Pete Alvarez: 40 Years of Directing
Pete Alvarez was recently honored by the Cal Band in 2016 for serving the Band as field director for 40 years. Tara Castro (clarinet ‘05) and Colin Downs-Razouk (alto ‘05) sat down with Pete to talk to him about this amazing feat and his history with the Band.
Tara Castro: What work did you do at Cal?
Pete Alvarez: From 1976 to 1985 I worked for Parking Services. I started as a student; it was a part time job. I worked at the garage that is right outside the band room. In 1976, all the planets aligned. We just got back from tour and I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. Parking and Transportation Services created a full time job- I don’t know if it was for me, but they asked me to do it. So had a full time job at the UC, which was great. However, it was a go-nowhere job. Things changed where I wasn’t allowed to be in the little booth anymore, I had to go out and write tickets, which I hated. I hated writing tickets. I decided I needed to get out. In 1985 I started applying for jobs, and a colleague of mine at parking had a wife who worked in personnel. She was forwarding my application everywhere. I interviewed with the Student Learning Center. On paper, I think I wasn’t qualified, but I rocked the interview. I was an administrative assistant, and when my officemate quit, my boss said, “guess who’s doing her job?” “Who?” “You.” And that’s how I got into the technical side, and that’s where I spent the majority of my 25 years with the SLC. It was tech support- the computer lab, the beginnings of file sharing, database stuff, no web yet, because there was no web then. I remember telling one director, I don’t know about this web… She said, “you wait, this thing is going to explode, so we are going to have to have a web page.”
TC: How did you get started field directing?
Colin Downs-Razouk: Who was the director of the band at the time?
PA: It was a transitional year for me in 1976 when I got the job at Parking Services. One day Bob Briggs came out to my little booth in the BRH garage and he said, “I’d like you to be a field director.” I said, “Sure, I’ll do it!” Up until that point the director was on the West sideline the student director used to be the East sideline, and they had two alumni, generally former student directors. My freshman year, at least one of them was the STUD from the year before. In the fall of 1977, Bob Briggs asked Richard Schroebel to be the second field director. In 1978, the student director didn’t want to direct, he wanted to march in his senior year. So they moved me to the East sideline, and Richard to the North, and added another alumni director.
It was at a tailgate that Bob Briggs said, “How long do you guys plan to do this?” I didn’t think he was expecting any particular answer, but at the time the football team wasn’t so bad. In ‘75 they were co-Pac 8 champions. We thought we might get to a Rose Bowl. I don’t know how much alcohol had been involved, but Richard and I said, “well how about we say we’re gonna do this until we go to a Rose Bowl.” Bob Briggs said, “That sounds great! That’ll happen soon.” This was probably around ’78 or ‘80. We hadn’t been to a bowl game since ‘59. In ‘79 we went to the Garden State Bowl. Between the three of us, we decided we’d stay on until we get to the Rose Bowl.
TC: Is that still the plan?
PA: It was. We got close with Tedford. Even last year, I took Albert Locher aside and asked, “How long do you plan to do this?” He came up with a logical answer. He said well there’s no reason for me not to.” So, it’s indefinite.
CDR: What trip was the most memorable?
PA: They all blur, but it would be when the Women’s Basketball team went to the Elite Eight, in New Orleans. The women’s basketball team is very grateful for band and they recognize band, hang out with band. That was one of those trips. The flight back had such energy. They’re all students, so that was really cool. Traveling with the women is a lot of fun.
TC: And you go on football trips as well?
The only time I get to travel with band is if they go to bowl games as the whole band.
TC: So your last bowl game trips were probably with us. We went to San Diego, Emerald Bowl in the exotic location of San Francisco, and Fort Worth for the Armed Forces Bowl.
