Part 1: An interview with Carl Ruocco

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

This article was published originally in the March 2009 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 12).

There was a time when corps management and instructional staff’s names were announced as a corps prepared to start their program. For years I’ve heard his name announced in association with countless corps and in various positions with those corps. He has led the operational concerns of a corps as director or tour director from coast to coast, as well as program director for many corps where he has experienced considerable success.

Primarily a percussion instructor and arranger through the 1970s and ’80s, Carl Ruocco later used his skills as a salesmen to become a very successful program coordinator. His leadership and organizational skills have also made him a valuable asset as director of several of DCI’s top corps.

After years of sideline handshakes and quick photos, I decided it was time to get to know Carl Ruocco a little better.

Harry Heidelmark: When and where did you first become involved with drum corps and why did you choose that particular corps?

Carl Ruocco: My first recollection of drum corps was watching a parade in the Bronx and I saw the Bronx Kingsman from the northern part of the city. They looked incredible . . . as a kid, it took my breath away . . . I decided I wanted to be a part of that. My mom knew some folks in New Jersey and that is how I got involved with the Dumont Police Cadets.

HH: What instrument(s) did you play?

CR: I played tenor drum

HH: How many Dumont Police Cadets are still your friends today?

CR: To this day, I’m still very good friends with a great number of people from the corps. Some are still involved with the activity and some are not, but we still do get together at least once a year for dinner. The memories flood in from the really great times we had together — it’s like turning a page in a book!

HH: Dumont Police Cadets produced a considerable number of very successful instructors/program designers and adjudicators. Was there something unique about that corps that would lead individuals in that direction?

CR: There were a number of people who marched with or were associated with the Dumont corps. People like Dennis DeLucia, Bruce Lages, Bobby Hoffman and Jim Russo spent time there. There are a number of people who came out of the corps who are still avid fans.

I don’t know that there was anything unique about Dumont. There were many, many drum corps in New Jersey during ’60s. It just happened to be in an area where there was a high interest and they were motivated to a fault. Plus, we made hard work fun.

Dumont was well-run and a fun place to be. Dennis, Bruce, Bobby, Jimmy and myself really enjoyed drum corps and I guess it showed.

HH: What is your fondest memory from your first years in drum corps?

CR: The greatest memories of my early years were that the activity expanded my world outside my life in the South Bronx. Yes, the South Bronx was “a family neighborhood,” but the drum corps activity was a family that worked together, performed together, traveled together and experienced the highs and lows of rehearsal and performing in front of crowds . . . it was a great experience and certainly expanded my horizons. As the activity grew, so did I continue to learn and grow every year that passed.

HH: You left Dumont Police Cadets before the end of the 1963 season. Did you age out in the middle of the summer?

CR: At the end of the 1963 season, the Dumont Police Cadets disbanded, which gave me an opportunity to lay low and, in the fall of 1964, I traveled over to the New York Skyliners.

HH: What did you play as a member of the Skyliners?

CR: When I first joined, they were trying something new. I played rudimental base. I was outstanding!

HH: What else did you play/do as a member of the corps?

CR: Snare, then later I became assistant drum major.

HH: Back then . . . weren’t senior corps members all over 21 years old, unlike the all-age corps of today?

CR: There were a lot more people over 21 in senior corps., but in the Skyliners, we were able to draw from many, many junior corps in the New York metropolitan area — Loretto Knights, the Queensmen, CMCC and St. Rocco’s, to name a few . . .

HH: What do you think of how corps have evolved from senior corps to all-age corps?

CR: I think it was a natural evolution, seeing where our activity has come from that when people age out of a junior corps, they still have that passion, desire and need or want to march, compete and perform. That is where the all-age corps is absolutely the best place to be.

HH: During your last five years as a marching member of Skyliners, you were also a percussion instructor. Were there ever any awkward moments when you had to change hats from member to instructor or vice versa?

CR: In 1970, Eric Perrillox, who was my mentor and arranger for the Skyliners, retired. Wes Myers was asked to take over the line. In turn, Wes asked me to assist him. It was a smooth transition because we had been there for so many years and there was a respect from the guys in line who knew we were going to carry on as best we could to continue producing an extremely competitive line.

HH: What were the most valuable lessons you learned as a marching member and who do you believe taught you the most?

CR: I guess some of the most valuable lessons were that you had to have the passion for what you were doing and you had to give 100% of yourself. You knew that the person/people beside you were giving an equal amount of time and effort.

The man who I think initially impressed me the most was our instructor, Eric Perrillox. He would not settle, ever. If there was something not playing right, he would not settle. Everything had to be impeccable and that lesson carried through to this day for me.

HH: How did you become involved with the New York Lancers in 1970 and how successful were you?

CR: I got involved with the New York Lancers through one of my Skyliner brothers who was teaching the brass section. That was a unique experience. The Lancers were from the South Bronx. It was made up of group of kids who were looking for somewhere to belong. They came from broken homes, some from abusive homes and some from parents who just didn’t care or have the time to spend with them.

