The 1958 Royal-Airs and the championship corps in the years that followed were born from a four-year gestation period of hard work, pride, unselfish sacrifice and a lot of luck.
In the early fall of 1954 at the Ryerson School in Chicago a notice went around to all classes that the local American Legion Post #885 was forming a “Drum & Bugle Corps” and anyone interested 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, and the Corps manager was an appointed position from the members of the Post, and Bill Cerone was the first corps manager.
Rehearsals were held 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.) There was something that kept the members together that came from the encouragement from guys like Mr. Szadowski, Pete Cacioppo, Mr. Laskowski, Rocky Marcucci, Mr. Ferrara, Mr. Naples, Mr Procanin and later, Sie Lurye. What came to matter very much was the fact that after the initial shake out of people who joined for just a few weeks, the balance of the remaining members became the nucleus of the ROYAL AIRS.
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 on the back of the shirt.
After a year of basic’s and lot of parading (1956) the corps began to think like a competition corps. The first camp was held in Coloma, Wisconsin at the American Legion boys camp. The corps practiced a lot and received encouragement from the Post adults,like State Senator Roland Libanatti (former Capone lawyer) and others. The Alamo Rangers were about to blossom. Glenn Smith was joined by other instructors from the BELMONT GRENADIERS: Ed Roberts on drums; Mr. Kelly from the Grenadiers on M&M, and the first known drum instructor was Jerry Svec of the Grenadiers. Early practices were at KELLS field at the corner of Kedzie and Chicago avenues.
In what became the pivotal event in the evolution of the Royal Airs,(July, 1956)the instructors took some of the corps staff and some members to see the American Legion State junior show at Lane Tech Stadium. The Chicago Cavaliers, Norwood Park Imperials, the Vanguard, and the Black Knights competed that day. Also, Sie Lurie went along for the that night, and he was changed forever.
In 1956 the ALAMO RANGERS had 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 went to the RED CROSS SHOE STORE on Chicago Ave. just west of Hamlin Ave. to buy white bucks!
A big change came at the beginning of 1957. Up until that time The Alamo Rangers had been an all-male drum 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. Rich Myslivich quit the corps (after a brief stint on the baritone) to become a baritone in the Chicago Cavaliers. Marlene Gamberale became the new drum major and Judy Naples became color guard sergeant.
Bill Cerone resigned as manager of the corps in 1957 and the post appointed Sie Lurye. Sie never spared on expense for the corps and envisioned a championship competitive unit one day. When Sie took over things really started to pickup, more serious practices, Rich Tarsitano joined as bugle instructor, Ray Kelly and Ed Roberts, both of the Skokie Indians, taught drums. Ken Nolan and Larry Kaczmarek joined to teach M&M also during that period.
The Rangers competed in three shows that year, with the State Fair being the big one! The year ended with the formation of a quintet and some individual performances at Bessemer Park School on the south side. Sie, of course, gave some members a ride in his big OLDSMOBILE 98 CONVERTIBLE (He had a white one, Pauline had a Pink one!!) The quintet members were Nolan, Menle, Rendek, Ben Badalamenti, Joe Canzoneri.
The leaders in the Alamo Post wanted their parade corps and more control over the corps. They began to give Sie a difficult time.
As the 1958 season approached there was no doubt that the Alamo Rangers were less a corps from Alamo Post than they were Sie’s corps sponsored by Alamo Post. Sie had many supporters: Mr. Naples, Mr. Ferrara, Mr. Laskowski, Pete Cacioppo, Mr. Gamberale, and Rocky. The POST political friction escalated to the point where one evening there was a debate at the POST over whether or not the corps would appear at a Post function(with an appearance by Mayor Richard J. Daley), or at the VFW state championship drum corps contest that same day in Rockford. The corps wanted to attend VFW State, and Sie resigned over the controversy.
The Post Commander hired a new Director, Bob Patrone. That jeopardized the corps' competitive future. So Marlene and Ken Nolan formed the corps outside the Post and reminded the members of what Sie and his guys had done and what they had envisioned. The POST leadership challenged that decision, so all but two of the members left to march with the new corps, and the Cicero Post took over sponsorship. They sent the corps to the VFW Nationals and a 25th place finish.
Ahead lay the incredible tragedy of Our Lady of the Angels that changed the corps forever (three members perished in that fire: Frances Guzaldo, Valerie Thoma and Roger Ramlow), the 1959 season,and the competitive glories of the 1960’s.
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. The Drum Corps world, and the newly-formed "Big Blue" would never be the same.
The corps struggled in Midwest, State and National competitions in 1958 and 1959, but began to make a name for itself by defeating many corps that had deeper traditions and longer histories.
Rich Tarsitano continued on staff as the horn instructor and musical arranger, and wrote some outstanding songs: "Conquest", and "Quo Vadis", for example. 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 uniforms: uniforms which were to be the trademark of the corps: 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 by taking the starting line in all white butcher coats which were removed prior to step-off; revealing the new look.
