Royal Airs Alumni celebrate 50th anniversary

by Jeff Helgeson

This article was originally published in the July 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 4).

On June 28, alumni of the Chicago Royal Airs celebrated rgw 50th anniversary of their corps’ founding with a dinner and keynote speech by Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps Founder and President, Don Warren.

Gathered together at the Park Ridge, IL, VFW Post that sponsored their one-time crosstown “Green Machine” rivals, Royal Airs alumni, who had assembled from across the country commemorated the history and accomplishments of the organization that brought them together as teenagers and has continued to unite them.

The environment for the evening was filled with memorabilia from the corps’ 10-year history as a junior corps and, more recently, as an alumni corps dedicated to the memory of the corps’ founder, Sie Lurye, in 2002, and then its long-time musical director, Truman Crawford, following his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2003.

In addition to three video monitors showing archival footage of corps performances, also on display was a large painting by Ron Van Gilder of the corps that was commissioned by Minnesota members to commemorate the 1965 championship season, along with a large collection of photographs, original uniforms and the VFW national championship trophy from 1965 (pictured below), next to a picture from that summer’s Drum Corps World magazine of Drum majors Mike Ramelli (who was in attendance) and Ron Laskowski being presented with it and the championship flag at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

Beginning the evening following a cocktail hour (accompanied by musical arrangements played by the Big Blue from throughout all of the years of the corps’ existence), a welcome was provided by three of the corps’ founding members who helped organize the anniversary celebration — former drum major (“the girl with the blue boots”) Judy Naples-Thompson, Amatore Menle and Fred Schroeter.

Before dinner, a dedication and video photo presentation in memory of the corps members who perished in the 1958 Our Lady of Angels parochial school fire, as well as those who have since “joined them in their silence”, was offered by former Royal Airs Drum Major and O.L.A. survivor Serge Uccetta. This was followed by a moment of silence and the playing of the corps’ recording of the traditional hymn, Abide With Me arranged by Truman Crawford.

During dinner, catered through a company owned by Tom Walters, an alumni corps member, a video montage of photos covering the whole of the Royal Airs history was shown, many of which were provided by John Aslakson, a retired doctor of veterinary medicine who, as a corps member, had begun taking photos, sometimes with a concealed camera in his shako, during the 1964 and 1965 seasons.

The emcee for the evening was RA alumnus Connell Griffin. He introduced original corps member Carm Logalbo who related the circumstances of the Royal Airs’ founding at a meeting of former members of the Alamo Rangers held at the boathouse in Chicago’s Humboldt Park on the afternoon of June 28, 1958, one week following a dispute with the Alamo American Legion Post over attending the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Illinois State Championship and the dramatic burning of their membership cards on the front steps of the post.

With the leadership of one-time professional prize fighter Sie Lurye and business manager Bill Evans, as well as music arranger Rich Tarsitano and drum instructor Ed Roberts who was present at the anniversary event, the Royal Airs then experienced a list of benchmarks that were summarized by Connell Griffin, including: the 1959 Winter Carnival first place in Minneapolis, the 1960 infusion of members from Minnesota into the corps, the 1961 second-place prelim position at VFW nationals, the 1962 American Legion State Championship, the 1963 transition to Truman Crawford as musical director, the 1964 World’s Fair Championship, the 1965 arrival of a large number of members from the Spartans, another Chicago corps which, like the Royal Airs between 1958 and 1962 had been trained and guided musically by Rich Tarsitano, and then the 1965 three-title championship season, followed by a final three years of continued prominence, with two consecutive national championship losses in 1967 and 1968 resulting from timing penalties.

To offer a unique prospective on this history, the keynote speaker for the evening, Don Warren was then introduced and he was greeted with prolonged applause as he approached the podium and addressed his corps’ former rivals, beginning by describing the close friendship that had existed between himself and Royal Airs Founder and President, Sie Lurye.

As explained by Warren, the directors of five of the prominent corps from the 1960s — the Cavaliers, Royal Airs, Toronto Optimists, Madison Scouts and Troopers — had all maintained close personal friendships as each of them had sought to provide the benefits of the drum corps activity to young people through the offering of programs based on the concept of structured discipline, prolonged and concerted effort, and accomplishment that was directly related to the work which was required to achieve it.

The result of this shared effort, Don Warren asserted, was what had served to create a common bond among Al Baggs, Clarence Beebe, Jim Jones, Sie Lurye and himself, and it was the evidence of this commitment that, 50 years later, could be seen in the lifetime accomplishments of the corps alumni that events such as this anniversary of the founding of the Royal Airs, or any other drum and bugle corps from any era, could serve to bring together.

Looking across the room as he spoke, the presence of Royal Airs alumni, including a district judge, several business owners, two university instructors, educational band directors and professional percussion instructors, as well as the music director for recording artist Smoky Robinson, seemed to be a truly vivid demonstration of his point. Thinking for a moment of those other members who had not been able to attend for the evening, such as Chuck Ferrera, the retired advertising executive who struck the match to begin burning the Alamo Ranger membership cards, Bill Schutters, the founder of the company that made the Royal Airs’ reunion corps uniforms, Doug Kozel, a snare drummer turned architect, and Bill Lorenz, the owner of the video company that annually tapes DCI Nationals, in addition to many others, including an airline pilot and professionals in several fields — the vision of the corps directors who had affected the lives of so many young people five decades ago became even clearer.

After concluding his remarks, emcee Griffin thanked Mr. Warren, then briefly recalled the 1967 Drum Corps World-sponsored Chicago Opera House exposition at which Sie Lurye and the Cavaliers’ president shared box seats and Warren had called attention to a Royal Airs soprano soloist who he claimed was over age, causing Sie Lurye to remark, “No, that’s Chris Ferrara. He’s still eligible to march. Jimmy Angarola is back in the last row tonight.”

The anniversary evening concluded with group photographs of the founding members who were present and, finally, of all of the Royal Airs alumni who had come together once again, as they had during the reunion years of the corps performances beginning in 2002 and 2003.

The most lasting impression of the evening, however, was the one made by Warren’s comments concerning what individuals such as the corps directors of the 1960s had contributed to the lives of people who, no longer so very young, had ultimately come to have benefited from their drum corps experiences in ways it may very well be impossible to measure.

Jeff Helgeson is a 1963 to 1968 and 2002 to 2004 Royal Airs alumnus who was the 2003 DCA mellophone indiviual national champion.