Drum and Bugle Corps Was a Lively Bunch – 1/6/2024
Written by Chris Rader
Loving to party was not a formal prerequisite of becoming a member of Wenatchee’s Drum and Bugle Corps in the 1940s through 1960s, but it sure made a guy fit in with the rest of the band. This candid assessment emerged from a recent conversation with two former members of the corps, Dick Penhallegon and Harley Hildebrand, and Jan Haven, daughter of former member Ray Dorn. They said the weekly music practices drew the band together, but the big parties several times a year deepened the friendships of the men and their wives.
“There were always parties and laughter,” Haven recalled of her parents’ entertaining during her childhood. “I don’t remember anyone without a smile on his face.” The convivial atmosphere was often lubricated by alcohol. Sometimes the parties got a bit loud, Penhallegon said. During one of these, at a home on Lake Chelan, the noise carried through the neighborhood, prompting a note in the Wenatchee Daily World’s Safety Valve (letters to the editor) that labeled the group as a Rum and Bugle Corps.
Wenatchee’s American Legion Band began in 1922. Military drum and bugle ensembles had been used in drills during World War I, so musicians who had participated in this stimulating aspect of military service wanted to continue the activity after they returned home. Drum and bugle corps were formed all across the U.S., including Cashmere. They were always comprised of veterans or active-duty servicemen. In Wenatchee, the American Legion Band played at Independence Day and Armistice/Veterans Day observances and marched in parades until America entered World War II in 1941.
After the war ended in 1945 the American Legion Band reorganized as the Drum and Bugle Corps. Penhallegon, returning to Wenatchee after serving in the Army, became a member. “As a kid I’d watch the band coming down the street in parades and always wanted to join,” he said. “I wanted to play the bass drum since it made the most noise!” Penhallegon sold automobiles in Wenatchee for 40 years, mostly Chevrolets.
Haven said her father, a Navy veteran, joined the corps in about 1946 as well. An Oldsmobile salesman at the time (later deputy Chelan County assessor), Ray Dorn played the snare drum. “The Drum and Bugle Corps always led the Apple Blossom parade,” Haven observed. “One reason it was so much fun for the guys is that they always played for celebrations!”
The young Legionnaires enjoyed the camaraderie as well as the satisfaction of mastering a song. They practiced on Wednesday evenings at the Armory, a brick building on North Mission across from today’s Shakti’s restaurant. In the late 1950s the Armory moved to Fifth Street and so did the rehearsals. Hildebrand also recalled marching in the parking lot behind the Chelan PUD building to practice for competitions. “After we finished practicing we’d go to the Legion Hall and play poker,” he said.
The annual competitions were the highlight of the band’s year. From the late 1940s till the Drum and Bugle Corps disbanded in 1967, it took part in statewide contests held at American Legion posts in various towns during early summer. “It was always around cherry picking time and we’d have a heck of a time getting John Steffens to come,” Penhallegon said. Steffens owned a large orchard on Stemilt Hill.
Penhallegon said the competitions were judged by Marines who were sticklers for precision. “Everything had to be an absolutely straight line. The Marines would watch the lines and see that our turns were made in perfect time.” Each drum and bugle corps would take its turn marching, playing six or seven songs, with a “concert” in the middle where the musicians would stand still and deliver their best number. Sousa marches and patriotic songs were the order of the day.
“We won the state championship in 1961,” Hildebrand recalled. “We turned drum and bugle corps music around that year by playing ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses.’ After that, they all went modern.”
Hildebrand, who managed the Sears store in Wenatchee, joined Wenatchee’s Drum and Bugle Corps in 1952. He had bought himself a bugle in eighth grade in Bremerton and taught himself to play it. With the Wenatchee group he played second bugle. “My bugle had a rotary valve and could play half notes,” he said. “That was important when we began playing popular music.” Besides first and second bugle players there were baritone and bass bugles; snare drums, tenor drums and a bass drum; two on cymbals; and a glockenspiel. This is an instrument resembling a vertical xylophone, played with mallets. Optometrist Louis Crollard was Wenatchee’s glockenspiel player.
The band had as many as 32 members, including the drum major or conductor. Gordy Isaacson had a long stint as drum major, marching in front wearing a large white hat and hoisting a staff called a mace to control the tempo. Herb Johns, Ray Dorn and A.G. Tieman (band director at Wenatchee High School) also took turns leading the group. Swanee Wood was drum majorette with the corps for years. The American Legion also had a women’s drill team that participated in parades and statewide competitions. “They were really good; they were probably better than we were,” Penhallegon said. Women were admitted to the Legion if their fathers or husbands were members.
In the 1950s and ‘60s the Wenatchee corps participated in parades and festivals all over the state and Kelowna, B.C. The men paid their own transportation and expenses, though sometimes the American Legion would pay for a bus. The men would sleep on cots at fire halls or occasionally rent hotel rooms. On the way to Walla Walla one year, the band members were having a beer or two on the bus when Wilder Jones became a little woozy. “He opened the window and threw up – and his glasses fell off,” Penhallegon said. “When he told us that, Bud Cadman said, ‘Don’t worry, I made a mark here on the side of the bus so we can find ‘em when we come back!’ The bus kept speeding along. When we got to the Elks Club in Walla Walla, Jones came through the door, couldn’t see a thing. ‘There’s girls in there, I can hear ‘em!’ he said, and we all cracked up.”
“We had a good time, all right,” Hildebrand agreed. “Those were great days.”
For more stories like these, visit our front desk to pick up the latest issue of Confluence Magazine.
Please note: This story was originally published in Confluence Magazine in the Fall edition of 2011. In an effort to preserve these stories, the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center will be posting these stories on the museum’s official blog.