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A tribute to the great Baltimore Yankee Rebels

by Gary Dickelman, Drum Corps World staff
Gary Dickelman

The end of an era

So much has been written about the venerable Yankee Rebels Drum and Bugle Corps of Baltimore, MD, that it is difficult to do much more than mark the end of an era, which occurred on August 14, 2010. This was the day the Reilly Raiders hosted their annual “Shamrock Festival” and the day the Yankee Rebels would give its final performance.

Indeed, it was outstanding — and when the closing chords of Requiem For An Era were heard, the stage was stormed by members of all other corps present that evening. As a tribute, they joined the Rebels for the playing of You’re A Grand Old Flag — twice, if memory serves me.

There were tears and hugs. Then, in one final gesture that embodies the class and grace of a true champion, the members handed in their uniforms and equipment, donated to a fledgling corps, then quietly went on with their lives.

That hot, humid August evening marked not only the end of the performing Yankee Rebels, but the conclusion of over 21 years of continuous operation as an alumni corps.

On a Sunday in February 1988, Baltimore’s Hamilton Post 20 saw its first rehearsal of the Yankee Rebels after many years — over 10 since the corps ceased to be active as a national contender. The occasion was to begin preparing for the 1989 American Legion National Convention parade to be held in Baltimore. In preparation, the corps stepped onto Dundalk Avenue once again that year, but this time with 90 horns, 40 percussion (17 snares) and over 30 in the color guard.

When August 1989 finally arrived, the Yankee Rebels earned the best musical unit title in the American Legion parade. What was to be an event became a new era that endured until 2010.

To understand the proud tradition that held the alumni unit together for so long, we look, in part, to the 1969, 1970 and 1971 seasons, for each of those years saw YR cop the American Legion National Championship. Most remarkable was the summit year of 1969 when the corps came of age. A number of factors fell into place with a “total show” — tantamount to a Civil War re-enactment — planned and brilliantly executed by a forward-thinking staff.

I recall a close friend from the Skyliners reporting each weekend — as he stopped by my house after his senior corps competitions — on the amazing progress the Yankee Rebels were making with “. . . an actual Civil War battle, right on the field!” Among the architects of the show were Charles Kammer (concept), Rick Maass and Don Brager (drill), Truman Crawford (brass) and Rodney Goodhart (drums), who had the audacity to field a dozen snares.

For almost 24 years, starting in 1946, the Yankee Rebels rose until the 1969 pinnacle was reached. At Grant Field on the campus of George Tech in Atlanta, GA, 30,000 drum corps enthusiasts witnessed one of the most amazing spectacles the American Legion Nationals and the drum corps world had ever witnessed.

An ovation erupted at the conclusion of the Civil War “battle” which lasted over 15 minutes, delaying the next competitor. This impressive corps from south of the Mason-Dixon line, where the presentation included blue and grey, stars and bars, drums and bugles as ordnance, was performing a “Civil War” in the heart of the deep south. It could not have been a better venue for the Yankee Rebels to win its first national championship. I have always wondered if the Atlanta, GA, fans noticed that the Union flags were draped over the Confederate flags at the conclusion of the color-presentation “battle.”

We need to pause for a moment and take in what it meant to a competing corps of that era to win the nationals. To be sure, DCA was in its early years, having begun its championship show for “senior” (now called “all-age”) drum and bugle corps in 1965. The senior edition of the VFW Nationals was discontinued after 1963.

Thus, the American Legion Nationals remained a coveted title. Arguably, the mainstream senior corps were concentrated from the Philadelphia area and north, to New Jersey, New York City, New York state and the Boston area. The Yankee Rebels were from way down south as far as the drum corps world was concerned. And when the corps headed north, there was dissonance between that mainstream and the Yankee Rebels, in competitive terms.

Still, the competing corps persevered for 34 years, earned three American Legion National Champion titles and also two close second places in the DCA Championships during those years.

The August 5, 1971 edition of the Congressional Record preserves the legacy of the great Yankee Rebels:

House of Representatives

A TRIBUTE TO THE YANKEE REBELS OF THE HAMILTON AMERICAN LEGION POST NO. 20, BALTIMORE, MD

“Mr. SARBANES, Mr. Speaker, the citizens of Maryland can truly be proud of the tremendous achievements of one of its outstanding organizations, the Hamilton American Legion Post No. 20 and its superb senior drum and bugle corps ‘The Yankee Rebels’. . .” The Congressional Record goes on to describe “. . . a marching and musical tour de force of the war between the states . . . titled ‘Requiem For An Era’. ”

Truman Crawford’s arrangements ultimately sound the Union’s victorious Battle Hymn of the Republic with shades of Dixie “. . . echoing the crushed hopes of the Confederacy.” It was a brilliant show that saw three versions in three years and earned three national championships.

Equally important, the show etched a new dimension in brass and percussion field entertainment and established a new, higher theatrical bar, that lives to this day.

