Film Salutes the Baltimore Colts (Yes, Colts) Marching Band

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

BALTIMORE -- There aren't many foolproof recipes for male weepies -- movies that reduce the men who watch them to unapologetic tears. But athletes, setbacks and the whiff of mortality always help. Ask any guy which films are guaranteed to reduce a dude -- not him, mind you -- to a puddle and the usual titles pour forth: "Bang the Drum Slowly," "Brian's Song," "Heaven Can Wait," "Field of Dreams."

But you can't bang the drum slowly if you don't have drums, which happen to feature prominently in the film "The Band That Wouldn't Die," an I'm-not-crying-it's-allergies tearjerker that had its U.S. premiere at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on Tuesday. Barry Levinson's documentary chronicles the all-volunteer Baltimore Colts Marching Band, which stayed together after that team's notorious defection from Charm City in 1984, continued to play at parades and neighborhood events and even at other teams' games, and finally succeeded in bringing a National Football League team back home.

It's a story of tenacity, brassy showmanship and shrewd lobbying savvy. And it's a story of only-in-Baltimore oddballs and obsessions. Like the time the Marching Colts drummer stashed the game ball from the legendary 1958 bout against the New York Giants, still known as the greatest football game ever played, in the resonant confines of his bass drum. Or the time years later, during his 12 years in the wilderness, that band president John Ziemann eyed his wife Charlene's engagement ring by the kitchen sink and thought of what he could buy with it: new drum heads. "A few weeks later she came to me crying, saying 'I think I have something to tell you, I think I lost my engagement ring,' " Ziemann recalls. "And I said 'Wait, I have something to tell you.' The rest stays between her and me." (The ring, by the way, is still in hock, "but it's coming," Ziemann insists.)

That's Charlene now, leading the way as the band -- today called Baltimore's Marching Ravens -- makes its way onto the M&T Bank field in the gloaming of this mellow autumn night. The somber-faced musicians, who range in age from 14 to 65, proceed to regale 1,000-plus spectators with march-time renditions of songs by Santana, Ozzy Osbourne and Golden Earring. The set is capped off, as always, with the Colts fight song ("So drive, you Baltimore Colts/Go in and strike like lightning bolts/Fight, fight, fight!") and a triumphant, Poe-worthy "Nevermore!"

As an honor guard stands motionless to one side, the wiry, wide-eyed Charlene -- herself a former Colts cheerleader -- valiantly tries to rouse fans gathered at the 50-yard line, where those onlookers not bedecked in purple, black and gold Christmas ornaments and face paint are intent on capturing the proceedings on cellphones held aloft.

Once the film gets underway on the stadium's giant screen, however, the crowd's attention is riveted. "The Band That Wouldn't Die" opens with funereal footage of the Mayflower moving vans that Colts owner Robert Irsay hired to move the team from its Owings Mills training facility to Indianapolis on a wintry night in March 1984, leaving only the gray slush of betrayal in their wake. For Baltimore football fans (many of whom refuse to patronize Mayflower to this day), the images of the trucks in the snow are their Zapuder film, burned into memory but still horrifyingly gripping.

As the footage plays out with grim, ritualistic inevitability, men watching in the stadium can be seen leaning forward in their seats, stricken expressions on their faces, teeth mashing their knuckles. Meanwhile the men on the screen -- guys who look like they drink boilermakers and possess backbones of Bethlehem Steel -- shed helpless tears as they recount, yet again, how they bore witness to the city's primal wound. "I remember physically sitting in front of the TV, weeping," one says, nearly weeping all over again.

Bill Brubaker, who played trombone in the band from 1947 until 1967, watches "The Band That Wouldn't Die" from a wheelchair in the stands. At 88, he's the oldest member of the band. Does he see any irony in "The Band That Wouldn't Die" being screened in the very stadium that, had it been built in 1984, might have kept the Colts in town? "A lot of people don't remember this, but the Colts team left twice, not once," Brubaker quibbles, summoning memories of 1950, when the team's contracts were sold back to the NFL. The marching band was instrumental (literally!) in helping to get the Colts back to town in 1953. "We did a telethon back in those days with Martha Raye and Morey Amsterdam and the band to get people to pledge for season tickets," he says, "and that's when we got [defensive tackle] Artie Donovan and his team."

