Top 5 Legendary Drum Corps Shows

What was the most legendary drum corps show ever to grace the football field? Did you jump out of your seat as you observed the most amazing drill move? Which performance held you captive as you listened to the most beautiful musical arrangement? Was there a show where you witnessed something that changed the activity in a way that still had you talking about it years later? Halftime Magazine asked drum corps directors, instructors and fans to give us their take on the most legendary shows in drum corps international history. Here are their collective picks and what made those shows so special.

Photo courtesy of Drum Corps International

Trying to determine the most legendary shows in drum corps is no small task. Sure, there are the “fan favorites”—such as Carolina Crown’s “Triple Crown” in 2007 or The Blue Devils’ “Big, Bad and Blue” that featured “When a Man Loves a Woman” in 1992—that captured the emotions and tugged at the hearts of fans around the world. You could even consider every championship show a legendary performance dating back to the Anaheim Kingsmen’s program capturing the very first medal in 1972. But even runners-up and other finalists may have had standout presentations but simply been ahead of their time. To help figure out which shows made a lasting impact on the activity, Halftime Magazine asked drum corps directors, instructors, members, alumni and fans to help us rank the top five most legendary Drum Corps International performances of all time.

#1. 1993 Star of Indiana “The Music of Barber and Bartok”

After 17 years, the most legendary performance in the history of DCI is still the most talked about show to date: 1993 Star of Indiana’s “The Music of Barber and Bartok” (2nd place, score of 97.30). However, the show didn’t even win championships, coming in second behind The Cadets of Bergen County.

The 1993 DCI World Championship program described the show as one of torment and revenge, “all the anger and scheming retribution found in the allegorical myth was captured in the sonically-searing ballet score of Samuel Barber’s ‘Medea.’”

The show also included portions from Bela Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste,” work written for an unusual combination of instruments. Some who witnessed a live performance say the show design was way ahead of its time.

“Star ’93 was different than anything that had been done or has been done since,” says Len Insalaca, who watched long-time friend David Bayardelle marching lead baritone for Star in Jackson, Miss. “The combination of music selection, drill and overall visual program were not the norm for drum corps; Star had shifted the activity conceptually from musical entertainment to an art form.”

“Medea’s Dance of Vengeance” became probably one of the most memorable drum corps endings in DCI. Built upon a succession of stabbing rhythms, unforgiving in its relentlessness, the blasting volume of Star’s horn line painted a striking picture of Medea’s final fit of rage, leaving the audience in a shocked and jolted daze.

Jim Mason, a lifelong veteran of drum corps, was the creative force behind Star of Indiana since the group’s founding in 1985. According to Star of Indiana’s website, Mason wanted to “play the game, win the game, and change the game.”

After Star won the DCI World Championship in 1991, he then focused on his third goal of changing the activity by taking a show concept where no designer has gone before.

Star’s 1993 drum major, Matt Harloff, credits Mason’s “dream team” of DCI Hall of Famers who came in to design the ultimate drum corps show that could stand the test of time. “We knew we had something special just by watching the creative staff do what they do best,” Harloff says. “They were so excited about creating this show; you could see it in their eyes. The members owe everything to them as they were the real magic in making Star ’93 what it was.”

By playing music from obscure composers not really known for being a part of most drum corps musical repertoires, the musical design significantly divided the fan base; you either loved it or hated it.

However, the visual design, which consisted of variations of body movement and dance, was a huge success as it took asymmetrical drill to a new dimension. The visual design was incredibly difficult yet amazingly clean.

“We’re still talking about it,” says drum corps fan Wayne Barron. “Star didn’t care if the fans understood the show, they didn’t care how loud the horn line was, but what they did care about was being in control of everything in that show.

Although The Cadets of Bergen County defeated Star by one tenth of a point, it was widely agreed that Star had the better show overall.

“Odd isn’t it? Cadets won with a show called, ‘In the Spring, At the Time When Kings Go Off to War,’ but nobody ever talks about that show from 1993,” Barron says. “It’s always about Star’s ‘Medea’ show.”

After the 1993 season, Star of Indiana went inactive to take on a new direction in brass theater with the Tony Award-winning “BLAST!” that still runs today.

Gone but not forgotten, the Star Alumni Corps will be performing an exhibition at the 2010 DCI World Championships with selections from its nine seasons of competition.

#2. 1984 Garfield Cadets “West Side Story”

Although known by many names, The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps has also been known to produce a number of shows that can be considered legendary in their own right. The group’s innovations from the 1980’s have become worldwide standards. However, the 1984 production of “West Side Story” (1st place, score of 98.000) is thought to be one of the most legendary shows of all time.

“The staff really wanted to build on the momentum of the previous year,” says Dave Fowler, a percussionist from 1984. “It was almost like they sat around saying, ‘What can we do to make this show different and memorable?’”

