1985 Inaugural Band

1985 Inaugural Band uniform

I had the honor of participating in the 1985 Inaugural Band. The band consisted of students from around the country and was assembled for Ronald Reagan‘s 1985 inaugural celebration.

Winter of 1984

I was in my second year of college at James Madison University (JMU). Marching band was one of my great loves. So, when a staff member asked if I would be interested in participating in an Inaugural Band I jumped at the opportunity.

Getting started

I checked into what would be my home for the next few days. We bivouacked in the barracks of an Army base called Fort Belvoir. It was immediately obvious that the organizers were keeping things as inexpensive as possible.

I reported to the barracks, stowed my bag and lined up for my uniform. Reagan was a California guy so I guess that’s why the uniforms consisted of white shoes, white slacks and a blue blazer. Everything was capped off with a rubbery white overlay and a white shako. Tacky stuff, but it was the 80’s.

1985 inaugural band uniform

The lead director, Arthur Bartner, was the director of the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Band. The JMU guys referred to him as “Art”.

The Inaugural Band was enormous, but I was accustomed to a large marching band. The JMU band consisted of hundreds of performers. We were given several pieces of music to memorize. “Art” worked with us in an enormous airplane hangar. We didn’t behave very well during rehearsals, but we were college kids having a good time.


This is a good place to insert a comment about memorizing music. I was never good at it. I don’t know if it was laziness on my part, or maybe something in my mental wiring. But, I did a lousy job at mastering the music book.

To give you an idea of my poor memorizing habits, I was in the JMU band for years. JMU has a fight song. I am embarrassed to say that I never learned the part. What I played was a hybrid of several parts, but not my part exactly.

I bring this up because now I had to memorize music quickly. I’d like to say that I pulled it off and came through, but I still don’t know the baritone part for God Bless the USA. Sorry Lee Greenwood… or… Mac Davis?

It snowed

I grew up in Pennsylvania. I’m used to snow. But, this band had people from around the country and some of them had never seen snow before. The snow made them wild!

We had a good bit of snow which provided virtually unlimited snowball ammunition. The west coast guys loved to make snow balls. Cute, right? Well…, going to the mess hall was like running the gauntlet. It reminds me of the scene from Elf.

I pulled my hood up over my head and cinched the string tight. There was no way to get into the mess hall without getting hit. The goal was to minimize the damage to your person. I lowered my head, put my hands in my pocket and walked briskly. Snow balls hit me from what seemed like every direction.

I entered the mess hall looking like a 6’5″ snowman. Those guys were crazy!

It was cold

I said that it snowed, but it was also really cold! Everyone likes to exaggerate their past. “I walked up hill in a snow storm to school!”, etc. So, I’m including a quote from weather.gov:

Coldest January Date (and overall):  1985 – President Ronald Reagan’s second swearing-in ceremony on January 21 had to be held indoors and the parade was canceled. The outside temperature at noon was only 7°F. The morning low was 4° below zero and the daytime high was only 17°. Wind chill temperatures during the afternoon were in the -10 to -20°F range.


We were staying in an old barracks and it was cold on the inside. I couldn’t get warm. The blankets that we were given us were paper thin WWII era green army blankets. And, we were given only one!

I took all of the clothes in my suitcase and wore them to sleep in. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head and cinched tight. But, I was still cold!

To give perspective, my friend and I put a 2 liter bottle of Sprite on the inside of the window sill. We wanted it to stay cold… It froze!

The steam emanating from the showers was our only relief.

We found out later that someone had turned on the barrack’s fans. These fans were designed to suck the air out of the barracks quickly in case the barracks was gassed. In other words, we had plenty of heat, but we were evacuating the heat into the outdoors!


We played for Reagan’s Inaugural Gala which was televised live. Our part of the program was to play, “God Bless the USA” while Mac Davis sang. (Mac Davis? Why not Lee Greenwood?)

This was live tv, so the organizers were more than a little worked up. They didn’t want us college kids screwing up this live show. I guess they figured that we were going to turn the event into a sequel to Animal House. We were told that we were going to fake playing the instruments and that Mac Davis would sing to a recording of us playing.

We were livid! “Why have us here if we’re going to fake playing? Anyone can do that!” Someone went to bat for us and we ended up playing live. (I had to fake some of it. Sorry America.) The drummers ended up on stage with Davis. It’s fun to watch the cymbal players lay into their parts.

1985 Inaugural band playing with “God bless the USA” with Mac Davis

Inauguration day

The Inaugural parade was cancelled due to the cold. The performing units were moved into the Capitol Centre. We set up in the center of the Centre along with the Reagans and other dignitaries. The parade units made their way around the oval.

Our set up was very close to Reagan and he was 74 years old in 1985. We currently have a president in his 80’s, so that doesn’t seem bad. But, at the time, 74 was extremely old for a president. We were making jokes about playing too loud and hurting the guy!


One of my favorite memories came at the end of a small speech given by Nancy Reagan. I have no idea what she spoke about. But, she finished her remarks and made her way back to her chair.

When she sat down, Ronald Reagan leaned close to her and whispered something in her ear. Her reaction was on the cover of newspapers the next day.

She popped up out of her chair and hurried to the podium. “I forgot to introduce my roommate!” Everyone erupted into laughter.


It was disappointing that the actual parade was cancelled, but no one wanted to be outside in that bitter cold. But, overall, performing with musicians from around the country was memorable. Playing up close for the President of the United States was a powerful life experience and I’m grateful to the staff at JMU for selecting me and for those in authority who decided to invite a bunch of college kids to play for an inauguration.

Raw footage of the 1985 Inaugural band at the Capitol Centre

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