By Phil Dennesen with Jeff Sacktig
In Part One we covered Visuals in the “Golden Era” of Drum Corps
Part Two: Evolution from “The Golden Era” to Drum Corps today
In 1977, when Arthur Sacktig’s son Jeff was a boy of nine, he also joined his local parish corps. It was the same parish as his dad Arthur’s, St. Matthias in Ridgewood, Queens / Brooklyn, NYC. The Corps had been reformed in 1972 and named St. Matthias “Blue Max”. Jeff was one of the seven siblings in his family, all of whom marched in Drum & Bugle Corps. From his father Arthur to all seven children, it was the “total” Drum Corps family. It must have been one very busy household.
Jeff’s dad with some friends had restarted the church parish Corps, which even back in the 70s was doable as a “Mom and Pop” type outfit. Church sponsored Corps were still around, but declining and sadly were then gone by the 1980s. During the 1970s we saw the ending of military-type drills consisting of squad movements, the arm swing while moving was changed to holding horns with both hands. Color guard uniforms began to change in the late 70s and 80s. No longer did the guard uniforms typically match the corps proper, but had started to compliment the drum and horn lines and also the show theme. The first dance moves were introduced instead of the straight marking time of past decades. Drill design evolved into the big symmetrical formations forming different pictures during climatic points in the show.
It was here that Jeff’s long time involvement in the Drum Corps activity started and continues to this day. Jeff Sacktig progressed from St Mathias Blue Max Corps to the Long Island Sunrisers and then to the Garfield Cadets, and Cadets of Bergen County. Jeff marched until 1989, winning numerous DCI championships as a member. After aging out, Jeff then started his teaching career with “The Cadets” becoming involved as a visual tech, and then writing and designing the drill and visuals for the entire Garfield Corps almost every year until 2015. An amazing run of almost 30 years!
Even into the 1990s and 2000s Jeff’s dad, Arthur, was still active in Drum Corps. Weekly he would meet with his drum corps friends at the local McDonalds. They would reminisce and shoot the breeze. They actually formed a small ensemble and would perform at nursing homes and such.
Arthur along with his old drum corps buddies also attended The Cadets many rehearsals and shows. Afterwards, Dad would critique the visual portion of the show. The senior Sacktig would complain to his son, who was by then writing the entire show.
“Jeff, where is the color presentation?”
“Why are there so many people moving around?”
“The color guard is going to hurt (injure) the horns”
All this in front of Jeff’s Cadet colleagues, and to his chagrin. Jeff didn’t mind though, he knew his Dad’s perspective was from another era, this is what he saw, this is what he felt.
It seems that no matter what era we are from, we are all resistant to change. Many of us think Drum Corps is NOT as good as what we did when we marched, but that is our perspective. Evolution is really a very natural change in our activity, and everything, including visuals of what we see, has evolved more than any of us would or could have thought to be possible.
Having the honor of talking to Jeff Sacktig and hearing his first-hand accounts and his perspective can give one a better understanding of how, and why, all this change has actually happened. Belonging to a drum corps family, having your dad and all your siblings march, winning national championships as a performer with The Cadets and then spending your entire adult life teaching Drum Corps. Being a visual design writer and working at the highest level year after year. However, it doesn’t end there. Jeff has taught many Winter Guard International units with national titles and many amazing successes. AND, if this isn’t enough for perspective, Jeff has taught marching bands since the 1980s including his own group, Vandegrift High School from Austin, Texas.
Vandegrift High School actually won the Bands of America National Championship in 2019. This was their first year going to BOA Nationals, a feat that has not been done before in BOA history. Can you recall any Drum Corps, going to the nationals for the first time and winning?
Today, Jeff is the Visual Designer for Carolina Crown, his 5th year with them and is a Design Consultant for The Cadets. Despite all his success in Drum Corps, Color Guard and Band, I can tell you that Jeff is one of the most amiable and personable people you’ll meet in the activity. And not to mention one of the nicest all round individuals one could meet in life.
Jeff’s take on drum corps is that in the 1970s, Corps took one of two tracks from the earlier decades. The first track was to stay as a local unit sponsored by church or Veterans Post or take the DCI track. In the DCI track it turned out that the “Mom and Pop” type units from the earlier years could not keep up. However, if you remained one of those smaller units, the corps lasted longer. As we all know, too many Drum Corps have succumbed to the challenges of finances, time and effort of running a DCI Corps.
