REWIND: January 1, 2023 – “Jailhouse Rock: When the Glens Falls High School Dance Band Played Great Meadow Correctional Facility”
By Teri Rogers
In the spring of 1976, the Glens Falls High School dance band played a concert at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, Washington County. The dance band, which had earned quite a reputation for being the most talented high school band in upstate New York, was perhaps the only student musical group ever to perform, live and on stage, at a maximum security prison.
Led by the GFHS Music Department Chairman Stan Gerike, himself a well-known trumpet player and orchestra leader, the eighteen-member dance band boarded a school bus for the one-hour trip to the prison. All the students had to provide signed permission slips from their parents for the excursion.
Members of the dance band were: tenor sax players Teri Podnorszki, Kathy Sainz, and Betsy George; alto sax players Lindy Caselli, Sue Painter, and Kathy Sondrini; baritone sax player Janis Seaman; trumpet players Ron Ruvio, Bruce Robinson, Doug Hettinger and Dave Trudel; trombone players Robert Muse and Doug Brown; bass player Gwen Geruso, bass guitar player John Collier; keyboardist Bill Keister; percussionist Betsy Easson; and drummer Jimmy Wilcox.
Also on the bus ride was local WWSC DJ Mike Faranell, who interviewed the students about their once-in-a-lifetime experience performing at such a unique venue, and he aired it live on the radio.
When the student musicians arrived at Great Meadow, they were ushered into the prison by corrections officers through a maze of stark hallways, with security bars at various intervals locking behind them. They were led to the backstage area of the large auditorium where they would perform, curtains closed as they set up instruments, music stands, audio equipment, and speakers. All had a sense of how somewhat frightening it felt to be inside the walls of a notorious prison that housed murderers and scores of violent criminals; all certainly felt the thrill of the awesome experience that awaited them. Nothing like this had happened in their young lives up to that point, to be sure.
The sounds of hundreds of inmates pouring into the auditorium could be heard behind the curtain. A senior corrections officer gave the students instructions about how to quickly exit the backstage in the event of a disturbance during the concert. The show was ready to begin.
The students were all in position with their instruments, excited, with hearts thumping. Mr. Gerike raised his baton. The curtain rose, and, there before them, was a sea of faces crowded into every available inch of the huge auditorium. 900 inmates and corrections officers broke into applause and cheers as the dance band began to play. For two hours, jazz and stage band melodies like Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and “A-Train,” songs from movie scores like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” along with upbeat favorites like “The Girl from Ipanema” filled the house. What a high the students felt with such an enthusiastic audience enjoying their music. Mr. Gerike directed his band with a finesse that brought the inmates to thunderous applause at the conclusion of the show. A standing ovation. More clapping and cheering. The students stood for their bow.
The curtain closed, and the sounds of “Encore! Encore!” loudly roared. No more selections were played, though, as the students swiftly packed up instruments and equipment, and the guards hustled them back through the barren hallways to the waiting bus outside.
Back inside the bus, the students shared their excitement about the success of the concert, many still speechless from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd. All agreed that they had never played to an audience that large before – and perhaps never one so appreciative. Their music had literally rocked the jail. It was a day to remember.
Several of the students who played in the GFHS dance band, and participated in the concert at Great Meadow, went on to become famous musicians. Drummer Jimmy Wilcox played with Blue Oyster Cult and then, locally, with Bobby Dick and the Sundowners. Ron Ruvio is a professional trumpet player. Bill Keister, now Bill Keis, is a well-known keyboard player and creator of a line of piano instruction manuals. Sue Painter is a music educator.
The experience of a lifetime that all of these young musicians from Glens Falls shared in the spring of 1976 would never be forgotten.