My Corps
By Jim Wren
Chapter a Week – Part 5

The 1959 show was actually when the Regiment started playing classical music, not as a result of some invention on my part. Marian Armato was recruited to arrange new music for the horns. Marian was a classically trained pianist, but I think had played tenor drums in the old VFW corps. She arranged the “Chopin Polonaise” for concert and “One Fine Day” (Un Bel Di) for a production number. They were both excellent arrangements considering the type of instruments and the talent level available. While many of us liked the music, there were about an equal number who thought that classical music was “square”. Marian continued on to arrange most of the music for the following two seasons, including the first arrangement of The Phantom Regiment March. Marian and her husband Roger Newcomer eventually moved to Denver where they were active in working with the Blue Knights.

There were two sets of bugles made by the Holton Horn Co. of Elkhorn, WI. In my opinion, they were the best G bugles made to that time, and probably better than most made since. The bass baritones were especially wonderful with a huge, deep, dark sound. Maybe today’s euphoniums are as good, but we probably will never be able to compare them. Suffice it to say that the Holtons were head and shoulders above anything made before them.

Those two sets of Holtons belonged each to the Cavaliers and the Commonwealth Edison Knights of Light Drum & Bugle Corps. Commonwealth had a large set and the Cavaliers a smaller number. “Commonbottom” was a well financed senior corps totally sponsored by Commonwealth Edison Electric Company, the electrical utility company for Chicago and most of Illinois. When they disbanded in about 1960, their horns were put up for sale. Alex had some sort of inside track with Commonwealth Edison and we bought them. I do not know how they were financed. The Cavaliers needed a few additional or replacement horns for their set and wanted to purchase them, but Commonwealth would only sell the set in it’s entirety. In exchange for getting the horns the Cavaliers wanted, Alex bargained with Don Warren to have Sal Ferrara come out and teach the Regiment hornline and also to do some arrangements for the 1962 season.   

Sal Ferrara had been the arranger and main brass instructor for the Cavaliers for some time prior to coming out to Rockford. There was an immediate change in the corps’ sound, deep, full, and in tune. He rearranged the “Phantom Regiment March” and a production number “All the Things You Are”. No question, the Phantom Regiment was on the move. Sal is now in the DCI Hall of Fame, and should have been inducted long before he actually was. His Cavalier horn lines were the best in the country during his tenure there.

Thom Kasten replaced Sal as the arranger and instructor for the corps during the 1962/63 winter. He had played soprano for the Cavaliers prior to spending several years in the US Air Force Band. Thom was a character! He arranged music with an entirely different approach than Sal. He arranged “Cockeyed Optimist”, “I Am an American”, “Hard Hearted Hannah”, “Bermuda”, and “Love Affair” for the 1963 show. The music was exciting but somehow did not lend itself to high quality brassmanship, and Thom didn’t spend much time in an effort to improve musicianship.   The members always liked Thom and the music, but the quality simply was not there, at least compared to Sal’s efforts. Thom brought somewhat of an earthy attitude to the corps. Later when the corps was all male (1963 season), he conducted some of the brass practices in his underwear.

Now to the drum line…we did not call it percussion. The first instructors were members of the old VFW corps. Bob Kisting, Wilbur Comstock, Damien Valentine, Dan Dever, were among the guys who helped, but it was obvious that rudimental drumming had passed them by. Frank Arsenault came to the Midwest from Connecticut where he was a highly regarded rudimental drummer. Some may disagree, but I feel that Arsenault revolutionized drum lines in the Midwest almost overnight. He instructed the Cavaliers when they first won the national championship in 1957, the Norwood Park Imperials, and the Skokie Indians when they won several national senior titles.

To instruct our line, Alex recruited Sam Geati who was a tenor drummer with the Cavaliers. Sam was attending NIU along with Mike Gallagher and me. Alex would drive to DeKalb on Monday nights and pick up all three of us, then drive back to Rockford. Alex would then buy us supper, Sam would teach the drum line, and Alex would drive us back. Sam was talented, worked well with the drummers, great sense of humor, and improved the drumming technique markedly.

During this time, Bob Stolberg, Bernie Koch, Ray Dzielak, and Keith Stolberg were all members of the Illinois National Guard. While in the guard, they met Al LeMert, who was one of the sergeants, and they began to swap stories. They found out that Al was a drummer for one of the Chicagoland small-time corps. They talked him into coming and helping with the drum line. He eventually took over the total instruction duties. While he was behind the times at the beginning, Al was one of those people who learned on the job, had an inventive streak and a desire to excel. Soon, Al was a real force in the Midwest drumming community. He really liked to take drums apart and rework them to obtain a better sound. Al perhaps had a bit looser social standards than we were used to in Rockford, suffice it to say some of the drummers from that day may remember a few unique get-togethers at Al’s house. After leaving the Regiment, he went to the Des Plaines Vanguard, and then eventually started his own business making fancy drum sticks.

Alex – or anyone else who showed some talent in the area – usually did our drills (not called visual presentations yet). Usually the drills were pretty simple: brass and drums operating in squads of three with the color guard only integrated from time to time. The drill had to be adaptable to be marched on the 80-foot track at the Illinois State Fair.

Thus by 1962 we had assembled some good talent on staff and felt we were on the move, setting us up for a bright future, but there would be quite a twist of fate in store for 1963 and 1964.

Next week: Part 6 – The story of the Phantomettes and the Raiders!

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].