However checkered its history in winning championships may be, Massachusetts has traditionally featured many national contenders. From the late 1950s to the mid 1980s, this state had a formidable national presence that resulted in intense – often bitter – local rivalries.
In the 1950s, the nationally contending corps were I.C. Queensmen, Salem P.L.A.V., St. Thomas More, the Holy Trinity Cadets, Most Precious Blood Crusaders, and the Braintree Warriors, with Cambridge Caballeros, St. Kevin’s, Majestic Knights, and St. Rose Scarlet Lancers just reaching national maturity.
The golden era for the state as a national force was the 1960s when, in any given year, four Massachusetts corps would be ranked in the activity’s top units. One of the national players – the Cambridge Caballeros – burned brightly for a few years, then faded away. Others – the Hyde Park/Boston Crusaders, St. Mary’s Cardinals of Beverly, St. Kevin’s Emerald Knights of Dorchester and the Immaculate Conception Reveries/27 Lancers of Revere demonstrated considerable staying power and ability to compete successfully at the activity’s highest level.
The Caballeros started as the St. Mary’s Annunciators of Cambridge parish corps in the early 1950s and had a remarkable record of achievement in a very short period of time.
From Class C Eastern Mass and C.Y.O Champions in 1955, Class B Eastern Mass Champs in 1956 and again in 1957 as the newly formed Caballeros, they went on to win three consecutive Eastern Mass Class A titles in 1960, 1961, and 1962.
They only entered two V.F.W. Nationals, placing a surprising 4th in 1961 and a disappointing 8th in 1962.
Another Caballero milestone was an unprecedented audition and performance with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in the Spring of 1962.
In the 1960s, the most consistently successful of Massachusetts’ four national powers was the Crusaders, who rode the visionary percussion of Jerry Shellmer and Ed Denon’s substantial brass programming to a string of strong placements and several championship near misses. The most heartbreaking of these may be the debacle of 1967 when the Crusaders were deprived of a championship when the czars of the American Legion inexplicably canceled the inspection scores. If that caption had counted, as well it should have, Boston would have had its first National Championship and who can say how that might have changed Massachusetts drum corps history?
The star of the Crusaders’ show was no doubt Shellmer, the driven, former Lt. Norman Prince drummer, who had studied with sources as diverse as jazz percussionist Alan Dawson, and marching percussion expert, Lawrence Stone. Shellmer was writing in authentic jazz style when that was unheard of in drum corps. He was also the force in expanding percussion textures into multiple toms, timpani, and mallet instruments. Shellmer not only almost single-handedly brought marching percussion into the 20th century, but he also influenced several generations of drum corps teachers.
With the departure of Shellmer and Denon in the early 1970s, the Crusaders entered an extended period in which they were dominated by the Lancers and several other Massachusetts corps. The Crusaders have shown a resilience as remarkable as the activity has known. Having survived fires, membership defections, staff defections, and bankruptcy, the corps has continued to battle back.
Since its 50th anniversary in 1990, the corps has been a player on the national scene although not as dominating as in the 1960s. Boston has suffered its share of heartbreak recently- an outstanding season and near miss for DCI finals in 1990, 14 place finishes in 1992 and 1993, and a whisker-thin upset of finals’ aspirations in 1994.
While the corps scene has been in flux in Massachusetts, the Crusaders have continued to fight – often successfully – all odds.
One of Boston’s strong rivals for more than fifteen years was St. Mary’s Cardinals of Beverly, an excellent parish drum corps that experienced national success from the 1950s to the mid 1970s.
Under the leadership of brass instructor, Al Saia, percussion instructor, Arthur Kirwin, and visual designer, Jack Whelan, the Cardinals were a consistent national contender. With a split from the church in the late 1960s and the arrival of brass instructor, Rick Connor, Shellmer on percussion, and visual designer, Joe Casey, the Cardinals carved a reputation as a corps absolutely eager to take chances.
Pieces like Stan Kenton’s “Fanfare for the New,” Waltz of the Prophets,” “Get It On,” and “Nights in White Satin” established the Cardinals as a force to be respected. Until the corps’ demise in 1975, the Cardinals were an interesting and exciting group.
