‘Chicago’ Art Kurth, 1937-2000, one of drum corps’ most dedicated, witty participants

by Paul Mordorski, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of Drum Corps World, marking the newspaper/s 36th anniversary (Volume 37, Number 1).

He was one of those rare individuals who felt you should march drum corps every year, no matter what. Art Kurth had a drum and bugle corps career that spanned seven decades and he was planning to continue when the Eternal Drum Corps Hall of Fame called him on December 18, 2000 at the age of 63. He will always be remembered as one of the unequalled characters of the activity.

“Chicago Art”, as he was known, was totally dedicated to the idea of drum and bugle corps. He was a proponent of the art form and loved the concept and all that went into the activity. From working together on the field, to solving financial difficulties in a staff meeting, to the social aspect of it after rehearsal — Art loved it all.

He was a kid off the streets of Chicago when he first joined the Ardennes Post 895 Belgium American Legion Post Drum and Bugle Corps in 1948. He was one of many kids who were taught how to play a horn in drum corps. But he never considered himself a musician. If you called him one, he would tell you, “I’m no musician, I’m a bugler!”

In an interview in 1998, he recalled how the Ardennes corps, which had been in existence for 40 years, changed its name in 1955. “We changed it to the Windy City Cadets just because we went out to the national competition and all the East Coast corps were Cadets,” said Art. “And we said, cool, that’s what you need to win, so we immediately changed the name.”
Did the corps win? “No, but we did take high horns at the Momence “Gladiola Festival” parade once,” Art joked.

The Cavaliers were starting to rise when Art joined them in the mid-’50s. The corps won championships in both 1957 and 1959. He was proud of his association and accomplishments with the Cavaliers. But he is best known for his interview as part of a 15-minute segment on “The Cavaliers, a 50-Year History”, regarding the corps’ fight against the St. Vincent’s Cadets in 1957 at Flamingo Park in Miami Beach. Here is an excerpt of some of the high points of this event, as only Art could tell it.

“The fight is going badly and we were all rolling around and punchin’ and thumpin’ and thuggin’, when this sea of red shirts come running across the field and it’s the Archer-Epler Musketeers, a senior corps. And I said, ‘Adults are coming to bring this thing to a reasonable conclusion’.

“Then the first guy hits me; they are kind of alumni of Vinnies and they were making sure that Vinnies kept the upper hand, which they were. But we are still on our feet and doing fairly good. All of a sudden, I see this sea of green shirts    coming across the field and it’s the Reilly Raiders. I said, ‘Aw man, all is lost’.

“If I had a pistol and a silver bullet, I’d have pulled it out and blown my brains out. But they came in and were wailing on Archie, because I guess there was some conflict with them, AND also because we had lent them our drums with the new plastic heads as their hyde heads were ruined in the rain before they went on. They did win. The Reilly guys were vicious.

“There were people using guide-ons, which is a pole with a spike on the end, and a little tiny flag. They’re coming in like Sir Lancelot. And then the Miami police showed up and ran toward us screaming, ‘You’re all under arrest’. And I said, ‘Fine, get me out of here, I’m getting beat up badly and I’ve got to go home and tell my mother what happened’.

“So the policeman pins my arms behind me and this guy from Vinnies started using me like a punching bag. But I gave the cop an elbow under the chin and somehow got away. I don’t remember what brought it to a conclusion, but it just finally died down. I saved my corps jacket with the slashed sleeve that my mom sewed up. It had a little blood on it, but mom had it cleaned. I can’t believe she would do that.”

After junior corps, Kurth continued participating with a variety of senior corps in Illinois and Wisconsin, marching with the Skokie Indians in the early- to mid-1960s, the Winfield Scott Rebels in 1964, the Zientek Diplomats in 1966-1968 and the Kenosha Kingsmen in 1969. He also played with Commonwealth Edison and Men of Brass.

Well-known brass arranger and instructor Ken Norman knew and instructed Art since the ’60s and had a remembrance of Art’s wit from that time period. “The Skokie Indians were noted for releasing a recording on the Epic label,” said Norman. “Despite this fame, the LP was not a big mover. Art always claimed that the corps invented the game of frisbee with all the unsold records that were piled up at American Legion Post 320.”

It was during this time that Kurth became noted as a soprano soloist. His high-range playing or “chops” were legendary. He was a screech soprano soloist for nearly every corps he ever marched in.

