Gil Schwarzmiller, 91, for many years played in the Sauerkraut Band started by his brother 50 years ago. He is the grand marshal of Saturday’s Kla Ha Ya Days parade. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Gil Schwarzmiller, 91, for many years played in the Sauerkraut Band started by his brother 50 years ago. He is the grand marshal of Saturday’s Kla Ha Ya Days parade. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sauerkraut Band: Music, fun and fermented cabbage since 1968

Celebrating 50 years of making people laugh, the Snohomish band continues to be life of any party.

SNOHOMISH — Rindie Mills is “Red Lady.” She shamelessly sports a red tutu and rabbit ears and blows a whistle.

Her husband, Brian, is “Rainbow,” clad in a ridiculous multi-colored silk outfit he made with his trombone-playing hands.

They — and others with nicknames such as “Animal” and “Legs” and “Sexy Rexie” — are among the cast of the wacky and wonderful Sauerkraut Band, a Snohomish tradition for 50 years at events such as this Saturday’s Kla Ha Ya Days parade.

Members want to keep the Sauerkraut going another 50 years, but there’s a problem.

“We’re getting old,” said Mills, 67. “There are a lot of people older than my husband and me. We are trying to bring in new people.”

Gil Schwarzmiller, center, plays bass drum in Schwarzmiller’s Sour-Kraut Society and Marching Band in the 1970s, before it was called the Sauerkraut Band. (Contributed photo)

Gil Schwarzmiller, center, plays bass drum in Schwarzmiller’s Sour-Kraut Society and Marching Band in the 1970s, before it was called the Sauerkraut Band. (Contributed photo)

The band is famous for its tunes and costumes. There is nothing uniform about their uniforms. Members wear outlandish outfits and are known to play “Jingle Bells” in the Easter parade.

Still, this is serious stuff.

“It’s not like a free-for-all where anybody can jump in or out,” Mills said. “My husband got in the band. I wasn’t a musician so I just kind of thought, ‘I can just dress crazy.’ You have to have something unique, either a crazy outfit like me or play a musical instrument well.”

Preferably the latter.

The band was formed in 1968 when the Snohomish High School Band was off touring Europe during the annual Kla Ha Ya Days festival. It meant that there would be no musical group marching in the parade.

The ringleader was Art Schwarzmiller, who reportedly told some friends, “A parade is not a parade without a marching band.”

Art played trumpet with swing bands, jazz combos and the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. He knew where the old drums and cymbals from the Blue Knights were collecting dust in a closet. As a custodian at Snohomish High School, he had keys to the band room. He gathered instruments that the school band hadn’t taken on their trip and “borrowed” some from the Knights.

He recruited his musician buddies and kin, such as his brother Gil, a percussionist.

The day before the parade, everyone gathered on Art’s back porch. They learned two songs, “Beer Barrel Polka” and “Ach Du Lieber Augustin.” There wasn’t sheet music then or, for that matter, ever.

Schwarzmiller’s Sour-Kraut Society and Marching Band took to the streets in its debut performance July 20, 1968.

The “Krauts” had painted black handlebar mustaches and rosy cheeks on their faces. They wore derby hats and colorful clothes.

As the story goes, when the band marched down First Street in Snohomish, it was a sight to behold and with a sound to match. If there was a wrong or bad note to be played, it was. The music made spectators wince, as did the treats. Behind the band, kids pulled a wagon with a big pot of sauerkraut. Instead of throwing candy, they handed little containers of fermented cabbage to the crowd.

Against all odds, the band was a hit.

The band didn’t bring sauerkraut again, but they did expand their repertoire to several genres.

Members of the Sauerkraut Band have to either have a flair for costuming or a musical talent. (Contributed photo)

Members of the Sauerkraut Band have to either have a flair for costuming or a musical talent. (Contributed photo)

Art stepped down as leader in the early 1990s. The Schwarzmiller name was retained in the band title until Gil retired from the band in 1995. At that time, the name was retired, too. It seemed only fitting.

Somewhere along the line the spelling of the name changed from Sourkraut to Sauerkraut. No one seems to know when or why. It just did.

The band took on a personality of its own. It has been described as a miniature drum and bugle corps that breaks all the rules.

Rindie “Red Lady” Mills started out wearing a bright red corset and fishnet stockings before getting less burlesque and more clownish.

“Rainbow” dresses himself. “He sits down at the sewing machine and makes them up,” she said of her husband.

The Sauerkraut Band plays for parades, parties and any other reason.

They stood in the Pilchuck River for events at Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern when late owner Jim Young was a member.

“One year the rocks were so slippery I fell into the river and I had this big tutu on and it got so heavy from the water that I couldn’t get up,” Mills said.

The band has won numerous contests. It raises money for charities and people in need and funds a college scholarship to a graduating music student from Snohomish High School.

“It’s just a fun bunch,” said Gil Schwarzmiller, 91, the grand marshal of this year’s parade.

“One time we played up in Vancouver. This one band, Freddy Fuddpucker, they were always competing with us. They were musicians,” he said.

“One morning one of the guys came in and said we aren’t going to win it this year because Freddy Fudds was already out there practicing and they got their sheet music. And we never had any sheet music. We play by ear. We made first place anyway. They were giving us a bad time. Them guys were good. And so were we.”

Rindie “Red Lady” and Brian “Rainbow” Mills are members of the Sauerkraut Band​. He plays trombone. She ​dresses crazy and blows a whistle. (Contributed photo)

Rindie “Red Lady” and Brian “Rainbow” Mills are members of the Sauerkraut Band​. He plays trombone. She ​dresses crazy and blows a whistle. (Contributed photo)

He said band members share a special camaraderie.

“About the only time there was an argument was, ‘Where are we going to play next?’ ” he said. “They wanted us back all the time.”

The band plays an eclectic collection of marches, Dixieland, show tunes, old favorites and original compositions.

“The drum major would pick the songs,” Gil said. “He’s dead, too.”

Some of the issues of aging have been solved.

“For some of the longer parades we have started getting a flatbed truck so people don’t have to walk,” Mills said. “We want everyone to still be able to participate.”

It’s time for a new generation.

Jonah Urie, 13, plans to march this year with his tuba.

“They’re just a really goofy and fun band,” Jonah said. “They’re funny and they seem to play really good marches.”

At Saturday’s parade, members will dress like they did 50 years ago with top hats, painted mustaches and red cheeks.

A reunion to celebrate their half century of making music is planned after the parade. Anybody who has ever banged a tambourine or shook a pompom is invited.

The band plans to hit every bar in Snohomish — a Sauerkraut Attack — to play a few songs then move on to the next place.

“You never quite know what they’re going to do,” said Kla Ha Ya Days board President Andrew Urie, Jonah’s dad. “Which makes them that much more fun to watch.”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

Kla Ha Ya Days

Kla Ha Ya Days are Wednesday through Sunday at various locations in Snohomish.

Events include a pole vault competition, music, beer and wine garden, baby crawl, pie-eating contest, cherry pit-spitting contest, helicopter rides, carnival, street fair, races, car show and robotic dinosaurs.

The grand parade is 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. July 21 on First Street in Snohomish.

More at www.klahayadays.com.

Interested in joining the band? Email brian-mills@comcast.net.

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