A (not so brief) HISTORY OF THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Written by Tim O’Brien
for the 1983 Reunion Dinner
To tell the story of the Golden Knights – of who they were, of what they did, and of what they were about – one would need many hours indeed. For everyone here tonight has a hundred stories – memories of the great benchmarks during the 21 years of competition – stories of triumphs and defeats, of sacrifice and hard work, and of long days spent together in the school basement – on buses and trains – on practice fields, in hotels and college dorms around the country – in the Newark Armory, the Jersey City Armory – the German Hall – Avenue C – Kean College – Ballantine’s parking lot – the Kelly Post in Union – and other places named Marinello’s, Singer’s, Kelly’s, and the Garden State in Wildwood – Rut’s Hut between parades on Memorial Day and Union City on July Fourth night. There were the crazy times – like the incredible Civil War fight on the train coming home from Miami in ’57 – the legendary food fight with Jailhouse box lunches on the bus in Minnesota in ’59 – or the disastrous attempt to feed the entire corps with buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Bordentown in ’69 when the mosquitoes got more chicken than the corps. There were the light moments. Like getting off the bus in L.A. or Florida in the ’50s and having strangers approach and ask, “Hey, where’s Al Cohen?” There were moments of brash cockiness – like the night the corps first played the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. On the program with the Corps was Danny Kaye, whose rehearsal that afternoon was running late and therefore causing the Corps to delay its own rehearsal while Kaye polished his routine. From the rear, Frankie Dalton shouted, “Who’s he? Is he a National Champ?” At the performance that evening, it was the Corps that brought the house down, not Kaye. There were the bittersweet moments. In 1957, a veteran of the Corps was kicked out of the line on the day of the American Legion Nationals in Atlantic City. But instead of sulking in seclusion, he was at mid-field on the back side of the Armory floor that night as the Corps defended its National Title indoors. Every time the Corps turned away from the stands and headed backfield, they saw their fellow Golden Knight, clad in his Corps jacket, his fists clenched, exhorting his corps onward. There were tears in his eyes. His name was Richie Paul. His brother was the Drum Major. His father was the Quartermaster. There were countless moments of solidarity and sacrifice. In 1970, the Corps was told it could not go to the VFW Nationals in Miami unless it placed 1st or 2nd in the CYO Nationals in Boston. The prize money was needed desperately. B.S. finished third that night. But in the parking lot outside of Newton, Mass., everyone began digging into their pockets. Fourteen-year-olds threw in a dollar, others gave five dollars. Instructors Dick Burns, Jack Boyko and others endorsed their Corps paychecks and handed them back. The staff and the Quartermasters emptied their wallets. An overwhelmed Father Stulb finally succumbed. “Okay, get on the buses,” he said. “It’s on to Miami.” And there were moments of monumental tension. At the American Legion Nationals in ’59 in Minneapolis, there was no retreat. The Corps had to simply sweat out waiting for the posting on a board of the score of the Chicago Cavaliers, who had put on a magnificent show. The official with the Cavalier score slowly rounded the track in a jeep. Gradually he ascended a ladder and moved the name of every corps down one slot. He put his hand on the card in first place. The card read, simply, B.S. The he slowly smiled and removed his hand, slotting the Cavies card into second place. Those in gold roared; those in green walked away in silence. At the ’63 Legion Nationals in Miami, there was a retreat, but the tension was just as high. It was broken, though, just as the announcer was about to read the scores. After the crowd had fallen silent, a lone voice thundered from the upper stands, “Give it to SAC and forget it.” It was B.S.’s ninth National title. It would be their last. There was a poignant, almost prophetic moment in 1969. H. Worth Ake, the writer for Drum Corps News, had come down to a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in November. As the Eastern columnist for the publication, his interest was understandable. Equally understandable was that his son, who accompanied him, would be interested in joining the Corps. Blessed Sacrament in ’69 had just logged another good year – a second in the World Open, a third in the Legion Nationals, a fifth in the VFW finals, and another dozen victories to go with the 200 plus first places already registered since the Corps first stepped off the line in 1952. What Worth Ake saw that day, though, was not understandable to him. He seemed perplexed as he looked about the Blessed Sacrament Schoolyard. His expression telegraphed his thoughts – “This is the home of one of America’s greatest corps?” He eyed the graffiti, the bars on the windows, the chain on the door,·the peeling paint. He was in