POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. —This weekend members of the Black Knight Marching Band will take the stage to perform in an event that began long before they were even born.
And, sitting in the back row of one of those performances, will be the man who started it all back in 1971.
Gary Stewart, of Point Pleasant, is the former band director at Point Pleasant High School and is currently the Director of Instrumental Music and an assistant professor at the University of Rio Grande. But, in the fall of 1970, Stewart came to PPHS after teaching for a year at Hannan High School.
Stewart said he got the idea for the Black Knight Revue (BKR) to serve as a fund raiser and it just so happened “everything (about the revues) fit on the stage at the old high school,” he said. At the time Stewart arrived at PPHS, he started a jazz band, in addition to directing the marching band, and BKR was an outlet both could participate in. As the revue took off, it incorporated the use of the Flag Corps and Color Guard members as dancers and it all evolved into a mini variety show based upon performances Stewart had seen while traveling. He says he got some of his best ideas while in Las Vegas and jokes, he is the Barnum and Bailey of the marching band world.
In addition to bringing showmanship to the revues, Stewart knew the importance of getting community support, that’s why he tried to put something in BKR for everyone. He said in any given year audience members would get an ear full of more than one genre of music – from gospel, to Dixieland to Disney tunes and more. Each year the show would have a “theme” and after 33 years at PPHS, Stewart said there are several that stand out to him. In 1976, there was the show which had a Bicentennial theme and was performed not at PPHS but at Fort Randolph. Full of patriotic songs, the band was asked to bring that revue on the road to Middleport, Ohio to perform it later that same summer. Then, there was the water works in the 1990’s, when Stewart got lucky enough to book professional fountains which shot water up to the rafters – bringing a mini Bellagio to PPHS. He said he recalls former band member, and now music teacher, Rachel Reynolds, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with the fountains lit up behind her. Moments like that, and emotional crescendos such as bringing military members on stage, were the things he remembers, because he also remembers the audience’s reactions to them – after all, the revues were, and are still very much, about the audience.
In addition to providing entertainment, the revues were a fund raiser. Stewart said rather than force the kids to sell candy bars, he wanted to do something more substantial and unique that kept the money in the community. In addition to ticket sales, there were advertising opportunities for supporters as well. Back in the days of the old gymnasium, the walls were plastered with advertisements from businesses who supported the event. They were made from newspaper end rolls from Ohio Valley Publishing and went from the “floors to the rafters” in the old gym, with advertisers paying so much per foot, with Stewart often going door-to-door to help sell them, he recalled. At some point during the show, spotlights shown on the “wallpaper” to reveal the supporters of BKR and patron lists were inside the program. The money raised went to purchase things like uniforms, equipment and finance memorable band trips.
Band trips often dictated the theme each year for the show. If the band was going to Nashville, the show would have a country theme and in fact, that year, had a red barn on stage to imitate the Grand Ole Opry. Several volunteers got very “crafty” and “handy” over the years, building sets and rewiring everything that needed it. One year, Stewart said volunteers built a stage in the middle of the gym for an “in the round” experience. Another year the revue’s theme centered around a showboat, “The Majestic” which at one time was kept in Henderson but traveled up and down the Ohio River. Stewart said he researched the vessel’s history and ended up with a vaudeville type show, complete with Dixieland music. Another year, which had a “Back to the Future” theme, a DeLorean was built that raised to the rafters, thanks to some ingenuity and volunteers.
“We would have never been able to afford to pay people for the work they did,” Stewart said of the many hours volunteers, including his wife Linda, gave to the revues over the years.
Another interesting fact about the fund raising aspect of BKR was, it afforded kids who may’ve not had the opportunity to travel the chance to do so. Stewart said, everyone in band had a job in the revue.
“If you didn’t want to be on stage, you at least had to pull open the curtains and participate,” he explained, adding that money was divided up equally to pay for buses and that travel served as a reward.
He also insisted, everyone stay after the Sunday matinee to clean up. In fact, he added the Sunday afternoon show because everyone would leave on Saturday night, never to return…to clean anyway.
The fact that the show continues to endure is a testament to not only tradition but the importance of art and music education.
“My famous statement is, ‘Do you remember anything about your English class 30 years ago? Or your science class?’ Band kids remember their band experiences and I run into a lot of them,” Stewart said.
He estimates there were around 100 kids in his band program in each year of his 33 years as band director, that’s 3,300 kids, many of whom walk up to him and ask, “Do you remember me?”
“I say, ‘I don’t remember your name but you played clarinet and you sat on the left in my band room,” he said in all sincerity.
When Stewart started at PPHS, there were only 48 members in the high school band and each year after that, the program continued to grow. Staying in one place for 33 years was by design. Stewart said it wasn’t about moving on to “greener pastures” for him and he wanted to establish a program that “followed me and my ways, instead of me trying to find a better job.” He stressed it’s important to know, and understand, the area you are teaching in.
That philosophy must be working because Stewart still coordinates band camps, this time camps held at URG each year where hundreds of kids, and instructors, come to him. Band camp was also a crucial part of being a member of the Black Knight Band, Stewart said.
“If you can get those kids through band camp, then you can travel with them and trust them,” he said, explaining the discipline it takes to be in band and the opportunity camp provides for kids to be on their own, and be away from home, often for the first time. “You instill discipline and lay down the law, then you can take them to downtown New York City (with no problem).”
Each revue closes with the the seniors entering the stage followed by the entire cast, holding lights.
“(During the closing number) You think, where did all these kids come from?” Stewart joked.
Of course, they came from a band program he is known for helping establish, including the tradition of BKR and though he’s been retired as the PPHS band director for several years now, he has never missed a revue – a revue that continues to evolve with directors and organizers who were once his students. This includes PPHS Band Director Ben Loudin, Loudin’s wife Jessica, Stewart’s stepdaughter Crystal Hendricks (who is also the PPJ/SHS choir director) and her husband Chipper who is the PPJHS Band Director.
On the night of his last revue, Stewart said he told the audience, “I hope there will always be a Black Knight Revue.”
All these years later, he said: “I’ll be there Saturday night.”
Reach Beth Sergent at [email protected] or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.