The sound of Pride

  • by Heidi Beeler
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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Sunshine glinted off the sousaphones nodding above the musicians' heads. A high-stepping drum major in white kicked and leapt behind Supervisor Harvey Milk's open car as he pumped his fist into the air in salute to the Pride Parade crowd. Seventy musicians in Levis, white tees, and red visors marched behind a banner that read, "San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band & Twirling Corps," playing "San Francisco, open your Golden Gate." The crowd, wearing the shaggy hairstyles and groovy Peter Max colors of the 1970s, roared and clapped in time as the band passed City Hall.

Then a director yelled, "Cut! Back to one!" through a bullhorn. And the musicians of today's San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band dropped their instruments and shuffled back past the crowd of extras, who applauded again, and Sean Penn's car was rolled back before staging it all again.

This was spring 2008, the start of the band's 30th anniversary year. Alums from around the state (including an original sousaphone player from the first parade who has since founded the Palm Springs band) joined current members to recreate its first march in the 1978 Freedom Day Parade for the Gus Van Sant film, Milk, that was filming in the city. Founded by the late Jon Sims, the band was the first openly LGBTQ music group in the world, and that parade marked the start of all the gay, lesbian, and trans bands, choruses, flag corps, and music ensembles that followed, often at Sims's cajoling. It was a fitting kick-off to the band's 30th anniversary year to walk a block (repeatedly) in that first band's shoes, for a film that pays tribute to the 1978 gay community.

Now that it's June and the true anniversary of that first Pride march has rolled around, the band's 30th is being celebrated this Thursday and Friday (June 26 and 27) at the 2008 Pride Concert with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco and San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus joining in the festivities. The Pride Concert, which has showcased San Francisco's LGBTQ music groups since 1979, has always had the feeling of a homecoming as the ensembles strut their flashiest stuff for each other, and for the Pride weekend audiences the concert draws. Called Our Message Is Music, this year's concert has band alums traveling back to celebrate the 30th milestone from as far away as Portland, Seattle and Maryland, and homecoming is the clear theme of the concert as former musicians and conductors join the band and choruses onstage. Even the audience is invited to get in on the act for a sing-along for the grand finale number. It's a fitting ending to a concert that presents the talents of the LGBTQ community to the world, expanding the performance to include voices of its audience.

History lessons

Because this is a big anniversary year, there are of course special guests, events, and exhibits planned for the concert. KRON-TV and KCBS radio's Jan Wahl will appear at Thursday's performance, and founder Betty L. Sullivan is hosting a champagne reception with birthday cake following Friday's concert. An exhibit of historic memorabilia will display photographs, newspaper articles, uniforms, and other historic artifacts from the band's 30-year history, including the National Enquirer article featuring the band ("Parade of Perverts!," 1979) and the baton Sims used to conduct the Band at Davies Symphony Hall in 1980, the first year the concert hall opened.

The concert program traditionally features an eclectic mix of music that reflects the strengths and personalities of the different performing ensembles. Both the choruses are preparing for the GALA Choruses Festival 2008 in Miami next month, a national festival of LGBTQ choruses held once every four years, so this year's performances should have added polish. Stephanie Lynne Smith, artistic director of the Lesbian/Gay Chorus, has programmed traditional songs from Zambia and Taiwan, as well as a Manhattan Transfer piece entitled "Ray's Rockhouse." An original arrangement of Walter Robinson's "Harriet Tubman" has been set for LGCSF by Kathleen McGuire, and they will also perform an original work titled "It Is the Song," based on the poetry of James Broughton, commissioned for the GALA mixed choruses.

SFGMC recently performed a concert at Davies Hall featuring newly commissioned works, and is showing its lighter side at this concert with a program of show and pop tunes, all arranged by SFGMC members and staff. Their program includes "Seasons of Love" from Rent, "If You Were Gay" from Avenue Q, "MacArthur Park," and an arrangement of "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz based on a famous performance by Hawaiian singer Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole, arranged by McGuire, SFGMC's artistic director.

Artistic director Roberto-Juan Gonzalez has put together a flashy set of music to show off his 30th anniversary band, including Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," Charbrier's "Espana Rhapsody," and that Sousa show-stopper, "Stars and Stripes Forever." Former artistic directors Jadine Louie, Nancy Corporon, and Jeff Foote will share the podium, conducting pieces performed by the band during their eras.

Heidi Beeler is a freelance writer and plays trumpet in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. The 2008 Pride Concert, Our Message Is Music, runs 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday, June 26 and 27 at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1187 Franklin Street (at Geary), San Francisco. Info and tickets:, or (415) 865-ARTS (2787).