Home Page

The New York Times

Drum and Bugle Corps State Comeback

By Tina Traster

October 11, 1992 -- For three hours on a scorching Saturday afternoon, the 60 young members of the Southern Knights Drum and Bugle Corps of Franklinville marched across a grassy field at Bayonne High School's Veteran's Memorial Stadium. At 7:30 P.M. they were to compete in the Garden State Circuit Championships.

In their routine called "Foreplay," percussionists formed a front line; buglers and color guards gathered in a circle. The high-pitched bells reverberated, and the snare, quad and bass drums joined in.

As if set in motion by the music, the corps members stepped out of their circle to form female and male symbols upon the grass before lining up in the shape of a heart. The color guard, flags raised high, seemed to pierce the heart like an arrow.

"The message is that sex comes out of the heart," said Kathy Marsden, the corps director. "It is initiated because a man and a woman fall in love."

There was a time, two decades ago, when virtually every town had its drum and bugle corps, homegrown marching bands usually sponsored by local veterans groups or parishes. Then the corps went the way of doctors' house calls. Some participants say it happened because young people had too many other outlets for their energy, from video games to malls; others blame a decrease in patriotism.

But within the last two years, there have been signs that the local drum and bugle corps is making a comeback. Five new amateur groups have sprouted up in the state. Their style, complete with splashy spangled costumes and routines like "Foreplay," is a far cry from the earlier community corps. The military flavor is gone, and Sousa marches have been replaced by show tunes and rock-and-roll numbers.

Budget cutbacks in school musical programs have encouraged some young musicians to turn to the corps. The tight economy is also reflected in the finances of some of the new corps, whose members' instruments are secondhand and whose costumes are hand-sewn.
 
Feelings of Nostalgia

The corps directors, some of whom once belonged to community drum and bugle corps, attribute the trend in part to nostalgia.

"People who marched in the early 1960's and 1970's watched it die and that didn't feel too good," said Kirk Demarest, who founded the Spectra corps of Dunellen. "We grew up and got married and then we realized that there was a void. I decided to do this because I wanted to give these kids memories."

The five new corps, all of which competed in the circuit championships in Bayonne, are Jersey Surf of Berlin, which took first place; the Newark Marching 100; the Raiders of Bayonne; Spectra and the Southern Knights.

The newcomers are classified as junior corps, with an age cap of 22, but they are a far cry from such junior corps as the Cadettes of Bergen County, who compete throughout the United States and abroad and have budgets that range up to $800,000 a year.

But what the new bands may lack in skill, experience and bankroll, they make up in enthusiasm. Winding down after his group's victory at Bayonne, Bob Jacobs, director of the Jersey Surf, said he started with $20,000 but he anticipates that the corps will need at least $75,000 this year.

"It's tough to get off the ground," Mr. Jacobs said. "We've tried to keep costs down -- parents have sewn costumes from scratch. We have a lot of secondhand instruments that need to be upgraded. Right now, there are a lot of Band-Aids and duct tape holding us together."

Ms. Marsden, the Southern Knights' director, told how a group of her neighbors in Franklinville -- all former corps members -- had gathered around her kitchen table one night and decided to create a corps. "We wanted to start something for the youth here," she said.

Along the way, some of the volunteers have put in so many hours on the corps, she said, that they have lost their jobs.

"It's like listening to somebody talk about an addiction," she said. "It doesn't necessarily seem logical, but it's something they must do. We have no choice."
 
Grant From City Council

Jack Drury, a former Newark principal and former corps member, started the Marching 100 with the help of a $90,000 grant from the Newark City Council.

"This is as grass-roots as it gets," he said of his corps. "No experience needed. Just interest and a desire to be responsible." Members range in age from 9 to 14, which is considerably younger than most junior corps.

Devotees of drum corps say that they are not sure why local drum corps faded, but they have their suspicions. "When I came home from Vietnam," Mr. Demarest said, "there was an anti-military sentiment. We didn't want to wear military gear; we didn't want to wear shakos." Shakos are the tall military caps still worn by many corps.

Other corp leaders offered economic explanations. In the 1950's and 60's, they said, youths had little spending money and were likely to stay around the neighborhood. In the boomtime of the 1970's, they were apt to have cars. And Dominick De Senzo Sr., vice president of the Garden State circuit, said that teen-agers used to be able to find summer jobs, which have since turned scarce, giving them more free time.
 
'Great Activity for Saturday'

Today's junior corps members offer a variety of reasons for taking part. "It's a great activity for Saturday," said 9-year-old Ebony McAllister of the Marching 100 of Newark. "It's better than watching cartoons."

For Jose Caceres, 15, the Newark corps has been a "growing up" experience. "It teaches you that you need to be responsible and pay attention, or it will cost the corps and it will cost you," he said.

At the Bayonne competition, their director, Jack Drury, offered this rationale as he watched the members march by, dressed in the simple yellow sweat suits the budget allows: "Our goal is to give urban kids more self-esteem, to make them feel that they are part of a team, to make them more wholesome. If they also win championships, well then that's just super."

Columns | Essays | HuffPo Blog | Newspapers | Magazines | Business/Finance | Travel | About Me | Contact