Charlotte Owen, First and Only Conductor of the US Women's Marine Band
And First Female Conductor in the U.S. Marine Corps
Charlotte Plummers first experience as a Conductor was when her mother dressed her up as a boy in a blue sailor suit and her classroom teacher invited her to conduct their kindergarten band. Beginning with piano lessons from her mother, a fine piano teacher, Charlotte took up saxophone in the third grade, and later studied clarinet seriously. In high school, during the Great Depression of the 30s, their family had a dance band that played dance gigs in the Grange Halls every weekend. She played first clarinet all through school and won top honors in the solo contests. In college at the University of Oregon, Charlotte majored in Music Education [clarinet and conducting] and was honored to conduct the University High School Band in her senior year. After graduation in 1939, Charlotte taught music in La Grande, OR and then at Commerce High in Portland, OR.
World War II was in full swing. The last tuba player dropped out of her Commerce High School Band to take lucrative work in the local shipyards. That summer her clarinet teacher called her to his studio and showed her an article with the slogan, Free a Man to Fight, telling that the Marine Corps was recruiting women for a US Marine Corps Women's Reserve Band. The US Marine Corps Women's Reserve was a reserve unit which provided women for shore duty in the Marine Corps to take over jobs so men could be released for combat duty. Charlotte enlisted and was immediately accepted because of her high qualifications as musician and director. She boarded the troop train and arrived at Camp Lejeune, N.C. alone at night. The next morning she was assigned to Company C and Area 1, womens area, and found other gals who had enlisted to play in the band.
Captain Santelman, Conductor of the all-male US Marine Band in Washington, D.C., brought with him three men to Camp Lejeune to help train the new lady recruits: Andrew Bodner, 1st clarinet; Eddie Masters, solo trumpet; and Charles Owen, who was timpanist and marimba soloist with the Marine Band. Mr. Owen had been in the Marine Band for 10 years, was the only single man, and would later become Charlotte's husband! They began auditioning ladies for acceptance into the Women Marine Band and trained them with details of performance. Its members were selected from colleges and music schools across the country. It became the official band for the Women Reserve Schools located at Camp Lejeune and played for all functions of thousands of Marines there.
Less than two months after arriving, Charlotte was given the position as Conductor, Private First Class. Soon, Charlotte Owen, Bonnie Medin, and Margaret Merrill formed a vocal trio that went around the base and performed to let the Marines know of the bands existence. February 12, 1944, they were on Coast to Coast Radio, a National Broadcasting Company hookup from Camp Lejeune, N.C. They kept a busy schedule with about 29 concerts a month, performing for troop trains, hospitals, Camp Theater Concerts, graduations, Guard Mount Reviews, outdoor concerts, dance band concerts.
After a two week furlough, in November 1944, the 45 ladies of the Women's Marine Band took off by bus on an extensive 5 week tour of Marine Bases as far west as Chicago. November 14, 1944 they stopped off at the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. and broadcast a program in Sousa Hall over the Mutual Network. This was the only recording ever made of the WR Band!
In the spring of 1945 the all-male Marine Band came to Camp Lejeune to perform before a large crowd estimated at 5,000. Charlotte was the first woman invited to guest conduct the famed Marine Band during its performance of March of the Women Marines by Louis Savario, written specifically for her and the ladies of the WR Band!
Charlotte was also offered an officers commission which she turned down.
In May of 1945, the women left for Pittsburgh on their 2nd War Bond Tour, concentrating mainly on East Coast cities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.
On September 12, 1945, Charlotte and Charlie Owen were married in Falls Church, Virginia, with many men Marines and Women Marine Band members present along with their relatives from Ohio and Oregon. On October 25, 1945, the WR Band embarked on their third whirlwind tour entitled Victory Bond Drive mostly to cities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In Nov, Charlotte and Charlie moved to Virginia.
Charles Owen continued as Timpanist and Marimba Soloist with the US Marine Band and Charlotte played 1st Clarinet in the Arlington Symphony. Nine years later, they moved to Penna where Charles was Principal Percussion with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charlotte continued teaching and performed 1st Clarinet with the Main Line Symphony, and raised the family. After 18 years, Mr. Owen became Head of Percussion Department at the University Of Michigan School Of Music. Charlotte continued teaching private clarinet/ sax lessons for 33 years in Ann Arbor and served as the Conductor of the Ann Arbor Civic Band for 17 wonderful years.
Charlotte was a Life Member of the Mu Phi Epsilon Professional Music Sorority, the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, The Association of Concert Bands, Women Band Directors International, and remained President of US Women Marine Association Chapter USA-1.
This Scholarship Award is sponsored by her daughter, Susan Bissiri.