Dressed in brightly colored vests, wild printed shorts and crazy hats, the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers clown band marched toward downtown Franklin.

Blowing Dixieland jazz on trumpets, saxophone and trombone — accented by bass and snare drums — their procession attracted onlookers as they moved down Main Street past homes, shops and restaurants around the courthouse square.

When they stopped in front of Wild Geese Bookshop, they unveiled their signature dance move.

Story continues below gallery

“We have this thing where we get down on the ground and do these leg kicks while we’re playing our instruments. It’s all designed that way, and when people see us get down on the ground, they couldn’t believe it,” said Steve Sutherlin, founder of the group and a Franklin resident.

The Circle City Sidewalk Stompers have been a musical tradition in central Indiana for more than 40 years. The band has been the house performers for the Indiana Pacers for decades, performed at state fairs throughout the country and traveled as far as China to share their love of brass music and outlandish choreography.

Sutherlin is the only original member who has been with the band since it started in 1976. But while the personnel has changed over the years, the foundation of fun that the group has been built on has only grown stronger over time.

“It’s the kind of music I love playing. I enjoy a wide variety of things, which the group pulls off well,” said Adam Clutinger, the band’s music director. “It’s a perfect blend of getting to play with really good musicians and really good people, and have a blast doing it.”

Sutherlin, who grew up in Southport, came up with the idea for a clown band after seeing a similar group performing at an amusement park. He had been playing the trumpet since he was 5 years old and had been involved in bands through Boy Scouts and school throughout his life.

But this was something different, he said.

“I’d done serious music during high school. I didn’t want to do all of that. I wanted something that was fun,” Sutherlin said. “You raise the speed of the tune up to make it exciting for people to listen to. Then you put marching and dance steps and choreography, and that adds to it.”

Sutherlin enlisted a friend from high school, Donna Schock, to work out choreography for the band. He purchased upbeat, fun music and had colorful uniforms made. At first, he recruited friends and family to join the band, then opened up auditions.

The first practices were at the shelter house at Southport Park, or in members’ front yards. Their first real performances were in local malls owned by Mel and Herb Simon, who hired the musicians to do grand openings and other events.

The success locally led the Simons to have the band fly throughout the country to do events. Sutherlin worked full-time at Allison Engine Co., but organized the band in his free time and on weekends.

“We’d leave on a Friday after work, then play Saturday and Sunday, and be home by Sunday evening,” Sutherlin said. “They’d line up three or four malls at a time.”

When the Simon brothers bought the Indiana Pacers, they asked the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers to be the house band. Starting in the 1983-84 season, they filled Market Square Arena with their infectious brass music from their position directly behind the hoop on the east end of the court.

Sutherlin put together a portfolio of song snippets, usually between 20 and 90 seconds long, to perform during possessions or timeouts.

After four seasons, they transitioned from simply performing during games to being more of a pep band for the team, doing some work in the arena but also playing before and after games outside or in the concourse. They were also playing every home playoff game.

The members of the band were present from some of the greatest moments in Pacers history, including much of Reggie Miller’s playoff heroics.

“The atmosphere was amazing. The place would be shaking and vibrating. There was nothing like it,” Sutherlin said.

The Circle City Sidewalk Stompers also served as a band for the Indianapolis Colts, performing for fans as they entered the Hoosier Dome and then Lucas Oil Stadium. They were known as the Twelfth Man Brass Band.

The band has about 20 members, though only 12 go out to play at a time. That gives organizers flexibility in case some members can’t attend an event. Potential members audition to be part of the group, playing for Cutinger, Sutherlin and his son, Bryan Sutherlin, who has been active in the band since he was 13.

“Being something you watch as a kid, you grow up doing, and all of the sudden, you have a shot at going out there and having fun. It’s fun to entertain the crowd and make people laugh,” Bryan Sutherlin said.

Clutinger joined the band in 2005 as a lead trumpet player. A longtime musician and teacher, he was drawn to the band because it’s a blend of talented performers who don’t take themselves too seriously.

