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Friday, March 31, 2023

Growing up in Naperville – The band shell


It is a matter of Naperville history that dating back to the early 1900s, there have been four band stands in our town.

The first one was a gazebo-type band stand which held about 20, maybe 25 musicians. It sat in the middle of Central Park almost where the present gazebo sits to host bake sales at every summer band concert.

My mother grew up on Center Street about a block and a half north of Benton Street. She told me many stories of her playing in that stand with her girlfriend, Elizabeth Yender. Elizabeth actually became a member of the band in the late 1930s with my mom.

In 1928, the school district hired Elmer Koerner as a math and science teacher. Mr. Koerner revised the band system in the schools, also taking over the City Band in 1929.

The band was reorganized and got a charter from the State of Illinois as the “Naperville Municipal Band Incorporated.” Band membership grew, and in 1935, the organization asked the city to build a bigger band stand to hold a 55-piece band. And it did!

There were two huge elm trees at each side of the front of the stage that provided a natural covering above the band. My first experience on that stage was when I was five years old in 1943. I played on a toy bass drum with the band.

My next experience on the stage was as a tuba soloist in 1951. I began playing as a member of the band in 1953 and in 1963, that band shell was condemned by the City as not safe because the wooden timbers were rotting out.

The following two years, we sat behind the YMCA on the alley and played concerts with lights on our music stands while the new band shell was being built. It was completed in the spring of 1966; however, Mr. Koerner never saw it as he had died of a heart attack the previous November. It was dedicated in June of 1966 as the “Elmer Koerner Band Shell.” That also was the first year that I became the director of the Naperville Municipal Band.

All went well for nearly 34 years. Then in 2000, a huge chunk in the ceiling of the band shell fell on the stage right after a rehearsal! If the mishap had happened a half an hour earlier, the ceiling chunk could have killed several musicians on stage!

So another band shell was condemned in Central Park. The City asked us to form a committee comprised of members from the band and the community, and to design a new band shell.

Councilwoman Mary Ellingson and I were appointed co-chairs and we set out to build what Elmer Koerner had wanted in the early 1960s. After a lot of meetings and revisions, we got the new community concert center!

And wouldn’t you know? The architect that designed the concert center lives in Naperville. Architect Jim Cross even plays the cornet in our band.

Our concert center is the envy of every community band in the country. Guest conductors from major service bands in Washington, DC., have praised it as the best outdoor band shell in the USA!

Ron Keller
Ron Keller
Ron Keller is a lifelong Naperville resident, tuba enthusiast and has been conducting the Naperville Municipal Band for over 50 years.