Select Page

Recently, a friend asked me why the Cadets are my favorite corps. That decision took 12 minutes and 36 seconds to make as they finished their semifinal performance on August 14, 1985. That was my first live viewing of the Garfield Cadets, and I made it my mission to learn all about them. Most of my history lessons come from personal accounts from staff and members as well as two very informative videos (available on YouTube) in round-table formats with designers and arrangers. My hope is that this is a provisional memorial rather than an obituary.

To understand the modern Cadets is to begin in 1979 when Richard Santo became corps director. He hired George Hopkins to teach percussion; GH had just left the Crossmen (“Robbie told me to get out.”). Before long, he was promoted to assistant director (“Nobody else would do anything.”). The corps finished 16th that year, and what followed was heavy recruiting in the South. The 1980 corps almost didn’t happen. Santo guilted Hopkins out of shutting it down (“The corps didn’t make 50 years, and it’ll be your fault, and we’ll let everybody know that.”), and they made finals, finishing 10th (“Miracle of Miracles”).

Things started to look up in 1981. Jim Prime, Jr. and Donnie Van Doren were already in place improving the hornline. At mid-season, Don Angelica forced (I’m told that was literal) Hopkins and Michael Cesario together, where Don prodded MC: “Tell him! Tell him what you think of the show!” According to Mike, “It was a second-rate 1979 Spirit of Atlanta show.” He advised pulling it all apart, giving each (unrelated) tune a big ending and “adding more color to the flags.” It worked; they rose to a 7th-place finish while the hornline placed 3rd.

1982 saw the biggest change in the identity of the corps with the addition of the inimitable George Zingali as Visual Designer. As was the norm, he brought “his people” with him, including Marc Sylvester and Guard guru Peggy Twiggs. (Don Angelica: “DO NOT hire them! This will be NOTHING but trouble!”) The production was very focused and visually so removed from anything ever tried. Yes, Santa Clara Vanguard went “asymmetrical” in 1980 and finished 7th which led to the return to a Safe Mode championship show in ’81. Garfield was going to pull drum corps into a new direction, and it wasn’t without struggle. The visual staff would walk out of critiques in manic fits of rage (“literally screaming.” – MC), because the judges were telling them things like, “You guys can’t stay at a consistent interval!” The drill wasn’t written for them to do that, and it took quite a while for adjudication to catch on. After a 5th-place semifinal position in Montreal, Garfield moved ahead of Phantom Regiment and Madison Scouts to claim their first-ever 3rd-place DCI finish, which would set them up for some pretty amazing things.

Just after ’82 Montreal, Dr. Santo turned over the keys to Hopkins who admitted, “I had no idea what I was doing…we almost went bankrupt…we were lucky to come out the other side of that.” He hired Thom Hannum to run the Percussion program, and Bob Morrison eventually took over the pit. Meanwhile, the staff put together a monster show consisting of music that “nobody else would touch.” They stormed through the season undefeated until semifinals in Miami. GH: “We weren’t very good.” MC: “That ‘EAST’ chant lost us prelims! They could hear nothing!” Regardless, everyone heard (and saw) them in Finals, where they ascended to the DCI Throne.

1984 shifted to a more populist menu: West Side Story. Hopkins couldn’t wait: “Mambo!” “Somewhere!” Michael shook his head. “Too obvious,” he said. By the time he explained why it was better to open with “Maria”—a ballad no less—the room was behind him, and they were off. The crowds loved them as did the judges—Garfield was already scoring in the 90s on July 8 thanks to the inaugural all-buildup sheets. It wasn’t all roses for the corps (an unforgivable pun on the opening drill). According to soprano soloist Rick Wygant, they “never slept, never ate, barely rehearsed. Always stuck on the side of the road. Thank God for a super-talented corps performing a nearly perfectly designed show.” About those experiences, Cesario said, “I don’t think they’d let that corps exist today. Hopkins replied, “If my daughter was in my corps back then, I’d have me arrested.” Heavier irony has rarely been quoted.

The corps wasn’t untouchable; they lost four shows that year including DCI Midwest finals: the infamous Whitewater pile-up. (Someone SOMEWHERE has that video!) But they prevailed in Atlanta, winning a close one due to a 7th-place finish in drums.

The 1985 season began tumultuously by having to replace Prime, Jr. and Van Doren. They couldn’t decide on a show; there was talk of a Christmas theme as well as a return to jazz with “First Circle,” which was the Blue Devils’ closer. Finally, “Jeremiah” and “Candide” made up “A Bernstein Portrait,” and Michael Klesch, who two years earlier was a bass drummer and the ‘father figure’ in the drumline (“I was the only one who could read music!”), took on the arranging duties. The good news was that Tom Aungst had aged out of the struggling 1984 battery, joined the staff, and along with new instructor Glen Crosby, turned the drumline around “basically in one week,” according to Hannum. The corps took the speed, exposure, and difficulty of West Side Story and magnified it exponentially. The opening formation was NOT planned. Sylvester encouraged Zingali to write freeform. Thanks to Mr. Wygant, I have a photo of that opening drill page. They ended first tour getting buried by the Madison Scouts and were playing catch-up for the first time since 1982. Garfield stayed ahead of Blue Devils but couldn’t get past Santa Clara Vanguard until US Open prelims. (They tied at finals).

