The man who helped create the soundtrack of autumn in Washington is telling stories from the olden days, and he’s wondering what you remember. No, not Gibbs. Think earlier. Much earlier.
“George Marshall, remember that name?” asks Sam Shreiber, who, at a peppy 100 years old, is a half-century removed from entertaining the Redskins’ first owner at Washington society functions.
“Barnee Breeskin, you remember that name,” asks Shreiber, referring now to the composer of “Hail to the Redskins,” the NFL’s first fight song.
“He called me to substitute at Griffith Stadium, in the teepee,” Shreiber says, and now he’s talking about the original home of Breeskin’s Redskin Wigwam Band. “You don’t remember that, do you?”
“I had the dance orchestra,” Shreiber says, mentioning the 18-piece jazz band he led for decades, when NFL timeouts were filled not by pounding bass lines or advertisements but by professional musicians performing standards such as “Stardust” and “Quando Quando Quando.” “Do you remember?”
You probably don’t. Moses Denson didn’t. The former Redskins running back ran into Shreiber in a Montgomery County restaurant years ago; Denson was wearing Redskins gear, so Shreiber told him about his band. You know, the brass-and-woodwinds outfit that played the music of Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown, the group that played Redskins banquets and that took requests for “popular numbers that were hit records” from the crowd. You remember.
“Okay, sure you did,” Denson recalled thinking. “I don’t know how many people have told me they were band leaders or something like that. Then one day I googled him.”
What he found was a direct artery to the earliest days of pro football in Washington. He found a man whose sassy rendition of “Hail to the Redskins” — featuring Sammy Shreiber and the Redskins Pro Orchestra — is still played on loop by WTOP and ESPN 980 every fall. A man who arrived here in the early 1940s, lured by an uncle who insisted that Washington was depression-proof, and who within a week landed a job filling in with the Redskins dance band.
A man who performed in front of every U.S. President from Roosevelt to Bush the elder; who regularly played the White House Correspondents Dinner, the Touchdown Club banquet and the Miss America pageant; but who called his Redskins gig “the most enjoyable years of my life.” And a man whose recording of Breeskin’s fight song is still played inside FedEx Field after Washington touchdowns.
“A tradition that you need to keep to keep up with the history of the piece,” said Eric Summers, the longtime director of the Redskins Marching Band, which plays along with Shreiber’s recording at the stadium. “He has a very significant role in the history of the Redskins. Very much so.”
That’s why Denson mentioned Shreiber’s biography to Redskins President Bruce Allen as the band leader’s 100th birthday approached earlier this fall. And why Shreiber was then included in the team’s alumni weekend, joining ex-players and staffers at a reception and during on-field festivities. And why he was asked to lead the marching band in a rendition of “Hail to the Redskins,” even if he never had a formal role with that larger and noisier group.
“Standing there and conducting again, he just felt like a king,” said Rita Schreiber, Sam’s daughter. “I think it was the most meaningful thing that’s happened to him in his entire life. He was treated like royalty. The players, when they found out how old he was and what he had done, they were tripping over themselves to be wonderful to him. Just hanging around on the field was astounding to him.”
He’d had previous brushes with the sport. The dance band’s locker room was located near the team’s at RFK Stadium, and Shreiber said he was friendly with players from Sonny Jurgensen to Joe Theismann. His band sat on folding chairs in the corner of RFK, their amplified big-band and swing tunes entertaining an audience that wanted more than just football. Marshall — the showman with the parading elephant and the parachute acts — had proved that.
“In the ’20s and all that, who went to a football game? But it came to be a big thing, and we had a big show,” Shreiber said. “I could play a crowd; do you know what I mean? You give me an orchestra, I could look at the crowd and see” what people wanted to hear.
His background wasn’t in football, but in entertainment. He was raised on a farm in South Jersey, picking up music when he was around 12. One of his first regular jobs here was playing vaudeville at the old Capitol Theater on F Street; after shows, the musicians would hang out with sportswriters such as Morrie Siegel and Shirley Povich at Bassin’s Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. Vaudeville, though, went out of style even before live dance music at NFL games.
“With television now, you don’t need vaudeville,” Shreiber observed recently. “It’s a hell of an invention.”
Unexpectedly, he then found his greatest fame through the local football team. After years of playing saxophone and other instruments in the group, he took over the pro band sometime in the 1960s. Unlike the marching band, his musicians were paid. The money, though, was irrelevant; musicians cared less about the couple of dollars they made than about a seat to watch a steadily more relevant team.
“They’d do anything to play the games,” Shreiber said. “The salary didn’t mean a damn thing.”
He was there for George Allen, and he was there for Joe Gibbs, for the best seasons this franchise has ever had. He sent sheet music to the out-of-town band leader who worked Washington’s first Super Bowl win, traveled to Tampa when the Redskins lost to the Raiders, and met men such as Richard Nixon, Alan Greenspan and Hubert Humphrey.
“If you were in a crowd of people and you said you were the leader of the band, oh boy,” Shreiber said. “I’m playing a job, a little society job, and up comes this man. He says ‘My name is George Bush, I’m the Vice President of the United States.’ I told him ‘I’m leader of the Redskins band.’ His aide said, ‘We know about you; we’re at every game.’ So it gave me some notoriety, is that it?”
And while Breeskin wrote “Hail to the Redskins” in the late 1930s, Shreiber is also part of its story. The Post noted when Shreiber and his band made their jazzy recording in 1974, saying the record was “selling well.” During Gibbs’s first Super Bowl run, a Bethesda record store bragged of offering 45 rpm records of the Shreiber rendition for $3. During Gibbs’s last Super Bowl run, a local Muzak company played Shreiber’s recording all over Washington every day at noon, and then every two hours on the day of the game. He has played “Hail to the Redskins” thousands of times in his life, calling it a “perfect” fight song, and even though his record never became a money-maker, just about every Washingtonian has heard it.
The Redskins pro band no longer exists, of course; “everything is mechanized, you don’t need orchestras anymore,” Shreiber said. But the musician never bothered to retire. (“I always figured I was retired all my life; I played music!” he joked.)
Friends moved south, but he didn’t like Florida, and he didn’t want to leave Washington. He still plays golf at Needwood, still drives himself up Connecticut Ave. to McDonald’s every morning for breakfast, still has instruments scattered throughout his home. In fact, he fronted a combo band until very recently, a group that featured a trombonist and bass player in their 90s, plus an assortment of other senior citizens.
The group played weekly at the since-closed Ambrosia Restaurant in Rockville; Denson and his wife were among the regulars. Shreiber’s daughter, Rita, went to one of those shows, too. The last song in the set that night was “Hail to the Redskins,” and everyone sang along.