by Jim Hager
In order to talk about the meteoric rise of the 27th Lancers in 1975, first we must step back and look at the 1974 season.
At the end of the 1973 season, the corps had graduated many members and the last of the true “original members” from 1968. Along with the age-outs and their experience, the departure of staff members Richard “Ike” Ianessa (RIP) in M&M and Jim Buckley in percussion left gaping holes. Veteran brass arranger Jim Wedge would be kept and he would be the glue to help solidify the new staff members. The corps would bring in two experienced drum corps people, both with a long history with 27th, but neither had written at the DCI level
The winter into 1974 was long and the corps had trouble filling in the ranks. In 1974, women were allowed to join both the horn line and drum line, sections that had traditionally been all-male.
Our enthusiasm and self-respect never wavered, but the harder we worked, the lower our scores went. In Ithaca, we sat in the stands watching finals, as we placed 20th in prelims.
In order for the 27th Lancers to return to the upper echelon of the DCI arena, a rebuild was needed.
The fall of 1974 resembled the fall of 1973 with staff changes. George Bonfiglio sought two of the most established and well respected “turn around” specialists the activity could offer. Ralph Pace was hired as our new M&M instructor and Joe Marrella as our drum instructor. What was key for this tandem was that they had worked together with other corps. But – could they work their magic in Revere?
After a 20th place showing in 1974, there was no place to go but up.
In the mid-’70s, the activity was slowly changing. With the formation of DCI, rule changes were made that allowed creativity that had otherwise been suppressed by previous governing bodies.
Drumming was still using rudiments in structure. Brass arrangers were looking at all sorts of music outside the traditional military march genre. Color guards had all but abandoned sabers. But – the rifle and flag routines were seen as a huge benefit in the GE caption and M&M – well, they were like a volcano of energy bursting with new ideas and how to cover the field.
The first rehearsal was at Revere High School, where the field house and school were large enough for the entire corps to practice. Jim Wedge was in full control of the horn line and Joe Marrella had the drum line in one of the hallways. Joe was inspiring and encouraging, reminding us that the difference in drum scores at the very top was a few tenths and everything we did mattered.
When the entire corps was together, Ralph Pace took over and he had an immediate effect on the entire corps. It wasn’t so much optimism as it was his delivery and attention to detail. In the past years, group rehearsals like this were serious, but relaxed. That ended when Ralph barked out a few words.
Ralph was serious and his perception of the corps was spot on. We had become complacent and perhaps lazy. We were resting on the name of the corps and not earning respect from others. We had gone spiraling down without admitting it and that was about to change.
The attitudes had to be adjusted upward or leave – and many did. But many others came through the door. Many members of the Reveries Class A drum corps joined 27th that year. They were all experienced and they were all from Revere. It was an infusion that helped a corps that was on life support.
Musically, the corps returned to a very strong opener, “Crown Imperial,” one of Jim Wedge’s finest arrangements. It was mixed up with a jazz tune by Herbie Hancock called “Chameleon,” followed by Three Dog Night’s “Celebrate.” Out of concert was J. Robert Hanson’s “Spectrum Novum (Fanfare Prelude: Oh How Shall I Receive Thee)” and the closer was “Danny Boy.”
The corps improved tremendously during the winter and the changes were most apparent in the guard. They were always at the forefront of innovation, but the 27th Lancers guard in 1975 was about to rock the drum corps world upside down.
Subtle changes were introduced. The horn line added hackles to the Aussie hats, while the drum line went from dark green plaid kilts to bright red Stewart plaid with a red sash. The color guard wore skirts, which were becoming shorter and shorter each season. Who remembers mini skirts?
In 1975, the Lancers’ color guard skirts were lowered below their knees. It was a stark contrast compared to others, and it gave an appearance of authority and pure class.
The corps first few appearances of 1975 were encouraging. The trouble was that the Hawthorne Muchachos were still riding a wave of success after the 1974 season. 27th was scoring well but needed to go on tour to let other judging panels see for themselves.
Out west, the corps was well received, winning DCI West regional championship over Santa Clara and the Blue Devils. The consensus was – the corps had risen. But, could it sustain itself?
The visual creativity was the overwhelming difference. The drill forms that Ralph had designed allowed the horn line to be featured at the right impact points. The guard was accentuating everything in perfect unison while the drum line was holding its own against several very competitive groups. The audiences were in awe of everything the corps did but – hands down – it was the color guard’s contribution during “Celebrate” that would get everyone standing.
