For the first time in nearly 100 years, when the horses and their riders canter into the Will Rogers Memorial Center on Jan. 13 for the beginning of the 2017 Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, there will be no live orchestra to greet them.
The pageantry of the Grand Entry will, instead, be accompanied by pre-recorded music.
On July 15, the 20-piece orchestra, which has been an audible staple of the annual Fort Worth event for decades, was notified by FWSSR management that its services would no longer be needed.
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"I got a call (last week)," Rick Stitzel, director of the band, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday. "(Management) said, `We decided to go a different direction, and we won't need the band next year."'
Stitzel says the decision not to renew the band's contract was "presented as (a) matter of fact."
"Every four years, we would sit down with management and discuss whether there was going to be a pay raise or whatever," said Stitzel. "Then last year, we sat down with the same proposal -- management told us they wanted to give us no raise and a one-year deal. That was the first time ever it had been a one-year contract."
FWSSR management characterized the firing as a "difficult choice," but one that factored in both costs and relevancy of live music.
"In the last decade, the usefulness and flexibility of digitally produced music has played an increasingly important role in creating a lively and fast-paced rodeo performance," read a FWSSR statement. "Unfortunately, an orchestra has limitations in this environment, thus the decision was made to discontinue its use in 2017 rodeo performances."
FWSSR spokesman Matt Brockman confirmed the decision is "permanent."
The orchestra began performing at the rodeo in 1918, according to a 2008 Star-Telegram article. Brockman, who couldn't confirm that date, said it was likely "some time" after the first rodeo was held in 1918.
"(It's) very surreal right now to know that come January, people will be paying their ticket price, many in anticipation of hearing the traditional old marches, gallops, fanfares and overtures played by a live 20-piece orchestra, but instead will now be hearing a laptop," wrote Stitzel's son Rich, who played drums in the band, in a Facebook post. "It was the last live rodeo band in the world, and there was a lot of pride in the Fort for that tradition."
For the FWSSR, an event which began in 1896 and is steeped in tradition, "this wasn't a decision we made lightly," Brad Barnes, president and general manager, said in a statement. "But the use of digital music gives us greater ability to utilize video and other tools to create exciting experiences and features."
Sound and light consultant Benje Bendele, who owns Crazy Heart Sound and Lighting, will take over the musical duties, according to the FWSSR summer newsletter.
"Management remains very dedicated to retaining the ceremonial magic of the best grand entry in all of rodeo," reads the newsletter. "(Bendele) is tasked with developing (a) musical mixture that will be well-suited for the grand entry and remaining spots in the rodeo schedule where the orchestra music has been utilized."
Although the news was sudden, Rick Stitzel, who began playing with the FWSSR band in 1977, says it was not surprising.
"We had been playing the last few years with (Bendele) in the arena using his laptop and doing part of the show," Stitzel said. "(It was) a pretty workable arrangement where we played the traditional stuff and he played the contemporary stuff. . I'm glad (management) gave it a chance to work as a compromise situation, (but))I wish we could continue to work that way.
"I'm not against modernizing things; I just think tradition should be worth something."
While some in the rodeo community might bristle at any change to a beloved cultural institution like the FWSSR -- veteran rodeo announcer Bob Tallman once told the Star-Telegram that "putting in a high-tech sound system (at the Stock Show) would be like putting a pacemaker in a 96-year-old body. It don't work, and it's not necessary" -- longtime attendees should prepare themselves for more changes, according to the FWSSR's Barnes.
"We'll never stop looking for new means to deliver the most fun and engaging performance possible," Barnes said, "and give our guests the best bang for their buck."
The 2017 Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo is scheduled for Jan. 13-Feb. 4.