The 1960,'61 and '62 seasons saw vast improvements in the corps. Larger numbers, a bolder and a 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, the "Big Blue" traveled to Denver, Colorado for the American Legion National Championships, taking second to the Garfield Cadets with songs like "Joshua 'Fit the Battle of Jericho". Dick Brown (Skokie Indians) replaced Ray Kelly as drum instructor and continued into 1964 when Mitch Markovich of the Cavaliers took over the line.
In 1963, Col. Truman Crawford became the corps' music arranger. In 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, touted by some as one of the most underrated in drum corps history, never seemed to place higher than second that year: "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 had been born! Sadly, many members of the 1964 corps left the Royal Airs. However, another corps, the Chicago Spartans, a merged corps of Morton Grove Cougars and St. Michaels Chi-Angels, closed its doors; 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.
Enough pages do not exist to describe what took place in 1965: The Royal Airs, the "greatest Corps Ever!", took the field and set a new standard for the next four decades. Winners of the three major national championships, the 1965 corps has been written about in many journals; other corps copied their style; and throughout the 1990's, their music has been reproduced on the Alumni Circuit by "Mighty St. Joe's of Batavia" who did exact renditions of "Alexanders", "John Brown" and "South". Former Cavalier and national champion drummer, Mitch Markovich, became the drum instructor that year and took the percussion section to new heights. Bill Evans emerged, circa 1964, as the new business manager for the corps.
Following one of the most successful seasons in drum corps history, many of the members from 1965 "aged out" or "moved on", and the corps seemed a shambles. The 1966 version of the Royal Airs accomplished a great deal, and could be touted as the "most profound moment in Sie Lurye's tenure as corps director. Stepping off the line with the now famous "Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines", the Big Blue struggled to place even in the top five of the Central States corps. But hard work and pride prevailed, and the corps shocked everyone by placing in the top six at VFW Nationals.
1967 saw another major turn for the corps. The "core of the '66 corps" remained intact and was joined by 10 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. The corps made giant strides and immediately regained its championship status by consistently defeating its top rivals. Sadly, with some tempo problems and some minor penalties, the corps placed only fourth 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 for a two-point American Flag violation: a penalty which saw them slip to fifth place losing to 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 VietNam; while still others believe it was a combination of all those things....and changing values and life styles of young people. The Royal Airs attempted, and failed to take the field in 1969. The rest his history....and legend.
October 27, 2002
Richard Tarsitano, 67, of Bloomingdale, a business owner who turned a group of West Side children into a championship drum and bugle corps, died Thursday, Oct. 10, of complications from diabetes at a son's home in Elmhurst, Illinois. Mr. Tarsitano, a longtime resident of Elmhurst, grew up in Chicago's Austin neighborhood and continued to work with members of the Royal Airs Drum and Bugle Corps until his death.
A graduate of Austin High School, Wright Junior College and the University of Nebraska, Mr. Tarsitano grew up in a native West Side family, said his cousin, Robert Tarsitano. In 1956, Mr. Tarsitano married his childhood sweetheart, Rosemary Daly, who had lived on the same street as his family when they were growing up, his cousin said.
Though he had a lifelong interest in music and honed his skills on the bugle with the Austin Grenadiers in the late 1940s, he also excelled in sports as a wrestler and weightlifter at Austin High, said his longtime friend Amatore "Joe" Menle.
Drum and bugle corps, still active throughout the United States, began after World War I as a patriotic gesture by veterans. The corps became intensely competitive in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Drum Corps International, a Lombard-based organization that promotes drum and bugle corps in North America.
Mr. Tarsitano and his friend Sie Luyre began what became the Royal Airs "as a neighborhood youth movement, basically to keep kids off the streets," Menle said. The group originally was organized as the Chicago Avenue Our Lady of Angels Parish Corps.
Mr. Tarsitano, as the group's bugle instructor, was always patient in teaching others, and "was our inspiration," said Menle, who helped transcribe Mr. Tarsitano's arrangements for the group. Mr. Tarsitano incorporated popular music in the corps' repertoire before that was widely done, Menle said.
In the Royal Airs' heyday, before disbanding in the late 1960s because of a lack of funding, musicians would move to Chicago for the summer to become part of the group, though it started in 1958 as something for West Siders under age 21, Menle said.
Other than his avocation as a musician, Mr. Tarsitano also owned several businesses over the years, including a gas station where he fixed corps members' cars and a limousine service.
In recent years, Mr. Tarsitano continued to bring together old friends from the West Side, starting a monthly get-together of former corps members in 1986, and helping organize a reunion of the Royal Airs earlier this year, Menle said.
Survivors include a sister, Lu Maloney; sons Rick and Tommy; daughters Cathi Gerardi, Ria Zaranko and LeeAnn Everett; and 11 grandchildren. Services have been held.
Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune
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