“I’ve been in groups that are either really good but kind of stuffy, or tons of fun but they don’t play as well. The neat thing about the clown band is that they really do both things well. That’s really unique,” he said.

Clutinger’s job as music director is to put together the songs the band plays, adding new selections and choosing from the existing repertoire to find the perfect set list for particular performances.

He always has his ears open to music that might work well for the clown band.

“Another nice thing about being part of so many good musicians is they are always listening for new stuff. They certainly are not shy about sending things my way, saying that it might be a lot of fun to perform,” he said.

Throughout the years, the band became regulars at fairs and other events around the country. The group has played at the Indiana State Fair since the late 1970s.They have gone everywhere from Virginia to Alaska to Wisconsin for state fairs. Since 2001, the band has traveled to California for the San Diego County Fair, performing 66 shows each year around the fairgrounds.

Many times, the band is hired for private events and parties. One year, they were asked to dress in Santa outfits, but to perform the full Michael Jackson “Thriller” routine.

“We had to perform in front of all of these people eating dinner, and do the ‘Thriller’ dance in the outfit. All we could think was, ‘How did we get here? Who came up with this?’ Somebody came up with this idea for us. It was funny,” Bryan Sutherlin said.

One of their favorite gigs has become the annual Great American Brass Band Festival held in Danville, Kentucky. As the most talented brass performers in the world descend on central Kentucky for a full weekend of hot trumpet and wailing saxophone, the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers have set themselves apart, said Niki Kinkade, executive director of the festival.

“The Sidewalk Stompers are a favorite among festival-goers and bring a level of color and fun that is appreciated by all ages,” she said. “One year, we had a group of young children dress up as the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers and march in the parade. They are truly a favorite here at the Brass Band Festival.”

But their reputation has extended even beyond the U.S. The Sidewalk Stompers traveled to Nice, France, in 1996 for the massive Carnival Nice, a Mardi Gras-like festival.

“After we left the stage after performing, the people there started chanting ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ That was amazing, so we went back out to do an encore,” Steve Sutherlin said. “When we left, people had their hands out, like we were rock stars.”

Then, an appearance in Las Vegas, at the International Association of Fairs and Expositions Convention, helped the band make a connection in China. They’ve performed twice in the country, once in 2005 and again in 2011.

During the 2005 trip to Shanghai, they played for the country’s Labor Week, a large national holiday. The band performed in front of 20,000 people in a packed amphitheater.

“Playing to all of those people was so memorable,” Steve Sutherlin said. “Over there, they don’t have a lot of brass instruments. They have a lot of drums, gongs, string instruments. You put a brass band in that situation, wearing loud clothing, along with marching and dance steps, it’s going to grab attention.”

A second trip to China followed in 2011, this time to help open a massive luxury mall in Jinan.

The Circle City Sidewalk Stompers will mark their 41st year playing music this fall. Steve Sutherlin is already making preparations for the future, slowly transitioning directing responsibilities to Bryan Sutherlin.

“It’s all about family with this group, and the honor to be part of something with this legacy doesn’t come around every day,” Bryan Sutherlin said. “That’s the driving force for me — I want to see it continue. This has been an iconic band in Indy for so many years. So many people know us. It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of it.”

At a glance

The Circle City Sidewalk Stompers

What: A brass band that combines lively music, choreographed dance moves and loud, garish outfits to form a clown band.

Where do they play: Community events, parades, festivals and concerts throughout Indiana and the U.S.

Founder: Franklin resident Steve Sutherlin

Number of members: About 20

How to get in touch with them: Contact Sutherlin at 317-696-4407 or steve@clownband.com

Information: clownband.com

If you go

500 Festival Kids’ Day

What: A free carnival-like event featuring local mascots, mini race cars, giant inflatables and live children’s entertainment.

When: Noon to 4 p.m. today

Where: Monument Circle, downtown Indianapolis

The Circle City Sidewalk Stompers will perform from noon to 1 p.m. at the event.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.