Chapter 3: 1978 – Dominating the Local Circuits

1978 – Dominating the Local Circuits


After a very successful 1977 season, everyone associated with the Arbella Drum & Bugle corps was looking forward to the next season.   We were extremely competitive in 1977, trading victories with the Arlington Heightsmen during the year and losing narrowly to them in the championship in our final competition.   The older girls were not satisfied with second place and they were determined to win the Class B championship in 1978.


Our surprising showing in the 1977 World Open Class A competition – making the finals and defeating 20 corps was a stunning accomplishment.  But, with only a Class B length program we were penalized heavily for being under time and placed last in the finals. Although it was amazing to even be in the finals, the kids did not take kindly to placing ‘last’ and it was another factor motivating them to strive for more.


Our ‘off season’ started well with the entire instructional staff returning and a growing roster of young and highly motivated members.  As instructors we were pleased with the progress the corps was making and we had a very strong organization with incredible parents and volunteers.  Only a few weeks after the 1977 season ended we started planning the training regimen and program design for the 1978 season. The board of directors and parents were eager to help us and we had discussions about recruiting and the need for new equipment to keep pace with our growth.  I did not fully appreciate this at the time, but the parental involvement and the organization was outstanding.  They did a wonderful job recruiting new members, we had good rehearsal facilities, and they always found a way to get us new equipment.  We practiced in churches, gyms, or schools, and it was very well coordinated and communicated. I wish I had thanked those people more for everything they did – it made the instructors’ jobs so much easier.  Looking back on it, I think the organization was a very under rated, but critical, ingredient in the corps’ success. The behind the scenes work was ‘invisible’ in competition, but it gave us a competitive advantage.


Musically, we felt we had good momentum with a large number of returning members, and new recruits began arriving quickly. Peter and I had kids audition to join the drum line or horn line, and many of them already had some musical knowledge so we were able to expand both sections nicely.  Many of Peter’s returning drummers had more than 2 full years of percussion under their belt and he planned to challenge them with more difficulty.  I had a similar situation and expanding the size of the horn line with solid returning talent would give me more freedom in writing the music.  Dick had already established strong marching fundamentals and planned to be more creative with the drill design to take advantage of their experience and precision.  We had many productive instructors’ meetings to develop ideas for the 1978 program and plan our strategy.  Dick started working on a large table sized grid that he planned to use for drill design.


Once again, Peter, Michael, and I spent a lot of time discussing plans for the musical program with an eye toward advancing the musicianship and quality of the program.  We decided to retain ‘Jublio’ as our ‘off the line’ but we made a lot of modifications, adding difficulty and a more sophisticated introduction.  Although the majority of the piece was performed at a fairly quick tempo, we added an even faster ending to increase excitement. An early decision was made to keep ‘Evergreen’, with a few minor modifications. It would go on to be a ‘signature’ piece for the time that I taught the corps. That left the middle of the show to be determined which meant more research and discussions to find just the right mix. Needless to say, I ended up buying more records from Ted Cole’s.


We were confident our trajectory would put us on top of Class B (or A-II) in ‘78, because the Heightsmen, who had a significant number of older kids in their corps, were moving into Class A and no other corps had been a serious threat in 1977.  Of course, we had higher aspirations.  We were entered into the Class A prelims of the World Open again, and had a ‘mini tour’ planned to Canada and to Butler, PA for the American International Championships, ‘Class A’.  The Canada trip was for an ‘All Girl’ competition in Brantford, Ontario where we would get our first chance to go head to head with all of the top ‘All Girl’ corps.  The World Open and Butler would see us facing the best corps outside of the ‘Open Class’.  That meant our program and performance would need to be credible beyond the local ‘A-II’ circuit if we wanted to score well with national level judges.  It also meant we needed to add about two and a half minutes of programming in case we made the finals of those Class A shows.  So, we had the middle of the show to determine plus the ‘bonus’ portion for the Class A finals that we had every intention of reaching.  We wanted to avoid penalties and a ‘last place’ finish if we made finals.


We finished teaching the enhanced version of ‘Jubilo’ before Christmas and Peter had a preliminary version of his drum solo well in progress at that time also.  With only minor modifications to ‘Evergreen’ we had more than half of the ‘A-II’ show taught and starting to gel in February.   After a lot of research and discussion we settled on ‘Fantasy’, an Earth, Wind, and Fire tune for our concert piece.  It had nice percussion segments and offered a ‘modern’ piece of music in contrast to the rest of the program.  As the drill was shaping up, ‘Fantasy’ was taught and we were ready for competition earlier than in previous years.  The experience level of the kids plus retaining portions of the 1977 program contributed to a lot of confidence.  Rehearsals were well attended down the stretch, we had unusually good weather, and the entire organization was eager to take the field in the first show.


