By Phil Dennesen with Jeff Sacktig
Can you remember seeing a Drum and Bugle Corps for the very first time? What are the visual images you can recall? Just think about it for a minute……….Can you remember where, when and how you were impressed by a Drum Corps and what you were thinking? I believe most of us can, it is one of those things you don’t ever forget, it leaves such a lasting impression.
For me, it was in 1959 in front of my childhood home across the street from the Central Cemetery in Beverly, MA. It was the Memorial Day Parade, and marching down the street were the St Mary’s Cardinals Drum & Bugle Corps.
As a first grader, I did not realize what I saw and heard would eventually change my life. Think back, what did you see? For me it was amazing, the American flag was first in a majestic procession of flags, rifles, sabers, drums and bugles. All were in row after row of straight lines. Everyone marched like soldiers, wearing tall hats with feathers blowing in the breeze. Seeing their bright white shoes and boots, all so perfectly in step. The sound was amazingly loud. I could actually feel the sound of the bass drums pounding against my chest. The horns were crisp and clear…and to me, it sounded like military marching music. (The Cardinals were playing the Guadalcanal March) The colors were a dramatic combination of maroon uniforms with bright gold trimmings and cream colored pants. You could feel what you were seeing, it really was so exciting for me. At the time, I didn’t know it, but I was hooked for life on Drum & Bugle Corps.
The Cardinals were wearing the same uniforms that had previously been worn by The Holy Name Cadets from Garfield, NJ. The Cadets had been dissociated from the Holy Name Church the year before and St Mary’s Parish bought their uniforms and drums for the Beverly, MA corps. The Cardinals wore these resplendent uniforms for two years before returning them to the Garfield Cadets. How awesome these uniforms looked….and still do! If you have been around Drum Corps in the past 60 years, you understand this signature uniform, but things change, they evolve. More on that later.
This was my introduction to the Drum Corps activity, my perspective. Your own beginning reference may be similar, possibly a bit before or long after 1959. We have all watched a continual visual evolution over the years that has turned into decades and lifetimes. Each of us has our own starting point of this Drum Corps visual evolution. Many of us marched in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, 90s and beyond. If you’re reading this, you likely still follow the activity today and may be even actively teaching or performing with an Alumni Corps, and still going to what shows you can find. Online you may watch Youtube and Facebook Drum Corps videos, both old and new. Or find yourself reading every issue of Rick Connor’s “Masters of the Marching Arts” magazine right here, now so conveniently online.
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But, let’s go way back to people in the activity who have an even longer perspective than we do:
When Arthur Sacktig was a boy of 9 years old in 1937, he joined his local church Drum and Bugle Corps, The St. Matthias Brigade In Ridgewood. The parish was located in the neighborhood of the Queens/Brooklyn section in New York City.
Arthur belonged to several Corps, about 6 of them in the 1930s and 40s. Most notable were the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Post in (NYC). This is the Corps that eventually turned into the NY Skyliners. Arthur finished his marching run with The Consolidated Edison Corps, a short-lived Corps from 1948 to 1949. This was the era where many Drum & Bugle Corps were formed and sponsored mainly by veterans posts and churches. Corps flourished as the church parishes and posts were also flourishing in those same years.
Arthur Sacktig was too young for WW 2, so he was able to march every year from 1937 to 1949. The years after the war could be considered the “Golden Era” of the Drum Corps activity. Membership in the Senior Corps ranks grew very rapidly when older members came back from the war and they still wanted to march. Arthur was fortunate to live in an era where there were many local Corps to join. This changed Arthur’s life, and like many of us, lifelong friendships resulted.
The visuals from this era were pretty standard for many years, with very slow changes occurring. Corps wore military-type uniforms that were surplus WW2, including the accompanying equipment such as helmets, boots, spats, and rifles.
Corps also wore the traditional shakos with feathered plumes that complimented their uniform. The color guard section typically carried military-style rifles. Members needed leather flag belts to carry the long, heavy flag pikes and large 3’x5’ flags with trim. Many Corps wore heavy wool uniforms in the West Point Cadet style. On the football field, movement was done in squads, typically of 4 or 8. Marching was sometimes done in parade formation depending upon the experience level of their members. There were squads movements left or right, echelons, obliques and company fronts. If you marched in this era, you likely can recall the militaristic voice commands with a cadence built into the command. ”Mark Time…… March!” “To the rear….. March!” “About…… Face!” or “Dress Right…. Dress!” Tempos were consistently in the mid 120s to 132 steps per minute. These tempos were required by the nationally run VFW competitions and were the standard in local contests as well.
Precision was the key; the more precise, the higher score you could achieve in the Marching and Maneuvering caption (later to be renamed Visual). Since every Corps had the same standards it was easy to go from Corps to Corps or jump in and march when a spot became available. Many of the returning veterans did just that, it really was “The Golden Era”.
All of the national Senior and Junior Corps adhered to these visual standards throughout the 1950s and 60s, and right into the early 1970s Many from this era love to reminisce and fondly remember what it was like.
In these decades, the music was generally written by the horn instructor, then handed to the drill instructor, and then finally the color guard was added into the drill almost as an afterthought. Every show was the standard design: Opening Fanfare, Off the Line, or called the “Kick Off”, depending on your locality. Next in the show would typically be “The Color Presentation”, an absolute requirement in all local and national competitions. Then an “Into Concert Number” followed by the “Concert”, “Coming Out of Concert”, or called “The Production Number”, and then an “Off the Field” or “Bye Bye” and finally “The Ending Fanfare”. Many readers of this article marched in this era, from when Arthur Sacktig was a boy into the 60s and 70s. This is our standard, and the perspective we hold as we watch Drum and Bugle Corps visuals today.
-To be continued next Saturday!
*Featured Photo: Witch City VFW Post 1524, Salem, MA -The 1939 and 1940 VFW National Jr. Champion celebrating their win at the San Francisco World’s Fair