Aside from breaking tradition and starting the show with the ballad “Maria,” the corps moved continuously with some tempos reaching 208 beats per minute. Garfield was also one of the first drum corps to split its marching drum line by having the snares and tenors march on opposite sides of the field during part of “America.”

George Hopkins had taken over as executive director only the year before. Since then, he has been one of the leading architects of modern-day drum corps and was named to the DCI Hall of Fame in 1997. His team consisted of eight other soon-to-be Hall of Famers.

“We were in Bernstein-mode, and the crew believed we had another twist at it.” Hopkins says. “We wanted to stay American, and it was the 50th anniversary of The Cadets—we had to do it!”

The Cadets design team had already taken asymmetrical drill design to new heights in 1983 with the help of legendary drill designer, George Zingali, who created the “Z-Pull.” With this and other unique moves, The Cadets went on to be the first drum corps to win three consecutive DCI World Championships in 1983, 1984 and 1985.

“I believe the successes of the corps in 1984 came about from the manner in which the instructors connected with the musicians on the field,” says Marcie Farrell, mellophone player. “The instructors worked hard to teach the corps how to take the audience to Broadway and experience a true performance.”

But the 1984 season wasn’t always perfect. During the show in Whitewater, Wis., a dozen members of the horn line fell during the Z-Pull move at the end of the show.

“One member fell backing up, then other members fell over him as it was a blind backup on the last move,” Hopkins says. “All did get back in, and the crowd was dead silent. After the show, we received a perfect 10 in ensemble visual; folks were appalled.”

In the end, The Cadets 1984 championship win made giant strides for the future of drum corps. “People still talk about this show today because it was this year that the crowd and judges started to accept the eccentricities of George Zingali’s visual programs,” Farrell says. “It was this show that started pushing other corps to take a risk to do something different.”

#3. 2008 Phantom Regiment “Spartacus”

When Phantom Regiment announced that it would be performing “Spartacus” for the third time in its corps history, some rolled their eyes. Others, however, felt this was a “golden” opportunity for the corps to rise to the top of the DCI elite.

“After all of the years of getting silver, after all of the years of ending the season with, ‘Well, at least the crowd loved you,’ we finally pulled it off,” says Courtney Lawrence, a euphonium player who marched from 2004 to 2008. “That trophy is for every single alumnus of this corps. We finally brought one home to Rockford.”

Under the direction of Rick Valenzuela, the dreams of the 2008 Phantom Regiment members, staff, alumni and fans came true. Not only did Phantom Regiment win its first lone championship (the first was a tie with The Blue Devils in 1996), the corps made its mark in legendary status by taking storytelling to the next level. In the decade of amplification and vocals, this modern-day production was done without a narrator explaining the scenes.

“People still talk about ‘Spartacus’ [1st place, score of 98.125] even today because it was a show that everyone felt inside,” says Christina Wixom, trumpet player from 2007 and 2008. “I was told by some of my friends that while we were performing, they couldn’t even look away.”

Despite the fact that Phantom Regiment performed this show only two years ago, it is already achieving legendary status as it stole the hearts and minds of the drum corps community.

Phantom Regiment started the championship competition in 4th place, fought its way to 3rd place in quarterfinals to 2nd place in semifinals and then finally to 1st place in finals.

Following its DCI performance, Valenzuela told Halftime Magazine that “Spartacus” was a show that was going to bomb or be an absolute hit. “The audience was invited into the performance, and they all came along for the ride,” said Valenzuela. “I told the corps after finals that they are a part of something so special that no one would ever be able to take that away from them.”

That year, the members also put more emphasis on knowing corps history and being “one corps” vs. a group with three sections.

“Spartacus” came to a dramatic climax with the spearing of the head drum major as thousands of fans in the audience spontaneously yelled, “I AM SPARTACUS!”

“Everything that was done on the field was done for the audience and with an attempt to make the audience feel,” says Zach Allyn who played trumpet in 2008. “Whether that was blood lust when Spartacus had his first kill, shock at the death of Phrygia at the end of the ballad or sadness turned to a triumphant hope, honoring our hero and his life. We loved every moment of that show, and I think that’s what came through to the audience.”

#4. 1989 Santa Clara Vanguard “Phantom of the Opera”

One of the most recognizable musicals to ever hit the football field, “Phantom of the Opera” (1st place, score of 98.800) by Andrew Lloyd Webber has probably been watched by more aspiring drum corps members than any other production since 1989. Santa Clara Vanguard’s production vaulted the corps to DCI World Champion status after coming in second place four consecutive years prior.

Myron Rosander, one of Vanguard’s show designers in 1989, has a special place in his heart for this legendary show. “For me personally, it’s especially memorable because it was the first drill for SCV that I had ever designed completely on my own,” he says. “It was an exciting time, but a very scary time as well as so much was at stake.”

