park in 1900, next to the DeYoung Museum. The Temple of Music was a gift from Claus Spreckels, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1847 and became know as the Sugar King. His dynasty ranged from sugar plantations in Hawaii to the world’s largest sugar refinery in Philadelphia.
The band has had several conductors during its history. The first official one was Angelo Spadina, who led the Band from 1891-1901. He was born in Italy into a family of successful musicians. His father manufactured instruments and his brother was a noted pianist and composer in Europe. Spadina studied music and directed bands in Buenos Aires, Argentina before moving to San Francisco in 1867 as a music professor.
Paul Steindorff, a German immigrant who moved to New York City in 1887, was friends with Johannes Brahms, Anton Seidl, and other noteworthy Germans. He was a musical director on Broadway and worked with Victor Herbert. Steindorff led the Band from 1902-1908. This covered the time period of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. With damage to the Temple of Music, the band relocated to the East Bay and performed at such venues as the Greek Theatre on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Steindorff created in the Oakland Municipal Band in 1912, modeled after the Golden Gate Park Band, and was a member of faculty at UC Berkeley until he retired in 1923.
A native Californian, Charles H. Cassasa, assumed directorship of the Golden Gate Park Band in 1908 and continued in this role until 1923. In 1883, Cassasas organized and directed the First Regimental Band of California. Under his tenure, concerts returned to the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. He also served as president of the musicians union in San Francisco. He was the conductor of the Exposition Band during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. In addition to being a well-known conductor, Cassasa was also a superb trumpet player and popular composer/arranger.
Ralph Murray, a Seattle native, assumed the conductor role in 1924 and continued until 1934. He was a tuba player in the world-famous John Philip Sousa Band. He first came to San Francisco in 1915 to play in the Exposition Band. After a stint in the Navy during World War I, he returned to California to study music and then became the tuba player and personnel director with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He featured soloists from the symphony at the Golden Gate Park Band’s concerts.
Mexican immigrant Alfred Arriola became the band’s conductor in 1934 and served through 1940. A talented trumpet player and composer, he played with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra from 1914-1927, and in, 1931-32, with the NBC Concert Orchestra. He taught privately, passing his love of music to others. He passed away after a short illness, conducting his final concert while ill.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors quickly re-appointed Ralph Murray as the conductor to succeed Arriola. Murray served as conductor for 43 years, 1924-34 and 1940-73, the longest tenure of any of the band’s conductors to date. He was the musical director of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Murray led the Band through some challenging times, including the attack on Pearl Harbor, following which scores of San Francisco musicians enlisted in the military. The concerts continued with a smaller membership and participation of musicians from the Symphony. By 1949, band membership had grown to 56 and Murray was elected into the prestigious American Bandmasters Association (ABA). There was a surge on interest in wind bands in schools and communities in the Bay Area and the band was in demand for performance beyond Golden Gate Park. Murray passed away in 1973 and was honored at a memorial concert by the band in Golden Gate Park, led by the next conductor, Robert Hansen.
Robert Hansen succeeded Murray in 1973 and continued as conductor until 1999, two years longer than the tenure of his predecessor. Born in nearby Alameda, California, he attended the University of California, Berkeley where he played trumpet and horn. He first played with the Golden Gate Park Band in 1939 at the World’s Fair, held on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. After serving in the Navy, Hansen returned to San Francisco and joined the Band as a fill-in for a trumpet player who wanted to take off the Fourth of July in 1946. In 1982, for the band’s Centennial Concert, they performed in the rotunda of City Hall at the invitation of then Mayor Dianne Feinstein, wearing their new uniforms of red blazers, gray slacks, and red hats adorned with gold braids, the same uniforms used today.
During Hansen’s era as conductor, another earthquake hit the area, this time the Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. The Spreckels Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park suffered structural damage, and the Band needed to locate another venue. This time a temporary plywood stage was built across the Music Concourse plaza, on top of a dormant fountain. This enabled the band to continue their tradition of Sunday concerts in the park. On July 4, 1996, fifty years after Hansen sat in as a fill-in trumpet player for the Band, the Temple of Music was reopened and the band celebrated this historic day for the band, for its leader, and for our nation. Hansen retired as the conductor in 1999 after 53 years with the Band, including 26 years as its conductor.
Today’s Conductor and Music Director is Michael Wirgler, a native San Franciscan. He picked up the baton on July 4th, 1999, after playing solo clarinet in the band for 25 years. Wirgler earned bachelor and masters degrees in music from San Francisco State University. He did his military service at the Presidio next to the Golden Gate in San Francisco. He is retired from a 33-year career as a school music teacher. He keeps active in music, not only as the conductor of the Golden Gate Park Band, but also as an active performer, teacher, and composer/arranger. Wirgler also directs the Alameda Community Band.
Patricia Wheeler has been a member of ACB since 1999. She is one of the founding members of the Friends of the Golden Gate Park Band, a group formed to help the Band celebrate its 125th birthday and to support this Band and promote band music in Northern California. Pat is a retired Educational Researcher after working for over twenty years for Educational Testing Service and ten years as an independent consultant. She earned her Bachelors of Arts and Masters of Education from the University of Rochester (NY), her MBA from Armstrong University (CA), and her Ph.D. in Education from the University of California.