the ravaged South Ward of post-riot Newark where hard times prevailed. Descending to the school basement, he entered what was the Corps headquarters, known for 20 years as “The Drum Room”. This 15 by 40-foot crevice was indeed headquarters. It was also the equipment room, the wardrobe room, the trophy room, and, yes, the drum room. What couldn’t be stashed on the shelves above, or stacked beneath the double set of uniforms, was squeezed into a cabinet below. On the top floor, the color guard was doing close-order on a splintered wood floor. Drummers were pounding on a worn lunch table. Horn players were scattered, some learning a new arrangement, others learning each other’s names. That’s how November had become then – when your membership came from Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Long Island, all five New York City boroughs, the Jersey Shore, and all over North Jersey. The four-man snare line, in fact, represented four states; yet, despite that handicap, they were second to none. When practice would end that night, everything belonging to the Corps not carried away would be locked up in that tiny room, which was literally part of the school’s boiler room. The younger Ake did not return the following Sunday. Looking back, it is easy to understand why an outsider would have been so perplexed. For how does one explain how a drum corps could continue to be a National contender with such a small staff, without proper facilities, no longer having parish backing, without a feeder corps, and devoid of any financial support. Yet despite all those obstacles, the following season – 1970 – saw the Corps in the black and gold right there in August, again challenging for National honors. To answer that perplexing question, and to fathom that indomitable spirit of ’69 and ’70, one must return to the roots of that spirit. It all began rather modestly, shortly after World War II, when Father John Kiley started a parish drum corps. The big show in those days was the Out Lady of Fatama rallies in Newark School Stadium. The Blessed Sacrament Cadets wore purple then and had girls in their ranks. Soon, Marty Nolan became the director, later to be joined by co-director Vinnie Walsh. Eventually, the girls were dropped, and the colors were changed to black and gold. In 1951 a young curate from Jersey City was assigned to the parish. His name was Rev. Robert F. Garner. He quickly transformed the Corps into a competing unit, something that many of its members had wanted for two years. But if people began noticing in late’52, they started to take a harder look in ’53. At a show in Reading, Pennsylvania, Blessed Sacrament, which by then had taken the name The Golden Knights, defeated a fine line-up of Pennsylvania competitors Nusa O’Hara Todd, Osmond, West Reading, and Liberty Bell – to post its first win ever. Father Garner was ecstatic – the Corps celebrated its success with a swim at Seaside Heights the next day. In’54 the Golden Knights came of age, knocking off the great powers of drum corps one by one – St. Vincent’s, Holy Name, St. Joseph’s, and Audubon. At the VFW Nationals in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, that year, B.S. capped its dramatic rise to the top by capturing its first national championship, only 26 months after its first contest, a feat never duplicated. After Philadelphia, the Corps promptly proved it was no fluke by traveling to Washington, where on a high school field, it won the Legion Crown. Remarkably, it was the first time the Corps would defeat all of its top competitors on the same night. They were dubbed “The Cinderella Corps”. But that label began to pale in ’55 when the kids from Clinton Hill kept winning. The Cinderella label was finally laid to rest at a place called Flamingo Park in Miami. There the Corps defended its Legion Championship in storybook style. The odds were tough, for not only had St. Vinnies put on a near perfect performance, but B.S. was drenched in a thundershower while waiting in full uniform to compete. But the sun broke through and the G.K. truck rolled up and swung open its doors to display another set of uniforms. That ’55 performance was vintage B.S. It produced another title, and it solidified a Blessed Sacrament trademark – great jobs in late August when they counted. ’56 was the year of California – a season of 15 wins and another Legion Title in LA’s Coliseum. Now they called the Corps “The Golden Robots”. So good were they, that after traveling 3,000 miles in five days from LA, they appeared at the Dream Contest in Jersey City and, with no practice and with no one touching any equipment, they posted a 90 to win handily. In ’57 the titles were lost, but not without a fight. B.S. put on outstanding shows at both Nationals. Perhaps emblematic of the character of that corps was the Bayonne contest. After losing to Vinnies for 8 straight weeks, and with several substitutes in the line that night, B.S. upset St. Vinnies before their home crowd. What can you say about the ’58 Golden Knights – winning 20 of 21, taking both Nationals and both States, this was no doubt one of the finest drum corps ever fielded. It was the year