That wasn’t the first time that Vanguard had performed music from “Phantom.” In fact, the very same show concept was performed in 1988 with different musical arrangements and visual design, not unusual for that decade. Only this time, Vanguard added a few bells and whistles along with a little magic.

“The biggest challenge was redoing a show that had been immensely popular the year before,” Rosander says. “A concerted effort was made to bring new ideas to the show, mixed in with some of the elements that had already proven successful the year before; everyone on staff could feel how important this was to Gail Royer [then-director].”

The show was visually more complete: The horn line and battery members wore “Phantom” masks, larger prop masks were spread around the field, adding a themed backdrop for the musical, and the pit performed in “masquerade” masks. Although other drum corps such as the Sky Ryders and Velvet Knights were already wearing non-traditional costumes in their shows, SCV was able to get the most out of its props to maximize its general effect score. This reincarnation of “Phantom” literally brought the essence of the musical into the stadium.

For Christina Mavroudis, who has been involved in the drum corps activity for more than 32 years as a performer and reporter, witnessing “Phantom of the Opera” was a life-changing event for her and her daughter.

“We saw their very last full performance complete with magic and masks,” she says. “Emily, who was 7 years old, knew drum corps but only from videos. The emotion coming from their performance stays with me to this day. Emily was mesmerized and ended up marching with the Vanguard organization for eight years.”

To clinch legendary status, the show designers capped off the final moments with one of the most memorable magic tricks in DCI by making the entire drum corps disappear. The baritone soloist (who was dressed as the Phantom) “vanished” under a sheet while seated in a chair. As the crowd’s attention was focused on the disappearing Phantom, the rest of the drum corps “vanished” behind the large prop masks spread around the field.

“Most of the magic of our shows came straight from Gail Royer’s standards set for the corps from the beginning, along with very strong members and staff,” says Ralph Hardimon, the percussion arranger and caption head from 1976 to 1990.

#5. 1988 Madison Scouts “Malaguena”

If you asked people who witnessed the 1988 Madison Scouts what they thought of the show, they would probably tell you it was “pretty good” up to the downbeat before the corps played “Malaguena,” halfway through the show. At that point, however, it became “legendary.”

In one of the most stunning come-from- behind victories in drum corps history, the Madison Scouts captured the DCI World Championship in what proved to be a very mysterious conclusion to the 1988 season. The Scouts accomplished a lot of goals that year— such as performing part of the summer in Europe and celebrating its 50th anniversary—but winning the championship was not even on the radar screen.

“We weren’t thinking championship; we were hoping that we could just finish the season ahead of the Velvet Knights,” says Brian Gregg, who marched euphonium from 1986 to 1990. “We had been beaten by Phantom Regiment, The Cavaliers, Garfield Cadets, The Blue Devils and Santa Clara Vanguard. There was no reason to think we would be top five, let alone contenders for the championship.”

Many felt the Madison Scouts were a “dark horse” coming into the DCI World Championships.

Part of the show’s legendary standing comes from a change in DCI’s procedure that year. The format was unlike any other championship in DCI history. For the first time ever, prelim scores were not announced and the judging lineup for finals was selected at random from a pool of judges. Also, DCI determined the performance order for finals by having the corps directors “draw a number from 1 to 12 out of a hat.” The corps were split into two groups between the bottom seven and top five corps to accommodate the live television broadcast where only the top five would appear.

Placing 7th in 1987, the men of Madison were surprised to find they were drawing a number from the top five in 1988. The corps drew #11 and went on second from last before the Garfield Cadets. Little did anyone know that the Scouts were already ranked #1 coming out of prelims.

“At the time it seemed to be a great thing that just happened, but like 1975 [when the corps won its first DCI championship], which went down to be historic and iconic, 1988 is one of those shows that the crowd wanted,” says Bryan Hughes, who marched contra bass bugle and is currently a member of the Madison Scouts Board of Directors. “Almost like Phantom in 2008, it was pure magic, and the crowd just could feel what was fixing to happen.”

Paul Bailey who marched in the low brass section as a rookie, says that some people told him, “DCI finally got it right,” and there was a sense that maybe the activity would be going in a different direction. However, history would never repeat itself again as the “mystery” format was voted down the next year and reverted back to its predictable nature.

“After we won [Director] Scott Stewart pulled us together on the field and shook his head and said, ‘It’s just the icing on the cake’ as we had been performing at that level for quite a long time, and we were finally acknowledged for it,” Bailey says. “It also reinforced that we were going to do it a different way, not worry about scores and other groups and focus on our own personal responsibility in performance and in life.”

Note from the Editor: Visit our Web Exclusives section to read comments about these and other shows as well as view a list of “Honorable Mentions.”

About the Author

Gregory M. Kuzma (www.gregorymkuzma.com), who simply goes by “GM,” is a freelance writer and the author of the book “On the Field From Denver, Colorado … The Blue Knights!,” which highlights his 1994 summer tour adventures as a drum corps member.