By Jacob Katel
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Wearing a hot-red clown wig, white jacket with silver and gold sequins, a rainbow of scarves, and a bow tie, Captain Bill recalls the Ziggy Stardust era of Bowie as he rocks this house. The punk aesthete renewed, the savagery of live-music showmanship pushing the envelope and cutting the edge, slamming in the face of convention as only the die-young-stay-pretty real deal can do.
"The most unruly band you ever saw!" booms Captain Bill Ettinger as he introduces his group, the outrageous Wac-O-Mummers, to the ultracool, pumped-as-a-tire audience at the Southwest Focal Point Senior Center in Pembroke Pines. Like all smokin' bands, the Wac-Os drive women to the brink -- at the senior center show the female contingent is singing along, clapping heartily, and, of course, dancing their shoes off. "It's very nice," says one, Marie Milazzo, of Pembroke Pines. "It's like a family band. Everybody sings. When they start to play, you feel like jumping around."
A former captain of the Broward County Mummers (an organized group of entertainers), Ettinger formed this band a few months ago, for the most part recruiting retired big-band musicians. The eighteen to twenty volunteers, including eight former members of the Broward Mummers, perform for a variety of organizations, always doing so while clad in loud clothes and hats, always integrating their big-band/Dixieland sounds with slapstick antics the Red Hot Chili Peppers would die for.
"Anything you can think of to get a smile," Ettinger explains. "Every guy in the band is a ham. It's really comical. I don't think there's anything around like this. Every place we play people rave about the band." Far too cool for MTV, the Wac-O-Mummers bring to mind Spike Jones's old act, a sweet taste of nostalgia made fresh by invention and reinvention. "It's just a happy time for everybody," the front man adds. "We make everybody laugh. We get people to sing along. It's all about having fun."
Like a flashback to the groupie glory days of the Beatles and Stones, the femme segment of the audience at a recent show rallied behind the Wac-O-Mummers and their slashing music. Smiling and tapping her feet to the beat, Milazzo describes the band as "very enjoyable, very funny, and lively."
Kate Moscato immediately agrees, noting how the band lifts her spirits -- "very funny. It's a change of pace. And we need something to perk us up." Mary Lupoli, another Pembroke Pines resident, agrees, adding, "That's the best medicine for us." Florence Valente grooves to the act's dress, their clowning around, and, especially, their music. "It's wonderful. It makes the people feel good. I love that kind of music, and they do a good job with it."
The band previously performed for the seniors on the Fourth of July, and so blew away the crowd that it was asked to return ASAP, according to Sue Robinson, activities coordinator at the center. "They're very good entertainers and the people really relate to them. We really like them," she says. "The fans get a kick out of it because the band is able to carry the audience. They have such a variety of numbers and the clowning around is so super that the people really, really enjoy it."
Nirvana and Hammer and Madonna can keep their platinum records -- the Wac-O-Mummers shun commercialism with a fierceness not seen since the Sex Pistols, working as a nonprofit group, although the Wac-Os will accept donations to offset expenses such as costuming. (Countering that concession, they'll help raise funds for any organization, Captain Bill says, especially those benefiting children.)
"The music is constantly changing," Ettinger goes on. "It's a different sound with every tune we do." Among the numerous selections: "Sugar Blues," "Bye, Bye Blackbird," "When You're Smiling the Whole World Smiles with You," and "Spanish Eyes." And if "You Always Hurt the One You Love," "The Saints Go Marching In," "Ain't She Sweet," and Tommy Dorsey's "Sentimental Over You" don't flip some skirts, they'll sing in Polish or Italian or go nuts with some sizzling New Orleans jazz/blues. Band members, ranging in age from 65 to 83, carry off these sonic adventures via drums, banjo, piano, accordion, electric bass, clarinet, trumpet, trombone. Fishbone can't touch this.
Hallandale's Bob Moore, a 71-year-old who plays trombone for the group, spent ten years with the Paddlewheel Queen's Dixieland band, just recently signing on as a Wac-O. "It's fun. I think it's wonderful," he says of his new gig. "The skits are corny and funny. Everybody laughs at us." Everybody, that is, who's cool enough to be dialed in to what's blazing the new frontier of music.
In this era of staid staging and predictable choreography, with pop stars able to substitute expensive lighting and flashpots for talent, it's refreshing to see an outfit that cuts no slack when it comes to delivering truly dangerous, in the best sense of that concept, live shows. With no less than ten suitcases full of props, Wac-Os will spontaneously jump into pantomime, or shoot a rubber duck into the air as four members ballet dance in tutus. Trumpet player Jerry Amann justifies their flamboyancy, their unwillingness to clone off proven, and thereby cliche, approaches. "It's more on the comedy side," he asserts. "It's so different. We've got a pretty good program and we'll be adding to it. As long as people keep the interest up, it should work out well." And blow a few minds to boot.