DCA perspectives — 1991-2007

by Adam Burdett, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of Drum Corps World which marked the publication’s 36th Anniversary (Volume 37, Number 1).

In celebrating the 36th anniversary of Drum Corps World, I tried to think of ways to participate in this special issue. Anyone who has seen my articles in the past knows that I am a huge follower of the all-age activity, most notably, Drum Corps Associates.

I thought it would be fitting to write about some of the finer — and maybe even infamous — moments of the past decades except for one obvious problem. I’m only 32 years old.

Not to be shut out, though, I’m sure everyone has memories of the early years of DCA. But since I only witnessed my first DCA show in 1991, the Scranton championship show, my article can only include those moments. Though it has been fun over the years, at various shows and in my time with the Westshoremen Alumni Corps, to share stories of past seasons of the pre-1991 days, I feel I couldn’t do the stories any justice. So here is a look back at DCA Championships and some other tidbits from the 1991 season to the present.

In those 17 seasons, only six corps have been fortunate enough to take home a DCA title. The Empire Statesmen and Syracuse Brigadiers have won four each and each tied for a fifth. The Reading Buccaneers earned a three-peat in 2007. The Bushwackers and Hawthorne Caballeros each possess two titles to call their own.

And in probably the biggest upset of those 17 years, the Westshoremen captured one title in 1996. This was the only title show, other than the 1997 tie, where the corps seeded first after prelims did not win the title.

In Class A competition, which began in 1997, nine corps have won titles. The New York Skyliners, Generations and Heat Wave each carry two titles, with Generations and Heat Wave sharing the crown in 1998. Six corps can claim one title each, a list that includes the Lehigh Valley Chieftains (first title in 1997), CorpsVets, Kingston Grenadiers, Chops, Inc., Governaires, and the Sunrisers.

The year 1991 saw the championships arrive for a five-year stint at Lackawanna County Stadium in Scranton, PA. One of my fond memories of my first show, the 1991 prelims, was Les Metropolitains of Quebec.

In their first year of competition, Les Mets took the field at 10:00 AM in front of several hundred frigid fans as morning lows dipped below the 40-degree mark. The wake-up call that everyone needed was the opening strains of Explosion that sprung the crowd to its feet.

Despite a 10th-place finish in finals, Les Mets may have captured more fans that weekend than any other corps.

Other memorable performances of 1991 included the first title and outstanding color presentation of the Empire Statesmen. The Bushwackers’ percussion section continued their streak of percussion titles. The Connecticut Hurricanes African flair with their percussion feature of Umulu enthralled audiences. The Westshoremen steel drum section captured a showmanship trophy for their exciting work.

In 1992, one of the more infamous moments took place involving the defending champion Empire Statesmen. As the corps was getting set to conclude Battle Hymn, a gigantic tarp of red, white and blue was to soar over the corps proper as they performed their closing, breakneck drill. Problem was, as the tarp soared over the corps, it split down the middle like a poorly sewn pair of pants. Somehow, the corps managed to finish, as respectably as they could, and to this day I think DM David Bruni swore on the podium at the conclusion.

Regardless, the tarp did not make a triumphant return on finals night. Always showmen, the Statesmen got as close as they could the next night, making up a point, but finishing a close second.

The New York Skyliners, unbeknownst to them, performed their last show under the guidance of Drum Major Butch Anderson. The corps rebounded from a slow start to the season with a magnificent performance at finals, a performance Butch could be proud to direct.

Other highlights of 1992 include the debut of the Bushwackers’ triple bass drums, the Hurricanes bringing an entire church to the competition field, the return of the Syracuse Brigadiers after many years off the field and the Sunrisers’ color guard going out of this world with cosmic-looking hamster wheels (or something like that).

The 1993 season saw prelims and finals on the same day after a Friday night rainstorm put the kaybash on prelims. One of the more memorable moments of the weekend would once again involve the Empire Statesmen, but this time in a good way. The Statesmen had a full-out mardi gras production number with one of the more interesting looking props to take the field. A gigantic mardi gras doll was paraded down the 50-yard line and took three people to maneuver. Instant standing ovations for this number, but Statesmen came up short again despite making up more than two points in a little over 10 hours.

Other highlights of 1993 were the back-to-back champion Bushwackers bringing a famous painting (Sunday in the Park) to life, Les Metropolitains jumping three placements and 5.2 points in 10 hours and getting a best color guard trophy to boot, the drum majors of DCA with a heartfelt tribute to Butch Anderson who would sadly pass on just four days later, and a Rochester Crusaders color guard that oozed showmanship.

The 1994 championships would bring the Empire Statesmen back to the winners circle with a Frank Sinatra show. The Hawthorne Caballeros would close the prelims gap by 1.9, but still fall a bit short. Les Metropolitains cracked the top four with ease and won another color guard trophy, never to be heard from again in DCA.

