A look back at a great senior corps from Pittsburgh, PA

by Jeff Davis, DCW staff

O say, can you see. Are the Rockets still there? Pittsburgh’s award-winning drum and bugle corps needs a little help from its friends. (This article first appeared in the October 17, 1971 Pittsburgh Press, written by Barbara Holsopple.)

The imposing, ivy-covered Penn-Central Railroad station stands boarded up in Wilkinsburg, a tribute to the heyday of an era now gone. Inside its thick stone walls, some 90 men work to convert the old waiting room into a rehearsal hall and preserve another tradition, slowly disappearing from the American scene — the drum and bugle corps.

Members of the Pittsburgh Rockets, award-winning marching musicians, are giving the deserted building a new lease on life as a rehearsal hall and corps headquarters. “This is a relic of another era,” muses Ed Cagney, the corps’ drum major. “Sometimes when I come here, I think of all the old stories here . . . all the World War II guys who must have come through here.”

Dedicated in 1916, the station has been termed one of the finest examples of classic architecture in Western Pennsylvania. When it was slated to be torn down three years ago (1968) by Penn-Central, it was saved from demolition by a community campaign spearheaded by the Wilkinsburg Historical Society.

The building was bought by the Borough of Wilkinsburg, with the agreement that the Penn-Central would continue to operate a ticket window there. When the ticket service was discontinued a year or so ago, the building was leased to the Rockets for $1 a year. They share the building with the borough which stores playground equipment and other supplies there.

For the Rockets, the Penn-Central demise in Wilkinsburg was a stroke of luck. They had no headquarters after the Homewood American Legion moved and dropped sponsorship of the corps. Rehearsal was limited to outdoor drill at the State Police barracks and, when it rained, the Rockets missed rehearsal.

Despite the rained-out rehearsals, the Rockets have continued to rank consistently in the top 10 among some 7,000 U.S. and Canadian senior corps over the past 15 years. They march in two national circuits, Drum Corps Associates and the Red Carpet Association, and are the current champions of the latter. Among the honors won this summer is the state American Legion title.

Honors also have been accrued by the Rockets’ color guard, which has taken the state crown 11 times, and by Riggie Laus, the group’s musical director, who has won every national title in solo competition and was undefeated for nine consecutive years until his retirement from individual competition three years ago.

“We’re a sports team,” says Joe Capone, a business education teacher at Westinghouse High School who acts as business manager for the corps. “We work together and we work to win. The men we attract are the kind who give a lot unselfishly.”

The men of the Rockets range in age from late teens to early 40s and come from all walks of life. There is a Duquesne University Music School graduate assistant from Penn Hills, an engineer from Etna, an airlines reservation agent from Irwin and a postal worker from Wilkinsburg.

Their record as musicians speaks for itself and is even more amazing when one considers the handicaps under which they compete. It is the only top senior corps still using equipment bought when the corps was founded in 1947. Most of the bugles are pitched in the now obsolete G-D structure, restricting the blend of the sound available with the newer G-F horns.
Until a year ago, the Rockets were the only top corps not equipped with marching tympani and relied on converted bass drums to create tympani effects.

“We’ve managed to buy tympani and a few new horns, but we’re too poor to buy everything we need,” laments Capone. “We can make $1,000 to $1,800 in an afternoon of competition, but most of it goes to transportation and instruction. All a man has to bring is himself and black shoes . . . the corps owns and handles all equipment, uniforms and a truck to haul them in. Each man even buys his own meals on trips.”

Even the Rockets’ black and white uniforms are beginning to get that threadbare look. The pants are from 1947 (24 years) and blouses have not been replaced since 1960. New plumes are purchased occasionally to dress up the helmet, imported from West Germany in 1957.

The picture has looked bleak since the corps became self-supporting three years ago with the loss of American Legion sponsorship. Incorporated as a non-profit last winter now qualifies the Rockets for foundation grants. “We’ve applied for help and we’re waiting,” says Capone.

(Writers note, the grants never materialized.)

The new rehearsal hall, rented for $1 a year, will soon be sound-proofed with heavy drapes donated by Holy Rosary Church in Homewood [and that] has been a boost to the bleak financial picture. But the Wilkinsburg Historical Society and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation are eyeing the old railroad station as a classic that should be preserved as a monument to turn-of-the-century Americana.

According to Clifford Gates, former president of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society, there has been some discussion about turning the building into a “mini-museum.”

“If we are turned out and forced to pay high rent somewhere else, we’ll really be in trouble. Surely somebody will help. All our efforts just can’t go down the drain . . . We’re too good,” says Ed Cagney, who joined the Rockets in 1956 as a “school kid” and now serves as color guard captain and instructor.

As the corps was pulling down honors this summer, a 24-year tradition was broken with the addition of four girls to the color guard. Cagney admits that many men didn’t approve, but his color guard took a prize almost every week, whenever there was a prize to win.

From Jeff Davis in November 2009 — During a stop in Pittsburgh, PA, recently, I had the opportunity to check out the building. All I can say is, it’s still there, but has been boarded up for who knows how long.
I do know that the Rockets’ stay there was very brief and it was never turned into the mini-museum they spoke about. Thus the eviction of the Rockets forced the corps to continue the search for rehearsal facilities, resulting in an uncertain future, so much so that the corps competed for only two more seasons, then disbanded.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is this: community support was as vital to the existence of corps then as it is today!