Frank Bergdoll’s excellent hornlines and the forward-looking visual concepts of designer, Cliff Fisher (who for many years doubled as percussion instructor), provided the foundation for St. Kevin’s series of strong corps in the 1960s. Kevin’s might have been the strongest organization of all time-a top-notch class A unit and two excellent feeder corps.
St. Kevin’s contribution was rich. Bergdoll’s charts – especially pop tunes like “This Nearly Was Mine,” Dancing in the Dark,” and “Strangers in the Night” – were jewels in miniature; concise and warm statements spoken with pride and technical accomplishment.
1960 was a heart-breaker for the Emerald Knights when they lost the V.F.W. title on an out-of-bounds penalty.
Another significant accomplishment for Father Kierce and Ed Rooney’s charges was their ending the so-called “Jersey Jinx” when they won the cherished “Dream” title in 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1964.
By 1970, the CYO Circuit was in decline; so was Kevin’s. A merger with the Majestic Knights of Charlestown was unable to save either of these corps.
Several corps, notably the Pembroke Imperials, (covered in the National Champions chapter), the Danvers Blue Angels, St. Francis Sancians, and Pittsfield Boys Club Cavaliers had their moments but couldn’t sustain a national presence.
If the 1960s were dominated by the Crusaders, the 1970s and 1980s (until 1987) belonged to the 27th Lancers. In its first life, the corps was a fairly successful parish corps (the I.C. Reveries); after a split with the church in 1967, the corps was christened the Lancers and one of the brightest chapters in modern Massachusetts drum corps history was about to begin.
Even at the outset, the Lancers were different- whether it was in costuming (khaki in an era of West Point style) or programming (its forays into authentic Scottish and British band classics foreshadowing the theme show format of later years).
In the hands of three different visual designers – Ike Iannessa, Ralph Pace, and George Zingali – the Lancers became known as general effect giants. Some was creative subterfuge (Iannessa bringing the corps out of the old starting line comer when it was “illegal” to come off the back sideline); some was sheer energy (Pace’s huge body moves in “Chameleon”). Zingali, with his advanced asymmetric and art-as-drill influence, created what is arguably the richest design palette in drum corps history.
This visual interpretation brought to brass arranger Jim Wedge’s scores a vibrancy and excitement unique to the Lancers. In “Crown Imperial,” “Danny Boy,” “Folk Song Suite,” and “Niner Two” there is a style that will forever be owned by the Lancers. 27’s zenith was in its 1980 and 1981 corps.
Even after Zingali’s departure (to the Garfield Cadets) in 1982, the Lancers continued to experience a measure of success. Anchored by Charlie Poole’s outstanding percussion sections (particularly 1984’s), 27th would be finalists in 1982, 1983, and 1984. What followed was heartbreaking – misses by less than a point in 1985 and 1986, financial problems, and director George Bonfiglio’s decision to fold the corps.
The light shone once more, however, in 1994 when the corps formed once again to present a series of exhibitions culminating in a performance at the DCI Finals in Foxboro, Massachusetts. It was a strong reminder that passion for drum corps is still a fact.
The Lancers’ chief local rival in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the North Star, an intriguing mix of the remnants of various Boston area corps. The reasons for North Star’s demise were a rapidly deteriorating small corps grass roots and a limited financial base. However, the savvy of Connor, visual designer Neil Smith, and percussion coordinator Dave Vose, provided, for a few years, an accomplished venue long on fan appeal.
The year 1979 was North Star’s strongest, with a ninth place finish at DCI and a CYO Nationals victory against powerhouses such as the Lancers and Madison Scouts. North Star then fell into a pattern (lower DCI placement, near miss, financial problems, and disbanding) that would affect the Lancers in the mid 1980s.
North Star folded after the 1982 season, but the corps’ legacy- the excellent “Chrome Wall” percussion section, “Sir Duke,” soloist Gerry Noonan, and Maynard Ferguson’s “Ole” – is a part of Massachusetts’ rich drum corps history.