Stanford Freese built a lifetime around music. Iowa-born and Minnesota-raised, Freese took his early skill as a tuba-playing virtuoso to become a teacher, orchestra member, and, for the greater part of hiscareer, a musical fixture in the Disney World/Disneyland operations.
His immersion in the musical world is apparent from his just-published autobiography, “Music, Mayhem and the Mouse” (Skyway Press). His father was a trumpet player and music teacher, his mother, a singer and pianist. Freese recounts his own initiation into that fraternity as a fourth grader who, during a music teacher’s demonstration of musical instruments, won a bet that he wouldn’t choose a tuba.
But choose he did, and he began practicing, despite his parents’ belief he’d only last a few weeks. Buying a tuba outright was too expensive; his father would stop by the school each day, pick up the instrument so Stan could practice at night, and then return it in the morning, all through his elementary school years. In his book, Freese notes there are very few solos written for tuba. Not knowing that at the time, he set out to become a soloist, winning state high school music contests, and still holds the record for most wins. While still in junior high, Freese got himself into the Edina-Morningside High School band and traveled to the 1956 Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.
The next year, Freese played a tuba solo as part of an event at the Minnesota State Fair commemorating the visit of bandleader Lawrence Welk; after the performance, Welk himself asked Freese’s father if “Stan could come out to Hollywood to be on our show.” Freese did, but declined an offer to be a regular on the show, wanting to remain with his family in the Twin Cities. One of Freese’s showstoppers was an arrangement of Paganini’s “Carnival of Venice,” a rapid-tempo piece for triple-tonguing on cornet or trumpet, almost never played on a tuba or Sousaphone.
As a high school senior, Freese was part of a band called the Skeets Trio, which played state fairs, hotels and nightclubs throughout the Midwest, a gig that would last ten years, through high school, college and beyond. With a music education degree from the University of Minnesota in 1968, Freese began looking for jobs. He did a brief stint as a drummer at the Roaring ’20s, a downtown Minneapolis strip club.
In the fall of 1968, Freese was hired as the band director at Edison High School, replacing a temporary leader whose teaching specialty was math. A former student said, “Stan came in like a bulldozer in my senior year … . He came into a huge mess and cleaned it up.”
Freese remodeled the uniforms and got the band members out on the football field learning how to march. He wrote drum cadences and “lifted” a few from the U of M. While keeping some of the marching band standards, Freese wrote arrangements of music by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Beatles. By the time the 1969 yearbooks came out in June, there were 65 members in the band, up from about 30 in the fall.
That same year, Freese got a call from Dr. Frank Bencriscutto, director of bands at the U of M, and one of Freese’s favorite teachers. Bencriscutto asked Freese to perform with the U’s wind ensemble to audition for a possible cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union. The ensemble was chosen for the tour and Freese took a seven-week leave from Edison to join them. The group visited ten cities and played 27 concerts, to sold-out houses and rave reviews. At the tour’s end President Richard Nixon invited the ensemble to play in the White House’s Rose Garden. After Freese’s tuba solo, both Nixon and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin shook his hand, Nixon saying he didn’t think even a trumpet could be played that fast.
During his second year of teaching at Edison, Freese decided to seek a job as a professional musician. While he writes that he loved teaching, a teachers’ strike and “inside, political stuff” had him looking elsewhere. In early 1971, Freese drove to Los Angeles, where he got a few studio jobs. There he got a call from the Disneyland music director who asked him to interview for a music job with the still-under-construction Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Freese wrote, “It took me about eight seconds to scream, ‘Hell yeah!’” He got the job, eventually making him the first full-time leader of the Walt Disney World Band. He remained with the Disney organization for the rest of his career, retiring at age 72 in 2016.
Freese’s book is more than a personal life story, although he’s forthright about his alcoholism and his divorce. It’s also a fascinating insider’s look at an entity that is quite protective of its image. Freese notes in detail the very hard work of keeping everyone in “the Disney-verse” happy: guests, of course, but band members and management as well. The sheer extent of his efforts in maintaining multiple bands and schedules, hiring (and firing) musicians and managing the continual updates in themes and presentations is remarkable.
Freese’s recollections of dealing with musicians, and all the musician clichés that come with them, are hilarious. His foray into writing and performing country music eventually landed him a recurring role on “Hee Haw,” the Nashville-produced variety comedy show.
The book also contains “notes” within the chapters written by friends, fellow musicians, former students including Northeaster editor Cynthia Sowden and even his sons. They record various personal connections and anecdotes and are so universally praiseworthy toward Freese that it was probably a wise editorial decision that the words not come from his pen.
The book was enjoyable, both for its wealth of detail and Freese’s relentless optimism, even in difficult times. Asked what part of the book was most difficult to write, he said he couldn’t think of one, adding, “I’ve lived a charmed life.”
Freese lives with his wife Tera in Placentia, Calif., just a few miles from Disneyland. There’s a huge tree in their yard festooned with tubas and other brass instruments, with new items added occasionally. The tree has become a tourist attraction, listed in a brochure as one of “things to see” in Orange County. Freese writes that he sees it “as a symbol of growing into my new sober life, strong roots anchored in the ground, branches that seem to reach not only up to the sky in praise of God but horizontally out to the rest of the Earth.” He says he gets back to the Twin Cities a couple of times a year to see old friends. He was a prominent guest at last year’s Edison 100th anniversary celebration.