Part 1: A lifetime in drum corps and in the spotlight

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 4). It is the type of material that is included in each issue, covering the junior, all-age, alumni and foreign drum and bugle corps activity worldwide.

Just about everyone in the drum and bugle corps activity knows Steve Rondinaro as the consistent face of 29 years on the television broadcasts of DCI’s annual championships. Fewer people know many details of his background that goes back well beyond that first telecast in Birmingham, AL, 1979 on the PBS Network.

I’ve known Steve for most of the last two and a half decades, first as manager of the Watkins Glen Squires, then through his challenges leading the Florida Vanguards as he transitioned the Miami corps into Florida Wave. The latter was one of the most successful associate-level corps in DCI’s history during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He’s been a news anchor at four major Florida television stations, a reporter of significant news stories that have been carried by the networks and, more recently, owner of television and radio stations in North Carolina.

I got a chance to chat with him when we were invited to speak at Carolina Crown’s “CrownClub Weekend 2008” in Charlotte during late April. He’s led an interesting life in and out of drum corps . . .

Steve Vickers: Tell me about how you got involved with the Squires?

Steve Rondinaro: I think it was coded in my DNA. My dad was a horn instructor with the Seneca Chiefs senior corps from nearby Montour Falls. I would go to rehearsals behind the elementary school with him as a little squirt and play on the swings while they practiced. Dad also had me blowing on a trombone about the time I could walk. Music was a big deal in our house.

We were also part of quite an historical drum corps legacy in the Watkins Glen area. Several of my uncles marched in the Legion Cadets after the war. Two others and a cousin or two marched in the Chiefs in the 1950s.

In 1964, Chuck Calhoun, Carl Isley and Vern Ailing decided a drum corps for kids would be a good thing for Watkins Glen. The Squires were born and, at age 9, I was a charter member. I owe those three men a lot. That’s where I would make some of my best lifelong friends and age out 12 years later. I did a lot of growing up with that drum corps, right down to learning how to do my laundry.

SV: You moved from the field to management while still marching. What was that like?

SR: It was interesting and a giant learning experience. It was ’75, my age-out year, and our first year as a DCI Associate, having finished 24th in Ithaca in ’74. I shared duties with a “real adult” named Bill Wickham.

Bill and Jeanette Wickham were the glue that kept the corps running. Their selfless dedication was amazing. “Mr. Wick” was a low-key kind of guy who liked operating behind the scenes. I had been doing the Squires’ PR for awhile, publishing a corps newsletter, hosting a weekly radio show, sending out news releases, etc. So . . .

As corps manager, I handled all of the scheduling, show logistics and PR. Since this DCI thing was new to all of us, we were equally inexperienced on that front. Contest days were often fun, scurrying between rehearsals and managers meetings with contest committees . . . often in uniform.

Between college, my part-time jobs at local radio and TV stations, and the corps manager duties, my contribution as a performer that year was not what it should have been.

The most surreal moment was at Philly in ’75 when we got our prelim score and realized we had a shot at finals. We were all excited. The corps went back to its housing location to rest and wait it out. This was back when prelims and finals were on the same day.

I hung out at the stadium, still in uniform, awaiting our fate and hoping to attend a finalist managers meeting. We ended up in thirteenth, a few tenths behind the Troopers. We may have been the proudest thirteenth-place corps to ever pack the stands at DCI Finals.

I really came to enjoy the scheduling and working with the sponsors. Back then, Don Whiteley handled a lot of the DCI show scheduling and show assignments. Since I had professional TV and radio experience, even as a college kid, I understood a lot of where Don was coming from when it came to marketing.

I knew the value of a promotional appearance for a radio or TV station, or a charity gig in Keokuk, IA, or Tifton, GA. We did a lot of those, much to the staff’s irritation, but it helped get us into other shows.

Don helped those who helped him and the sponsor would want us back the next year because of our willingness to help the cause. I always tried to wrangle a free meal, too.

SV: Those were great years with the Watkins Glen corps. During the 1970s, your corps and the Precisionnaires from Osage, IA, shared one distinct thing in common . . . you both hailed from very small towns of less than 3,000 people and you both made a mark on DCI by nearly    making the jump into Saturday night finals. What was it like running a major touring drum corps from such a small place?

SR: We didn’t fully appreciate the size of the mountain we were trying to climb at the time. In hindsight, I don’t know how we did it aside from the fact that we didn’t know any better. We came from a town of 2,700 in a rural county of about 14,000.

We traveled in used school buses. You haven’t lived until you’ve done a tour through the Deep South on a non-air-conditioned school bus in the dead of August. Our equipment truck was a used school bus. Our food truck was a used school bus.

We had a dedicated group of volunteers and a small, dedicated regional staff that was probably working for considerably less than the “market rate”. The Wickhams somehow stretched our limited funding and I constantly looked for an extra parade or exhibition that would get us a few hundred extra dollars or a free meal.

While ’75 was an exciting surprise, we were going for it in ’76. We had a better corps in all captions and a very strong program. Trouble is, other corps got even better. We ended up fifteenth. That’s when the reality of the odds against us began to set in.

The finances began to get tighter and the corps began a gradual decline, but managed to stay in the top 25 for several more years.

SV: What was it like being an up-and-coming corps in the Eastern region?

SR: It was an exciting time. There were so many different styles on the field in the East in the 1970s — 27th, Bridgemen, North Star, Garfield, Boston . . . the East was a fun place to be then and we were in the thick of it. We prided ourselves on our musicality.