The first incarnation of the corps was a junior unit in the 1930s, the Hamilton Squadron corps, established by Joseph Sedlak. After World War II, he organized a senior corps for newly-returning veterans at Hamilton Post No. 20. Following the trend of many corps after the war, a thematic name was chosen after 1949, the “Yankee Rebels.” This was fitting, as Maryland was an ambiguous border state during the Civil War. Events in Baltimore and nearby Harpers Ferry, WV, on the border with Maryland), were pivotal to the emerging revolution that split the country, with allegiances divided between the Union and the Confederacy.

Maryland, more than any other state, would exemplify that it was a war of brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor. On the basis of this theme, the senior drum and bugle corps and the name “Yankee Rebels” would ultimately lead to championships and a lesson in modern drum corps pageantry.

At the “End of an Era” gala held in Baltimore on November 6, 2010, former director George Bull addressed Yankee Rebels alumni who had gathered for this final tribute. He assumed the directorship of the Yankee Rebels from Sedlak in 1954 and remained a driving force behind the corps through its competitive years and through the alumni era as director emeritus.

While other directors would lead the corps — William Poorbough, Joel Leson and Phil Gentile — Bull was always there in some capacity to help steer the Yankee Rebels organization in his no-nonsense way. He had funded the corps with the highly-successful “March of Champions” for decades of the competitive years and then applied his wisdom to the ever-popular “Dixie Stinger,” which became the mainstay of Director Phil Gentile’s alumni corps for 20 years (1991-2010).

Bull’s second retirement from the Yankee Rebels in 1992 left the alumni corps in the able hands of veteran Phil Gentile, who would lead this proud unit for 16 of its 21 years (1992-2001 and 2004–2010), with Joel Leson serving as director during the interim years.

Throughout the entire alumni era, Gentile also served as drum major. He, his wife Dolores and a small group of dedicated members fostered the success of the “Dixie Stinger” year after year. They organized parades and concerts, supplied food and refreshments for practices and outings, and more. They worked tirelessly and relentlessly to make each corps event a pleasant experience, a quality performance and a true family gathering.

Those who worked closely with Gentile will always remember how inclusive he was in his leadership style. If there was an issue to address, the entire staff would be gathered and each decision was made based on fair and honest dealings. “Relentless” is another adjective owned by him, for what director can be successful without a detailed plan and without the diligence to follow up and make things happen?

Whether it was a performance contract, an e-mail announcement, a Web site change, a membership issue, an DCW advertisement or article, he would always ensure that the Yankee Rebels’ brand evoked only the best image.

Another important attribute of the Yankee Rebels Alumni Corps was performing a full field show, with “M&M,” from 1990 until 2002. This set the bar, for most alumni corps that emerged from the decade of the 1980s had more meager goals. To be sure, all set out to present a quality product for stage shows, standstill exhibitions and parades, but few have ever duplicated the spectacle that was a reflection of the competitive years on the field, as alumni corps, and at the level with which the Yankee Rebels performed.

So good was this corps that they were invited to perform a featured exhibition at the Drum Corps International World Championships in 2000 at College Park, MD.

The decision to continue the alumni corps operations following the 1989 American Legion Nationals parade was fostered by the passion of members. The 1990 season would see a perfect 120-man company front dazzle DCA stadiums in exhibition. Icons of the competing years such as Ricardo Gabriel and Ray Eyler stepped in to work the brass with arranger Ray Fallon; Dick Janes and Dennis Ciesla were on drums; John Brager and John Bennet worked the alumni drill; and Joe White and Larry Bourne taught color guard.

In 1998, Col. Truman Crawford returned to the corps as the brass man and remained in that position until he passed away in 2003. For the remainder of the corps’ life, the music program was superbly handled by Larry Kerchner and John Flowers.

For the long and successful life of the alumni Yankee Rebels, the Civil War and Southern themes prevailed. Excerpts of Crawford’s Requiem For An Era were retained each year, along with glimpses of the glorious competitive past and with contemporary twists to the southern theme.

In the final years, Kerchner’s work was brilliant, maintaining quality and balance in an aging corps that adapted nicely to the more contemporary instrumentation. Danny Fitzpatrick’s mellophone solo in When It’s Sleepy Time Down South is an example of Kerchner’s keen attention to all that was the Yankee Rebels.

Likewise, the father-daughter and husband-wife Dixieland quartet of South was an amazing reproduction of a 1970s Crawford creation. Bill Rasmussen, his daughter Kay — holding a huge, vintage Besson tuba with a bare-brass recording bell — together with Robbie and Bob Ellis, were simply superb!

Recruiting would add a few younger members from time to time, but the days when people would flock to the neighborhood drum and bugle corps had vanished.

In 2010, the membership included the likes of Bob Turner who, at 85 years old, continued to march and perform. A few younger family members would join the ranks, but by and large the membership consisted of original Yankee Rebels and others from drum corps of the same era.

The corps that marched in the 1989 Legion convention parade averaged 50 years of age; in 2010, that average had climbed to almost 70. For whatever reason, members of DCI and DCA corps post-1980 did not seem to be andidates for the alumni corps. And that makes participating in a key fund-raiser for these corps — numberous parades — more difficult.

