Thanks, Mike: Leckrone gives grand finale

University Communications - Jeff Miller
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV/UW-Madison Communications) -- Mike Leckrone knows how to make an entrance. Making an exit is much harder.

After 50 years as director of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band and 45 years of spring concerts, Leckrone said goodbye. Nearly 30,000 people attended his last three shows, selling out the Kohl Center Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“Shhhhh,” a little girl said, shushing her dad as the lights dimmed. The show was about to begin.

All eyes were on the air as the audience waited for the 82-year-old to take the stage. He’s flown in via hang glider, ski lift and jet pack before. How would he do it for his grand finale? Floating through the air under the arches of a mini Camp Randall, of course.

Thousands watched a livestream of the concert from the comfort of their own homes.

“That means you people way up there,” Leckrone said pointing to the top rows, “you’re paying too much.”

Leckrone doesn’t just direct the band. He directs the audience, so you best be paying attention.

“What part of the instructions didn’t you understand?” Leckrone said as he paced the stage looking for party poopers during “Rock & Roll #2.” “Jump up and say ‘hey!’”

Part of his success has been getting great performances out of his band members but also turning crowds into part of the show. He never asked us to jump. He demanded it.

Leckrone’s setlist has always been eclectic. Where else would you hear Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” all within 30 minutes of the start of the show?

The spring concert has a well-deserved reputation for less not being allowed and more never being enough. The beginning numbers all sound like they could be grand finales – or encores.

There were also songs from “Jersey Boys,” “The Music Man,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Greatest Showman.” You better believe he got the crowd to do the chicken dance.

Social media was abuzz with people watching the performance from all over the country, sharing memories of Mike and pride for being part of the legacy of band members who were “tough enough to eat a rock.”

It’s been nearly 25 years since Becky Gorton played trumpet in the band. Watching online would not do.

“I knew I had to be here,” Gorton said.

She lives in Minneapolis and hasn’t been back for a spring concert since the last one she performed in. Gorton brought her husband and their two daughters, Caitlyn, 8 and Elly, 6. Both looked stylish in their Badger cheerleading outfits. Gorton knew just what to wear, styling in her vintage Badger band jacket from her time playing from 1991 to 1995.

“The feeling of community is something I will never forget,” Gorton said.

Will the two little cheerleaders grow up to be in the band?

“It’s an option we’re thinking of,” said Caitlyn.

Current band members like Emily Pieper were in denial before the show.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said the freshman mellophonist from Milwaukee.

She knew she wanted to be part of the band, so much so that she only applied to UW-Madison.

“Other schools didn’t have this band,” Pieper said.

It’s incredibly hard work, Pieper said, and much harder than anyone who hasn’t been in the band can imagine.

“We work hard, but he works harder,” Pieper said.

She wishes she would have gotten to have him as a director for longer but feels grateful for being able be part of his last year.

“He really loves what he does. Seeing that commitment has given me a drive that I can apply to other things in life,” Pieper said.

For Mara Matovich, a senior trumpet player from Franklin, playing these last shows has been a whirlwind. She says it feels similar to previous spring concerts but completely different at the same time.

“You can tell Mike is a little more sentimental. You see more passion in the way he smiles and just in his presence,” Matovich says. “He’s living his best life.”

Leckrone is doing it with the expected flair for fashion, changing jackets five times during the show.

“I feel like I should be working for Purina,” he said while donning a red-checkered jacket, one of the many creations of Lois Levenhagen, his seamstress of 27 years.

The show had all of the theatrics fans have to come to expect – pyrotechnics, his infamous jet pack, and plenty of tuba jokes. But the real drama came from knowing this was the grand finale

“We should just pass tissues around,” a band member said before the show, laughing.

The faces of the band got more subdued as the end drew near. When it was time for “Varsity,” many band members sang “U-rah-rah” through tears.

Leckrone sang “Funny How Time Slips Away” and recalled how much has changed since he arrived at UW-Madison in 1969. Now there are auditions to get in the band. Back then?

“If you knew which end to blow in, you were in,” he said.

For Leckrone, building musical traditions with the help of so many, including “Sweet Caroline,” has been so good, so good. But now, his fifth quarter has come to an end.

“I can’t thank you enough for all the years,” Leckrone said. “I won’t say goodbye but we’ll see you real soon. And On, Wisconsin.”

“Moments of Happiness: UW Varsity Band Concert 2019,” will air on May 4 at 7 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

Leckrone has led the Badger Band for 50 years and decided to retire this season. He started the spring concerts in 1975. All three spring concerts at the Kohl Center this year — on April 11, 12 and 13 — were sold out.

According to a spokesperson for UW-Madison, Leckrone will also take part in the annual free concert and reception April 28 at 2 p.m. on campus.

Leckrone will also take part in the commencement ceremonies on May 10 and 11.