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Storyville Jazz Band keeps marching on at New Orleans Saints games

By Ted Lewis, special to NewOrleansSaints.com

All season NewOrleansSaints.com is taking a look back at special moments and traditions as we celebrate 50 seasons of Saints football.

Without the Storyville Jazz Band, there would have been no Benson Boogie.

Well, at least the postgame celebration which became Mr. B's trademark during his early years of owning the franchise wouldn't have been the same without the backing of the team's Dixieland ensemble, usually tooting out "When the Saints Go Marching In."

"The first couple of times they just used the piped-in music," Bruce Hirstious, Storyville's irrepressible trumpeter and leader said of the Boogie's birth in the 1986 season, which also was Storyville's first with the Saints. "Then they asked us to be on the field, too, along with the cheerleaders.

"After that, they'd get word to us, "He's going down," so we go down to the field, too. Man, that was a lot of fun. It was like nobody left the stands and they never wanted us to quit."

Knee problems unfortunately ended Benson's on-field boogying several years ago.

But Hirstious, even at age 88, and his Storyville bandmates – younger brother Donald on snare drum, nephew Stacy on the bass drum, Chris Bonura on tuba, Gary Gueldner on trumpet, Gregg Paretti on sax and clarinet and Alex Halmes on trombone – are in their 31st season of entertaining fans – greeting them in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome's Gate A concourse before the games and then working their way from the terrace level all the way down to the bunker suites and back up again before making their well-plotted quick escape as soon as it's over – with no sign of slowing down.

"If it wasn't fun, we wouldn't be doing it," said Hirstious, who rejects the idea of using a golf cart to get around in because he wouldn't stay in it. "No matter how the game is going – good or bad – when people see us, they want us to play."

And play they do – mostly traditional New Orleans favorites like "Little Liza Jane," "It Ain't My Fault," "Bourbon Street Parade" and the like.

Oddly enough, "Saints" isn't a favorite of the group, but, as Gueldner said, "If we could only play one song, that would be the one we'd need to know."

They added "Crunk" a few years back but the band's playlist is no more than 15 songs. That plus the fact that there's little turnover in the Storyville lineup – Paretti, who joined in 2007 is the "newest" addition -  means the group never rehearses.

"That's what the first exhibition game is for," Hirstious said.

Neither does HIrstious practice his hip-swiveling dance moves which are as much of the performance as the music and date to the 1940s when a neighboring family in the Irish Chanel hosted weekend dances in their basement.

"I was doing Elvis before he was born," Hirstious said.

Not that this is a bunch of amateurs.

Storyville goes back to 1979 when Donald Hirstious asked his brother to join a Dixieland band he was forming to march in Mardi Gras parades.

Oddly enough, Bruce hadn't played a trumpet since 1949 when his short career as a Navy bugler ended. He considered it too sedentary.

No matter. Bruce had never bothered to learn music and didn't even own a trumpet.

But he borrowed one, practiced until his lips split and was part of the unnamed band's first gig in the Minevera parade.

For the next seven years they performed mostly in parades with a changing lineup drawn mainly from Grace King and East Jefferson high schools. Mark Mullins, who later fronted Bonerama, was a notable member.

Along the way, Bruce took over management of the band from his brother.

"Don knows great music, but he had one flaw as a manager – We didn't always get paid," Bruce Hirstious said. "That's the most important thing a manager has to do."

In 1986, then-Saints director of entertainment Barra Bircher, looking to replace the Loyola band which had proven too large to roam the Superdome, approached Hirstious about a three-week tryout gig, but he wanted only a three-piece band.

"I told him nobody could hear us with just three," Hirstious said. "So he agreed to six.

"We've got seven now and they hear us fine."

And they're still going strong.

The Saints even took the band to London and Tokyo for international games, although not, to the band's chagrin, to Super Bowl XLIV.

"We're hanging on for the next time," Hirstious said.

They've twice been featured in ESPN shows leading up to Super Bowls in New Orleans.

On game days, Storyville attracts all manner of fans, but especially, it seems, women drawn by Hirstious' dancing.

"All it takes is a pretty girl to get him going," Bonura said. "The younger the better, although he'll tell you they're all younger than he is now.

"Once two girls joined in with him, and after we were finished they passed the hat. They got about $500 each and split it with us, but we never saw them again. I wish we had."

Storyville seems to have a special affinity for the fans in the terrace seats. The group will play either in the portals or in the aisles, giving an extra show for those who aren't able to see up close what's happening down below.

"We make sure they're getting their money's worth," Hirstious said.

And while obviously their biggest fans are the ones wearing Black & Gold, Storyville gets great responses from visiting fans, especially – believe it or not – those from Atlanta.

"It's like we see the same folks every year when the Falcons play here, they're great," Hirstious said. "I think because New Orleans is such a big tourist city we all have this natural reaction to be nice to visitors.

"And when folks come to New Orleans, our kind of music is one of the things they expect to hear. We tell them all 'We hope you win – next week."

Along with the games and some other team functions such as the Welcome Back Saints 5K run, the band still rides in parades and takes gigs for weddings plus greeting visiting groups.

They once spent an evening in a hotel elevator serenading conventioneers.

And while Hirstious has been long retired from his job distributing movies in the days when the area had several theaters, he has no intentions stepping down from this gig – ever.

"I've told the guys that when I die just prop me up and bring me along to the game," he said. "It'll be just like 'Weekend at Bernie's.'"

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