February 2014

Hagerstown has its own 'music man'

Al Gruber's orchestra in concert; Gruber is in the rear, playing the drums.

You could say that Al Gruber is Hagerstown, Maryland’s, own version of “The Music Man.” He didn’t try to lead the townspeople on, as dubious Professor Harold Hill did in the 1962 movie, but he did lead an orchestra and dance band for three decades, bringing music alive for thousands.

A resident of Diakon Senior Living – Hagerstown/The Ravenwood Campus, Gruber marked his 100th birthday Dec. 7. A group of family and friends gathered for the occasion, including the pastor and some parishioners from John Wesley United Methodist Church, which Gruber attended for many years. In addition to serving on the church board, he led Bible study classes and visited sick and shut-in members.

Chances are many people fell in love, proposed, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and toasted to new years with Al Gruber’s music in the background.

In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Hagerstown was home to many venues that offered live music for dancing and a night out on the town. Gruber led two different orchestras during those years: Club Royal Orchestra and the Al Gruber Orchestra. Though he had played violin as a child, with his bands, he played drums, sang and was the front man.

Reminiscing at his birthday celebration, Gruber responded to a question about his favorite tune by singing a few lines from “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” He recalled playing at private clubs, hotel ballrooms, colleges and country clubs. He played often in Hagerstown, but also in Frederick and Cumberland, Md., West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Gruber’s son, Marshall, now in his early 70s, was a young boy when his dad was busy making music. The popularity of his dad’s orchestras meant the elder Gruber spent most weekends and many holidays away from his family. When his dad wasn’t playing, he was often rehearsing. And he had a day job in customer service at Pangborn Corp., makers of sandblasting equipment.

The card used to invite people to Al Gruber's 100th birthday.

“I remembering him having rehearsals at our house,” Marshall Gruber explains. “I would rather have had him doing something with me. I was too young at the time to understand that he did it to make extra income.”

The younger Gruber realizes now how much a part of social life live music was in the era when his dad’s orchestras played. Chances are many people fell in love, proposed, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and toasted to new years with his dad’s music in the background.

“There was no TV,” he says. “People went out and danced. My dad enjoyed it, helping others have a good time.”

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