The guard introduced “double flags” – a second identical flag beside the normal silk. During “Celebrate,” a special cord was used to pull the second flag down and the audience went nuts. Not to be outdone, the rifle line also had something to prove during “Celebrate.” They dropped to their knees and leaned back while spinning. It was a visual masterpiece of energy between the flag line and rifle line.
After concert, the audience and corps were given a reprieve to catch their breath during the ballad. A drum feature warmed up the audience before the floodgates opened.
Few people remember that Ralph had designed the rotating company front with Blue Rock in the early 1970s and it was brought back for 27th and “Danny Boy.” The slow rotating company front, way out in the corner of the field, with a rifle line that was just waiting to have the corps open up – and they came charging through. Flags were spinning and circling the corps. The corps heard the sound of the last gun shot and all hell broke loose as the corps marched forward.
1975 was a rebirth of sorts. It brought the 27th Lancers back into the upper echelon of the activity. The guard and their staff were rewarded with the High Color Guard Trophy. Ralph Pace had secured his place as one of the finest in the visual arts. Joe Marrella restored order and a commanding presence with the drum line and Jim Wedge’s horn line produced the scores needed to get the corps into the top 4.
1976 was equally enthusiastic and members were eager to join after the1975 season. The returning members of the corps knew what to expect from Ralph. He also knew how far he could push the members. We were, after all, local kids with strong ties to our neighborhoods.
It was, at times, a wrestling match of egos. We were stubborn and hated change, while Ralph knew which buttons to push and how far to push them. In the end, Ralph would win, and in the field – it was ours to be rewarded for our efforts.
Joe helped raise the bar in drums with the addition of several alumni as staff members and our scores proved it. Horns were intact with Wedge. The staff of Ann Fields, Stephen Covitz, Peggy Twiggs, and Denise Bonfiglio continued with their mastery of the guard.
The 1976 corps was tougher than the 1975 corps. We were older members, more experienced, and had to prove that 1975 was not a fluke.
And we did it well, our sweetest victory coming in Denver at Drums Along the Rockies, beating the Concord Blue Devils and winning guard and drums. After that first tour, we hit a whirlpool of sorts and it was hard to get out. We maintained a top 5 status, but couldn’t put enough into any one contest to get us into the top three.
The start of 1977 was a little eerie. Joe Marrella left the drum staff and Mike Kumer was brought in. Joe left us in very good shape and we were a proud and aggressive drum line. Jim Wedge returned on horns, thankfully the guard staff was intact, and Ralph was at the helm. We lost some very experienced members to aging out, but also had several younger members join from the local CYO band programs.
One of the highlights of the winter M&M program, was a “drill down” at the end of rehearsal. The entire corps would stand at attention and a drill staff member would yell out commands using the “Simon Says” approach. Ralph and other instructors would walk around the corps, watching for people who messed up. They would point and say, “Sit down.” We played this game until there was only one member standing. If my memory serves me – it was usually a guard member who won.
Corps were developing themes for their competitive performance and the music from the movie, “Rocky,” was chosen for our 1977 season. It was really symbolic, perhaps poetic, that a group of mostly inner-city kids were going to fight it out on a drum corps field.
Some visual improvements for the corps this year were outfitting the drum line in white “dinner” jackets – all hand made by Patsy and Lucy Patti. It gave us a unique and distinctive look and it was a uniform I was very proud to wear. The guard brought back sabers and wore the same uniform as the rifle line with red jackets and Busby hats.
Our first tour, heading south for two weeks, was a little rough around the edges. The heat was unbearable and exhausted the corps by mid-day. The solution was to rehearse in the early morning for a few hours, rest and relax until later in the afternoon, and put pressure on the members to work extra hard with the limited rehearsal time.
It worked well and we had energy to spare. By the end of our first tour, we arrived at Harvard Stadium and had the fortitude to win the CYO Nationals – a championship that had eluded the corps. Like 1976, the corps seemed to hit a peak. We kept pace with the rest of our competition – earning a 4th place finish after Bayonne was disqualified.
My memories of Ralph are of honor, of humility, and of dedication. His visual awareness to write a drill brought enthusiasm back into a corps that needed it. Ralph could be funny; he could laugh with us and he could be sad with us. But – he never settled for anything less than our best. His words were encouraging. Sometimes the truth hurt our feelings, but it was meant to inspire and motivate us – and Ralph did that and more.
There is something that every instructor brought to the table to teach us – lessons for that moment but they have lasted a lifetime. I am grateful for Ralph’s time with 27th.