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Drums, bugles of ‘Big Blue' to make final call

By Eileen O. Daday Daily Herald Correspondent
Posted on July 15, 2002

The mighty "Big Blue" marches again. Forty-four years after a youth organization formed a drum and bugle corps in Chicago's Humboldt Park, its alumni have returned from the Chicago suburbs and across the country for a single reunion season.

The Royal Airs Drum and Bugle Corps have dedicated their reunion season to the corps' founder, Chicago businessman Sie Lurye, who is being inducted this summer into the Drum Corps Hall of Legions. He died 14 years ago.

"We reunited to pay tribute to him and to his vision," says his daughter, Jackie Borrelli of Naperville, who is directing the reunion tour.

Lurye had no musical background, and he recruited teens who had never held an instrument. Nevertheless, he developed a three-time national champion corps that won the top prize at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

His sole motivation, his daughter says, was to give neighborhood youths some direction and a chance to get off the streets. They competed in the drum corps circuit from 1958 to 1968 and placed in the top five at the three main national competitions -- the VFW, American Legion and CYO nationals between 1962 and 1965.

In 1965, they became the only three-time national championship drum and bugle corps when they won all three titles.

In the beginning, the reunion corps was going to get together Aug. 9 for one exhibition performance only, at the Drum Corps International Championships in Madison, where Lurye will be inducted.

However, once word got out they were rehearsing, they started getting invitations to perform across the Midwest in regional shows. In July, they played shows in Whitewater, Rockford, Racine and DeKalb. They were featured July 4 in an ABC News special hosted by Peter Jennings.

On July 28, they will be a feature attraction at the Cavalcade of Brass, held at Maine West High School in Des Plaines and hosted by the Cavalier Drum & Bugle Corps of Rosemont. The Royal Airs will be the final performance of the evening.

The reunion corps consists of former members and alumni from other corps -- 170 in all -- who are taking the field for the first time since 1968.

They include a drum line, complete horn section and color guard. Their average age is 55.

"It's been exhilarating," says flag corps member Joanne Borck of Schaumburg, now clinical unit leader of the pediatric unit at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. "It's a way of reliving our youth."

Ken Sadowski of Carpentersville agreed.

"Here I am 58 years old, but I felt like I was 18 or 19 when I marched out on that field," said Sadowski, who plays the horn. "It was a very emotional high."

They play the music that made the corps famous, arranged by their former instructors, including Col. Truman Crawford, former commander of the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, and Mitch Markovich, three-time national snare drum champion.

Corps members perform a traditional 12-minute drill program with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Ballyhoo March" and "Battle Hymn of The Republic."

Traveled from afar

Alumni have flown in from all over the country and Canada once a month since September to put together their repertoire and learn the drill.

They debuted last month in Oswego and drew a standing ovation as soon as they took the field. "It was very emotional," Borrelli says. "We were all crying."

Borrelli says she continues to be "absolutely amazed" at how many members have rearranged their lives this summer to do this. She says the fact that the corps can survive 40 years later is a testament to the strength of the family atmosphere generated in the original corps.

The Royal Airs grew out of the Alamo Rangers, a former parade corps sponsored by the Alamo Post American Legion on Chicago's Northwest side. This corps marched only in parades, and members started talking about doing competitions.

Lurye, a former middleweight prizefighter, American Legion member and volunteer chairman, agreed to manage them and hired instructors to teach them. They held their first rehearsal June 28, 1958, in the Humboldt Park boathouse.

"A lot of the kids couldn't read music and had never played an instrument before," Borrelli said. "We had to color-coordinate the sheet music so they could play.

"It's funny -- when we started (the reunion tour) in September, the crayons came back out."

Sadowski already had some musical background when he and his mellophone joined the Alamo Rangers before coming over to the Royal Airs. He played his horn briefly with a senior corps after he aged out of the Royal Airs (players have to leave after they turn 21), but estimates he hasn't played in 25 years.

"I have to admit I was skeptical about a reunion, I thought it wouldn't get off the ground, but I'm very excited that it has," Sadowski says.

The reunion tour is a dream come true for one father and son marching together. Dennis Evans of Elk Grove Village was an original member of the Royal Airs, while his son, Yale Evans, 31, now of Schaumburg, marched with the Cavaliers.

"When he told me the Royal Airs were coming back and that membership was open to alumni and their direct family, I knew it was something special," Yale Evans says.

"I agreed to fulfill my father's lifelong wish of marching with his son and signed up to play baritone bugle, which I played in the Cavaliers."

Borck was in the flag corps in the rival St. Alexis Vikings Drum and Bugle Corps based in Bensenville back in the 1960s, and became active in drum corps again when her son marched with the Phantom Regiment in Rockford.

She signed on, she says, to experience the thrill of being in a drum corps again, and to honor Lurye's memory, which she calls "larger than life."

"I'm ecstatic I didn't pass the opportunity up to do this," Borck said. "When the chance came up, I had to say yes."

Corps: Father, son to march together