It was a simpler time in New York City. Corps directors had jobs in the real world. Instructors had no assistants— they taught what they created. Corps members were from the neighborhood, and “outsiders” were from a relatively short subway stop or bus ride away. An entire corps could fit on one bus, with all equipment stored in the undercarriage. Our ad-hoc staff was volunteer fathers, uncles, cousins, and former corps members.
Salvatore “Sonny” Calvagna was raised in the hard-edged East New York area of Brooklyn. Many of his friends— at the behest and “suggestion” of the nuns and priests in his school— joined Our Lady of Loretto’s drum and bugle corps. And he did likewise.
Over time, his innate musical skills were apparent, and he became not only an exemplary soloist, but also the de facto leader of the corps. To enhance his skills even further, Major Tom Costa invited him to play with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cadets. It was there that his lifelong friendships with Robert “Corbett/Pepe” Notaro, Carman Cluna, and Joe Genero were born. When Major Costa retired from drum corps activity, Sonny was invited to become corps director of Loretto.
Being a realist and his own man wasn’t easy. After the 1958 season, the corps lost several of its veteran members, and Sonny made the decision that Loretto would not field a corps for the 1959 season. Clearly, this was a painful judgement, but it was something that he felt was necessary.
Given the situation, he hired Carman Cluna, Joe Genero, and veteran drum instructor Don Freising. During the late winter months of 1959, and into the 1960 spring, the now-hybrid corps (new members were not always from Brooklyn…and not always Italian-American) began to materialize. The talent and musical passion of Joe and the thought that death was better than to have Carman in your face at the slightest misstep, combined with the contrarily quiet and patience of Don, morphed the corps into a small, but markedly different entity of 24 horns, a resurrected 7 drummers, plus an eccentrically creative cymbalist, whose goal was to be a soloist. And transcending all of this was Sonny’s cajoling, encouraging, threatening, empathizing, courageous, and determinative character, the all-encompassing, irrepressible bond that kept us together.
Given our structural limitations, we competitively did well that year, and the next two years. We defeated, or came close to defeating, some relatively major corps. We were invited to compete in “The Dream Contest” twice, losing only to St. Kevin’s outstanding corps. And we won our only New York State American Legion Championship.
The reasons for our disbandment were no different than those of many other church-sponsored corps and need not be detailed here. We had many 15 minutes of fame, and coincidentally almost the same number of moments in the sun. They will always mean as much to me now as they did once upon a time very long ago…
The Gospel According to “Brooklyn Clark Kent,” a.k.a. “Sonny the Baptist”
He was almost an Italian-American Clark Kent from Brooklyn, but not Superman. He couldn’t fly, but did know how to play a bugle, and he did move fast, when truth, justice, and all that stuff was needed on the block.
He wasn’t the Creator, but the Re-creator. “Sonny the Baptist” made us believe that wearing a Halloween-colored costume, banging on a drum, blowing into a bugle, or waving a flag, was okay. Even semi-delinquents wanted to follow him.
Summer Sabbath Saturdays and Sundays meant pilgrimages to a local Rome, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Nazareth, to meet other worshipers “cordially” vying in songs of praise. But he taught us that in drum and bugle corps, the Commandments and Beatitudes were situationally ethical. Coveting was required. The meek inherited no kingdoms. Mercy mattered not. Humility was good— but after a great performance, especially when we defeated a big-name corps— feigned humility was much more fun.
There were relatively few of us, but we felt that we were very special, insular, and secure, because he told us so. And, again, we believed him. We were, or were just about to be, invincible. Especially when we, more often than not, lost a contest, he said that we were all that he cared about— and he seemingly did. But he lied. Perhaps, in a covertly, subconscious way, he taught us that the world did not begin and end with us, and we believed him. But we never really understood the extent of that caring until many years later.
We grew up much too fast after 1962. Though we tried to continue to be good and faithful disciples, we only partially succeeded. Not being together was one reason for that. Realities replaced idealizations, and dreams grew dimmer with each passing year. Now, they became the lessons that we hoped our children would learn better than we did.
From time to time, someone says, “We need to have a reunion.” Ten, twenty, and even fifty years later, we’re still saying that, but with fewer voices. Unfortunately, neither Brooklyn Clark Kent, nor Sonny the Baptist, will be there. Then again…