For his part, Levinson -- a Baltimore native who has chronicled his home town in such films as "Diner," "Avalon" and "Liberty Heights" -- was in Los Angeles when he first heard the news. "I remember being sort of dumbfounded," he said recently, recalling the midnight phone call. "It's one of those devastating things that you think is inconceivable. I was at the very first Colts game in 1953 -- my dad had gotten tickets -- and I was there every year until I went off to college."

In "The Band That Wouldn't Die," Levinson captures the passionate, doomed love affair between Baltimore -- a scruffy, blue-collar town long considered just a "traffic jam" between Washington and New York -- and the team that, under the leadership of quarterback Johnny Unitas, put the city on the map. What's more, the film reminds viewers that it was that pivotal 1958 game against the Giants that proved to broadcast networks that professional football could be a telegenic and hugely profitable property. Much of the sting of Irsay's petulant jump to Indianapolis, and the ensuing years during which NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue declined to award Baltimore an expansion team, was that the city that gave pro football its burly icons, mythic struggles and gritty grandeur was forced to beg.

In Baltimore, at least, that history is well known, eagerly shared in pubs from Dundalk to Hampden. But Levinson, who had a bride in "Diner" walk down the aisle to the Colts fight song, admits that even he learned things he didn't know while making "The Band That Wouldn't Die." (The film was commissioned for the ESPN series "30 for 30," and will air Tuesday on the channel.) "I think of this piece as somewhere between Frank Capra and Preston Sturges in how loopy it is," he said with a laugh. "For example, I didn't know the Baltimore Colts band got hold of the uniforms from a dry cleaner and then hid them in a mausoleum."

Ah, the mausoleum. As Ziemann recounts in the film, it happened that their uniforms were being cleaned when the rest of the team's equipment was moved. The sympathetic cleaner let Ziemann know that if he happened to take the delivery truck they were in "for a walk," he would look the other way. After an initial moment of befuddlement, Ziemann indeed liberated the costumes from the vehicle, where he found a sign saying, "Go get 'em Colts Band." After a stopover at Ziemann's home, the uniforms found their way to a band member's family crypt in a Baltimore cemetery. "We needed a place to keep them for 60 days, until they became unclaimed property," Ziemann explains after the screening. "What better place than with dead people?"

Add episodes with such colorful Baltimore figures as Mayor (later Maryland's governor) William Donald Schaefer; the fiery, inebriated Irsay; Colts super-fan Loudy Loudenslager; and local talk-show host and U.S. Rep. Kwesi Mfume, and you get a story that bursts with Baltimore's singularly weird culture and cheerful esprit de corps. It was just that funky, die-hard spirit that Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell understood when he invited the Colts Marching Band to play at his halftime shows, says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, which co-sponsored Tuesday's screening. "Obviously he got what they were doing, he understood them in all their eccentricity and understood that that's part of what every NFL franchise should be about," Dietz says. (In 1996, Modell relocated his team to Baltimore, where they were renamed the Ravens.)

Along with the band members themselves, Modell and his son David emerge as the film's heroes, especially in the way they merged the Colts and Ravens cultures, paying homage to the past and then, with exquisite sensitivity and grace, allowing a heartsick city to heal. (In 2000, Modell initiated a sale of the team to Steve Bisciotti, who purchased the majority stake of the franchise in 2004.) David Modell, who booked the Browns' halftime shows, remembers when he was first approached to invite the Colts band by Browns General Manager Ernie Accorsi. "I looked at him like he was crazy," Modell says. "Then once we did it, I understood. They had such heart. They were so sweet, they'd come with gifts, little tobacco jars, it was so important to them, and they did it with such feeling."

The Colts band wound up playing in Cleveland 10 times. When Modell saw them at a Penn State-Ohio State game, he recalls "The thought parked in the back of my head: If I ever had the opportunity to have a marching band I would, because it helps create a softer atmosphere at the venue. And when we came to Baltimore, I was delivered. We all hit the same spot at the same time."

When the film ends and the audience begins to file out, children dressed in purple jerseys can be seen gamboling on the stadium's green expanse -- artificial turf, unlike the muddy sod of Colts-era Memorial Stadium. When those kids share their most cherished football memories with their children, they'll recall sitting in M&T's purple seats, watching Joe Flacco and Willis McGahee. Says Ziemann: "When I see the Colts helmet, I see a lot of fond memories, a lot of good times and a lot of heartache. But my heart really belongs to the helmet with the bird's wings on it. I'm a Raven now, through and through."

It's enough to make a grown man cry.

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