By Moton H. Crockett, JR.
In 1922, Mr. Carl D. Greenleaf, an alum of the University of Chicago and president of C.G. Conn, Ltd., gave 100 instruments plus Big Bertha to the University of Chicago, where his son Leland, played in the band. After obtaining the largest animal hides they could find at the Chicago stockyards, the drum division of C.G. Conn, Ltd., Leedy & Ludwig, made the 8’ by 54” (1) shell for Big Bertha. The name “Big Bertha” comes from a German, World War I cannon. It was on October 28, 1922, that Big Bertha was presented for the first time at a football game in Chicago’s stadium (Stagg Field) between the University of Chicago and Princeton University; Chicago lost.
In 1939, the University of Chicago de-emphasized their sports program, quit playing football, got rid of their marching band and put all of the equipment and instruments, including Big Bertha, in storage underneath the West stands of Chicago’s stadium. It was in this same area where the Manhattan Project produced the first nuclear chain reaction. Some thought that the drum might have become radioactive but in 1946, the University’s magazine reported that the drum had passed a Geiger test and was free of contamination.
The University of Chicago offered Big Bertha back to the Conn Co., and they took it back. Some time later the drum was transported to New York City to provide the “cannon fire” during a presentation of the 1812 Overture. In 1952, the drum was used in a film about John Phillip Souza’s life, called “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, with Clifton Webb, Debra Paget and Robert Wagner. It was during this time that Big Bertha’s heads were papered over with advertising about the film.
In the Fall of 1954, Col. D. Harold Byrd, a longtime benefactor of the Longhorn Band, requested me to get the largest drum I could find for the band. I began the search with the assistance of Austin’s J.R. Reed Music Company. During the search, the music company discovered a large abandoned drum, Big Bertha, at the C.G. Conn Music Company in Elkhart, Indiana.
In December of 1954 I arranged to see the drum while attending the annual convention of the College Band Directors Association in Chicago. From Chicago, I rode a train to Elkhart, Indiana where I viewed the drum in the Conn warehouse. Later, in Mr. Greenleaf’s office, he told me that he wanted the largest university in the largest state to have the largest drum in the world. He said he couldn’t give it to me, as Purdue University (2) wanted it as a gift, but he would sell it to me for $1.00. I was happy to pay him the dollar, and he wrote out a receipt and gave it to me.
I made arrangements for a U-Haul trailer and a tarpaulin to cover the drum, and then went back to Chicago to finish the Band Director’s conference and to borrow a new 1954 four-door Ford Fairlane. I drove back to Elkhart arriving around noon on December 20th. Leaving Elkhart, about 4:00 p.m. pulling the drum in the U-Haul Trailer, behind the Ford Fairlane, I started for Austin in a light snow. Three days later, after overnight stops in St. Louis and Dallas, I pulled into Austin.
In the summer of 1955, I restored the drum for the first time. The shell was repainted, new flesh hoops of monel steel and new bright orange counter hoops were made and all of the metal rods were chrome plated. The heads were soaked in a public park pool to eliminate the paper advertising signs. With the help of two instrument repairmen from the J.R. Reed Music Company, the original heads were put back on the drum. The maroon lettering and shield of the University of Chicago were carefully removed from the heads and a local sign company painted the new University of Texas slogans and shield on Big Bertha.
In October 1962, Big Bertha’s original leather heads were cut by vandals after the Texas-Arkansas game which Texas won by 7-3 in the last few seconds of the game. It is one of these damaged, but original, leather heads that is displayed at The University of Texas on the East wall of The Proctor Day Band Hall.
In the fall of 1991, after the September 21st game with Auburn (Auburn 14-Texas10) Big Bertha was lent to the University of Chicago for one year to help them celebrate their 100th Anniversary.
Between 1962 and 1997, many substitute heads for Big Bertha were tried, but after the 1997 football season, Director Paula Crider asked me to examine the drum and determine what could be done to fix some of the ailments she was experiencing: detached heads, dimpled head surfaces, faded paint, and tarnished metal fittings. I found out that the Remo Drum Co. in Valencia California could make new plastic heads for Big Bertha. These were ordered and J.P. Kirksey had the metal fittings chrome plated by the Cen-Tex Plating Co. of Austin, and when the new heads arrived the logos were painted on them by the “Big Sign Co.,” of Kyle, Texas. J.P. Kirksey also repainted the counter hoops with custom tinted Burt Orange paint from Sherwin-Williams and made a new mallet for the drum. Reassembly was accomplished by Kirksey and myself with the help from several members of Kappa Kappa Psi. Big Bertha took the field for the 1998 football season opener on September 5th, Texas 66-New Mexico State 36.
On January 1, 2005, Big Bertha made her first appearance in Pasadena, California in the Rose Bowl where Vince Young and the Longhorns defeated the University of Michigan (Texas 38-Michigan 37).
In the summer of 2005, several of the metal “claws” which hold the counter-hoops on the big drum became unusable, and a decision was made to have the Cypress Industries Co. of Austin make 78 new “claws” which were installed on the drum before the start of the 2005 football season.