Right from the first competition it was obvious that we were the best corps in A-II.  Our performance levels were obviously higher than the rest of the corps in the division.  We were in both Eastern Mass and Mayflower and within the first 3 weekends we had defeated every other corps by significant margins with nice spreads in all captions.


A tradition we had – giving an encore ‘concert’ presentation in front of the Fire Station on Derby Street – became a regular event.  Since we were winning every competition easily, we ended up putting on a ‘concert’ every Saturday and Sunday night.  By mid-season it got to the point where some of the older kids were less enthused about performing it.  The Salem News published pictures and articles weekly chronicling our successes and they dubbed us the city’s ‘musical ambassadors’.


By the first week in July our margins of victory in Eastern Mass. were so large, more than 15 points, that other corps circulated a petition to move us up to Class A in the middle of the year. Fortunately, Mrs. Dragon represented us well at the circuit meetings.  She pointed out that the average age of the corps was merely 11 years old and that it would be unfair to penalize us for simply performing well. In addition we did not have a ‘Class A’ routine. The leader of the Eastern Mass. circuit was Harry Sampson who sided with us, and shot down the petition. He told the other corps that rather than penalizing Arbella the other corps should simply work to improve.  After all, he pointed out; the average age of their members was 3 or 4 years older than us.  Ironically, with that drama behind us, we actually turned our attention to preparing for Class A competition (!) with those Class A prelims just 4 weeks away.  We continued to dominate the local circuits, but we had larger goals. Our routine needed to expand to avoid under time penalties if we made any Class A finals.


The challenge we faced was adding two and half minutes to the routine, but making it look like it was there all the time.  First, we selected the music, Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ ‘Samson and Delilah’.  Michael and I wrote the brass charts over a two day period and got them to Peter quickly so he could score the percussion charts.  We intentionally kept the difficulty level low since we did not have a lot of time to both learn and address performance levels.  We spliced this piece in after concert and Peter added a short drum interlude in front of it.  Dick wrote the drill such that the corps started and ended in almost the same formation, but slightly disguised so that it was not obvious.  Since we were winning by such a large margin in the circuits we had the luxury of working on the ‘new’ part of the show almost half of our rehearsal time.  During this time we also amended the ending of the show with an original composition entitled ‘Finale’ that played off of the ‘Chant and Jubilo’ theme. Michael and I wrote this one night after it was decided we needed a slightly ‘larger’ ending to the show. It culminated with a fairly flashy ending with the horn line down on one knee, a long crescendo and full corps flair right at the end. As we got closer to prelim competition the ‘new’ pieces started sounding and looking pretty good, although they were not quite at the performance level of the rest of the show.


The World Open Class A prelims were at the beginning of August, and we were very anxious to see how we would stack up against more formidable competition.  Held in Lynn, it was almost in our ‘backyard’ and the corps was comfortable there. We were slated to compete early in the afternoon and the prelims used a short program, perfect for our regular A-II routine, so we had a feeling we would be competitive. We performed well and when the dust cleared we stood in 3rd place.  We immediately boarded the busses and went back to Salem for some rest and to run through our ‘long’ routine to prepare for finals.  The kids were both nervous and excited to perform the long routine, and that was pretty much how the instructors felt as well.  It was a combination of anxiety about Bacchanale, because it was new and was not ‘tight’ yet, but curious about how the judges would view the long show.  In true ‘miracle of the uniforms’ fashion, the corps surprised everyone and delivered a very strong performance.  We were relieved and hoped we would not drop too far from 3rd place, although we knew we had some tough competition. There were actually quite a few Class A circuit corps in the competition.


I remember sitting in Manning Bowl listening to them announce the scores.  After 7th and 6th place were announced I figured we would be one of the next 2 scores announced. But 5th place and 4th place were announced and our name was not called. To be completely honest, I actually started getting a little nervous. When they announced 3rd place and it was not us I was astonished.  We placed 2nd in the finals and were within 2.5 points of winning the competition!  Everyone associated with the corps was ecstatic.  The outcome was better than any of our wildest dreams.  It meant we had a chance to be competitive on our ‘mini’ tour. We had to leave immediately for Ontario for an All-Girl competition. Excitement was in the air and the 2nd place trophy, a large silver bowl, was passed around joyously. Peter, Michael, and I did not want to ride the busses so we were traveling in Dick’s VW bug.  When no one was looking, right before departure, we stole the trophy and proceeded to drink alcoholic beverages out of it on the way to Canada. It was a VERY long overnight trip. We didn’t get much sleep, but we were all smiling.