of the new uniforms, of National Emblem, of the cross-through drill. It was the year fans paid their money just to watch Blessed Sacrament. The ’59 Corps lost but four contests, crowning the year with the Legion Championship in Minneapolis. The following season – the first without Bill Hayes, was supposed to be a rebuilding year, for many of the old timers had left. The entire baritone line, for instance, was new. But the 1960 edition of B.S. took 18 out of 19 – and bested every top corps nationwide in the finals of the VFW Nationals in Detroit. In ’61 and ’62 the gold machine rolled on – winning 14 shows in each year, placing second and fourth respectively in the VFW finals in those two seasons. In 1963 the Corps swept across the East Coast, posting win upon win after carrying out what had become a July Fourth tradition by putting on a hot and winning performance in Union City. B.S, never looked back, winning 21 straight contests. Included in this streak was the Legion title won for the sixth time, and the first World Open, where “Miss World Open”, wearing a gold gown, presented the Corps with a trophy for “every caption”. The following years would see B.S. remain a national contender. But, as the problems mounted with the demise of the parish as it once was, as families continued moving to the suburbs, there would be no more titles. There were, however, more heroic efforts – such as the World Open in ’64 when the Corps won the preliminaries but placed a close second in the finals – the super jobs performed in’66, both at the VFW National in Jersey City and the Legion championship in Washington – the ’67 performance at the Legion National in Boston – the ’69 Legion contest in Atlanta, where again B.S. captured the prelims only to be turned back by a narrow spread that night. There were victories in each of those years. And some were special – the ’68 Corps lost its last 7 shows, yet in Wildwood captures the VFW States – and the ’66 Dream, when the Knights defeated the country’s two super corps of that year, the’ Cavaliers and the Troopers. The 1970 edition of the Corps was the last great corps, one that lost the VFW finals by only two points, and came within a hair’s breadth of winning the World Open. in ’71 and ’72 the Golden Knights strove against increasingly insurmountable odds to maintain this rich heritage. The last victory was recorded by the ’72 Corps, which, in fact, did carry on the tradition by steadily improving and by capturing several first places. But it was the 1970 Dream that BS seemed to have been given its final tribute by the drum corps world. When the Corps started into its exit at Roosevelt Stadium that humid afternoon, the ovation by the 20,000 fans, which had been building throughout the show, was so loud and so sustained that the final song, “Free Again”, simply could not be heard above the din. Maybe they sensed that they were witnesses to the end of an era – it seemed a final salute to a legend – and it was, my friends, the last hurrah, the final Dream B.S. would win – the beginning of the end of a dream begun 20 years earlier in a rectory on Van Ness Place. For the record: The Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights were winners of 9 National Championships – 19 State Championships during a period when New Jersey was considered the Mecca of the Drum Corps World and 11 Dream Contest titles in 14 appearances – a record still unsurpassed. The Corps won the first World Open – it placed first or second in more than 80 percent of all contests from ’54 on. It won 9 of 13 Nationals from ’54 through ’63, and between ’54 and ’70, it placed in the top 4 in 18 out of 21 nationals, From ’58 through ’63 B.S. placed first 112 times in 135 contests. The last contest appearance was in Ridgefield in September of ’72. The last song played was “When You Wish Upon A Star”. The tradition that began on a June day in Wildwood ended on a chilly April afternoon in the upstairs of the German Hall. The Corps simply did not have the people or resources to put out a competitive unit. Fred Dooley and John Demko put the question to the 30 loyal members there. Should the Corps continue as a Class B corps? The answer was painful but unanimous – “NO”. So the Corps that garnered personal accolades from President Eisenhower and Senator Humphrey – the corps that played Carnegie Hail and the Felt Forum – the corps that introduced innovation ranging from the jazz concert to the rudimental bass – the corps that won 240 shows and had traveled more than 30,000 miles, was finally hanging up the “Gold and Black”. It used to be said in those halcyon days that B.S. owns the dream. Know also that all those young men and women who marched with the Golden Knights kept faith with that original dream of Father Garner’s – that they show character and always be the best that they could possibly be. The Golden Knights were inducted into the Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 1965. Ironically, in their final season, they became a founding member corps of Drum Corps International. So let us raise our glasses to the greatest drum corps that ever took the field – a toast to the Golden Knights!