Circle City Sidewalk Stompers start another season

By Katherine Coplen

» About 39 years ago, Steve Sutherlin had a dream about starting a band. As he tells it, he had spent the day at an amusement park, where he saw a group of musicians: a dancing, playing group of clown marchers. That night Sutherlin, a trumpeter, fell asleep and dreamed about forming his own band.

“I was so excited during that dream,” he says. “The next morning I got up … and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I had this dream about forming a clown band, and I’m going to do it.’ I had no idea we’d become a pep band for an NBA team, be playing for an NFL team, be internationally traveling. My dream came true.”

Sutherlin, 60, sits down to talk about the product of that dream, the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers Clown Band, at an early spring practice in the basement of Roberts Park United Methodist Church in downtown Indianapolis. While his band members learn new choreography to “Mahna Mahna” in an adjoining room, Sutherlin runs down the history of his group.

Soon after that dream, he did start his own band. The group’s first few shows were in what is now the Greenwood Park Mall, which then was the open-air Greenwood Shopping Center.

“In the very beginning, I got musicians from various high schools, colleges and so forth, and I put together a group of nine people,” he recalls. “After about three or four months of actually working the routine, it was time to venture out and actually do the show. By doing three shows at that mall, we gained three more jobs off of that. The second show was in Columbus, at the mall down there.”

Through their mall shows, the Sidewalk Stompers caught the attention of the Simon family, who asked the group to join on as pep band for the Indiana Pacers. (The team is owned by Herb Simon.) Sutherlin and company are still the NBA team’s official pep band. The group also put in almost 19 years with the Indianapolis Colts as the Twelfth Man Brass Band, until the team shifted to highlighting drum lines three or so years ago.

» Going International

Outside of the group’s hundreds of shows in Indiana, Sutherlin has taken his Stompers from the East Coast to the West, hitting many states in between, even Alaska. (Hawaii is his next goal.) And the group has done bigger trips, too, including major festival performances in France and China. In 1996, the Sidewalk Stompers traveled to France for the Nice Carnival, an annual event on the French Riviera. “After our performance … we came back on stage for an encore,” he says, “and the French people started chanting ‘USA, USA, USA.’ I never thought I’d ever hear that.”

The band poses with fans during an International Music Festival  in Shanghai, China.

The band poses with fans during an International Music Festival in Shanghai, China.

Less than 10 years later, the group was in Shanghai, slated to perform at an international music festival. Sutherlin describes the scene at the Shanghai airport: “I remember walking off the plane, and the people were clapping and applauding, smiling. That place was so packed with people; it was so amazing. … Oh my, what a welcoming we had.”

Of course, it’s not all international travel and Pacers games for the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers. Right now, the band is in rehearsal mode, including a daylong band camp at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

“We take one day in March or April and have use of one of the pavilions over at the fairgrounds,” bass drummer David McCullough explains. “We take most of the day, have a band camp and learn the whole (new show).”

McCullough says the band camp is a relatively new addition to the Sidewalk Stompers’ yearly schedule, instituted three or so years ago by music director Adam Clutinger, who joined in 2005.

As music director, Clutinger picks the music the group will play, rotating two songs out each year. The group, then, must regularly learn new music and choreographed routines.

Some of this year’s set include the songs “Thriller” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Medley.” The group also has approximately 45 “stand and plays” — tunes that members play at random at Pacers games or in other non-choreographed performances.

Though the band practices in Indianapolis, Sutherlin makes his home a bit farther south. After retiring from a career at Rolls-Royce, he moved from the southside of Indianapolis to Franklin, where he spends his time restoring a 1909 home with his wife, Melanie.

“Franklin is a very, very nice town,” he says. “I’m happy to be a part of Franklin.”

But the home renovation projects will have to take a backseat to some more traveling this summer, when the band heads out to the Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville, Kentucky, followed by a long stay at the San Diego County Fair, where it will play 66 shows over the course of 11 days. Locally, the Stompers will be back at the Indiana State Fair in August.

“I’ve done this 39 years, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Sutherlin says of his band.