It was commonly known that he never learned how to read music very well. When new music was passed out, someone would assist him with writing the fingerings above the notes on the music. When asked about this, he would always say, “You really don’t need to finger the notes if you are playing loud enough and high enough.”

He joined the Racine, WI, Boys of ’76, a well-established senior corps that was having a break-out type of year in 1970. He came into the corps with several other Illinois guys and the ’76 locals bestowed upon him the moniker “Chicago Art”, which would identify him as a flamboyant soloist. The Boys had great success in 1970, becoming the first Midwestern corps to place in a DCA Finals, taking seventh in prelims and ninth in finals.

Another colorful character that became involved with the “Boys” in 1970 as drum major was Dave Richards, well-known participant and adjudicator. He has vivid and fond memories of that time period and “Chicago Art”.

“He was the guy that got my ‘Big Daddy’ nickname out to all drum corps that would listen. He also had t-shirts made for the horn line that read, ‘Big Daddy’s Dinks’ printed on them as an answer to rival the ‘Hooten’s Herd’ shirts worn by the Reilly Raiders from Philadelphia to honor their leader and drum major, Bill Hooten. He was a very charming, funny man.”

Kurth was with ’76 when women were inducted into the color guard and the name changed to the Spirit of ’76 in 1975. He was an integral part of Spirit throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s. Not only did he continue to march every year, but he also was corps director for many years.

Regarding corps finances, he would make an announcement during each break at Spirit rehearsals at Pershing Park, “Remember, beer is only a buck at the corps coolers. Let’s all do our part and drink our way to financial security.”

John Caspers, known to many as JC, is a Racine, WI, native who has logged many seasons with the Racine Scouts in the ’70s, with Spirit of ’76 through the mid-’80s and is currently with the Racine Kilties. JC has some vivid memories of the dedicated nature of “Chicago Art”.

“My first year of senior corps in 1978 found me marching next to Art for a good portion of the show. Once at a rehearsal break in concert formation, I told him, ‘Art, I love drum corps and I want to grow up to be just like you . . . I want to march drum corps forever.’

“Art just smiled. Seventeen years later and after a 10-year break from marching, I ran into him at a show in South Milwaukee. He was marching with the Chicago Vanguard and I was marching Kilts. Art said to me, ‘Hey JC, where’ve you been? I thought you said you were going to grow up to be just like me. I’ve never taken a year off . . . what’s your story?’ Art had a great memory,” concluded Caspers.

Kurth was also willing to step in and help the corps out of tight jams, as was the case for Spirit’s first show in 1979. “In our flag presentation, It’s a Grand Old Flag, there was a solo that acted as a bridge between a key change in the music,” said JC. “It was written in the key of A-flat and it was the Yankee Doodle piccolo solo. The solo was nearly impossible to finger and the dude who was supposed to play it quit the corps about an hour before we were to take the starting line.

“We were all freakin’ out, but Art volunteered to play the solo, simply saying, ‘Don’t worry, I got it covered’. Art went out and played the solo an octave up without so much as pressing a valve on his horn and the crowd ate it up! Later that year, Art and I teamed up on the solo. I reached over and fingered the notes on Art’s horn while Art played the solo. Art never did learn the fingerings.”

Throughout all the years that Art played with Spirit of ’76 in Wisconsin, he continued to commute to and from Illinois. According to Chris Ferrara, who marched many years and drove with Art several times, the trip going home was always a bit longer than the one going to.

“Art always wanted to stop and eat and have coffee when we were going back home,” said Ferrara. “He just needed to keep talking drum corps and keep the trip going. I had three kids and needed to get home to spend time with my family so I had to stop driving with Art. He knew and just smiled in that Art way.”

Another time, several of the guyswent on a drum corps trip in a motor home. Ferrara was moving from one point to another when the driver hit the breaks hard to avoid an accident.  He hit his knee hard into a corner, bruising it badly,and his face turned white and his stomach grew sick.

“Art rushed over to me and asked me how I was feeling. He looked genuinely concerned about me. He moved over to my side and didn’t leave me alone, continuing to ask about my progress,” said Ferrara. “He wasn’t just interested indrum and bugle corps, he was interested in and had compassion for the members.

“I remember a funny incident that occurred in 1974 when I had just joined the Spirit of ’76. It was after a rehearsal when a short, thin man came up to talk to me, welcoming me to the corps and then proceeded to reminisce about earlier years where I had been present. I was caught dumbfounded as I could not understand how this little man I had just met could know these details.