The drum corps was that outlet. It was made up of kids with incredible talent that needed to be cultivated. It was there . . . they had the desire . . . they just needed for someone to reach out and care about them.

The first year, as rough as things were, we wound up winning a championship. It was in a small circuit, but we won because of what we were doing and the passion and drive we were doing it with. I still see some of these members now and then — with a hug!

HH: What was the most important lesson you learned during your first opportunity as an instructor?

CR: I learned that being a marching member was totally different from being on staff. Members were now looking to me for direction and growth . . . which in turn kept me learning and growing myself.

HH: For a period of time — 1971 to 1973 — you were teaching both New York Lancers and the OLPH Ridgemen. Didn’t those corps compete against each other?

CR: I was teaching the Lancers and Wes Myers asked me to join him with the OLPH Ridgemen from Brooklyn. It was a great opportunity. It certainly was a step up in quality and intensity from the Lancers. They never really competed against each other because they were on two different levels. They both were unique and impressive in their own right.

HH: In 1975, you were percussion arranger/instructor for the Audubon Bon Bons all-girl corps. Did you find it necessary to develop a different approach when teaching an all-girl corps?

CR: In 1975, I was asked to take on the roll of arranger and instructor for Audubon from South Jersey. No, I did not approach the teaching or writing any differently. That wouldn’t have been fair to them. I had to approach it with the same enthusiasm, passion and zeal for everything being perfect . . . was it? Not always! But the ladies played their hearts out. They played with excitement and passion, and had fun performing. I could not have done it differently.

HH: In 1979, you became quite successful with Black Watch of Willingboro, NJ, winning the DCI Class A Championship. How rewarding was that experience?

CR: I started with Black Watch in 1977. They were kind of rough; it was a neighborhood drum corps. In each year, ’77, then ’78, we got a lot better and we won a couple of interesting shows. We won the Class A World Open Championship in 1978, which drew some more talent for 1979.

From this little band of neighborhood people we developed a top-notch drum corps that was exciting. Whatever they did they did with passion. They excited audiences . . . because the audiences felt the literature we were playing on the field. It was absolutely rewarding because of what we did in building that program. It was also fulfilling for the players to see their own growth in that period of time. We won the 1979 DCI Class A championship — yes!

HH: In the late 1970s, you also began teaching the high school band at Pennsauken High School. Was there any difference teaching a high school band compared to working with a drum corps?

CR: I got involved teaching Pennsauken because of Tom Webster, who wrote and taught the Black Watch visual program. He was the band director there. Teaching the high school band was a bit different because you had to squeak out as much rehearsal time as possible and you had to develop more interest than you would normally in a drum corps because it was extra curricular . . . some of the kids really didn’t want to be there, but they were there because of a friend, etc. We developed a championship program because of Tom’s enthusiasm and never settling for anything but the best.

HH: After spending so many years on the East Coast, you signed on as a percussion arranger/instructor with the Colts in Dubuque, IA, for the 1982 and 1983 seasons. What drew you to Iowa and was there anything noticeably different with how you taught a Midwest corps?

CR: In 1981, I was judging DCI Championships in Montreal and I was approached by Jim Mason who was the director of the Colts. Jim offered me the position of arranger and instructor of the Colts and after weeks of consideration I accepted. It was just a great experience. I got to work with Bobby Hoffman who wrote the visual program. We flew out together from New Jersey.

Again, I approached this with the same enthusiasm I had always approached teaching. I cared about my players and I would do anything possible to make success happen. I was fortunate to work with a special group of people.

HH: As a percussion arranger/instructor in the early 1980s, how exciting and/or challenging was the development and evolution the sideline pit section?

CR: With development of the pit area instruments, I was very fortunate to be able to enlist the help of Ed Argenziano, an extremely talented person, who arranged the pit. We developed quite an interesting program.

HH: Electronic amplification was recently added to the pit section and several corps have used the equipment for narration and other vocal expressions. What do you think about how corps have used the new technology?

CR: The use of amplification today is really super. It’s fine as long as it’s used properly. There must be coordination between the brass ensemble and the pit. The coordination is crucial. People that use it for vocals . . . well kudos . . . if its going to help and enhance your program, I applaud you.

HH: You were percussion arranger/instructor for England’s Basildon Blue Eagles the same two summers (1982-1983) you were teaching Colts and Westshoremen senior corps from Harrisburg, PA. Were there many conflicts in the schedules and were you required to travel to England very much?

CR: There wasn’t a problem in 1982 and 1983 when I was doing the Basildon Blue Eagles. It was separate from the Colts, separate from the Westshoreman, each were different. Basildon was at the end or after our normal drum corps season, the Colts’ season was during the week in the summer and the Westshoreman was a weekend activity. So there were no conflicts. I went to Basildon for two weeks at a time and it was an incredible experience for me.

