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The Perfect Fit of a Marching Band; An American Riddle Leads to a Pennsylvania Shoe Factory
By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: November 27, 2003
LEBANON, Pa., Nov. 20— The perfect marching band shoe pitches the toe forward to foster the seamless, balletlike
movement called the roll step. It might be black if your band is prone to sloppy footwork, because dark colors can mask
many a mistake, or white if you have the chops. For marching under the lights on a Friday night, glossy with a patent-
leather sheen is best.
Why such a shoe needs to exist in the first place is another matter. No technical manual exists to describe the faraway
look you can sometimes see in a drum major's eyes as he or she salutes the crowd, or the burning intensity of the low
brass section, its members so focused and suffused with the fire of being 16 that they can make you cry just for the
beauty of it.
But those larger, deeper questions -- the why of marching band -- somehow became more meaningful this November.
My twin 17-year-old sons will march their last roll steps in a Thanksgiving Day football game after five years in a
suburban New Jersey high school band that shaped their teenage years. As the closing grace notes of that moment
grew near, I found myself looking for the source of what had touched them.
So I made a pilgrimage here, to the land of the Dinkle.
Most people have probably never heard of Dinkles shoes, but in the marching band culture -- though in truth you can
probably just shorten that to ''cult'' -- Dinkles are a mysterious, omnipresent constant. If the universe hums a deep B
flat, as cosmologists contend, then the underlying tone of all those Fridays and Saturdays on the gridiron and the
uncounted hours of practice -- at least in my boys' school -- was the muffled heel-toe step of a Dinkle.
There are other obscure marching shoe brands -- Drillmaster, Style Plus and Director's Showcase among them. It's a
cutthroat business, with nearly 23,000 high school marching bands across the country, and perhaps 1,000 alone within
a three- or four-hour drive of Manhattan, each with 90 to 100 players, on average. Asian-made imports dominate.
But Dinkles are the last major band shoe still manufactured in the United States -- though the company's cheaper lines
are now imported, too -- and for my sons, Paul and Anthony, who marched in Dinkles every year but one, the name
became a defining symbol of their experience. If anyone possessed the knowledge of what marching band is about, I
thought, it would be the people at Dinkles.
Shoes, logically enough, also carry a greater symbolic weight for bands that travel by foot. For many years the seniors
in Syracuse University's marching band, for example, have been bound by custom to abandon their band shoes in
some spectacular, public way after the last performance of their careers as a rite of passage. Sometimes, a whole tree
would be decorated with laced-together shoes, hung like fruit.
So I was ready for epiphanies on the Dinkles factory floor. As in the scene when Dorothy had her moment of truth with
the Great Oz, a curtain would be pulled aside and there -- ipso facto, sis-boom-bah -- the secret beating heart of
marching band would be revealed.
The factory is in a century-old bakery building hard by a railroad track in this depressed old mill town about three hours
west of New York City, and it's easy to miss. A small sign out front simply says ''Up-Front Footwear,'' and only when you
step inside do the distinctive smells of shoe leather and adhesive make it clear you're in the right place.
Jerry and Jeff Savoca, a father-and-son team who own the company, sat down at a little table and poured coffee. They
talked about how they had named Dinkles for a character in the comic strip Funky Winkerbean -- Harry L. Dinkle, the
gung-ho marching band director at the mythical Westview High School created by Tom Batiuk.
Jerry, 67, described how his father, Sam, made the family's first pair of majorette boots in the early 40's, and then
nagged him for the next three decades to get back into the band-shoe market until he finally agreed in the early 1970's.
Jeff, 38, now the company's president, entered the family business after college.
Out in the factory, the 10 employees -- 6 more work in a leather-sewing shop in Scranton -- were gluing and cutting.
Trains periodically roared past, rattling the windows.
It was becoming quite clear by then that the Savocas had no answers to the metaphysics of marching band existence.
They certainly knew about shoes, and how economic life is reflected through band footwear. For example, the booming
1990's were salad days for the top-of-the-line leather Dinkle Vanguard, which sells for nearly $30, while tougher times
have marked a shift to the $20 Glide.
But in the end, they had only a piece of the great marching band story: their own. Their family had tapped into
something elemental, they said -- a piece of old-fashioned, innocent small-town Americana that had hung on somehow
despite all the changes of accelerated modern life, but they really couldn't say for sure why any of it was so.
The trip to Pennsylvania, it seemed, had been a fool's quest. A Dinkle, to paraphrase Freud, was just a shoe. Better to
have gone to the Midwest, or Texas, places where the passion for football and brass bands is more visceral and vital
than in the Northeast.
But then the Savocas began talking about Jeff Byrne, a band director from Long Island who visited the factory last
summer on his vacation. Another pilgrim! And he was not alone. About once a week through the summer, it turns out, a
band director drops by, usually unannounced, just to poke his or her head in the door to say hello and breathe in the
Dinkles factory air for a bit.
At least it was a lead. So I took down names and the next day, back in New York, I began calling. Mr. Byrne, the co-
director of bands at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, said he thinks marching band lives on not
because of tradition or anything like that, but because of the influence of people like Bennett Lentczner.
Mr. Lentczner was Mr. Byrne's marching band director 42 years ago at North Shore High in Glen Head on Long Island.
Mr. Byrne said he became a teacher and band leader entirely because of Mr. Lentczner. If anyone knew the answers to
the why of marching band, his old teacher would.
Mr. Lentczner, now retired and reached by telephone at his home in West Virginia, said that as far as he's been able to
determine, bands just create a sense of community -- it's as simple and as mysterious as that. And the implications of
that community then spill out over time. At least a dozen of his former students became music teachers or band
directors, he said. And the fingers of that pattern extend into the past as well. Mr. Lentczner himself marched for DeWitt
Clinton High School in the Bronx in the mid-1950's.
''It just comes from the daily working towards the common goal, and the realization that the product in the end is no
better than what the weakest person can contribute,'' he said. ''The kids belong to something, and it puts them in touch
with what it means to be human.''
Mr. Batiuk, the creator of Harry Dinkle, said in a telephone interview that Harry was inspired by the band director at
Midview High School just outside Cleveland, where Mr. Batiuk marched and played trombone in the early 1960's.
''We were never incredibly hip or cool; we were band geeks,'' Mr. Batiuk said. ''But if you have a strong, forceful
individual, he or she will make it the coolest thing in the school.''
And so perhaps that is as profound as marching band gets: Harry Dinkle lives on. The traditions of one season --
including and especially the harsh ones like wearing thermal underwear under one's uniform to cut the wind chill and
then commiserating on the bus over the misery of it all -- create the seeds of an unknown season to come. Deep
philosophy it's not.
But that's what I'll be thinking Thanksgiving Day at halftime when the Westfield High School Blue Devil Marching Band
from Westfield, N.J., takes the field: not about the past and the things that brought us all to this moment, but about the
future, and where all those miles in Dinkles might lead.
Photos: Rows of Dinkles band shoes at the Up-Front Footwear factory in Lebanon, Pa. A top-of-the-line pair costs $30.;
Jerry Savoca, left, and his son Jeff, who own the company that makes Dinkles marching shoes. (Photographs by Kalim
A. Bhatti for The New York Times)(pg. B1) Map of Pennsylvania/New Jersey highlighting Lebanon: The Dinkles shoe
factory is a leading producer of band shoes. (pg. B8)
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