by Gale Pifer
It seems fitting that in this 150th year of the creation of the Shrine, that we take a moment or two to reflect on our own temple and one of its oldest units, the El Riad Big Band.
Shriners International was founded in 1872 and the Shrine Hospitals for Children was created in 1922. The first patient was treated at the Shreveport, La., Shrine Hospital for Children that year.
El Riad was established before South Dakota was admitted as a state. On December 26, 1887, 13 men traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to become Shriners. On April 3, 1888, dispensation was granted to El Riad and on May 25 of that same year the first ceremonial was held in Sioux Falls. W.O. Stites was the first potentate. This year El Riad celebrates its 135th anniversary.
The El Riad Big Band was organized on December 6, 1910, becoming the first uniformed unit of El Riad. This year marks the band’s 112 year. Although the band’s 100th anniversary in 2010 was not recognized despite the band preparing a stage show featuring all of its bands and other Shrine units, it is none the less a major part of El Riad.
Twice the El Riad Big Band was chosen as the official Imperial Band, in 1956 and 1957. Forty band members took a train to Washington, D.C. and was pictured before the Capitol Building. “The El Riad March,” was composed in the band’s honor, copies of which are still in the band’s music filing cabinets.
The band, which included a marching unit, big dance band, dixieland group, swing band and now a rock band, had the honor of being the very first group to perform when the Shrine purchased the old Arkota Ballroom. A dance featuring the band’s dance unit performed. Band member Wally Johnson learned that the ballroom was going to be sold. El Riad at the time was considering building a new temple because the Masonic Temple was proving to be too small. The Arkota proved to be just the thing and the sale was completed in 1980.
The El Riad Big Band, whose official title is the El Riad Temple Band so named in 1966, has also been called by several other names including: El Riad Brass Band, the Marching Band and the Big Band. Today it is most often referred to as “Last Call,” in recognition of the band’s popular rock band.
The 1900s through the early 1950s proved to be the hey day of the big band. At that time several band members were either music teachers or musicians that had their own big bands. But as the ’50s saw popular music switch from big band swing to rock and roll, attendance in El Riad’s Big Band dwindled.
Band leadership discussed how to retain and build membership. As many of the band members had grown older and no longer wished to march. A band trailer made on a mobile home frame and built in 1970. It was introduced to band members during a rehearsal at the Ramada Inn. Ceremonials were then held at the Sioux Falls Coliseum.
Band members went on a recruitment campaign. Membership grew slowly. Tom Long was president of the band in those days. Leading the band was Willard Feifer of Vermillion. He was a music teacher and a longtime leader of his own big dance band.
Dances were held at the old Elmwood Golf Club from 1971 until 1973. The first “Parade of Music” was held at Elmwood in 1978, featuring all of El Riad’s bands. It became the major fundraiser for the band.
The “Parade of Music” switched over to the Arkota after the Shrine purchased the building. A 6,000 square foot wooden dance floor, judged by many as the best in the Midwest, was the big draw.
In 2004 the band purchased a new and lighter band trailer designed by band member Jerry Pontius. Membership was back up to some 40 members by 2005. But the band had not forgotten the idea of establishing a rock and roll band.
On a cold winter day in 2005 area rock musicians from various bands were invited to a Sunday afternoon jam session. The purpose was to pitch the idea of those non-Shriners to join the band and the fraternity. A name was proposed for a new Shrine rock band, “The Sultans of Sound.” Trombonist Ken Rahn was chosen to head up the band.
But finding musicians proved to be more difficult than anticipated. The most often heard complaint from local rock musicians was, “we want to get paid for paying,” as opposed to Shrine musicians that play for fun and to help children get medical care. It wasn’t until April 2007 that establishing a rock band became a reality. Jim Kirkeby, who had his own rock band in the late ’60s and early ’70s called “The Chosen Few,” volunteered to write some rock and roll arrangements. Then band president Gale Pifer said: “We’ve been fortunate enough to gain some new and younger members, so it just makes this the time for us to add a rock element to our musical family.” Band membership had grown to 58 members.
The rock band was established, although the name given it was “Last Call,” not the Sultans.
Another milestone occurred on May 11, 2007, the 25th anniversary of the Shrine Dance Club. Formerly called the Mr. and Mrs. Dance Club, regular monthly dances were held at the Shrine. The two dance clubs had merged on August 10, 1981. Over 300 dances later the Dance Club had contributed over $100,000 to the Shrine Hospitals. The El Riad Big Band, one of only a few 18-piece dance orchestras around, continues to play three or four dances each year for the dance club.
With Last Call established, the rock unit continues to grow in popularity, giving dances throughout the region and becoming the major fund raiser for the El Riad Big Band. Taken over the reins of the band after the untimely death of Jim Kirkeby, John Bayer brings a long time career in sales to promoting the band and making it what it is today. The band’s first appearance occurred on August 20, 2008.
The entire band membership benefits. Take, for example, the 2014 appearance of the Midwest Shrine Association in Sioux Falls. The big band paraded in Tea on the opening Thursday night of the MSA. The next day the band played several mini-concerts at area nursing homes. After a band pizza dinner at Wally Johnson’s popular Pizza Inn, the jazz band played at the fair grounds for the motorized competition crowd. Last Call performed at Skelly’s Pub. Then Saturday, the big band paraded again. This time in Brandon to ring down the curtain on the 2014 MSA.
While band membership has declined, like so many other El Riad units, it is a sure bet that it will climb again. Gone is the swing band and dixieland unit, but Last Call, the big dance band under the baton of Mark Neuharth and the concert and ceremonial bands remain. The old big band trailer has been sold, but a new parade trailer already is in the process of being built. Public Relations Director Rocky Hayes summed it up by saying: “Shriners International is still very relevant because of the camaraderie that comers with being a part of the fraternity, but also the philanthropy side of Shriners Hospitals.”
Expect to see Last Call and the El Riad Big Band to continue to play an important part in the continued success of the El Riad Shrine.