“After a few minutes, the little man said to me, ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ I admitted that I did not. With that, the little man reached into his wallet and pulled out a picture of himself from a few years earlier. The picture was of a much heavier man that I recognized right away as Art.

“My mouth dropped to the floor as my eyes slowly turned toward this man holding the picture. It was, indeed, a much thinner version of the Art Kurth I had known for nearly 10 years. Apparently he was told that he had diabetes and needed to lose a lot of weight. In a short period of time, Art had accomplished it,” Ferrara explained.

When serving as corps director with Spirit of ’76, Kurth was famous for getting the corps and their members out of “sticky situations”. On   several occasions, corps busses would be pulled over and he was there to smooth things out. One time, he wasn’t cooperating with the patrolman and with the corps and the busses in tow, he headed for the police station. But he kept talking, persistently explaining his case, and was released from jail to a standing ovation from the corps.

John Caspers also had a memory of Kurth as the savvy corps director.

“At a show in Minnesota in 1978, we were staying in a high-rise dormitory at a college campus. ‘Moon Eyes’ and myself, a couple of 22-year-old rookies, were getting our kicks throwing fluorescent tubes from the 10th floor window and watching them explode on the pavement below.

“Of course, we were caught by the local campus security and Art was called in to talk to the cops. He smoothed over the situation and slapped us on the wrist. Later I overheard Art telling others on the board of   directors that ‘boys will be boys’ and he chuckled, as if remembering a few pranks of his own,” Caspers recalled.

Doug Vincent, who marched with the Boys of ’76, Spirit of ’76 and the Kilties, also has vivid memories of the more colorful side of Art Kurth.

“One year with Spirit of ’76, we went to Alliance, OH, for a senior show. That year, women in the guard instituted thematic trips and for Alliance, who had a Western theme, everyone dressed up like cowboys. After the show, we went to a party with the Guelph Royalaires from Canada in our Western attire and here comes Art, wearing only red long-john underwear, boots and an F-troop hat. He was the hit of the party and those Canadians couldn’t believe him,” Vincent explained.

Adam Szlagowski was one of Art’s closest friends since they met in Boys of ’76 in the early ’70s. “Our families hung together and did things together all the time. We both had kids during our time in ’76 and it was a very family-oriented corps. Both our wives marched, even when they were pregnant. Art was married to Kathy for 30 years. She understood Art and his need to be involved in drum corps because she was a    marching member.

“When I think of Art, all these random thoughts come back to me, like snapshots through the years. He was a great guy and a good person. He had his own problems, but didn’t talk about them. He would do anything he could for you.

“Art was a big fan of old-time TV and radio. He used to quote Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton from the ‘Honeymooners’ — ‘Life is not always about beer and skittles.’ Before a show, to get the corps fired up, Art would say, ‘I want to see nothing but asses, elbows and smoke.’ He pulled ’76 through some lean years.”

From the early ’70s and for the rest of his life, diabetes would be a health concern for Kurth. According to some, although Art was a diabetic, he was not that conscientious about his health. Drum corps got in the way. But as time went on, his diabetes became more serious and every other year he was spending some time in the hospital. At the end, he was needing kidney dialysis and eventually complications from diabetes ended   his life.

Every time Art would get out of the hospital, he would be back at drum corps. He marched with the Chicago Vanguard from 1986-1995 and with the Kilties from 1996 until his last year in 2000. During this time, he instructed his friends to watch after him and be aware that if he went into a diabetic coma, they needed to take care of him.

“I sat next to him on the bus and he always had a cooler with oranges, hard candy and other things that would snap him out of it,” said Vincent. “He always told me that if I ever had trouble waking him up, that I had to keep trying and not give up on him.

“During Art’s last year marching in the horn line with the Kilties, he was playing soprano, I was on mellophone and was lucky enough to be next to Art at the end of the opener where we would do this little hop to end the piece. During the pause, I hear Art say softly, ‘Here we are on the field, in Kilts.’

“Go figure,” I answered, and we both chuckled and then we were off. And that was Art. Appreciating the small moments of drum corps and then moving on to the next part of it,” Vincent concluded.

Drum corps certainly was Art Kurth’s life. He intended to play forever and if health hadn’t gotten in his way, he might have. He enriched the activity with his presence and thanks to video and audio tapes, DVDs and photographs, Art Kurth remains with us.

“The intent of this effort is to make sure that Art Kurth isn’t forgotten and possibly considered for the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame some day. Because he truly is unforgettable and his spirit, the essence of the die-hard drum corps purist, will always live on.