HH: In 1985, you were a part of Star of Indiana’s inaugural season when they became a DCI top-12 finalist. How exciting was it to have a hand in building a corps from scratch and achieving so much that first summer.

CR: Being asked to be a part of Star of Indiana was quite an incredible thing for me . . . because of the array of talent already on staff. I was a secondary part of that staff at best, but it was interesting developing the drum corps basically made up of 75% band members and maybe 25% drum corps members.

Cultivating and developing that talent into what happened was unbelievable . . . the intensity and focus everybody had was the reason why in our first year we placed 10th. That in itself was an outstanding accomplishment.

HH: Having experienced the genius of Bobby Hoffman firsthand as a member of Bridgemen, I can only imagine how it must have been to be part of an instructional staff with him. You were a friend and colleague of Bobby Hoffman for many years. Can you share any memories of him with us?

CR: Bobby was a crazy man . . . and a genius! He could hear music and focus on movement and color in ways that had not been done before. He would sit at his drawing table until he got it all on paper . . . sometimes off-the-wall stuff . . . but wouldn’t stop until he had it right.

HH: In 1988, you became assistant director of Star of Indiana. For what part of the corps operations were you responsible and did that change your relationships with other members of the corps’ staff?

CR: Basically my responsibilities were to assist Jim Mason, the director, in getting the corps down the road and seeing that the staff had what they needed, that the drivers and the kitchen staff had what they needed and the corps members were looked after.

My relationship with the staff was even more enhanced because I knew what they were going through and I knew some of the needs they had. So I tried to make sure our going down the road was as smooth as possible

HH: Although no longer on staff with Star of Indiana when they won the DCI Championship in 1991, I’m sure you must have been excited for Bill Cook and the corps. Is there anything specific you can remember from the night they were crowned champions?

CR: I was so proud and elated that they had achieved what they did in winning the world championship. It brought such happiness for me to see Bill Cook, the man who devoted so much to our activity, smile. He gave unselfishly to our drum corps and so many other drum corps that people really knew nothing about.

Generally, he was criticized, but the public knew nothing about the donations and time he gave to other drum corps when they came through . . . Bloomington, how he fixed their busses or how he made sure they had food. The general public knew nothing about this and that is a crying shame — because that’s the way he wanted it; just a very humble man.

HH: How did you feel when, in 1994, Bill Cook decided Star of Indiana would no longer compete in DCI?

CR: I was sorry to see that. They added so much and brought the activity to a new level. To see them not be there any longer created, in my opinion, a huge void — I look for other corps to open new doors.

HH: In 1990, you became director of Crossmen and led the DCI Finalist corps until 1993. Why did you leave Crossmen?

CR: After nationals, in the fall of 1989, I was approached by the board of Crossman, offering the position of director of the corps to me. I counseled with Jim Mason, Bill Cook and Dennis DeLucia. I waited some weeks and then accepted the position.

It was very exciting taking over the reins of the Crossman. The corps finished 12th in 1989 and, after putting some critical people together like Dennis DeLucia, Jack Meehan, Mark Thurston, Eric Kitchenman, Matt Krempasky and the staff that was in place, we were able to elevate the corps to 7th position in 1990. And boy that was exciting and rewarding.

I was there until the beginning of 1994 when I was let go by the board of directors. I guess they felt I was pressing them too much about finding more outlets to help with the financial needs of the drum corps.

HH: While director of Crossmen, you were also an executive board member of DCI during a time when many changes were taking place in the organization. How did you feel about the direction of the activity at that time and the    decisions made?

CR: It was a very crucial time. We were at a crossroads of making some changes to catch up with the rest of the world with what was happening economically, educationally and I’m very proud to say that I think we did that. I think we did it for all corps . . . large and small.

Part and parcel, the direction of the activity was geared by decisions made at that time. We made the decisions from a business and practical sense, as well as out of the passion for the activity that we all love so dearly.

We knew we had to go forward and I believe we did. Moving forward is not always an easy task, but the people on the board were smart enough to know the business model needed to be changed.

HH: A position in many of DCI’s World Class-level corps now costs marching members a minimum of $1,500.00 in tour fees and additional funds traveling to winter rehearsal camps. The high cost of marching in today’s touring corps has led some to declare drum corps an elitist’s activity and no longer something the average high school musician can afford. How do you see it?

CR: Being in a world champion touring corps gives members the opportunity to grow as people and as performers. Having a chance to travel across our outstanding and beautiful country is hard to measure in dollars and cents.

HH: Do you believe the success and considerable growth in all-age corps, mini-corps and alumni corps is a result of the high cost of membership in a DCI touring corps?

CR: No, I don’t. They are all in place to give members an outlet to perform while leading a normal, everyday life all year long. The people who perform in corps are talented and have a desire to continue to experience that little touch of show business.

It adds zest to our lives!