Few or many, Connellsville's Molinaro Band makes major music for 100 years
Put together a drummer, a trumpeter, tubaist and a trombonist. Add Henry Molinaro Sr. of Connellsville and John Philip Sousa.
What do you get? One great brass band.
As the longtime director of the Molinaro Band, Molinaro has marched with as many as 40 musicians and with fewer than 10. He jokes that even four players can make the low brass sound for which the band is famous — it just isn't as loud.
Luckily, Molinaro has had dozens of faithful musicians who have made sure that he's never had to put his “trio theory” into practice. Take retired teachers Gary Wandel and Don Witt, for instance.
Between the two, they have put in close to 100 years of marching with the Molinaro Band. The Betters brothers were a mainstay over the years. Trumpeter Jim Betters performed taps with the band for decades at the city's Memorial Day parades. He passed away a few years ago, but his trombonist “baby” brother Harold occasionally plays with the Molinaro Band, even at 85.
Still a large roster
Molinaro's roster is filled with musicians' names, many who turn out to play, even on the spur of the moment.
When a parade or special event nears, such as this Sunday's concert honoring the band's 100th anniversary, Henry picks up the phone and starts dialing.
He works his way through four pages of names, patiently leaving messages when unable to reach the musicians. The phone is his best friend but sometimes his wife Rita's enemy.
“I'm not sure that she won't divorce me yet,” Molinaro joked.
That seems unlikely. The couple will be married 58 years as of June 4 and have raised 10 children. They have 23 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Molinaro has been surrounded by brass music since he was a boy growing up in Connellsville's North End, the 13th of the 14 children of Luigi and Maria Molinaro. He remembers when the band, originally named the Royal Italian/St. Rita's Band, marched to their house after Sunday morning Mass and played in the street for the band's founder, Luigi's brother “Uncle Mike” Molinaro.
Henry Molinaro's earliest memories of brass music are of Uncle Mike standing on the porch, directing the band. “They'd come over to see him and play because he had had a stroke and couldn't march with them anymore,” he recalled.
Like any baby brother, Henry Molinaro looked up to his seven musical older brothers. Julius was the main drummer for decades.
“And everybody knows that the band follows the drummer's lead,” Molinaro pointed out. “The drummer sets the pace for the brass and reed instruments. You gotta have those drums.”
After Uncle Mike died in 1936, Henry Molinaro's brother Amedeo, a Connellsville tailor who never married, assumed the band's directorship, assisted by oldest brother Carmine Molinaro Sr. Amedeo marched with the men's band, while Carmine conducted practices and taught younger musicians how to play and march.
“I pestered Amedeo to teach me how to play the clarinet. He got Carmine to help me,” Henry Molinaro said. Carmine Molinaro also formed a separate band for the young players and drilled them until they were ready to graduate into the main band.
“When the older guys marched in Connellsville's Memorial Day parade, we'd go to smaller places, such as Tri-Town or Dunbar. Carmine took us every summer to St. Vincent College to play,” Henry Molinaro said. “He had once been in the seminary there, but eventually he left and got married.”
Thinking about those early days, Molinaro paused for a laugh. “Carmine was a strict disciplinarian. If you got out of step marching, he'd whack you on the head with his drumstick.”
During World War II, Carmine Molinaro filled in as full-time Molinaro Band director when Amedeo — at age 32 — volunteered for the Army. The band played more than 120 times, giving a special send-off to soldiers and sailors on their way to war.
Henry was just a teenager during the war, but he performed with the band at the train station, often in the wee hours. Among servicemen the band saw off were four of Henry Molinaro's brothers: Amedeo, Mike, Louie and Salvatore.
He vividly recalls the work of the Connellsville Canteen, a group of 600 volunteer women who fed 500,000 servicemen between 1944 and 1946. “I had several relatives who worked with the Canteen.”
The band was like the Postal Service; they played in fair weather and in foul. “Early one bitter cold morning, the high school band director brought a few kids from the school band to play. They blew one note, and their instruments froze! No music.”
But when Carmine Molinaro wielded the Molinaro Band baton, the brass and woodwinds whizzed through “The Stars and Stripes Forever” without a hitch. “He put antifreeze in the valves of their instruments,” Henry Molinaro laughed.
In some ways, the 1940s were tough ones for young Henry Molinaro. In 1942, his father, Luigi, passed away as well as his 21-year-old brother Orlando, who died from Hodgkin's lymphoma. Henry Molinaro was further traumatized when he witnessed his sister Anna Grace killed by a car outside the Anchor Hocking Cap plant in South Connellsville.
“She and I were really close, and I took it hard. I didn't feel like doing anything,” he remembered. “My mother finally took me to a doctor.”
Eventually, Molinaro returned to school and to his music. He marched with the band and was taught to play the piano by Henry Rulli, St. Rita Church's organist. Molinaro and the piano were a good match; he became skilled enough to play in the John Kiferle Band and Joe Silvo's Orchestra.
“We played locally in places like the Eagles and the Collins Hotel (which was in downtown Connellsville).”
Korean War veteran
When his brother Carmine passed away in the 1980s, Henry Molinaro became Amedeo's right-hand man. He help set up play dates and assisted with the band's bookkeeping. He had had plenty of practice; he worked in the office of Anchor Hocking Cap plant from 1946 until he retired in 1983, missing only two years, from 1950 to 1952, when he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War.
Henry always knew he would stay involved with the Molinaro Band all his life, but he did not expect it would be as its director. After all, between his job at Anchor, raising 10 kids with Rita, directing St. Rita's choir and playing shows with Joe Silvo's Orchestra, he was more than busy.
His oldest son, Henry Jr., had a college music degree, so Amedeo had wanted Henry Jr. to take over the band. After Amedeo died in 1997 at 86, Henry Jr. did direct the band for a couple of years. Soon his teaching career at Connellsville Area High School and family commitments overwhelmed him.
“One day, Henry (Jr.) came to me and said, ‘Dad, I can't be the director anymore, but a Molinaro has always led the band. Can you take it over?'” Henry Sr. recalled.
So Henry Sr. picked up Amedeo's baton and whistle and the band's roster — and marched alongside the players for almost 15 years.
Passing the baton
Henry Sr., who will be 85 in August, is now chauffeured by his son Francis, whose nickname is “Coco.” They proudly front the locally famous low brass sound of the Molinaro Band while riding in Coco's red Ford Mustang convertible, each of them smiling from ear to ear.
The Molinaro patriarch has plenty to grin about.
He has carried on a 100-year-old family tradition that came straight from the Old Country, and he is safe in the knowledge that Coco will continue the Molinaro Band for many years to come.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
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