The 1995 season saw an increase in the number of corps for the third straight season and, quite possibly, one the most balanced line-ups in prelims history. The Hawthorne Caballeros finished undefeated and broke the DCA scoring record with a well-deserved 97.7.

The Westshoremen jumped eight places from the previous year, overtaking the Empire Statesmen at finals for a silver medal position.

Other highlights would include a very memorable performance by the Rochester Crusaders. The Cru had a tough season, with a small brass line, but very talented auxiliary and percussion section. The corps came together at finals with a performance for the ages.

The closer of Battle Hymn would see color guard members playing soprano bugles and Old Glory hoisted to the heavens via a hydraulic lift. Chris Calhoun nearly jumped through the podium with excitement and many scratched their heads and even booed the eighth-place finish. Still, Cru acted with class and finished the season stronger than they could’ve imagined.

1996 would see a shift to Rochester and the fan-unfriendly Frontier Field. A seat on the 50-yard-line put spectators approximately 60 yards from the front sideline in a logistical   disaster. Despite the venue, attendance soared for the upset by the Westshoremen for the title. The corps finished prelims closer to third place than the top spot, but managed to eek out a 0.1 victory at finals thanks to the talent of their fine percussion section that went undefeated for a second straight season.

The Empire Statesmen sold their “Around the World” production like no other corps. This show was greeted with standing ovations for the entire summer and I doubt anyone would’ve complained had they taken home the title. Quality won out over quantity as the tiny Sunrisers powered their way to sixth place. The Reading Buccaneers returned to finals for the first time since 1992, while the New York Skyliners missed their first finals ever.

The year 1997 brought a return to Allentown for the first of three years and the first Class A competition. Class A was started for smaller, up-and-coming units that contained 60 members or less. This may be DCA’s greatest move as the number of new corps continues to increase year after year.

The Chieftains took the first title in their hometown as DCA was introduced to the southern entertainment of Heat Wave. No one kept a straight face when that shark came out.

In Open Class, the Syracuse Brigadiers took their first title, but had to play nice and share with the Empire Statesmen. In a loaded field, the Hawthorne Caballeros were less than a point away from the co-champions. Minnesota Brass, Inc., despite an eighth-place finish, arrived at DCA with their most polished corps ever and an in-your-face Caravan closer that brought the house down. The Racine Kilties made their first of what would be many visits to DCA with a four-standing-ovation prelims performance.

In 1998, the scoring record fell with the Empire Statesmen’s 97.9 at finals and their flawless execution of “West Side Story”. The Reading Buccaneers made a jump to the top four with Festive Overture leading the way. Two corps would make finals for the first time with Kingston Grenadiers and the Racine Kilties finishing in ninth and tenth. The Rochester Crusaders would just miss out on finals, but showed up big time on Sunday for one of the greatest eleventh-place exhibitions ever.

Class A would feature a tie between Heat Wave and the Generations from Rhode Island. The two certainly earned the title, but one can’t help but think that Les Dynamiques stole the show. The corps, which consisted of 15 brass and five pitted percussion, pushed the envelope and did more with less than any other corps in DCA history.

The Allentown era would end in 1999 and Snoopy   couldn’t have said it better with his story intro of “It was a dark and stormy night”. The rains came and nobody knew it better than the Sunrisers. Downpour was an understatement, but don’t tell that to the color guard of the Sunrisers. After a flawless rifle toss and catch, everyone in the audience could hear a guard member yell, “How’d you like that!” And for those who didn’t think it could rain harder, Shenandoah proved everyone wrong. Regardless, the performance captured the crowd who had fun with them and left the rest of the evening a little less exciting after this awesome spectacle.

The Syracuse Brigadiers would capture their first solo title with relative ease. Lots of flip-flopping in the ranks saw the Reading Buccaneers pass the Empire Statesmen for second and Minnesota Brass, Inc. pass the Hawthorne Caballeros for fourth. The New York Skyliners returned to competition after a year off and captured the Class A title by 5.6 points.

The year 2000 rang in two years at P&C Stadium in Syracuse. Some good, old-fashioned home cooking would treat the Syracuse Brigadiers to titles number two and three in a row, culminating with their 2001 closer, MacArthur Park and 17 snare drums and a wall of sound that could be heard as far away as Buffalo. The 2000 season would also give the Brigs the new record high score with a 98.0. Generations and CorpsVets of Atlanta would take home the two Class A titles in Syracuse.

The talk of 2000 was undoubtedly the three sopranos of the Hawthorne Caballeros. While few could argue who the best corps was, the Cabs’ prelims performance was one for the ages. I could remember music judge Vic Chester look at another judge after the last chord rang out and mouth the words, “Holy —-”.

Not to be outdone in the showmanship department would be the 2001 “Rat Pack” tribute by the Empire Statesmen. Vince Bruni himself took the field, or should I say the bar, and became part of the performance. I’ve heard rumors that Jeff “the bartender” Gibbens was serving actual drinks, but no one has ever confirmed it.

