For most of us shivering through another winter, the thought of summer is just another warm memory. Not so for Rocky River resident Don Santa-Emma. The director of the All-Ohio State Fair Band is busy thinking about August, when his group performs at the State Fair in Columbus. Select members of the band had recently performed for the inauguration of Gov. John Kasich.
A third-generation musician, Santa-Emma, 72, got a taste of marching band performances as a West Tech High School student on a field trip to Ohio State University. Later, as a member of the marching Buckeyes, Santa-Emma said he had the opportunity to perform at the Rose Bowl. “We went to the Rose Bowl by train. That was New Year’s of 1958,” he recalled during an interview at his home.
After completing his undergraduate degree at OSU and receiving his master’s from Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, Santa-Anna began his career as a high school band director in Perry County, Kentucky. “That was a real no-man’s land,” he laughed, adding that he was glad to come back to Cleveland in 1964 as band director at Lincoln High School. It was 10 years later that Santa-Emma began his stint with the State Fair Band.
“I was friends with the director, and he told me that a spot on the staff opened up and he asked me if I’d like to take it. I said sure, I’d love to, but I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay,” he recalled. Now, 38 years and eight governors later, Santa-Emma is in the process of putting together yet another group of 200 high school musicians from around the state to play at this year’s fair in Columbus. He has been director since 1999.
At the beginning of February, Santa-Emma said he sends out applications to every high school in Ohio. The local band directors then make their recommendations based playing proficiency, the band’s need of certain instruments and geography. “I have always had the goal to have one student from each of (Ohio’s) 88 counties, but that hasn’t happened yet,” said Santa-Emma, adding that many of his musicians hail from Parma.
The band members stay on the fairgrounds,and have only three days to rehearse before performing nearly 100 times during the two-week fair. But there is some time for other experiences. “A few years ago, I asked the kids ‘How many of you have never seen the Ohio Capitol building?’ Eighty percent of them raised their hands,” recalled Santa-Emma, who now includes a tour of the state Capitol and concert there for the group every two years, alternating with the state fair choir. “The experience of the fair is not just musical, but social. It’s farm kid meets city kid, and they maintain those friendships,” Santa-Emma stated. He added that the musicians must re-apply each year, and that some are members for all four years of high school.
A highlight of the state fair, according to Santa-Emma, is the traditional leading of the band by the governor during the fair opening. “Gov. Voinovich really got into it; he really enjoyed it,” remembered Santa-Emma, adding that the former legislator was in the band at Collinwood High School. “Gov. Taft was never really interested, but Gov. Rhodes thoroughly enjoyed it. He was at the fair every day,” he added.
The inauguration performance was by invitation, according to Santa-Emma, and his select group of 40 student musicians had to find their own way to Columbus by 9 a.m. for a short rehearsal before the noon swearing-in ceremony.
Asked when he retired from teaching, Santa-Emma laughed, and said,”I’ve retired five times,” adding that the last was in 1989 as Director of Fine Arts for the Cleveland Public Schools. However, when not wielding the baton for the State Fair Band, he is contractor for Playhouse Square in Cleveland. For this job, he hires all of the local musicians used to fill out the orchestras for travelling Broadway productions. “People just don’t realize the pool of talent in this area,” he stated.
Although he still enjoys the work, Santa-Emma said that he is “taking it year to year. The older I get, the heavier the baton gets,” he said. The students, however, keep him going. “You hear so many negative things about teens. This is a great group. It’s kind of reassuring to know we’re in good hands,” he said.