Since 1974 the corps has been a finalist in DCI each year. Some years we were near the top, other years in the middle, and yes, a few years near the bottom. Due to the introduction of the VCR, CDs, and now DVDs, I think that just about everyone knows where the corps placed, what we played, what we wore for uniforms, and most of the other “public” information about the corps. Also, my involvement has gradually decreased in many respects. So I will confine my further writing to those areas that may not be so well known, or that I think are pivotal points in the corps development.

In the winter of 1973-1974, I was asked by the South Milwaukee Mariners Drum & Bugle Corps to arrange some “nautical” music. The Mariners Corps was an outgrowth of the Mariners Drill Team and Color Guard. Earlier I wrote about the long-standing competitive feud between the Phantomettes and the Mariners, so I had a soft spot for the Mariners. Laura and I were invited up to Milwaukee to meet with John and Dianne Brazale and discuss the show, and we were treated to a very nice meal at their house.

John had been one of the original Captain Crunch drum majors for the Mariners and was kind of the program coordinator for them at this time. The show we put together was not all that great, in fact the Mariners were just about to cease operations. I was very impressed with John s work for the Mariners guard, and when the position for guard writer/instructor opened up in the Phantom Regiment, I suggested John. He accepted and took charge of the Regiment guard from 1975 to 1979, and then took over the whole visual program for the corps in 1980. With a year off here and there, John wrote the visual for the corps through 1992. I was not involved, but it was also a pleasure to watch John work with the color guard for winter competition.

The Petunia Days Festival in Dixon, IL was my first sighting of Marty Hurley. I guess that I really did not see or meet him then, but did watch the Bleu Raeders from New Orleans, LA. They had a small horn line but a big drum line that was pretty amazing. Dan Richardson set out from that day to get Hurley to be our drum guy.

I first met Marty at 1975 DCI finals week in Philadelphia, PA. We were practicing and Dan Richardson brought Marty over to meet me. After just a short chat, I casually asked Marty why he would like to work with the Regiment. The corps was playing the beginning to Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhaeuser, and Marty said, “So I can work with a horn line that sounds like that!”

Marty was hired, wrote the program for 1976, and with a couple of years off here and there was with the Regiment until 1992. I have said it in the past, and will always feel that Marty is one of the best instructors that I have known. The drum lines were always well disciplined, well trained, intense, and an asset to the corps. Even though there were occasional competitive problems, I always thought that I would rather have Marty Hurley working the drum line than anyone else because he was so good for the kids.

Laura, Jimmy, Matthew, and I were only able to travel with the corps during my vacation from work. We purchased a VW Campmobile, and traveled with the corps during the final weeks before DCI. The Campmobile was old, very unreliable, would usually break down somewhere along the way. In 1979 we were stranded in Allentown, PA on the Sunday before DCI. With nothing better to do, I got out some recordings that I had made of a ballet called Spartacus. The more we listened, the more we thought that some of the music would be great for corps. While I just thought that the music was great, Marty suggested that we play a whole show of Spartacus. It grew and grew until we had a show with a story, uniform changes, libretto, and great music. Mike Cesario made his first appearance with the corps, redesigning the uniform, and designing props. Mike s skill and talent had a big impact on that show, and would continue to appear in later years.

There was always a question as to whether or not we should have repeated the Spartacus show the following year. It was not due to a lack of ideas that we finally decided to revise and update the Spartacus show for the next year. We had plenty of ideas, but really thought that the show was grossly under appreciated and not well understood, and that the judges did not know how to evaluate the show. It probably was a mistake to do the show for two years, but I still often hear favorable comments about the show to this day. It did have an impact.

Dan Farrell marched with the corps until his age-out year 1980. He immediately went to work on the staff and shortly became brass caption head. I think that few will disagree that Dan is the best brass caption head this corps has had. Much of the credit given to the arrangements is a direct result of how Dan interpreted and taught them. He moved to San Diego following the 1984 season to manage the family business that opened a West Coast branch.

What happened in 1986? The corps came in 10th. The answer can be found in 1985, when the corps came in 8th and was the first really big drop in placing. That was the year that we performed Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. This was another one of those underrated shows, a very difficult brass book, and a difficult drill. When performed well it was quite a show, but we never really got it to max out. There simply was not a good “atmosphere” with the corps that year. Dan Richardson was director, but did not live in Rockford and was forced to delegate much of the responsibility and actual management. We had trouble with the drum major, the support staff was often disagreeable. It was the last year that Laura and I would tour with the corps and attend DCI finals at any remote location.

Following that year, John Brazale, Dan Richardson, and several other key staffers left the corps. Dan Farrell had moved to San Diego following the 1984 season. In some respects, the fact that we were as good as we were in 1986 is remarkable. We had a new director, new drill designer, new drum instructor, new program coordinator, new brass caption head. I kind of felt that I was holding the whole thing together as the only leftover, although having Ronnie Schulz as director was certainly a positive.

Up until the winter of 1986 I was still on the Board of Directors. When the board let it be known that they thought the problems with the show that year were mainly due to the music, I decided that I would end my tenure with the BOD. It was becoming increasingly difficult to be on the staff and also the board due to many reasons, but being blamed for the poor finish in 1986 was just too much.   

One of the things that has always been a hallmark of the corps is how it is able to come back from adversity. Yes, we were in 10th place in 1986, but big things happened in 1987. Mike Cesario designed the wonderful white uniforms. Dan Farrell, Dan Richardson, Marty Hurley and John Brazale were all back. Somehow the whole show clicked. We improved the product each year and finally put together the New World Symphony show in 1989. How we didn t win that year remains a mystery. We were definitely the best corps on the field.

Marty Hurley and John Brazale both left the corps following the 1992 season. John passed away the next year but was inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame in 1994. I was very proud to also be inducted into the Hall of Fame that year.

We managed to put together good shows most of the following years. I was especially proud of the 1993 and 1996 shows.

Early in the fall of 1999 I decided that it was time to retire from arranging the music. The age gap continued to grow between me and the rest of the design and instruction staff. The 1998 and 1999 shows were not up to the standard I was used to. I had weathered such problems in the past but just thought it was time to pass the baton. I was asked to return to the Board of Directors and did so.

The future of the Phantom Regiment is yet to be written but I truly hope that it will be as great an adventure for others as the last 50 years were for me.

Next Week: The final chapter of “My Corps” by Jim Wren

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jim Wren is a charter member of Phantom Regiment (1956) and has been active with the corps every year since. He became the corps brass arranger in 1968 and arranged every Phantom Regiment show from then through 1999. Inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame in 1994, Jim currently serves as a member of the Phantom Regiment Board of Directors and acts as an advisor to the corps’ design team. Jim lives in Rockford with his wife Laura and works in the insurance industry.

Jim can be reached at [email protected].