by Mike Flack
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I will never know what it takes to become a world champion in one season. But I do know what it takes to be one of the most improved in the history of junior drum and bugle corps competition. It all happened in a small Iowa town of 3,500 back in 1975.
“The Music Man” by Meredith Wilson was about a mythical flim-flam salesman, Professor Harold Hill, in River City (Mason City), IA, around 1914. I’m here to tell you the true-to-life story that took place 30 miles to the northeast of Mason City a half century later. The real-life “band” was actually a drum and bugle corps and Harold Hill’s part was played out by a fella named Darvin Omer Crosser, or “Doc.”
In the movie and Broadway play, the band just magically becomes great with beautiful uniforms and 76 trombones leading the way. Believe me, it does not come that easy! It takes more than one man and two hours to tell the story, unless you’re a movie producer reading this bard’s rendition.
In a relatively short window of time (12 years), Doc produced a winning bunch of kids by worldwide standards. Coming from one of the smallest towns to support a competitive drum corps with the lowest score (9.6) out of a possible 100 points, the Precisionnaires are and will maintain the “Most Improved Season” category title in the history of drum and bugle corps. (See: www.drumcorpsworld.com, “A History of Drum & Bugle Corps, volume 1).
Many similarities occur between the River City Band and the Osage corps. A single man did just arrive in town and teach the “think” system of music, fall in love with a local gal, get married and live happily ever after.
A few differences took place as well. He was not a thin-skinned, hit-or-miss salesman looking for an easy buck. It took more than a village of people to support and raise this corps he started to world fame.
Many alumni and current corps people still speak of Osage as a phenomenon to this day. One reason being, the corps finally beat every other corps during its existence except five. That is a little known fact that only a few witnessed. Thirty-five boys started with the corps in 1964 and 15 of us were still there at the end in 1976.
It was a family affair. Starting with Doc, his wife, Mary Lou, and their four kids, Danny, David, Connie and Sam, American Legion Post #278 literally began the corps with post members’ children, while the wives made uniforms, chaperoned and raised money from baked goods.
Our parents were not chasing around looking into Doc’s credentials for authenticity to find out if he was bona fide or not. We knew he was qualified by the tone of his speech and the actions of his deeds. He moved everyone into support roles and matched them to fit their talents.
After a tough couple of years and acting as the corps’ only instructor, he went searching for a new team of experienced drum corps folks. The “fishing hole” was found in Austin, MN (Spamtown), a mere 30 miles North.
Austin had sported the Lancers Drum & Bugle Corps just a few years prior to Osage’s attempt. The man of choice to contact was Don Peck. From Don, a whole array of instructors were found and pulled in, hook, line and sinker. Don’s wife, Rose, could attest to that. Before long, their kids and Don were burning a path on that stretch of highway 218 to and from Osage for many years.
Every year the corps improved. There was no backsliding. We had no time for such frailty. Doc told us we could be national champs and we believed him. He told us the truth. We were from a small, unknown town in Iowa and we were going to work harder and longer at achieving our goals. And so we did.
Each fall, work on the new show began shortly after the new school year had started. Recruitment fell on the shoulders of the corps members primarily, but in reality everyone recruited 24/7/365.
Fund-raising never stopped. Doc was a natural born promoter and marketeer. He was the local grocery store’s produce manager and the Legion’s Post Commander. He stood out, having the most beautiful fruit and vegetable displays, not to mention great signage. He was my first marketing mentor.
We sold everything under the sun. Fund-raising salesmen would come down to the Legion Hall and give the drum corps kids instructions on how to sell the next best thing to sliced bread. Enthusiasm abounded. We were the cheapest and most effective slave market West of the Mississippi. It got so predictable that one year we were selling a concentrated soap called Rex. We sold fruitcakes each holiday season and the drum line decided to change and dedicate a new name to a widely-known rudimental phrase. “Shave and a haircut, two bits” became “Rex and a fruitcake, two bits.”
Everything for a price. Soap, fruitcakes, raffle tickets, bingo cards, Christmas cards, candy bars, pins, buttons and one-year admission tickets to our local talent show. That show had the drum corps fathers dancing in grass skirts and coconut shell braziers in chorus line fashion. Of course, the 6’4” doctor was next to the 5’1” janitor. Wigs were worn, but not a single facial hair was cut.
This talent show had so many funny and lovable skits in it that the show ran Saturday night for the same gym-packed crowd that saw it on Friday night. No need for word-of-mouth, we just sold them tickets coming AND going.
Eventually, Doc had us sponsor our own drum and bugle corps show each summer. The parade usually had five or six corps march down an equal number of blocks on Main Street to announce the evening’s spectacle under the lights at the high school football field. There was a queen and, of course, raffle tickets at the end of the show while the judges tabulated the results.
Trophies and prize monies were awarded. Farmers and their wives attended from four or five counties surrounding Osage. Local industries helped pay for the program/score page with advertising space. Doc was the salesman for that endeavor, too.
During the Mitchell County Fair each year, our booster club ran a burger stand and the bingo stand next to it. Homemade pies and cheap gifts were the payouts. The drum corps was on tour, so moms, dads, brothers and sisters manned these money-making ventures.
As the corps became larger, its practice facilities changed. The Legion Hall and Methodist Church fell to the wayside for the new junior high gymnasium. Of course, in the summers we held sectional practices during the day in shaded parks and night time practices under the lights of the high school football field or the infield of the county fairgrounds.
