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George “Pug” Pilcher: Educator, Showman, Entrepreneur, and Mentor

By Allen Stone and Cholla Sizemore, News Review Contributors –

Pug Pilcher
Pug Pilcher | Courtesy Photo

Mr. Pilcher, as his students most commonly referred to him, was best known for the sweepstakes-winning bands he produced during his decades-long tenure at Trona High School. The combination of impeccably stylish uniforms, creative music selections, and well-rehearsed precision movements earned his band the well-deserved title of “The Pride of the High Desert.” These comparatively large bands and drill teams would explode onto the streets during parade season, and we immediately knew it was showtime. They were loud and they were magnificent. George “Pug” Pilcher was an extremely gifted individual on so many levels we feel duty-bound to provide a comprehensive snapshot of his adult life and the positive impact he had on so many people.

Oddly enough, Pug began teaching high school band while he was still a student at Northern State Teacher’s College in Aberdeen, South Dakota. According to a March 10, 1949, newspaper article, he was driving to Huron, South Dakota, twice a week to teach instrumental music at Brentford High School. There were 50 students attending Brentford High at the time. Before long, Pug had recruited 31 students into the newly formed band. On one occasion, the band performed a concert, along with the high school choir, to raise money for new choir robes – a testament to Pug’s entrepreneurial spirit and organizational skills.

During his time at Northern State, Pug happened to be reading a current issue of Downbeat Magazine and noticed a solicitation for a band director position in Trona, California. He called the number and by the time the conversation ended, he had secured the teaching position in Trona. Pug arrived in Trona during the summer of 1949 and began teaching band and music appreciation in the fall semester. The band first appeared in public in the spring of 1950 in downtown Trona. The band had no uniforms and, instead, wore white dress shirts and blue jeans, with white tape running down the legs of the jeans. Nevertheless, they were a huge hit. That said, Pug’s new assignment was not without certain logistical challenges. The class was initially facilitated in a temporary building and later moved to an area over a boiler room. It was not until the fall of 1968 that a new, stand-alone music facility was completed – the perfect venue to display over 100 trophies this program would eventually win.

The Trona High School band’s first appeared in public in the spring of 1950 in downtown Trona. | Courtesy Photo

At some point, between teaching engagements, Pug shifted his focus to the entertainment industry. He was, and still is, an iconic figure in the history and “lore” of Trona High School; however, little is known about his excursion into show business. A fair amount of the information we gathered surrounding his “show biz” career is anecdotal. That said, only those people with the closest connections to Pug were interviewed.

The Big Band era, as it is commonly referred to, was in full swing during the 1940s. Whenever the topic of Big Bands arises, names like Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Tommy Dorsey come to mind. Bandleaders Phil Levant and Gus Arnheim also enjoyed an impressive level of success and notoriety during the ‘40s. Pug was a regular member of these bands, both as a drummer and a composer. In 1947, Pug collaborated with Harry Burkes on a song entitled If We Don’t Love Again, which was published by Nordyke Publishing Company in Hollywood, California. Pug composed the music and Harry wrote the lyrics. These bands helped launch the careers of many notable band leaders and singers throughout the years, including Bing Crosby, Stan Kenton, and Woody Herman. Fred MacMurray, who played saxophone and did vocals for Arnheim’s band, eventually went on to become a Hollywood leading man. You may remember him as the father on the ‘60s sitcom “My Three Sons.”

Pug’s connections to the Big Band genre eventually followed him to Trona and impacted the lives of his students, both directly and indirectly. Some may remember congregating in the school cafeteria one night each year to purchase the musical instrument they intended to play in the elementary school (fifth grade) band. The various instruments were carefully laid out on the tables by a gentleman, resembling a character right out of a Tennessee Williams play, who spoke with a heavy, Carolina accent. He was the representative of Gutcher Music Company out of Bakersfield, California. This man was Whitey Thomas.

It is not exactly clear when or where Pug and Whitey first made their acquaintance, but it likely goes back to the Big Band era. Whitey played first trumpet with Glenn Miller’s band and his wife performed with Gus Arnheim. In any case, it was obvious, even to a casual observer, that Pug and Whitey had become close friends. By the way, playing the first trumpet with Glenn Miller’s band was a really big deal back in the day. Compared to modern-day standards, it would be equal to playing lead guitar with Santana or Van Halen.

Whitey visited Trona over the years on a regular basis, supplying Trona schools with musical instruments on behalf of Gutcher Music. He would sit in with the high school stage band from time to time and play along on his valve trombone. It was especially meaningful when we played the Glenn Miller tunes. Whitey switched from trumpet to valve trombone sometime after he retired from Miller’s band. It seems years of “high-level “trumpet playing had taken its toll on his lip. Whitey died in 2012. He was 92 years old.

Shortly after his arrival in Trona, Pug assembled a small group of “seasoned” musicians, thereafter known as Pug Pilcher’s Band. The group was comprised of talented, albeit part-time musicians, including retired professionals, students, and hobbyists. For example, Gene, the upright (double bass) player, was also a full-time janitor at Trona High School. While the membership of this eclectic group changed over the years, the high quality of the band’s music remained uncompromised. Pug’s band played a wide variety of venues throughout the “high desert” and beyond for nearly five decades.

Pug retired from teaching in 1980 and moved from Trona to Helendale, California (also known as Silver Lakes). Organizing a new dance band was his first order of business. This newly formed ensemble was known as the Silver Lakes Combo. It would be the last band Pug ever played with.

Pug Ugly Putter | Courtesy Photo

During his time in Helendale, he also spent a fair amount of time on the “links,” which led to the invention of the Pug-Ugly putter and the creation of The Pilcher Company. The unique putter promised to “line itself up,” which, at the time, seemed to be a miraculous claim. It touted a one-degree loft for instant roll and an extraordinarily long shaft – 48 inches, to be exact. The Pug-Ugly was eventually sold in nine countries and was featured in a book called Offbeat Golf by Bob Loeffelbein.

George “Pug” Pilcher passed away in July 2004. During the creation of this homage to Mr. Pilcher, Allen Stone commented, “Whenever I hear the Dan Fogelberg song, Leader of the Band, my thoughts immediately go out to Mr. Pilcher. I expect this is the case with many, if not most, of his students.” Jan Long Reichert, a fellow Pilcher student, added, “It was all due to his enthusiastic love of music. He was impressive with his knowledge and shared it with whoever wanted to learn.”