PA: The trip to the Armed Forces Bowl was a good one for me. As if it happened yesterday, I remember the Kennedy assassination. I had always wanted to go to Dallas to see where it happened, to experience that whole thing. So the day off that we had, I rented a car and went to Dallas. They have the sixth floor museum and I was just hanging around. This guy, this is what his business is, nothing special. Of course they charge, but it was so worth it to me. He went into the hospital and took pictures with my camera. I went to the boarding house where Lee Henry Oswald stayed, the Texas theater where he was captured. Went by the county jail. That was a memorable trip.
The Garden Bowl trip to New Jersey, in ’79, was the first one we had in a while. Pre-Facebook, I knew a lot of the football players on that team. It was cool to be able to go to this, with a ton of friends of mine on the field. It was also where CBAA was started. We lost the game. Cold! So cold! It wasn’t snowing but it was frigid cold. The band played in Manhattan, outside of Lincoln Center, outside of a bank building. Oh! Many of us, thanks to Bob Briggs, who fronted the money, got to see A Chorus Line, which was brand new. That was a fun trip.
TC: We got to go to Princeton. You were probably on that trip. We took the train to New York, which was our very first New York experience. Only twelve hours in New York!
CDR: Yeah, a whirlwind trip.
PA: That particular trip… I had sworn I would never go back to NYC, ever again. It just so happened that by pure circumstance, I was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. After that I said I will never come back. That was an important trip because I did go into Manhattan. I went to the Trade Center site and walked in Battery Park. I happened on the eternal flame and the smashed statue like the one on campus near Center Street. It was really emotional.
CDR: Which shows stick out in your memory?
PA: My absolute favorite show was one I marched in; the Perfect Show at SC.
TC: Ah, you were in the Perfect Show! When you were part of the Perfect Show, were people aware that this was happening?
CDR: Did it feel perfect at the time?
PA: When you look at the film, you can see the energy on the sidelines when they jog off. Bob Briggs’ reaction- you can tell that something special happened. The Drum Major was up in the press box. Kelly James, who was the director of the UCLA band, was up there. There’s always been a rivalry. The Drum Major doesn’t remember this but I remember him coming down to address the band. He was so excited. He said Kelly James came up to him and said, “that was the best I’ve ever seen the Cal Band.”
That’s near the top.
The very first time the Cal Band performed the Michael Jackson show, that was another energizing show, an energizing reaction. The crowd went wild. I’m on the West side, so I’m watching this happen. You could see the crowd go crazy for Thriller.
CDR: Did they do the Thriller dance?
PA: They did the thriller dance. To see Bob Briggs react to it, during jog off and after it, was just memorable beyond belief. That was another one of those energizing, hard to repeat moments.
TC: What was his reaction?
PA: Oh, he always used to do his fists (pumps fists in the air) always talked about his chills. You can just tell, looking at him, you could just see that this was something really special.
Even though I had so little to do, Super Bowl 50 is right up there with those two. The Band was able to keep it secret for so long! For me, it turned out to be a chaperone kind of thing for rehearsals that Bob couldn’t go to. One was in Berkeley, one was in Santa Clara. To be quite honest, I had no idea who Coldplay was. I knew who Beyoncé was. The Friday before the Sunday game, there was a dress rehearsal so all of the talent was there. These kids were so excited! It was just amazing. None of them complained that they couldn’t take their phones in. None of them complained about anything. They were flying high! I got to experience that on Friday. We did a little rehearsal on the field, and then we got herded into another area and got an armband, which someone asked to see every 500 feet. It was all part of the excitement. I was on the sidelines and there she is! (Beyoncé) Right there! All the kids were ahh…didn’t know what to do! They knew they couldn’t talk to her or take pictures. They did the performance from beginning to end with all the pyrotechnics and music. It was just incredibly exciting.
I remember the very first day of rehearsals, I was there. They were meeting with the people from the super bowl. Bob introduced me, and said, “You don’t want to go to the actual super bowl…” He didn’t want to impose that long day on me. “Heck yeah I want to be there!” I wouldn’t have missed it, it was so incredible. I was high for a week and a half.
CDR: How do you balance life, work AND band?