Over the years presenting the big picture on a football field has posed a much greater challenge than that of the smaller arena of competition that WGI Color Guard focuses on. In comparison to Drum Corps, the winter time Color Guards have smaller organizations and compete in smaller venues. The Winter Color Guard activity has flourished in this environment. Many readers here may be surprised to learn that there are several hundred Independent Color Guards running as Mom & Pop type organizations, as well as thousands of Scholastic High School units competing at the same shows in the same arenas. In the same indoor show, there are Color Guards divided into Scholastic and Independent Classes. These scholastic units play a huge part in the growth and sustainability of the indoor activity. At a local show you can have possibly 40 to 80 units competing every weekend. The WGI Championship in Dayton OH attracts almost 400 units every year. Juxtaposing this to the increasing demands of running a DCI Corps to higher levels has resulted in the number of competing Corps declining to only several dozen remaining.
Visuals have always been brought to new heights every year by building on what Corps did the year before, and continually trying to improve. It is not that the visuals of Drum Corps have become like that of WGI Color guards or High School Marching Bands. The activities of Drum Corps, Bands and Winter Color Guard have all blended together over time. The three activities have members and teaching staff that do all three versions year after year. One activity has blended into the next, and visa versa.
Let’s look at uniforms. In the not so distant past, every Corps was recognizable by their uniforms. This is no longer the case, in the last few years you might get a clue who is who, what corps is which, by some signature element of their uniform. But even this is not always true anymore. Is it the Blue Devils, or Casper Troopers on the field? One can usually figure it out, possibly by the cavalry hat of the Troopers, the signature shako style headpiece of Carolina Crown, or the helmet of Phantom Regiment, but gone are the days of the military type uniform, for better or worse.
Is it for better or worse? Again, this depends upon your perspective. To the first-timer at a show, what they see is great, it is amazing, the visuals and the costuming (yes, costuming!) is astounding…just ask someone attending their very first show! But what would Jeff Sacktig’s dad or those of us reading here think…..better or worse? (Yes we already know the typical answer) But, what really happened here? How did this evolve?
For many years now, Corps’ color guard uniforms have been changing from year to year to complement a show. These yearly uniform changes are similar to those in WGI Color Guard. Both activities change their uniform every season to help interpret the music and tell the show narrative. It has only been since the 2010s that this change of uniforms has bled into the Corps proper, the Brass and Percussion sections. The change of uniforms in the Corps proper is also intended to help visuals tell the narrative of the show. Jeff’s take is that back then, meaning the 80s and 90s, there were not many uniform manufacturers so it was difficult to design, make, and pay for yearly uniform changes. This resulted in the Corps proper keeping the uniforms relatively unchanged from year to year. It was more about finances and practicality than design.
One would be remiss to not mention what is arguably the most dramatic change in uniforms over the years. In 1976, The Bayonne Bridgemen discarded their traditional cadet uniforms in the Color Guard and Corps Proper. In place of Cadet-Style Jackets and Shakos came long coats and felt hats with scarves, while maintaining the black, white and yellow corps colors. This was a huge transition in the Drum Corps activity. The Bridgemen, however, did not change this look year from year as Corps do currently, but kept its signature “uniform” until 1988 their final year.
Keeping the same uniform from year to year has all changed today, with one uniform manufacturer after another now offering to make uniforms for the DCI Corps they sponsor at little to no charge. This is for advertising and name recognition of the uniform company. The thinking behind this is not new. In the 1950s and early 1960s, many Corps changed the drums they used to Slingerland. This was because Slingerland was the drum company that the Championship Hawthorne Caballeros used. Pictures of the Caballeros wearing their new Slingerland Drums were advertised in many Drum Corps periodicals of the day.
It is actually the same now with Bands and Winter Guards wanting to have the same uniforms as the DCI Drum Corps of today…and there are thousands of bands! DCI Drum & Bugle Corps have and continue to set the standard in the pageantry activities. Bands and Winter Guards want the same uniform and instrument manufacturers to provide for them as those of the championship DCI Corps.
So sponsorship is not new, it started way back in the 1950s and continued into the 1980s. The Garfield Cadets had K-mart and Emerson Radio as sponsors for a few years in the late 80s. By the 2000s, Yamaha made sponsorship deals with complete sets of instruments, brass and percussion. Then, once uniforms could be made more easily with improved technologies and more manufacturers producing, this opened up ideas for more design possibilities. For example, Carolina Crown’s dramatic departure from their military style uniform in the 2010s. Every year more top Corps followed this trend, leading up to the culmination in 2019 of the Blue Coats’ costuming in their “Beatles Show.”
-To be continued next Saturday. Remember to hit the subscribe button!
*Featured Photo: The Sacramento Freelancers once wore one of the most military versions of a cadet uniform in the 1970s. Same colors as Valley Forge Military Academy.
Photo and information provided by Ron DaSilva.