The Kingston Grenadiers always rocked Syracuse and these two years were no exception. The drum solos in Malaga and Echano got the crowd jumping each year. The Kilties brought their strongest corps to DCA, narrowly missing another finalist berth. The Bushwackers made a great jump of five placements from 2000 to 2001, going from the “Dark Side” to a “Raging River”.

The year 2002 would return to Scranton for four more seasons. The Syracuse Brigadiers completed an unprecedented four-peat with another record-breaker of 98.6. The Hawthorne Caballeros would relive the Muchachos with an uncharacteristic sixth-place effort. CorpsVets would make open class finals for the first time, tying for eleventh place. The New York Skyliners took home their second Class A title with an emotional post-9/11 performance.

The story of 2002 had an international flair with the Yokohama Inspires of Japan in the house.

The corps impressed everyone with their eighth-place showing at prelims and entrance to DCA Finals in their first trip to the U.S. They really impressed at finals, vaulting to a fifth-place finish, defeating perennial champions Caballeros and Bushwackers in the process. The Inspires would return in 2004, finishing seventh.

The 2003 season marked the retirement of DCA legend and drum major extraordinaire, Jim Russo of the Hawthorne Caballeros. His corps presented one of the most difficult shows in DCA history and really took all season to gel. By the time they did, the title was theirs in Jimmy’s last season on the podium. Featuring a watery bass drum section, difficult drill and the Hawthorne music we grew to love, the Cabs left no doubt by the time the season ended.

On a sadder note, just days before Labor Day weekend, Empire Statesmen founder Vince Bruni passed away. Son David performed courageously and the corps oozed emotion in their two performances. Though the score really didn’t matter, many applauded the corps for simply getting through this difficult time. I guarantee Vince looked from above with a sense of   pride as his corps made an admirable run, missing out by a mere 0.25.

In other notes from 2003, the Brigadiers’ title run ended at four, but not without a fight. They also ran their consecutive win streak to astonishing numbers before a late-August defeat at the hands of the Caballeros. Heat Wave took the Class A title for the second time. The Renegades, in only their second year at DCA, frightened the crowd with their loud sound and powerful brass, finishing sixth in the process.

The 2004 season saw a return to the top for the Empire Statesmen, with a “City of Angels” production. The Statesmen held off a furious late-season charge from the Syracuse Brigadiers, taking the title by a scant 0.35. The Reading Buccaneers continued to climb the DCA ladder as the music of Shostakovich propelled them to third place. The Renegades again filled the audience with terror and a show for the ages that some thought could’ve taken the title.

Fran Haring made a rare mistake at prelims, announcing another round of applause for the CorpsVets. Unfortunately, CV was not finished as they still had When a Man Loves a Woman in the repertoire. Maybe the Hawaiian shirts were starting to warp Fran’s mind a bit. The Kingston Grenadiers took a tough Class A field, turning small numbers into a title-winning corps. The Govenaires, SoCal Dream and Gulf Coast Sound competed in DCA for the first time.

The 2005 season would close the Scranton years with a dominating performance by the Reading Buccaneers, capturing their first title since 1984. Undefeated and unchallenged, Adagio for Strings was clearly the moment of the year, sending audiences over the edge at every venue. The Bushwackers remained second to none, literally. A third-place finish due to a one-point trooping-the-stands penalty put Bush in third, as they have never finished a season in second place.

Carolina Gold qualified for finals for the first time. Ten corps, a record, competed in Class A, with newcomer Chops Inc. taking the title with “Freebird”. Other new corps would include Alliance, Frontier, Music City Legend, White Sabers, Lakeshoremen and Mon Valley Express.

In a tragic moment, the Kilties suffered the ultimate loss in their prelims performance as Joel “Lothar” Magnuson passed away in the middle of the show. In a stunning turn of events, they returned to the field minutes later to complete their show in proud fashion. Very few dry eyes were left as they ended their show.

The year 2006 took DCA to the brand-new Paetec Park in Rochester for two years of championships. The start was very ominous to say the least. What was left of Tropical Storm Ernesto decided to plant itself over Rochester for the entire Saturday. Heavy rain and winds, and delays led DCA through its toughest preliminary contest ever. Few braved the elements and I can say I only toughed it out for a handful of corps. All corps competed, though, and finals went off without a hitch on a beautiful evening.

The Reading Buccaneers continued their streak with a second undefeated season in a row. The Empire Statesmen finished a very close second, “Catching Some Rays, Ray Charles-style”.   The Cabs celebrated year 60 with a vengeance and the Bushwackers won several captions in a four-way tussle for the top. The Govenaires won the first title in their 80-year history, taking Class A over a White Sabers corps that was probably still waterlogged from Saturday’s events, and Dream from Southern California that performed Saturday in front of 15 fans. I know, I was one of them.

The 2007 season is still fresh in our minds with Reading completing the three-peat and the Sunrisers returning to title town, Class A-style. The future of DCA is a bright one, with new corps popping up everywhere. Here’s to Drum Corps World being around for all of what the DCA future has to offer.