A lifetime in drum corps and the spotlight — part 2

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 5).

Publisher’s note: Part 1 appeared in the July 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 4) that was mailed to subscribers on June 26. In that segment, Steve Rondinaro discussed his early days in the activity with the Watkins Glen Squires, his move to Florida and subsequent involvement with the Florida Vanguards that transitioned into Florida Wave, and what the movement was like in those days.

Steve Vickers: Let’s talk about your background in television and how you came to be host of the DCI PBS and then ESPN-2 telecasts?

Steve Rondinaro: Here comes that name again — Don Whiteley. But first, the back story to set the stage . . .

I started doing radio when I was 15 at the hometown station in Watkins Glen. I started college at SUNY Geneseo in the fall of ’72 and dabbled in classroom television. A radio summer vacation job at WENY in Elmira, NY, in ’73 opened the door to TV.

One of the jocks I filled in for also did the weather on the TV station across the gravel parking lot.   The manager asked me if I had TV experience and I said, “Sure!” So I did the weather! They liked it and asked me to fill in for the sports guy the next month. Then it was the news guy, etc.

I also ended up in the middle of a huge news story in Watkins Glen that summer . . . an outdoor rock concert called the “Summer Jam” brought more than 600,000 people to our little town to see the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Band. It created a huge local emergency and I was the only one who could make it in to the radio station. I kept it on the air around the clock with emergency information for my hometown.

It became a huge national story and I did more than 130 reports for stations and networks across the country. I was hooked on journalism. It felt like an important calling.

I went back to school with a different direction. I continued to do TV at WENY summers . . . in and around drum corps, of course. I would sometimes drive straight in to work from a Sunday night show in New Jersey for a Monday morning shift, looking like a wreck. But it all somehow worked out.

I ended up with a news internship at WROC-TV in Rochester in 1976. I had the lead story my first day as an intern . . . a bank robbery. I stayed at WROC until moving to Miami during the fall of ’79.

During that time I was continuing to help run the Squires and working with Whiteley and DCI. It may have been ’77 when the Philadelphia PBS station decided to broadcast the DCI East show in Allentown. Don asked me to “help out” the weather lady from KYW in Philadelphia who was the main host. It went OK.

At championships that year, the sponsoring Denver TV station sent a live microwave truck out to finals at Mile High Stadium, but no reporter. Don asked me to do the live spot with them. I’d never done a live shot in my life. We didn’t even have live trucks in Rochester yet. It went OK.

The next year came word that a TV station in Hamilton, ONT, wanted to broadcast DCI Canada. Guess who? In fact, we did it for several years and I got to know those crazy Dentons — Allan and Trudy — wonderful people that they are. It again went OK.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

It’s the spring of 1979. I guess I’d done OK on the “auditions.” I got the call to do the big show. I was all of 24 then. I was blown away and totally excited. PBS! A live national telecast! Talking about something I loved! Life didn’t get any better than that.

SV: What was it like working with celebrities like Rita Moreno, Curt Gowdy and Chuck Mangione?

SR: Icing on the cake. It was an absolute thrill for me to help expose those people to what we do. And I have stories about all of them. You asked . . .

My first year on the show and I’m sitting next to Maynard Ferguson. I would secretly sneak looks at his lip to see if it had any supernatural qualities. There we are sweating our tails off during a five
hour long live broadcast in the middle of Legion Field in Birmingham, AL. Our broadcast set was in the middle of the stands.

Unbeknowst to Maynard, I’d squirreled away a two-valve soprano bugle. During a lull, I pulled it out and asked him to compare it to his trumpet. He started wailing on the thing and 5,000 people around us started cheering. Maynard was a kick.

Rita was an absolute gem in 1980. So highly accomplished and so gracious . . . and so eager to learn about what we did in drum corps. It seemed we always had Bob Briske’s contest crew guys around ready to carry her stuff for some odd reason.

In fact, legendary M&M and timing/penalty judge Mo Kazazian kept bugging me to introduce him to Rita. I loved Mo . . . we were always jabbing each other. I said, “Mo, I will when the timing is right and she’s not distracted.”

