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1902 Bandwagon from the 
Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth

More about Karl King

Karl Lawrence King was born in the Ohio village of Paintersville February 21, 1891, and grew up in Zenia, Cleveland, and Canton. The local town band in Canton stirred his love and talent for music, so at the age of eleven he bought a cornet with money earned by selling newspapers and began lessons. He soon exchanged that instrument for a euphonium which he played in the Canton Marine Band (made up of boys his own age). His only formal music instruction consisted of four piano lessons and one harmony lesson from a musical show director, William Bradford. Karl's education ended with completion of the eighth grade. He then set about learning the printing trade as an apprentice. He began composing at night while working at the printer's shop during the day.

His first professional playing was with the Thayer Military Band of Canton, and the Neddermeyer Concert Band (1909) of Columbus. At 19, Karl joined Robinson's Famous Circus (1910) as a baritone player. Over the next several years he played baritone with the Yankee-Robinson (1911), Sells-Floto (directed by W.P. English, 1912), and Barnum & Bailey Circuses (directed by Ned Brill, 1913). It was in 1913 that he wrote Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, which became one of the most popular marches in the world. It was soon adopted as the theme song of that circus. In 1914 he was appointed bandmaster with Sells-Floto and Buffalo Bill Combined Shows, a position he held through 1916. For two years he was then Bandmaster with Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth taking along his wife, Ruth (Lovett), who played a calliope with the circus. In 1919 the Kings returned to Canton where he directed the Grand Army Band of Canton.

Karl King's gift for composing was apparent at an early age, and he had several compositions published while still in his teens. In all, King published over 200 marches. In addition to this impressive feat, which earned him the title, America's March King, he also composed waltzes, overtures, intermezzos, serenades, dirges, rags, and galops, totaling almost another 100 selections.

Karl King moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1920 as the result of a classified advertisement in a national musician's publication. He was offered the position of conductor of the Fort Dodge Municipal Band, a post he accepted and held for over 50 years. There in Fort Dodge he raised his family (one son, Karl Jr.), established a successful music publishing business, composed music, and directed the municipal band. For over 40 years he and that group appeared at state and regional fairs, rodeos and expositions, as well as local concerts. The official title of the band was the Fort Dodge Municipal Band, but within a short time after he assumed leadership of the group it became known simply as King's Band. After his death, it was formally renamed the Karl L. King Municipal Band of Fort Dodge.

King's influence on the band was immediate and considerable. The older members of the band liked him and respected him as a conductor and musician, and took pride in his national reputation. He quickly established his goals, style, and program repertoire, which was pleasing to the band members and the audiences alike. He was a demanding but patient leader, expecting the very best from each musician.

Younger members of the band, usually high school musicians, viewed him with a combination of admiration, total respect bordering on awe, and just a tinge of fear that they could not measure up to his standards. His influence on these younger players had a profound effect on their lives. Many went on to become distinguished musicians, educators, and bandmasters themselves. Reginald Schive, later a director of the same band, is an example. No one who played under the baton of Karl King would ever forget the experience and the pride of having once worn the uniform of King's Band.


The Karl King Band at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. in 1921

Karl King became a beloved and respected citizen and a dominant personality in his new home town. His friendship was treasured by everyone who knew him, and his advice and opinions were sought and respected. He became a quiet but forceful influence with the community leaders, local politicians, the local newspaper, and the local radio station. He always worked for the betterment of his community with the same pride, diligence, and care that he used when rehearsing his band.

Karl was quite a familiar figure on main street. Most mornings he could be seen in the next door barbershop having one of his greatest pleasures, stretching out in the chair getting his morning shave. He would usually have his coffee break at the corner restaurant, visiting with the main street businessmen. His daily walk to the post office (a block and a half) took up a considerable portion of his day. Everyone he met stopped to say hello, visit, seek advice, or comment on his latest concert. Karl had time for each of them, including occasionally someone down on their luck seeking a handout. His twice weekly trip to the Fort Dodge Messenger with his program for the Sunday or Thursday night concert always included a short visit with the editor, or a joke with his good friend, the city editor, and a word with the reporter to whom he delivered the program. And, often as not, he would stroll into the galley room next to the news room where one of his young band members would be changing or cleaning type. Karl would reflect on his own youth as an apprentice printer, often staying long enough to get some printer's ink on his fingers or shirt.

Karl King became a great favorite with the press and radio media. He was always intelligent in his opinion, pertinent, frequently witty, and always quotable. His trips, guest appearances, and honors were always major news items. In 1956, when his moustache worn since 1919 was shaved, it was dutifully featured in the local paper under the caption, Fort Dodge Loses Another Famous Landmark.

King belonged to the First Congregational Church, the Masonic Lodge, Commandery Shrine, High Twelve Service Club, Rotary Club, Elk's Club, and was an honorary member of the Chamber of Commerce. He served as the president of the Iowa Bandmasters Associationand as president of the American Bandmasters Association. He held an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. He was elected in 1962 to the highest honor that can come to a band director, the Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts. He was elected in 1966 to the Society of European Stage Actors and Composers. King was given in 1967 the Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity Distinguished Service Award, and in 1971, the Edwin Franco Goldman Award (the first non-school band director to receive this coveted award given by the National Band Association). In 1980, the National Band Association listed Karl in the Hall of Fame of Distinguished Band Conductors.

Karl L King BridgeKarl King's greatest tributes came from his adopted hometown and state. Signs at the major highways leading into Fort Dodge proclaimed, Welcome to Fort Dodge, Home of Karl L. King. In 1951, some 250 friends from Fort Dodge, the state, and the nation, honored him at a testimonial dinner in Des Moines, attended by the Governor of Iowa, William Beardsley. The largest of several gifts presented was a new Buick Roadmaster. Karl was named Elk of the Year by the local Elk's lodge, and he received the Lion's Club Community Service Award.

In 1962, King and his band appeared dutifully at the dedication of a new two million dollar viaduct spanning the Des Moines River. When the plaque was unveiled, it bore the name of Karl L. King, a well kept secret until that moment.

In 1966, King said: I've sung my song. It was a rather simple one; it wasn't too involved; I'm happy about it. In the last couple years . . . I've run out of tunes. When I ran out of tunes, I believed it was time to quit, and I'd like to recommend that as a matter of policy to all other composers.

Karl and Ruth King were buried in Fort Dodge. Their monument is near the entrance of North Lawn Cemetery.

In 1975 Karl King received posthumously the Iowa Award, which is the highest honor the state can bestow on an individual. The award was presented by Governor Robert Ray to Karl's wife, Ruth King, during ceremonies at the All-State Music Festival in Ames.

Thanks to Duane A. Olson for much of the material for this biography of Karl King.

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