George Zingali drill page, Garfield Cadets, 1985

George Zingali drill page, 1985

At semis in Madison, the top 3 were flat allowing Madison to sneak up on them, scoring 0.6 behind 1st place Garfield. When all was said and done, the Cadets overpowered Santa Clara by 1.2 points (“We got done in by a brass judge,” Gail Royer lamented) to finally pull off a threepeat which wouldn’t recur for 17 years.

Ah, 1986. Not only did the corps age out many members, but the entire visual staff also bolted for greener (read: dollar bills) pastures. I saw Garfield in Canton on June 24, and they were terrible. The 7-minute production of “On the Waterfront” was simply beyond them, at least in June (and July and the first 2 weeks of August). A late start combined with replacing the impossible shoes of Zingali & Co. spelled disaster. Of course, by the time they reached finals, they were 0.1 out of third place, so many sins were forgiven.

For the 1987 season, 5 1/2-year Program Coordinator Cesario left for Phantom Regiment, and George Hopkins took over that duty. His first decision was to meet with Mike in a diner and ask how to open and close the “Appalachian Spring” show. What you see and hear is everything Mike suggested: give the audience the “Simple Gifts” proclamation and end with a “Fantasia” that ends with one lone player (Rick still doesn’t confirm that he actually played over the vociferous crowd at finals). Mike never wanted to do the Copland tune, by the way. Luckily for the corps, the Zingali/Sylvester team returned. I DON’T know why they left Star of Indiana after one year. I’m sure that’s an interesting tale to tell. Given all the junk props littering the sidelines in June, I have my (fiduciary) guesses. I first saw Garfield on July 20th, and the corps was remarkable. There was simply no comparison to the 1986 look. In fact, I have an amateur audio recording (it’s on YouTube). During the closing moments, a man is heard saying “They got it together THIS year!” Again, they lagged behind undefeated SCV, inching closer into August. If I’m not mistaken, Garfield was undefeated in Percussion. Although the Holy Grail of recaps, DCI Midwest prelims, are nowhere to be found, my DCI Recaps collection reinforces my statement. At championship semifinals, SCV was announced in 2nd, and the crowd went absolutely crazy. On Saturday, Garfield pulled off another hair’s victory.

They’ve won six more times—the last being that wonderful mathematical puzzle of 2011. After that, the program choices became somewhat iffy. The Christmas show reminds me of a good high school halftime show. In 2013, those stupid, clunky props distracted from the amazing musicianship of both horns and drums; 2015’s amazing brass (the corps’ last caption winner) and percussion were overshadowed by subpar visual/guard programs.

I still believe that the beginning of the Great Fall was the 2016 season. The televised “Clash of the Corps” made them look bad. Unorganized, disharmonized, replete with drama (good for TV, bad for DCI), it was a black mark on the corps and especially on Hopkins, whose interviews on the show ran rampant with confusion and a feeling of uncontrollability. After 2017’s busy, inconsistent retelling of Bernstein’s “Mass,” the dagger had fallen.

Yes, we all know about the allegations and the subsequent firing and court dates. The Cadets became something else. Exactly what, I’m not sure. 2021 was a fun (non-judged) frolic from the past, but it still felt strange. Nobody said this publicly, but I believe last season’s gym shorts costuming was done out of financial necessity. Explain the purpose all the way to the art museum for all I care, but it wasn’t a good look. And I really didn’t understand why they changed into the traditional uniform for the retreat. Perhaps the inevitable was already known.

For almost 30 years when I watched the Garfield Cadets (of Bergen County & Erie, PA) enter the field, they were a dominating presence. Nobody marched faster or assembled more innovative productions (eh…usually). Even in an “off-year” like the 6th place 1991’s “ABCs of Modern American Music,” they made the competition respect their effort. As corps came and went and changed identities, the Cadets were grounded in their tradition and innovation. It didn’t always work well, but as Marc Sylvester said, “Nobody sets out to make a flop.”

Here’s hoping that the powers-that-be work their way out of this. It’s a sad, sad irony that the corps will sit out its 90th anniversary. DCI 2024 will feel empty to me. A Garfield alumnus told me that he was planning to return to championships in Indy for the first time in a while, but without his “Home Team,” he’s going to sit out the year. Alas, I might, as well.

Informative videos referenced in the article: Garfield Cadets Threepeat Discussion; Cadets Threepeat Group Chat

Featured Image: 2009 Cadets
“Holy Name Cadets at the 2009 DCI World Championships” flickr photo by Scutter shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license