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‘I keep the beat’: VFW post preserves massive drum corps memorabilia collection

Frederick Omega Pye, left, and Bill Ives, right, with shakos and some of the hundreds of uniforms at the Archer-Epler VFW Post 979 in Upper Darby, Pa., March 15, 2021. The post houses Ives' collection of over 24,000 marching band and drum and bugle corps memorabilia.

TOM GRALISH/THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER VIA AP

By KEVIN RIORDAN | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: April 3, 2021

UPPER DARBY, Pa. — "You are now seeing the biggest collection in the world, the galaxy, the universe," said Bill Ives, the founder and impresario of the proposed Marching Pageantry Arts Museum.

The introduction was a bit showbiz, but the marching band costumes, instruments, banners, flags, photos, programs, recordings, regalia, and memorabilia that Ives has assiduously amassed since 1990 — 24,000 pieces, and counting — are a showstopper. An ethnomusicology student assisting in the museum project describes the collection as one of the most significant in the country.

"The oldest uniform we have is from American Legion SAL Post 344 of Jeanette, Pa., in 1924," said Ives, 63, who's been marching in drum corps since his Kensington childhood. "Now I've got 350 uniforms. Everything has been donated."

He hopes one day to showcase the items in a designated museum. But for now, they're stored or displayed at Upper Darby's venerable Archer-Epler VFW Post 979, the longtime headquarters of the Musketeers Drum and Bugle Corps.

Like the Musketeers, many American and Canadian drum corps were established by veterans organizations after World War I. Scout troops, religious and ethnic community groups, police athletic leagues, and historically Black colleges and universities also have deep marching band traditions.

Ives' collection — which Upper Darby Township council president Laura Wentz calls "an incredible asset to the community" — offers a lively and loving chronicle of hundreds of drum corps with names like the Audubon Bon-Bons, Reading Buccaneers, and Santa Clara Vanguard. It's an informal hall of fame for generations of male and female drummers, horn players, flag spinners, baton twirlers, rifle throwers, and saber wielders, as well as families and fans who have been part of what's often called "the activity."

The term is elastic enough to include the traditional drum-and-bugle corps and color guards marching in local parades, and high school bands as well. It also encompasses college and independent ensembles whose mighty drumlines and hornlines blend military precision, Broadway razzle-dazzle, and hip-hop moves in spectacular performances.

"When you're in the activity, it's the world," Ives said. "You see nothing but music kids, practices every day, competitions, sleeping in gyms … civilians don't know what we do."

He estimates there were as many as 16,000 corps in the United States and Canada during the last century, with perhaps 75 to 100 active currently. Popular culture certainly has taken note of the activity: In recent years, there have been two Drumline movies, the TV show Glee, and Beyonce's landmark 2018 "Homecoming" performance at the Coachella festival in California.

"Please don't call drum corps a 'subculture,'" said Ives, a salesman for a kitchen design firm who met his wife, Terri, through the activity. The couple live in Media. And on a recent evening, Ives and a handful of other volunteers, including Frederick Pye, from Germantown-Mount Airy, and Tony Arena, of Audubon, N.J., got together at Archer-Epler to continue organizing and cataloging the collection.

Visitors from elsewhere in the drum corps world that evening included John Crocken, a drumstick maker from Baltimore. He had driven up to see the collection and deliver a freshly made persimmon-wood pair to Joe Marrella.

"It's not just the quantity (Ives) has got," said Marrella, a South Philly native and active member of several drum corps, who bought the sticks from Crocken in order to donate them to the museum.

"When you look at the pieces in the collection, the memories flood," said Marrella, who lives in Marlton. "The items are attached to so many of the people who went through the activity."

Pye, a professional educator and musician who grew up the son of a singing preacher, remembers sitting as close as possible to the TV screen during football halftime shows he watched as a kid in Mount Airy.

But seeing the 1975 world championships in person at Franklin Field cinched the deal.

"It was the music, the pageantry, the color guards, the flags, the rifles, the honor guard … my life changed," said Pye. He later graduated from Penn State and has had a 50-year career in the activity; highlights include marching with Wisconsin's esteemed Madison Scouts and directing bands at the University of Massachusetts. He heard about Ives' collection through the drum world grapevine and got involved late last year.

"It's part of my legacy and part of my story," Pye said. "We don't have anything like this (planned) museum, but we do have many people for whom this has been part of their life journey. Each one of these drum corps is a family."

Arena, who began marching in 1966 with the Philadelphia Police Athletic League Cadets, remains active with three drum and bugle corps, a jazz band, and a choir.

"I don't know if drum corps will ever go away, but (the activity) has changed," said Arena, 66. "Now it's like an athletic event, like a sport.

Players act, do ballet and acrobatics, plus play their horn or drum. It's much more involved.

"There are just so many drum corps and so much history. It's important for generations to come to know where it started."

Another volunteer, Nathan Huxtable, is studying for a master's degree in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Riverside. A drum corps percussionist who grew up near Chicago, Huxtable is Japanese American; during World War II some of his relatives were among those the U.S. government sent to internment camps — where some of the imprisoned families organized drum corps.

"Many folks have private archives and collections, but to our knowledge Bill's is the most extensive collection in North America," Huxtable, who connected with Ives through social media, said from California.

"Many of the written documents Bill has access to are out of print and difficult to find, and many are community periodicals or primary source documents that have not been digitized or centralized. He's doing important work."

As Ives conducted a tour of Archer-Epler's three floors — stopping every few paces to offer another anecdote from a seemingly inexhaustible supply — he noted that drum corps history is integral to the history of American communities large and small.

The groups were an expression of neighborhood pride and patriotism, a source of free entertainment, and a creative outlet that led some to careers in music. The discipline, hard work, and team spirit of drum corps also helped keep him off the corner and out of trouble when he was a kid in Kensington. And the museum of his dreams will showcase the contributions people of color, of various faiths, and of different economic circumstances across the U.S. and Canada have made to the tradition.

"I'm doing this (collection and museum) to give back to my mom and dad, and out of love for the activity," said Ives, adding that the pace of progress has stepped up recently. More volunteers have come forward, and the process of applying for tax-exempt, nonprofit status necessary to begin raising money for the proposed museum is moving ahead.

Ives intends to see the project through to the end. "I'm a quarter-note bass drummer," he said. "Boom boom boom boom. Four quarter notes to a measure.

"I keep the beat."
 

Some of the hundreds of uniforms collected by Bill Ives are on display at the Archer-Epler VFW Post 979 in Upper Darby, Pa., March 15, 2021.
TOM GRALISH/THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER VIA AP