LOS ANGELES — Floating in blue southern California sky, the MetLife blimp seems to be held aloft by the hot air of mass bedlam below. Inside packed Los Angeles Coliseum, two crosstown rival football teams clash - and the crowd reacts as if the future of the free world is at stake.
Amid earsplitting sound where neither conversation nor one's own thoughts can be heard, a lone figure gestures animatedly toward the stands from a stepladder on the sidelines. He rolls his arms, lassos the air, stomps his feet. He shakes his fingers, shimmies his shoulders, pumps his fists. He bleats, barks, and snarls - apparent commands lost in the tumult. "Do NOT allow so much as a nanosecond of peace or quiet in this stadium," his cries and actions seem to say.
He is Art Bartner, and he is standing in front of the University of Southern California Trojan marching band. His carefully cultivated überconductor routine - part drill-sergeant, part mime - is the engine for one of the biggest success stories in the history of college marching bands. As he'll demonstrate on national TV Jan. 4 - when his school battles for the national championship vs. Texas in the Rose Bowl - the arm-flailing and dragon persona are all about personal excellence and school spirit. By most accounts he has achieved both in 35 years at USC - teaching students the meaning of passion and self-discipline through music, marching, and having a ball.
"Art Bartner is unquestionably one of the great elder statesmen of the American college marching band," says Mark Spede, chair of the College Band Directors National Association. He says Dr. Bartner has developed a high-energy, high-stepping style known for its free-wheeling creativity, swaying horns, versatility, and surprises. Other bands, he says, are usually bestknown for a particular style - military precision at Texas, Ohio State, or Michigan for instance, the show-style of many southern university bands, or the iconoclasm of Yale or Stanford. Bartner's Trojans do it all.
Bartner will perform on the sidelines and on field in the Rose Bowl.
"It's outstanding and unique," says Bartner, that the broadcast contract with ABC guarantees that each band's halftime show will get about three minutes of coverage. "Over the years, the networks have sold halftimes for commercials - that 20-minute period where bands used to shine."
Play by play, from kickoff to final buzzer, Bartner cues his players from a full menu of fight songs, charges, cheers, and musical tributes keyed to the on-field game. (First down means "Fight On;" third down is "Charge;" a quarterback sack means "Another One Bites the Dust;" and a Trojan fumble or lost interception brings "All Right Now.")
"He doesn't allow one second of down time ... we're either yelling, or chanting, or playing, or screaming - it's all about focus," says Julie Mattson, a clarinetist and the band's student general manager. "We train for music and marching but we also practice spirit."
On field, Bartner will direct carefully crafted, meticulously drilled marching, dancing, gliding, boogieing, and high-stepping with over-the-top energy. Bartner calls his style "driving it," requiring lifting each leg until the calf is perpendicular to the ground with toes pointed down - more difficult than the common glide step.
How Bartner gets 275 helmeted, uniformed, and instrument-wielding marchers to do it is an annual saga that legions of alumni are only too happy to recount - usually with equal parts antipathy and affection. They recall 16 hours of weekly practice and grueling field sessions where band members must "hold the chair" - stand on one foot with the other leg raised. Errant notes or missteps can cost a couple of laps around the field, pushups, embarrassment, ridicule, or all of the above.
"He is a taskmaster and domineering. And you're hating him and at the same time thanking him in the realization that the only reason you are doing what you are doing with such excellence is that he has achieved what he has achieved," says Ross Simmons, who played trombone for the Trojans from 1981-85.
Baton twirler Taylr Takagi, who has traveled the world with the band, sums up Bartner's effect: "Being in this band is the best thing that's ever happened to me."
The sense of excellence comes from an exhaustive list of national appearances including 28 Rose Bowls, the 1984 L.A. Olympics, Super Bowls, presidential inaugurations, international theme park openings, and the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. In 1979, the Trojans performed on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album.
"We're the only marching band in America to have a No. 1 song on the pop charts," Bartner says. The band's reputation as "Hollywood's Band" has come with credits in movies, commercials, and sitcoms. (In "The Naked Gun," the band marched famously over former USC Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson.)
An uncommon bond between team and band came in Bartner's first years at USC when a defensive coach began impromptu pep talks on Fridays before big games. Coaches and players stood and talked from the heart about the importance of excellence and winning. The band was invited to circle around the team and play fight songs.
Thirty-five years later the bond is epoxy-tight. "The first thing [Heisman Trophy winner] Reggie Bush did after beating UCLA in the biggest game of the season," says Bartner, "was to come directly over to the band and direct us using a Rose as a baton. The students were there, the alumni, the faculty with the whole world watching ... a moment of true school unity. Those are the moments I live for."
Bartner says he has no intention of ever leaving a job that keeps him hoarse half the year, where helicopter-cams hover, where a sword-wielding Trojan mascot on horseback gallops by his director's ladder after every score. (And where his practice podium has been nicknamed the "god tower.")
He says he will continue to tackle his work as hard as he flattened an errant fan who dashed onto the field to grab the drum major in 1993.
"This isn't a job.... This is what I love to do," says the former Michigan University student who played for famed conductor - and task master - William B. Revelli. "I wanted to be just like him. He was a dictator from the old school. He wanted involvement from the students at every level and got it. That's what I demand here and I think is the secret of whatever success we've had."