PA: It’s not bothersome for me. Especially since I’m retired from the University, I’ve got lots of time to do lots of things.
I do like it when I’m actually able to direct the band. So when they are facing me, Bob will cut out and I do get nervous. I only get to hear the music that day so I get nervous. Which why I try to go to one rehearsal during the week. So I can have a sense of what the music is, which way they’re facing, what it is going to be like. I want to experience that once before Saturday.
One of the joys of pregame is, it got to a point where I would direct the students in Sons of California and I would raise my hand for them to do the hat salute and they would follow me. That’s always been fun.
CDR: The most distinct memories I have of you conducting are the hat salute.
PA: I can see what’s going on down there- I see so many people move early! The primary reason I do that is that they can watch the signal and it’s time to put their hat back son.
TC: I have to tell you, I felt trepidation pretty much every single time I was on the field. But when I saw you during hat salute I was like, Pete’s here, everything’s fine.
CDR: At the start of Fight, do you ever seek out the trumpets on the field?
PA: I always try to make eye contact with them. Before the season starts, I try to rehearse with them because my style is very different than everybody else’s. Everybody has their own style. Even the student director who during the week is directing them, I’m going to be very different. It always happens that the first time I do it, somebody will mess up. I like to have the opportunity to get them used to what it’s going to be like when they see me start Fight.
CDR: Is Bob directing the intro with you?
PA: No, I start it, then he’ll take up and then I watch him.
CDR: None of us have ever seen Bob in that moment! You’re the only one.
TC: What are some changes you’ve seen over the years?
PA: Through Facebook, I’ve gotten a glimpse of what’s going on. We didn’t have bondings. There were so few of us so we all knew each other. But with a big band, I could see why you would want to get with your instrument and get to know each other.
For good or bad, the culture at the university has changed. It’s way more expensive than it was 30 years ago, so people have to get in and out quickly. Academics have become a priority. That’s just the way it is.
CDR: How did you manage to keep doing this for forty years?
PA: I just have an absolute love for doing it. I don’t know anything else! If they’ll still have me, I’m going to be there. There is some cost. As I get older I can feel it. It is a long day. I have yet to see the Cal Band perform from anywhere else but on a ladder. I’ve never been in the stands yet to see them burst out of the tunnel. That’s pretty good, in one way! I look forward to the day that I can, but that’s not going to happen soon.
I go to maybe a rehearsal a week. If it’s a two week show, I’ll go once prior to Saturday. It’s more important for me to do it than for them to have me there.
There’s no issue of balance for me- I think the students have balance issues (with life, school, band). For me, in the early ‘70s, there was nothing other than Cal Band. The camaraderie that was formed- I think our FTP was a week long that we were together. The gratification of performing, nothing else mattered. There wasn’t any pressure on us to be part of any other groups. That’s how I came up and that’s how it’s been. Even when I was working, it was not a matter of, oh do I really want to do this? I always wanted to do it.
The ASU game where they honored me at halftime, that was pretty special. I had little clue that anything would happen. I was up on the ladder, freezing, right before halftime. I was standing close to the wall, shivering. Ross Greer came over and said, “Bob wants to make sure you stay here when halftime is over.” I thought, well ok, I’m freezing but… had Ross not come and talked to me, I would have gotten off that ladder and gone home.
TC: Did you ever have a sense of deep fear or deep accomplishment?
PA: One show, the Earth, Wind and Fire show, not too long ago, Calonico did a dance routine, so I ended up directing. It was all facing the East side and I was the director. That was terrifying! I did go to a couple of rehearsals, but just the fear of messing up, that was the most fearful of them all.
A sense of accomplishment…after the ASU game where they honored me at halftime, getting messages from people all over the stadium.
Some time in the early 80s, rap was starting to come in vogue, and somebody wrote a rap around me and my work with the band and at parking services. “Pete, Pete Alvarez. Pete, Pete Alvarez. On weekdays he’s the parking man, on weekends he directs the band.”