During our 10-hour practice days, the residents of Osage always had to put up with the banging of the drums and constant blowing of bugles. Nairy a complaint was heard, except from Harry Cook. He lived across the street from the football field and we played music until 10:00 PN each night. I guess he had a good reason to complain. I’m sure he enjoyed his weekends.
Our corps traveled only on weekends, sometimes starting out early Friday mornings. In those days we would always march a parade prior to the contest. There was usually a steep penalty (three or four points) if the corps missed the parade. In 1973, we beat the Canadian National Champion Toronto Optimists because of that rule.
Usually our buses would roll back into Osage early Monday morning, just in time for most of us to go back to work. A lot of us worked on farms, but there were a few of us lucky enough to work for our parents as painters, plumbers and carpenters.
In the evenings during the week, the only payout for our parents came by way of watching us practice the show. They all became our most informative critics. Most of them attended several shows per season (May through August) and became hip to the categories of judging (i.e. marching and maneuvering, drums, bugles, general effect and content).
The only down side to this type of fan is that many of them wanted to chaperone the trip just to get a free ride to the show. Drum corps groupies! We had an endearing name for them — deadweights. They knew it — we knew it. It was an accepted practice which became unaccepted.
The last couple of years (1975-1976) the corps members drove bus, equipment trucks and attended judging critiques following the shows. We even wrote and rewrote the music and the drills. The main reason we did this was because we could not trust our instructional staff to show up when we needed them, especially the guys from Philadelphia, PA. To this day I root for the teams playing against the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, and the Flyers.
Being a drummer from 1964 until now, it was nice our drum instructors held the highest rate of attendence. Don Peck, Gary Lund, Randy Dupre, Mitch Markovitch, Rick McDuff and Louie Davis carried the main tasks, representing traditions from the Austin Lancers, Army Band, St. Paul Scouts, Chicago Cavaliers, Anaheim Kingsmen, Argonne Rebels and Blue Rock.
From within our drum line, Dan Decker (snare) and Don Smalley (triple tenor) would cover drum judge critiques when the instructors were not available or were too pissed to talk. Our snare drummers also taught the different sections of the drum line. I helped instruct the bass drummers and cymbal players.
In 1975, we had four bass and nine cymbals. We also had 31 marching battery members, including tympani. We needed a lot of percussionists as we played songs by Blood, Sweat and Tears, Santana, Earth, Wind and Fire, Weather Report, Tower of Power, the Tommy Vigg Big Band and the Don Ellis Orchestra.
Doc was third generation big band and, as a trombone player, he loved popular dance music. So we ended up playing tunes like Overture from Tommy, Basin Street Blues, Evil Ways, Windy, Closer to You, Spain by Chick Corea, Spinning Wheel and many more.
It seemed to work. We loved playing the music and the crowds loved us playing it. We were not the marching elite, however, we could blow away any corps in a standstill. We always prayed for rain and an inside standstill contest.
Once, at Mile High Stadium in 1975 at Denver, CO, during the tabulation of scores, the competing corps stood in the dark awaiting a fireworks display. Standing next to us were the Madison Scouts, declared DCI World Champions later that season.
Corps were always bored waiting for scores and the manifestation that evening resulted in a song serenade by the Scouts to the crowd in the stands. Still no fireworks. We, in turn, made a left face maneuver pointed directly at the Scouts. We played Squib Cakes by Tower of Power. It was our way of saying “top that!” The fireworks started and the impromptu competition delighted the standing-room-only crowd, not to mention the echo effect was pretty cool, too!
But alas, the Madison Scouts were one of the five corps we never outscored. But that one evening we did outplay them!
With our popular musical shows, we always seemed to draw the most unusual fans — other corps. Our practices drew fans like from the Phantom Regiment. Those poor kids always played classical music.
In 1973, we played the same off-the-line song as that year’s World Champion Santa Clara Vanguard from California. It was Fanfare & Allegro. We played it in a different key with a slightly different arrangement, but close enough to recognize the piece.
Prior to a parade performance in downtown Madison, WI, the Vanguard came over to our semi-circle and listened to our rendition. Personally, we had rules in our corps to act professionally while in uniform and not act like a fan of another corps. We had respect for other corps, but we also knew they put their pants on one leg at a time just like us.
Our first show of the 1975 season was in Geneseo, IL. We were making changes to the music less than an hour before the show. It seemed we never played the same show twice. Even the judges talked of this fact on their critique tapes.
With a terrible score of 46 points, we were all sadly disillusioned. Two months later we marched into Philadelphia’s Franklin Field and performed an 85-point show, but took home a 78.65, just shy of the final cut and night show by 0.9 of one point. Another reason I don’t like Phillie. It is NOT the city of Brotherly Love!
So, with an improvement of 32.65 points in one season, we garnered the “Most Improved Season” honors. We didn’t know it. We just knew we got screwed and it was going to be tough to march another year. Many of our members were aging out and filling their shoes was going to be nearly impossible.
Twenty-seven years later, volume I of “A History of Drum & Bugle Corps” was published by Drum Corps World. In 2002 we took up two glossy pages with photos and words describing our contribution to the drum corps world. Thousands marched before us and thousands have since. None have lived out the experience from “The Music Man” like the kids from a little cornfield in Iowa called Osage!