DCI Hall of Famer Corky Fabrizio arranged musically-challenging books for us. Hardy Carrasas made sure our marching and guard work was clean. Our percussion was solid.

There was so much good competition to be had in the East. I think the most fun we had was working our way into the Class B finals at the World Open for the first time in 1971 and then winning it the next year against some very good Eastern competition.

We won Class A titles at the U.S. Open and American International Open in ’73. It was highly competitive and it seemed like all of Watkins Glen and Schuyler County was behind us.

There would be huge welcome home celebrations at the town park when we returned from those trips. Our trophies sat in the main display case at town hall. We were so darn proud.

New York State was also quite competitive then. We could do a three-show weekend and not travel more than 500 miles total. It meant a lot to win the state title and we won four in a row from ’75 to ‘78. That was especially sweet for those of us who were there at the beginning and remember the guy who yelled, “Get ’em off the field” and finishing dead last just a few years earlier.

My lifelong friend Jud Spena does a wonderful job of chronicling all of that history in his book, “Echoes in the Valley”.

We could get pretty creative off the field. I believe the Squires have a unique distinction with our National Anthem film. We shot a performance of the anthem in a park in Rochester, NY, on 35MM film in the late ’70s and produced a finished version that signed WROC-TV, Rochester, and WENY-TV, Elmira, on and off the air each and every day for several years.

SV: The move to Florida . . . tell me about what brought that about?

SR: A great job opportunity. I was working at the NBC station in Rochester, NY (then market #72), and got an offer at WCKT in Miami (then market #15) in the fall of 1979. It was a huge jump. It was tough leaving my family and the Squires behind, but what a professional opportunity.

I started out reporting from the Fort Lauderdale bureau. Within six months I was in the middle of the Miami riots and anchoring the 6:00 PM news from the main desk in Miami at the age of 25.

It was seven crazy, fulfilling years in Miami. I reported from Beirut, Lebanon, after our Marine base there was leveled in the first major suicide bombing. I reported from Israel and England. I “consummated” my love affair with the space program, covering the very first space shuttle launch and probably 30 more after that.

I continued that love affair for another 10 years after moving to Orlando with Cape Canaveral as part of our local coverage area. I was blessed to have met and interviewed many of the heroes of my youth . . . the men who took us into space and to the moon. I then had a front-row seat for our next chapter of space exploration.

SV: How did you hook up with the Florida Vanguards?

SR: Here comes the name Don Whiteley again. I didn’t know a soul in Miami when I moved there. Don called and told me the drum corps there   needed help. I knew very little about the Florida Vanguards other than they finished twenty-fourth at DCI in ’79. I thought, “Sure, I’ll help out and it will be a great way to get to know people.”    I ended up as corps director, but I had no idea what I was getting into.

SV: The time came when you made the decision to change the organization into Florida Wave. Describe the transition, key players, etc.

SR: What Don didn’t tell me was that the Florida Vanguards corps was on the verge of imploding. Pretty much the entire management group left or wanted out. The finances were a mess, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Being in a new job in a new city meant my ability to focus on the Vanguards was limited. We somehow got the corps out on tour in 1980, but it wasn’t pretty and I couldn’t travel much with them. That’s when the straw broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Bob Lendman called from Phantom Regiment — he had been a mentor during my Squires days — to tell me that the Vanguards were being fined $500 for trashing a housing site. I was frightfully embarrassed . . . deciding then and there that if I was continuing with the organization, we were starting fresh.

The Florida Wave was born that winter. A great lady named Jo Wessman helped make it happen. She was the detail person and organizer. We changed everything from the name up. I decided that we’d cast our image in our geography — “Lightly Latin and Tastefully Tropical” became our identity.

We went out in ’81 doing the Class A thing with 42 kids who really wanted to be there and play by the new rules. We bought surplus waiters jackets from a local hotel chain that the parents trimmed out as uniform tops. The kids supplied their own black pants and black shoes.

We made our own gauntlets. Staffer Ron Coleman worked in a plant that made airplane seats. He fabricated a mold and over the course of several weeks he made our helmets from excess plastic. The kids couldn’t hear too well and looked a little like “scrubbing bubbles” on the field, but we had a budget-friendly new look. And we had fun!

We stressed fun and being audience-friendly. The staff would dress in gaudy Hawaiian shirts and toss oranges and beach balls into the crowd before the corps went on. The music was accessible. Our look and our corps evolved.

The Wave became DCI Class A champs and made our way up through the top 25. We had a lot of great kids and talented young staff pass through the ranks of the corps.

SV: Florida Wave had an incredible string of successes as a DCI associate corps. What were the challenges of the home base and the distance to the nearest competitions?

SR: That was a killer. We were at the end of the world. We were a heck of a lot closer to Cuba than Atlanta. Transportation costs were outrageous. I was a major proponent of Drum Corps South when we got that up and going. That was a big plus for several years.

The DCI Championships coming to Miami in 1983 was also a big momentum boost — and budget-saver. It also helped raise our local visibility dramatically.

“Home base” was another matter. The corps didn’t really have a home when I got there. We’d rehearse in an empty field at a drivers license office, next to South Florida State Mental Hospital. The state had closed some wings of the hospital. While I was there on a news story, I got talking to one of the administrators.

One thing led to another and we ended up with a condemned cafeteria to call home. We had access to a field and a gym. Other than a periodic bad smell arising from a mysterious pipe deep within the place, it was a great setup. The criminally insane patients were kept behind a tall double fence topped with razor wire, so the kids were safe. We provided them with free entertainment. It was a win-win.