To be sure, the Yankee Rebels went out strong. The corps had a full contingent of buglers, drummers and color guard at the end. The arrangements sounded full and exciting. Kerchner worked the horn line as he had always done, producing a sound that was characteristically Yankee Rebels and Southern; Flowers continued to polish his outstanding drum line. It was simply time to stand down, as the proverbial writing was on the wall.

“Why are they breaking up?” asked so many at the August 14t “Shamrock Festival.” “They sound great!” Surely there are other alumni corps with greater membership problems, organizational challenges and quality issues than those that confronted the Yankee Rebels.

The coffers were full, the staff was complete and active, and plans were actually in place for 2011. But as he had so diligently led the corps, Director Phil Gentile saw the wisdom in standing down now and going out on a high note. George Bull agreed, as did all other staff members and, ultimately, most every member.

The Yankee Rebels is a great organization. I use the present tense, as the alumni association will continue indefinitely. There is an active choir, association meetings, a newsletter, annual crab feast (what else in Maryland?) and more. Ultimately, the great Yankee Rebel spirit lives on.

I can think of no better way to conclude this article than to describe my personal experience with the Yankee Rebels. Many DCW readers know that I am an alumnus of the great Blessed Sacrament junior corps, a founding member of its alumni corps and I currently serve as brass instructor and arranger for the group.

But one Sunday in 2001, I dropped by a Yankee Rebels rehearsal in Essex, MD, to experience Truman Crawford’s arrangements. He and the organization as a whole were so welcoming that I came back, marched in parades, participated in shows and ultimately became the Webmaster and a staff member of the corps. Nine years later, I was blessed with being a part of the final performance.

One memorable experience was arriving at Reilly’s show in 2002 as a first-time Yankee Rebel. I was a little late for the outdoor rehearsal and jumped in line with my contrabass as the corps was just getting started. Many of my corps-mates from Blessed Sacrament were in the parking lot where we were practicing and were surprised to see me in the Yankee Rebels line.

Afterward, BS veteran John Demko called me over and said, “Aren’t they a great group of people? You made an excellent choice to march with them.” John was right. I have never felt so welcomed in my life. At every practice I was overwhelmed with THANK YOUs for being there. When I responded to a call to march in a parade and did so, I received special thanks and phone calls afterward. When I least expected it outside of the alumni circuit, I would be greeted warmly by faces just slightly familiar to me. In such cases, these were folks from my new YR family.

One memorable lesson learned was that the “redneck” reputation of the Yankee Rebels that seemed to have permeated the drum corps world was largely rumor and innuendo. Notwithstanding remnants of the civil rights era that are found in many organizations with members in excess of 60 years old, the Yankee Rebels of my era welcomed diversity.

For most of my tenure, I played a conventional tuba (not a contra bass bugle), in a section that included an African American, a high school girl and a 70-something World Drum Corps Hall of Famer. To be sure, this corps was a warm and welcoming family.

I never marched in a competing senior corps. My last competition was with Blessed Sacrament in 1970. So it was a real treat to experience Truman’s music from the great championship years of the Rebels and to be at least a small part of that legacy. In this regard, I want to thank the Yankee Rebels for their warmth, unconditional welcome and for their support over nine years.

When my wife, Jan, had an illness, we received calls, cards and many expressions of concern. When I was injured in a motorcycle accident this past January, it was the Yankee Rebels who reached out with concerns and get-well wishes.

Jan and I have been overwhelmed by such heartfelt expressions. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those great special meals that Dolores Gentile and the support staff would prepare for our parades and concerts, specifically because they knew I was a vegetarian. Such gestures mean a great deal to me and speak volumes about this fine organization.

I was proud to serve on the staff with John Manlove, Frank Assaro, Joel Leson, Charles Lyon and George Bull. I was privileged to be a playing member of the corps, while soloists Dave Hughes, Ralph Hamilton, Jr., Robbie Ellis, Ricardo Gabriel, Ray Eyler, Bob Ellis, Danny Fitzpatrick and others played their hearts out. And I was always impressed with and appreciated the diligent efforts of Bob Castor, Bea Gustafson, Louie Blancato, Doug Bruce, Jimmy Henn, Harry Hook, Kathy Hook and many, many others (sorry if I missed you) who would pitch in and do just about anything to make the Yankee Rebels shine.

August 14, 2010 was a sad day, indeed, but I am smiling inside because of the great gift of the Yankee Rebels. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU for such a wonderful experience, for such a proud history and for demonstrating what it means to be a true champion. We are all going to miss this great organization.

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

The worldwide staff of writers and photographers provide show reviews during the season and interviews, feature articles, news and human interest stories during the off-season. The photographs that appear in the magazine are provided by 27 staff members who are scattered around the world. The publication covers World and Open Class Drum Corps International corps, Open and Class A Drum Corps Associates corps, alumni, mini-, parade and standstill units, as well as the growing activity in Europe, the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and South Africa.