A 26-year tradition of downtown Omaha holiday concerts by the Air Force's Heartland of America Band will end this year, a victim of federal budget cuts.
The Omaha World-Herald had sponsored the popular series each year since 1987, giving away free tickets to readers who sent in coupons clipped from the newspaper.
But the rules of the budget sequestration forbid the service branches from spending any money on promotional or community outreach events. It's the same rule that has grounded the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds precision-flight teams and canceled a summer air show at Offutt Air Force Base.
“We're sad that this tradition is coming to an end. I think the Heartland of America Band is sad, too,” said Joel Long, The World-Herald's communications director. “But with the current state of the sequester and financial constraints, there was no other choice.”
In place of the downtown concerts — held since 2005 at the Holland Performing Arts Center — a much smaller band will play a series of community holiday concerts at local high schools, said Doug Roe, the band's director of operations. Suburban Newspapers Inc., a World-Herald subsidiary, will underwrite concerts Dec. 14 in Bellevue, Dec. 15 in Gretna, and Dec. 20 and 21 in Papillion. The Opinion-Tribune newspaper will sponsor a concert Dec. 8 in Glenwood, Iowa.
“These high school auditoriums aren't the Holland Performing Arts Center,” Roe said. “But through the medium of music, we're still going to entertain.”
Military bands in America date back to the colonial era, a time when commanders sometimes used music to guide troops in battle. Bands always have played at funerals, promotions, command changes and military balls.
In the modern era, their public concerts also are a public relations tool — and for many civilians, their only direct contact with the armed forces.
“For that hour and a half we're on stage, we ARE the Air Force, we ARE the military,” Roe said.
But budget cuts have battered military bands generally in recent years, and the Heartland of America Band in particular.
In 2011, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., persuaded her House colleagues to slash the Pentagon's music budget from $388 million to $200 million a year.
“Spending $388 million of the taxpayers' money on military music does not make our nation more secure,” McCollum said in a message posted last year on her House website. “It is excessive and a luxury the Pentagon can no longer afford.”
That prompted the Air Force to cut 103 band positions across the service, eliminating two of the 12 active-duty bands and sharply cutting two others, including the Heartland of America Band.
As recently as 2007, the Heartland Band featured 60 airmen. That was cut to 45 in an earlier round of budget cuts, and then to 16 in June. The eight-state region it used to cover — stretching from Montana to Iowa, and North Dakota to Kansas — was cut to a single state, Nebraska, plus a few nearby counties in Iowa.
The band's manager, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Beshears, had known for more than a year that the slimmed-down band couldn't play the large-scale performances of past years.
So he arranged for extra musicians to join the band temporarily so the concerts could continue. That plan fell apart when federal sequester cuts eliminated all discretionary travel.
“That sank the ship,” Long said. “They said, 'As much as we hate it, we can't do that big concert anymore.' ”
Over the years, he said, interest in the Christmas shows had grown. Bins of mail arrived at The World-Herald's communications office. Other entries came via commercial delivery services or were dropped off in person. All were filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
The annual event was so popular that even with 10,000 seats available over five shows, as many as 5,000 “Sorry” letters had to go out.
Even with the bleak budget news, Beshears and Roe — who, as a senior airman played in the first holiday concerts and has been involved with every one since — developed the plan for the smaller community events. They will feature the Heartland Band's three remaining ensembles: Offutt Brass, Raptor and Vortex. Suburban Newspapers and the Opinion-Tribune will foot the bill since the Air Force may not spend money on the events.
“We understand the tradition of holiday concerts downtown with the Heartland Band,” said Shon Barenklau, Suburban Newspapers' publisher. “We would do anything we can to help out so the community doesn't have to go cold turkey.”
Roe and Barenklau said the new concerts also will be free. They are still working out how tickets will be distributed and expect to make an announcement soon.
What no one is ready to do yet is look ahead to next year. If the government travel and PR restrictions are lifted, could the downtown holiday concerts return in something like their original format?
“The tradition itself will probably look different in the future,” Beshears said.
It might take a Christmas miracle.