Most everyone in Fort Morgan, Colorado, knows who Glenn Miller was because the band leader’s boyhood hometown celebrates his life and music every June with a four-day Glenn Miller Swing Fest. This year’s dates are June 23-26.
Although Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa, March 1, 1904, he spent his high school years in Fort Morgan. He also attended the University of Colorado in Boulder. He had a successful career as a band leader, with such hit recordings as “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Moonlight Serenade.”
Miller, a captain in the Army, mysteriously disappeared while flying over the English Channel in December 1944. He was on his way from England to Paris to arrange a Christmas concert to entertain troops. The army declared him officially dead a year later and awarded him the Bronze Star for his dedication and sacrifice. He also was honored posthumously at the 2003 Grammy Awards with a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Swing Fest events include a Saturday night dance featuring the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra with the Pied Pipers; bands playing Miller’s ‘40s music in the city park; an airport fly-in; a historical bus tour; a pancake breakfast; and a champagne brunch.
Also, a special showing of the 1953 movie, “The Glenn Miller Story,” starring James Stewart and June Allyson, will take place at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the downtown Cover Theater. Parts of the movie were filmed on CU’s Boulder campus, where Miller was a student in the 1920s. In 1953, the University Memorial Center’s ballroom was named the Glenn Miller Ballroom in honor of the band leader.
Alan Cass, founder and curator of the Glenn Miller Archive at CU-Boulder’s American Music Research Center, will give a historical presentation of Miller’s life at the Sunday brunch, according to Cathy Shull, event coordinator of the Glenn Miller Swing Fest. Visitors to CU’s Heritage Center in Old Main can view many of Miller’s gold records, trombones and an original manuscript of “Moonlight Serenade.”
When Miller was in high school in Fort Morgan, his family lived in rental houses. (After the money started rolling in, the noted band leader purchased a home for his widowed mother at 825 Lake St.) Miller played football and was chosen “the best left end in Colorado by the Colorado High School Sports Association.
Football wasn’t his only interest, however, as he became interested in the new big band sound. In fact, Miller was so excited about this new music that when it came time to graduate in 1921, he decided to skip graduation ceremonies and instead traveled to Laramie, Wyo., to play in a band.
Miller was on the way to becoming a professional musician when an opportunity opened up that allowed him to play in the Holly Moyer Orchestra in Boulder and earn enough money to attend the University of Colorado. This lasted until 1924 when Miller landed a new job with the Tommy Watkins Orchestra. He decided to discontinue his college education so that he could concentrate on his musical career. He studied the Schillinger technique with Joseph Schillinger, who is credited with helping him create the “Miller sound.”
After working in Los Angeles with the bands of Ben Pollack, Red Nichols and Paul Ash, Miller moved to New York City. While playing with Pollack’s band on the West Coast, Miller roomed with another rising star — a clarinetist from Chicago named Benny Goodman. After Miller had been in New York for some time, he realized he was in love with his CU college sweetheart, Helen Burger, and he married her in New York in 1928.
In 1932, Miller organized the Smith Ballew Band, and in 1934 he helped the Dorsey brothers organize their first full-time big band. In 1935, he organized Ray Noble’s American Band. Miller started his own group in 1937, and it quickly became one of America’s most popular bands.
At the peak of his civilian career, Miller decided he could better serve those in uniform by donning one himself. Too old to be drafted at age 38, he first volunteered for the Navy but was told they didn’t need his services. Not giving up, Miller persuaded the Army to accept him in 1942 so he “could put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy into their hearts and to be placed in charge of a modernized army band.”
The Fort Morgan Museum, across from the city park, has a special Miller exhibit hall. One of the displays tells about the difficulties Miller encountered in organizing the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. He had to use the name A. (for Alton) G. Miller in recruiting others to the band because he was so famous.
Permanent displays include a tattered black sheet music case with “Glenn Miller” stamped on it and an original “Chattanooga Choo Choo” record plated in gold. Miller’s band received the first-ever gold record in 1942 for selling more than one million copies of this hit song.
Also displayed is an original hand-written score of “Miller’s Tune” found recently in an old piano bench in Boulder. Later it became the famous “Moonlight Serenade.” Beside Miller’s junior class picture are the haunting words, “I am a stranger here. Heaven is my home.” Could these words have been a premonition of his early death?
If You Go
Visit glennmillerswingfest.com for a schedule of free and ticketed events. All proceeds go to Fort Morgan’s School for the Performing Arts, a not-for-profit fine arts school.
Margaret Malsam is a freelance writer who lives in Westminster, Colorado.