On Alumni Band Day, September 17, 2005, a reenactment of the delivery of Big Bertha by me to Mr. De Nino took place at half-time during the Rice game (Texas 51-Rice10). This was to commemorate Big Bertha’s presence on the U.T. campus for fifty (50) years. A new march, (Birthday Bash for Bertha) by a former Longhorn Band Member, Randal Alan Bass, was performed for the first time in public at the Missouri game on October 1, 2005 at half-time. Final Score, Texas 51- Missouri 20.
The following January 4, 2006, Vince Young and the Longhorns won the NCAA National Football Championship in the Rose Bowl, Texas 41-USC 38, and Big Bertha was there. I was happy to provide a portion of the cost to transport Big Bertha to these two Rose Bowl games.
In March of 2007 it was time to get Bertha another complete overhaul. This time I asked the Remo Drum Co., to do the job. The wood shell of the drum was repaired, all metal hardware was re-chromed, and new heads and new graphics were installed. J.P. Kirksey had the drum’s carriage repaired and repainted, repainted the wheels orange to match the counter hoops, and put new tires on it. When the drum was placed on its carriage, it looked like a bright, shiny new instrument and was ready for the 2007 football season.
Now, in January of 2009, I am looking forward to a plan by the Director of Athletics, DeLoss Dodds and the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Douglas Dempster, to place Big Bertha in a secure location in the new facilities in the north end of the stadium where the public can view this wonderful and historic icon of The University of Texas. (3)
Additional information added by J. P. Kirksey beginning October 1, 2019
(1) Stating that the giant drum is 54” wide is a typographical error and is repeated in numerous publications – electronic and hard copy. Originally Bertha was 44” wide when measured between the edges of the two wooden rims (counter hoops). It was reduced to 41” wide when Remo made new aluminum rims as part of the reconstruction in 2007. The drum was never 54” wide.
When Moton Crockett first saw the giant drum at C. G. Conn Music Company in Elkhart, Indiana, the heads were covered with paper handbills promoting the movie “Stars & Stripes Forever” – the movie about John Phillips Sousa’s life. A photograph shows Moton and Mr. Carl Greenleaf observing the drum. At the bottom of the drumhead there is a marketing logo stating that the drum was made by Leedy & Ludwig. That was assumed to be fact from 1954 until 2014 when preparations were underway for Bertha’s trip to London for the 2015 New Year’s Day Parade.
In a quest to determine a replacement cost estimate for insurance purposes, I was put in touch with Harry Cangany of Indianapolis, Indiana. Harry is a drum historian who writes for Modern Drummer and has extensive background knowledge and material. He had heard of Big Bertha and took great interest in the London project which resulted in extensive research about the history of the drum. Following his research, he reported back to me that he found a small manufacturer who could build a reproduction of Bertha – fiberglass shell instead of wood – for about $35,000.
Harry also reported inconsistencies with the previous belief that Leedy & Ludwig made the drum. His research revealed that the drum was made in the drum shop of C. G. Conn in 1922 and that Conn had purchased Leedy & Ludwig in 1929 – seven years after the drum was made and presented to the University of Chicago by Conn.
When the movie about John Philip Sousa was made and the paper handbills were placed on the heads, it was probably astute marketing by Conn to promote their then subsidiary, Leedy & Ludwig. But, in fact, the previously independent Leedy & Ludwig had no part in the original construction of Big Bertha.
(2) In earlier discussions with Moton, he occasionally changed his remembrance from Purdue to the University of Indiana. Not that we will ever know for sure nor is it highly important, but it was most likely the University of Indiana since Purdue already had a giant drum that was manufactured in 1921 by Leedy Manufacturing Company.
(3) For many years (1955 until the current Band Hall – Music Building East – was constructed in 1970), Big Bertha was stored in an alcove of the North End Zone of Memorial Stadium with only a tall chain link fence and gate to protect her from intrusion. When the new Band Hall was constructed, provision was made for Big Bertha and she was stored in the main rehearsal hall with stately Bertha Doors providing access.
In the early 1980’s, Moton had a large enclosed trailer constructed by Magnum Custom Trailer so the drum could be safely transported to out-of-town games/events. Unfortunately, a rollover accident (no one was injured and Bertha was not damaged) on IH-35 between Austin & Dallas resulted in a University of Texas policy that prohibited Bertha from being towed in the trailer. So, the trailer was parked behind the Band Hall just outside the Bertha Doors and Bertha spent all of her non-performing time locked in the trailer and out of sight.
When the North End Zone of DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium was reconstructed, Athletic Director, Deloss Dodds assured us that Bertha would have a permanent home in a prominent location just inside the main entrance to the North End Zone food court. Bertha was first placed in that location in the summer of 2009 where she could be admired and appreciated by everyone who visited the stadium. Bertha resided there until a subsequent Athletic administration decided to convert the space into an Athletic Hall of Fame. Bertha was summarily removed from the area.