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|History for Royal Airs||Chicago, Illinois|
|Inactive Junior Corps founded in 1958||Did you march Royal Airs?|
|Other names: AL Post # 96; Our Lady of Angels|
The Royal Airs and the championship corps of the years that followed were born out of a four-year gestation period of hard work, pride, unselfish sacrifice, and a lot of luck.|
In the fall of 1954 a notice went around the Ryerson School in Chicago that the Alamo American Legion Post 885 was forming a drum and bugle corps; interested applicants could come to the Post for free pop and hot dogs, and discover the world of drum corps. Glenn Smith from the Belmont Grenadiers organized the meeting.
The initial nucleus held rehearsals one evening a week at the Post, and on Saturdays the corps would parade up and down the streets of the neighborhood (Ridgeway, Lawndale, etc.). Bill Cerone was the first appointed corps manager. After the initial shakeout, the balance of the remaining members became the core of the Alamo Rangers.
The first uniforms were blue slacks with a stitched seam, a dark blue overseas cap, and a light blue shirt with “Alamo Post 885 Drum and Bugle Corps” stitched across the back.
After a year of basics and considerable parading, the corps began to think about competition in 1956. Its first camp took place in Coloma, Wisconsin, at the American Legion boys camp, and early home practices were held at Kells field at the corner of Kedzie and Chicago Avenues in Chicago. Other instructors from the Belmont Grenadiers like Ed Roberts on drums and Mr. Kelly on M&M (marching and maneuvering) joined Glenn Smith. The Alamo Rangers were about to blossom.
In what became a pivotal event for the evolving Alamo Rangers and the later Chicago Royal Airs, the instructors took some of the corps staff and members to see the American Legion state junior show at Lane Tech Stadium in July, 1956. The Chicago Cavaliers, Norwood Park Imperials, the Vanguard, and the Black Knights competed that day. All the staff and members were impressed, but Sie Lurye, a former prize fighter with the brogue of a Brooklynite, was especially entranced by the spectacle and potential.
In 1956 the Alamo Rangers received new uniforms: a brown overseas cap with the obligatory white tassel, white satin shirts with a diagonal brown stripe, and brown pants with a white stripe. The entire corps trooped down to the Red Cross Store on Chicago Avenue to buy their new white buck shoes.
Up until 1957 the Alamo Rangers had been an all-male corps with an all-girl baton twirling team as a separate unit. The drum corps had a male drum major, Rich Myslivich, and an all-male color guard under the direction of Vince DeSalvo. During early 1957 the baton twirlers became the new color guard and the males from the guard were merged into the corps. When Myslivich left the corps, Marlene Gamberale became the new drum major and Judy Naples the color guard sergeant.
Sie Lurye became corps manager in 1957. A man with a vision of a championship competitive unit, Sie energized the entire operation. Rehearsals became more serious, and new staff, like Rich Tarsitano on bugle and Ken Nolan and Larry Kaczmarek on M&M, came on board. The Rangers competed in three shows that year, with the State Fair being the big one.
But the leaders in the Alamo Post became concerned over the change in the corps’ direction. The Post wanted to retain control over their parade corps. Despite these feelings, as the 1958 season approached there was no doubt that the Alamo Rangers were less the Alamo Post’s corps than they were Sie’s corps sponsored by Alamo Post. The tension reached a critical point one evening in a debate over whether the corps would appear at a Post function (with an appearance by Mayor Richard J. Daley), or at the VFW state drum corps championship that same day in Rockford. The corps wanted to attend VFW State, the Post leaders refused, and Sie resigned over the controversy.
The Post Commander hired Bob Patrone as the new director, a move that appeared to jeopardize the corps' competitive future. So Marlene and Ken Nolan gathered corps members outside the Post and reminded them of Sie‘s vision and the strides they had made under his leadership. The membership decided to form a new corps, and nearly all the members left the Alamo Rangers to march with it. The Cicero American Legion Post took over sponsorship. They sent the new corps to the VFW Nationals that year and a 25th place finish.
Following the 1957 season, Sie Lurye and the Cicero Post corps needed a new name, and "Royal Airs" was chosen from a list of possibilities, with “Big Blue“ as the nickname. A drum corps star had been born. The corps struggled in Midwest, state and national competitions in 1958 and 1959, but gradually began to build a name for itself by defeating corps that had deeper traditions and longer histories.