The Brantford, Ontario competition was our first opportunity to compete head to head with the top All-Girl corps.  We were really looking forward to watching the competition and seeing how we compared. The long trip did not wear well with the kids and the show was really strange.  It was like being in ‘The Twilight Zone’.  They would not let the instructors into the stadium and we never were given a logical explanation.  The instructors went behind the concert side of the stadium and waited for the corps to go on.  We couldn’t see much of anything and the sound was rather muffled, so we really couldn’t tell how well the kids performed.  We ended up in 5th place. Not being able to see any of the corps, we did not have a good sense of where we stood.  In addition, there was no judge’s critique and no judges tapes! It was a very disappointing experience for the instructors.  The kids were especially discouraged as they did not take kindly to placing that low; especially against All-Girl competitors they had intentions of besting.    I believe it was at this time that the older kids in the corps became truly determined to strive for a championship.


Next stop was Butler, PA – home of the American International Open.  This was a multi-day competition featuring 29 ‘Class A’ (not Open Class) corps (the Open Class was held later). There were two days of Class A prelims and we were on late in the afternoon of the first day.  The kids were well rested and ready, thanks to our organization securing a good place to stay and feeding us well. For a corps that had never been on tour, our parents ran things like they were veterans. The judges for the competition were all from the Midwest and had never even heard of ‘Arbella’.  It was a cloudy day in the high 70s, with a light breeze, nearly perfect weather for a preliminary competition.  As instructors, we paid attention to the corps on in front of us, some that were familiar and others we had not seen before.  Our initial assessment was that this would be a tough competition, as many of the members were older and these corps had ‘been here’ before.


Arbella took the field and right from the start we could tell it would be a good performance. They looked sharp and they were focused.  In this competition the full length show was required and Bacchanale sounded like it had been there all year.  At the conclusion of the performance the corps got a big ovation, and since not many parents made the trip, it was genuine appreciation from a seasoned drum corps crowd.  Scores for the prelims were posted on a board as corps sheets were tabulated. When our score was announced, it was the highest score thus far putting Arbella on top for the moment. Three corps competed after us that day. One by one, as their scores were announced they fell below us.  At the end of the first day of prelims, after 15 corps had competed, we were standing on top. The girls were very excited seeing ‘Arbella’ on top of the leader board. We reminded them that there was a second day of prelims.  On that second day, we had light rehearsal as the finals were that night and we had an excellent chance of making it with 9 corps qualifying.  When the prelims ended, Arbella was in 3rd place, with only the Bluecoats from Ohio and the Black Watch ahead of us.  In the finals, under the lights and with a large crowd, the corps once again performed well and when the scored were announced we held 3rd place.  This was an excellent showing and we were really pleased with the results. It showed we were making progress toward being competitive against higher levels of competition.


Back home, there were only a few competitions left before the circuit championships. The kids were extremely confident and we cruised through those. We captured both circuit championships handily and finished the year undefeated in both circuits. For the year, there were twenty-two circuit victories, all by very comfortable margins and we had fared extremely well in 2 ‘Class A’ competitions.   It was a highly successful year and the entire organization celebrated and reminisced at the annual banquet.  The older girls made it a point to state at the banquet that ‘next year we will be the champions’ – a reference to the reigning All-Girl champs, St. Ignatius’, who played Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ as part of their routine.  It was clear that Arbella would be moved up to ‘Class A’ in the circuits and would compete in Open class in 1979.  That meant going up against corps like North Star, the 27th Lancers, and the Boston Crusaders, to name only a few.  It also meant we had the chance to challenge for the All-Girl championship – our ultimate goal. After a few weeks ‘off’ the quest for that goal would begin.


1978 Instructional staff:
M & M: Richard (Dick) Pelletier, Assistant: Bob Pelletier, Color Guard: Carla Pelletier
Brass: George D’Iorio, Assistant: Michael D’Iorio
Percussion: Peter Furnari


1978 repertoire:
‘Jubilo’,  Drum solo (Sailor’s Dance),  ‘Fantasy’ (Earth, Wind, and Fire), ‘Bacchanale’ from Saint-Saens’ opera ‘Samson and Delilah’ (Class A program), ‘Evergreen’, ‘Finale’