Well, everyone is in the locker room area after dinner getting ready for finals. I made sure there was a crowd around and brought Rita over to Mo. I said, “Rita, I’d like you to meet someone very special. This is Mo Kazazian, the oldest living man in all of DCI.”

“How wonderful,” said Rita. Mo was speechless for perhaps the only time in his life.   We laughed about it for years.

Chuck Mangione was a kick because of our mutual Rochester, NY, roots and, of course, he was hot then. I watched him develop from a regional phenomenon to a national one. I’d met Chuck’s dad a couple of times selling t-shirts, etc. at concerts around Rochester. Nice guy. I learned from Chuck in ’83 that I was one of Papa Mangione’s favorite local TV guys. The Italian weather man with the flying hands.

Curt. Ah, Curt. The first time we sat down to rehearse and that voice rang out, I got goose bumps. He was a legend in my business. What an incredible career. Yes, he mispronounced a few things, including my name, but I enjoyed working with him.

The guys would ask me to “look after” Curt after we’d wrap up. We’d go to the bar and I’d get him telling me baseball stories.   The guy witnessed so much history. Some of his Ted Williams stories came in very handy when I met Ted a few years later.

Indiana U’s Dr. Charles Webb, jazz band leader Rob McConnell, who could forget the Carmine year from Whitewater? . . . try as we might! There’s been an interesting cast.

SV: What about your work with Dennis DeLucia, Michael Cesario and Tom Blair?
SR: You’ve just named three of my most treasured friends in and out of the activity. I met them all through the DCI telecast.

Michael and Dennis are human encyclopedias of our history who both still have an unabiding passion and love of the activity. Differing perspectives very often, but that only adds to the entertainment value when Tom and I set them off during a production meeting. Both are highly accomplished professionals in their fields.

They’ve had to work hard with the on-air thing, but they’ve done well. Dennis is ready to get his union card, he thinks he’s such hot stuff now. He’s become one of my very best friends.

Tom? Top shelf. If Tom’s running the production every “T” will be crossed, every “I” will be dotted, every contingency anticipated, every loose end attached.

I love not being the boss when working with Tom. I hope everyone in and out of DCI fully appreciates the quality of our telecasts and cinecasts. They are technically superb, network-quality shows.   Tom manages to do it under the usual market cost.

He has recruited a loyal production crew that works for a fraction of their usual rate because they’ve acquired a passion for the project and want to keep coming back. We all enjoy working together as a unit. DCI gets a tremendous value given the quality of the show.

I absolutely love working with these guys. We laugh a lot. It’s a family reunion every summer and we’re doing something we love . . . drum corps! What could be better than that?

SV: This is going to be a strange year without a DCI telecast? Do you think the project has a future on television?

SR: I’m sad about no TV show, but the economic realities are what they are this year. Poor Dan Acheson got no end of pestering from all of us because we believe so strongly in it and the positive impact it has on the activity. The telecast is DCI’s main, mass appeal, outreach vehicle and further helps distinguish us as Marching Music’s Major League.

That said, I’m very happy we still have the live quarterfinals cinecast this year. That part we do has grown nicely. It’s a good partnership with National Cinemedia. We had more theatres and a bigger crowd than ever for the “Countdown” this spring. Thanks to all of you who came!

Does the project have a future on television? I certainly hope so. These kids are phenomenal and deserve the national exposure. Compared to a lot of other things on the air? Well, there is no comparison. We should be on TV! And there are networks that are interested in us.

The venture to ESPN-2 was new for everyone after all of those years on PBS. We all learned a lot. I think we can do a better, more DCI-friendly deal that will get us back on television.

Since 1979, I have worked this championship telecast in any number of manifestations . . . from a five-hour live show to a two-hour highlights show. I’ve been the color guy, the analyst, the anchor. I’ve done features. I’ve pseudo-produced the show from the anchor chair.   I’ve presented it as a pageantry event, a musical art form and an Olympic-like musical sport.