Rich Tarsitano continued on staff as the horn instructor and musical arranger, and arranged such outstanding songs as "Conquest" and "Quo Vadis.” Sie Lurye sought to expand the corps, and he invested large sums of time and money to make the Royal Airs more competitive.
Late in the 1960 season, the Royal Airs unveiled new trademark uniforms: slanted blue and white shakos, blue pants with a white stripe, and a white battle jacket with a sash and red accents. The corps took the drum corps world by surprise with these uniforms when they stepped up to the starting line in white butcher coats, then whipped them off just prior to stepoff, revealing the new look.
The 1960, '61, and '62 seasons saw vast improvements in the corps. Larger numbers and a bolder, more powerful sound made the drum corps community take notice. The Royal Airs quickly became the number two corps in the Midwest, behind the Cavaliers. In 1961, Big Blue traveled to Denver for the American Legion National Championships, taking second to the Garfield Cadets with charts like "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
In 1963, Drum Corps Hall of Famer Col. Truman Crawford became the corps' music arranger. Over the next few years he introduced songs like "Ballyhoo March," "Vaquero," "Alexander's Rag Time Band," John Brown's Body," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Watermelon Man," and a host of other now-famous arrangements.
The 1964 corps, considered by some as one of the most underrated in drum corps history, never seemed to place higher than second: "The Bridesmaid Corps" took second at national competitions to Garfield Cadets, the Racine Kilties, Blessed Sac, and St. Joe's of Batavia. However, at the 1964 World's Fair, the Big Blue ended that string by defeating everyone in the field of competition. A legend was born!
However, many members of the 1964 corps left the Royal Airs after the season. Fortunately, another corps, the Chicago Spartans, was closing its doors about this time, and many of its top members migrated to the Royal Airs prior to the 1965 season. The Royal Air family had become a wonderful melting pot of talented performers. Former Cavalier and national champion drummer Mitch Markovich became the drum instructor that year and took the percussion section to new heights.
1965 was that championship season for the Royal Airs. The (self-described) "Greatest Corps Ever!" took the field and set a drum corps standard for the next four decades. The corps won all three major national championships, and other corps have copied their style for years. (One of those championships, the VFW Nationals, was the only major drum corps championship won indoors, when rain forced the show off Soldier Field.) Even in the 1990s, their music has been reproduced on the alumni circuit by Mighty St. Joe's of Batavia, who did exact renditions of "Alexander’s," "John Brown," and "South."
Following one of the most successful seasons in drum corps history, many members aged out or moved on, and the corps appeared to face significant rebuilding. The 1966 version of the Royal Airs accomplished a great deal, and this period could be considered the most significant in Sie Lurye's tenure as corps director. Stepping off the line with the now famous "Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," Big Blue struggled to place even in the top five of the central states corps. But hard work and pride carried them forward, and the corps placed in the top six at VFW Nationals.
1967 was another major turning point for the corps. The core of the '66 group remained intact and was joined by ten former members of the McHenry Viscounts Drum and Bugle Corps. John Zimny joined the staff to assist with M&M, Serge Uccetta and Janice Johnson became drum majors, and Bill Evans took over duties as business manager. The corps made giant strides and immediately regained its championship status by consistently defeating its top rivals. Unfortunately, some tempo problems and minor penalties put the corps only in fourth place at VFW Nationals in New Orleans.
With an original composition by Truman Crawford (“Vaquero“), the 1968 Royal Airs held the promise of regaining its national titles. Waging a war all season with the Vanguard for top spot in the country, the Big Blue put on the performance of the year at VFW Nationals in Detroit, only to be penalized two points for an American Flag violation. That penalty dropped them to fifth place, behind the surprising Racine Kilties.
No one is quite sure what happened following that season. Some say it was finances; others say it was the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; others say it was the Vietnam War; still others believe it was a combination of all those things, along with the changing values and lifestyles of American young people. The Royal Airs attempted and failed to take the field in 1969, but they march on in the memories of the members and fans.
[Ken Nolan, Bob Doran, http://rdoran.tripod.com/pge5.html; DCW, 6/8/90, p.15]
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