“My Corps”
By Jim Wren

Chaper a Week – part 4

We practiced hard during the winter of 1956 and 1957. We knew that we would only be a parade corps during the summer of 1957, but knew that the future was a bright one. The uniforms would be comprised of black pants with white stripes down the legs, and black shakos with white plumes, all left over from the old VFW corps. Each member would provide a white dress shirt and would have a black bow tie. After all, we were a continuation of the old VFW 342 “Black & White”.

I should note that the VFW or American Legion sponsored corps did not have a name but went under the name of the club post, and wore the colors that were associated with the organization. Thus VFW 342 was black and white, while another corps might be maroon and gold. We all got a laugh out of one of the old post vets saying that as far as he was concerned there was only one color: black and white. When corps were later organized as independent entities they then started choosing names for the units.

Of course, the Phantomettes had to have a different uniform. They wore the same white shirt, but had the pants cut off in bermuda short fashion, wore cowboy hats and drum majorette boots. You know, I’m still not over that almost 50 years later. At one time the shorts brought on a controversy when some of the old vet parade marshals thought that they were not dignified enough to be worn in a patriotic parade. Boy, have times changed since then!

During the first winter Ray Dzielak recruited one of his neighbors to join the corps. Keith Stolberg and shortly after his brother Bob joined up. Both were to play important roles in the future corps. We all became good friends in corps, later in the Raiders, and on into the future. I was Bob’s best man when he married Peggy Lowling, one of the Phantomettes. Later, Bob would be my best man when Laura and I were married. Keith passed away several years ago, and Bob and Peg moved to San Diego where they still reside.

During that first year we played the same old “Powerhouse March”, “Villa Park March”, and other simple tunes. We even had one piece where we performed a special dance step while on the parade march. Looking back, it probably was pretty effective for passing the reviewing stand. All of the parades had a reviewing stand where local government officials, military officers, and other dignitaries would be sitting as a special place of honor. It was always necessary to put on the best performance at the reviewing stand, sometimes it was judged and sometimes not. The color guard would always do an “eyes right”, and dip all the flags except for the national colors.

The following winter we got down to the business of putting together a real show for the next year’s competition season. We certainly needed better music. Alex had been working with the Black Knights, a senior corps from Kewanee, IL. They were pretty good but never were a top contender in the senior corps circuit. Alex obtained several of their previous years arrangements for us to play. We opened with “Get Me to the Church on Time” from My Fair Lady. He had a special fanfare written by Rick Maas, the theme from the United States Steel Hour TV program. The second number was “Hail to the Orange” the Alma mater from the University of Illinois. For concert we played an old arrangement of “Lights Out” with yours truly playing the soprano solo. Actually it was little more than playing taps. The second half of concert was a rumba number, “Dona Clara”. The production number was “Drums in My Heart”, and the closer was “Good Night Ladies”. We did not kid ourselves, we really were not very good at all, but we were optimistic about the future. We had become a tightly knit group; friendships made back then have lasted to this day.

It was during this period that Dan Richardson left the St. Thomas Crusaders to join the Phantom Regiment. I remember his first practice with the corps, a marching practice at the National Guard Armory. Dan was on crutches, so just watched. Dan is a close second place to me in longevity with the corps, is a good friend and I have never had any reason to doubt his loyalty to the organization. I hope he writes his story sometime.

During that same summer, the Phantom Regiment recorded our first contest victory. We traveled to Bangor, WI where we went up against a bunch of very small and young corps. We came in first and were criticized for being a bunch of professionals coming in to show up the local talent. We wondered what they would have said had they seen really excellent corps like the Cavaliers, Norwood Park Imperials, Belleville Black Knights, Madison Scouts, or the Kilties.

Saturday, June 14, 1958 was probably the worst day that I have ever spent in drum corps. I remember it as though it was last summer. This was the VFW State Convention contest held at Beyer Stadium, the host post was Col. Thomas G. Lawler Post 342. I think there was a parade in the afternoon and then the contest in the evening. Don Ary (in charge since Alex was the Chief Judge for the contest) would not allow us to warm up our horns prior to the contest. In addition, there was a lengthy inspection prior to the show. I put up my horn to blow the first note (an A) and nothing came out. All of the other sopranos were having similar difficulties, but I knew I had to play the solo during concert. I got a little better by concert time, but it was awful. Listening to a recording of the show made by Ken Kobold made us relive the disaster again and again. But a good sense of humor prevailed and ever since we have been able to make fun of ourselves by imitating some of the sounds that we made…Fleeba Flooba Flaba. To this day I continue to worry about having the horns warmed up properly, and confess to being paranoid on the subject.

During that following winter at the first corps Black and White awards banquet held at the VFW Club, I was awarded a trophy as Corpsman of the Year.

Editor’s note: The “Corpsman of the Year” award is now called the “Mark Glasscoe Memorial Member of the Year Award”. This fall it was awarded to 5-year veteran euphonium member Matt Naylor of Cedar Park, Tx.

NEXT WEEK – Part 5. The corps builds a staff and makes a deal with the Cavaliers for a new set of horns and a brass teacher.

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].