We’re adaptable, but we may have to change some of the conventional thinking that binds us inside the stadium in order to make a better and more marketable television show.

We’ve gotten very good, detailed feedback each year from one of the top people at ESPN.

He absolutely loves the quality of what we do and how we present it. His biggest criticism is that it’s not competitively compelling. The way the corps are seeded, the die is pretty much cast as to results. There is precious little suspense.

In the past, we’ve proposed breaking the top 12 into pods of four based on the semi’s and doing a random draw for finals step-off order within those pods. We’d also have a much more compelling TV show if we had live scores after each performance, if not in the stadium, at least on television.

DCI deserves to be back on TV and I want it to be the best show it can possibly be. I want to pull new people in and keep them.

SV: What’s your take on the evolution of the activity — changes in rules, equipment, design, content?

SR: I am in absolute awe of what these corps do on that field. As you and I learned from Jim Coates at the Crown weekend in April, the level of commitment those members make at the top levels is remarkable. I would never have made the cut! The level of training they get is phenomenal. I tell people that doing a season of DCI drum corps is like doing a graduate level college internship in marching music, only much more intense. The results show on the field.

Content and design? I’m concerned that we’ve put so much emphasis on visual and demand that we’ve diluted the scoring impact of brass and percussion, and thus, importance. As Dennis says, “You become what you choose to judge”.

That may be having a negative effect on our overall entertainment value. I’m sure many people have heard the standing joke about a corps getting assessed a “melody penalty” for playing too many phrases of a familiar song. You can’t do breakneck drill moves to something like that.

Precious few corps have the across-the-board talent level to take on modern, pseudo-melodic wind ensemble music and make it work. Put a couple of those corps back-to-back on a Wednesday night in Rome, NY, and you have some frustrated fans.

It’s no secret that Carolina Crown was my favorite show in 2007. I think many fans felt the same way. It connected with the audience in such a special way on all levels.

Can a show like that win under the current judging system? Should it? There are numerous other similar examples from years past. Good questions for managers, instructors and judges. What all of these corps do is awesome. Entertaining and awesome is an unbeatable combination.

I can go through the whole list and pull lots of positives about all of our DCI corps. But by now you know my bottom line — I’m a sucker for a lush, powerful horn line. Hard-charging percussion and mind-boggling drill moves get the blood moving, but it’s the thick, rich horn impact that finishes me every time.

Like everyone else in these tight economic times, I worry about DCI’s economic health and the health of each corps. I’ve been in the management trenches. I realize the challenges they face. They can be daunting. Food and fuel prices are absolutely out of sight. This isn’t a great climate in which to do extra fund-raising.

I do think our best bet is staying unified under the DCI umbrella. The big corps and everyone else have to pull together for the greater good so all corps benefit. All for one, one for all. DCI has an excellent leader in Dan Acheson. If anyone can get us through bumpy terrain, it’s him.

I’m concerned that, as an activity, we’ve priced ourselves out of the reach of a lot of kids and that the demands are such that many like me way back when will miss out on the chance to do drum corps. I’d love to see a continuing, prolonged rebirth of smaller regional corps.

SV: Anything else you’d like to add?

SR: I love this activity. I applaud you for what you’ve done with Drum Corps World out of that same love. I know you’ve had your challenges, but have stayed the course. I really respect that.

Drum corps has been a part of my life for almost 45 years. I wish I was in an area where I could take in some senior/all-age corps shows. I grew tremendously as a drum corps participant and learned tons of great life lessons. I know that experience is true for kids today, although it’s a very different experience.

Gene Monterastelli asked me to send a leadership letter to DCI drum majors and guard captains this spring. I jokingly signed it as DCI TV/Cinecast host for “29 years to infinity”.

This will be year number 30. I do TV every day for a living, but that one week in August is still a personal and professional high for me. I hope I never have to leave that DCI “air chair” and I hope this activity remains strong and dynamic!

Thanks for letting me ramble on a bit . . .

SV: Thanks for taking time to do this interview. It’s been a pleasure knowing and working with you over the years and I hope there are many more seasons in the future!