Why would an early forerunner of the legendary rock band KISS have played a ninth-grade dance at McManus Junior High School in 1971? Because one of the band members was also the instrumental music teacher at the school.
By Gary Miller
Who remembers when McManus rock-and-rolled all night?
The year was 1971. Students at the Linden school, which then housed Grades 7 through 9 and was known as McManus Junior High School, were getting ready for their ninth-grade spring dance and needed a live band.
The instrumental music teacher at the time, Brooke Ostrander, offered up his band, which played original songs and some contemporary rock hits of the time from such bands as the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, and Jethro Tull. Ostrander, who had just started his career at McManus in January 1969, played keyboards and flute for the band, known as Wicked Lester.
Nothing special about any of this. But the names of two of Ostrander’s bandmates from that night may ring a bell: Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley – founding members of the legendary rock band KISS.
KISS made its debut in 1974 and went on to be one of the biggest rock bands of the ’70s, known for songs such as “Rock and Roll All Nite.” KISS sold out stadiums to fans drawn by their ground-shaking sound, glam-rock costumes, and of course their one-of-a-kind makeup, which kept their faces hidden from the public for years.
But in 1971, Simmons and Stanley were in a small New York-based band that was known first as Rainbow and then Wicked Lester, playing small gigs at an armory, a college campus and a youth convention.
And at least one in Linden, according to multiple sources, with a keyboard and flute player whose full-time job was as a band teacher at McManus.
News of the McManus show resurfaced this year when Mark Kohut, art teacher at School No. 8 and School No. 9, was reading “KISS: Behind the Mask – Official Authorized Biography” by David Leaf and Ken Sharp, which was published by Grand Central Publishing in 2008. The book talked about the band’s early days, including Ostrander’s contributions to Rainbow and Wicked Lester.
Kohut was shocked to come across this quote from Ostrander:
“We played the prom at McManus Junior High in Linden, New Jersey. I taught there. I was the band director. The gig went great. I told the kids who were getting the groups together that we did original material. It wasn’t going to be a Top 40 band.”
Unfortunately, Ostrander died in 2011, so there was no way to discuss the show with him. But at least two members of the McManus class of 1971 remember Ostrander, and the night that Wicked Lester came to town.
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Brooke Ostrander was early into his teaching career in 1971, but his father, Bill Ostrander, was a longtime elementary school music teacher in Linden, from 1951 to 1977. Brooke struck a chord with students at McManus because he brought a young person’s love for the modern rock music of the time.
“We all loved him because he was so cool,” said Mary Kelly, McManus Class of 1971.
Rich Hoffman, also McManus ’71, remembers Ostrander teaching students to play the overture from “Tommy” by The Who, as well as Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” for their spring concert.
“He helped inspire me and many of my very close musical friends to be better and more experimental musicians,” Hoffman said.
And Kelly and Hoffman both remember Wicked Lester. Hoffman says he spent time jamming with Ostrander, Simmons and Stanley at Ostrander’s apartment in Roselle.
“I owned a portable stereo cassette recorder and offered to record two of their earliest gigs,” Hoffman said. “One at a CYO center in Staten Island and the other the [McManus] ninth-grade spring dance.
“What I would do to have those tapes today!”
Kelly remembers one song specifically that Wicked Lester played at the McManus show: “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix.
“I don’t think the other teachers who served as chaperones at the dance were enamored of his music,” she said. “I remember the band playing ‘Hey Joe’ and there being some rumbling about the lyrics.”
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Ostrander’s tenure in Linden Public Schools was short, leaving at the end of the 1970-71 school year. But as his bandmates went on to become Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, he stuck with being a public school music teacher. Ostrander taught for a while in Montana, then spent 26 years at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton, Vt., a school of about 11,000 students in Grades 7 through 12.
“He had a huge impact on the students at my school and there is a tribute concert to him every year in August,” said Jenn Vilandre, a former student of Ostrander’s in Vermont.
Ostrander was director of the school’s instrumental music program and manager of the student theater. He started a program known as “MTV,” which stands for music, technology, and video, in the late 1980s, as well as a student rock band called Paragon, and student jazz band called Low Profile.
“He was very innovative and creative, and certainly the kind of person that you enjoyed being around,” said Jay Hartman, principal of Missisquoi Valley Union High School, who called his late colleague Ozzy and “The Wizard of Ostrander.”
Hartman said Ostrander would occasionally share stories of his time playing with Simmons and Stanley, but “I think he was probably intentionally a little bit vague.”
“While he didn’t necessarily get into a lot of detail, he had just reached that crossroads in life where he was either going to go in one direction or another, and he chose to move in the direction of sharing his knowledge and his passion for music with young people,” Hartman said. “And we were blessed to benefit from that for a quarter of a century.”
He said the annual music festival – known as “The O Show” in Ostander’s honor – is all organized and directed by Ostander’s former students.
“That alone would tell you the influence he had on the school and the student population,” Hartman said.
When Ostrander died in 2011, the website “KISS Mask,” dedicated to fans of the band, remembered him fondly:
“Brooke played an intricate part of the pre-KISS days by joining Rainbow, which became Wicked Lester, with Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ron Leejack and Steve Cornell.
“Mr. Ostrander’s piano can be heard on some of the earliest demos, including ‘Leeta’ which appears on KISS’ box set released in 2001.”
Even greater than his early contributions to KISS was the mark he left on his students — in Vermont and in his short time in Linden.
“I knew that Brooke passed, and was sorry to hear it,” Kelly said. “He was a good guy, and I remember him turning us on to a lot of great music.”
And giving students at least one legendary night in the McManus gym.