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Pentagon giving the hook to military bands and entertainment shows

By Mike Fitzgerald | Belleville News-Democrat | Published: January 17, 2016

BELLEVILLE, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — As recently as 2010, the Pentagon budgeted more than $500 million per year for military bands, with the largest chunk of that — $195 million — allocated to Army bands. The Marines in that year sponsored 600 musicians in 12 bands, costing $35 million, according to government figures.

Across the entire military, taxpayers were being asked to spend $1.5 billion annually on music and entertainment programs, according to one analysis.

But the winds of fiscal austerity surging through the Defense Department, as well as new spending priorities, have led to plans to shut down many of the military’s best-known music and entertainment programs.

On Friday, Tops In Blue, the Air Force’s renowned traveling entertainment show consisting of active duty airmen, played its last show at Mascoutah High School.

After that, it goes on indefinite hiatus while the Air Force evaluates whether the performance troupe of musicians, vocalists, dancers and other entertainers is worth an annual cost of between $3 million and $10 million, depending on how one calculates performer salaries, food, lodging, transportation costs and other support costs.

No cutbacks have been planned for The Band of Mid-America, based at Scott Air Force Base, according to a spokesman for the Air Mobility Command, which sponsors the ensemble.

However, the Army announced last week that the Army Soldier Show, its counterpart to Tops In Blue, would be canceled immediately. No explanation was given for the termination of the Broadway-styled show that had played to large crowds around the world since 1983. The cancellation notice occurred just a month after dozens of active-duty, reserve and national guard personnel journeyed to Joint Base San Antonio to try out for the show during auditions Dec. 18.

The tour was set to begin early next month. Instead, participants as of last week received notice from Army Installation Management Command saying it had been “canceled effective immediately.”

Rob Dozier, spokesman for Army Installation Management Command, told Army Times the command had “no official statement” on the show and its future, and would not answer questions regarding the decision.

And in another blow to countless soldiers’ dreams of superstardom, Operation Rising Star, the servicewide singing contest that’s been in place for more than a decade, also canceled its 2016 season, according to Army Times.

“It is prudent in these times to ensure all soldiers focus on their primary mission, and any resources saved are allocated to enable readiness for a self-reliant and globally-responsive all-volunteer Army,” according to an Army statement.

As for Tops In Blue, seven civilian support personnel earning full-time salaries totaling $400,000 will stay on the job and continue to work on morale, welfare and recreation projects at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, according to Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Air Force Entertainment.

“So that civilian support team will wrap up what they have to do to close this 2015 season,” Briggs said. “These are permanent employees. They’re just not hired to do Tops In Blue.”

The highest-paid member of the civilian support crew is Tom Edwards, Tops In Blue’s chief.

Edwards, a 38-year federal civil service employee, earns an annual salary of $113,328, Air Force records show.

The Defense Department is set to spend around $1.5 billion on bands and other entertainment programs across the military branches, the Fiscal Times has reported.

Other Army units are also seeing their bands disappearing. The Army announced last month that the 40-member 392nd Army Band, in Fort Lee, Va., will be reduced to a dozen soldiers in 2016 as part of the Army’s overall budget cuts.

Warrant Officer Kevin L. Pick, the band director, told the local Progress-Index newspaper that the band, once an integral part of the community and on track to play 500 dates between 2015 and 2016, will end. “It will be a shock,” Pick said.

All told, nearly 200 Army band member positions are being eliminated Army-wide, with cuts planned for the the U.S. Army Signal Corps Band based at Fort Gordon, Ga.; The 98th Army “Silver Wings” Band based at Fort Rucker, Ala.; and the 113th Army Band based at Fort Knox, Ky., the Army has announced.

Military band cuts have been felt in the St. Louis metro region. The 35-member 571st Air Force Band, once based in St. Louis, and also known as the Air National Guard Band of the Central States, played its final performance on July 4, 2012.

The discontinuation of military bands represents a huge change in military spending priorities. In 2011, a Pentagon analyst predicted the military had planned to spend $50 billion over the next 50 years on bands and related costs.

©2016 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)
Visit the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) at www.bnd.com
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Members of Tops in Blue perform "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson during their concert Jan. 15, 2016, at Mascoutah High School, Ill.
Tristin English/U.S. Air Force

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