For Pioneer, 2011 Will Be Golden Celebrating a half-century of music, passion, and determination on and off the field.
n its 50th year, the World Class Pioneer Drum & Bugle Corps of Milwaukee, Wis., continues to embody the values that inspired a 19-year-old named Roman Blenski to become one of the group’s first instructors back in that inaugural season of 1961. When St. Patrick’s Church in Milwaukee decided to create a corps, Blenski and two p e er s f rom t he I mp er i a l s of Norwood Park in Chicago helped create the Imperials of St. Patrick. Blenski assumed the role of brass instructor, while his colleagues Lee Boudreau and Gar y Czapinsk i taught the drummers and the color guard, respectively “We had no equipment,” Blenski recalls. “Lee collected his drumsticks and sticks he had from some of his friends, and Gary would borrow all the broomsticks from the janitors.” Blenski collected mouthpieces from local music stores and repair shops so each player could have one. “We don’t do this today, of course, but then we’d pass the horn down” so everyone could have a chance to play. As the corps slowly began to acquire used instruments, 100 or so sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade players—most with little prior musical experience—devoted themselves to learning to work together. “All the kids came from St. Patrick’s grade school,” Blenski says. “They all lived in the neighborhood. We had an Irish name, but the majority of kids were Spanish,
and the three instructors were all Polish.” Access to nearby St. John’s Gymnasium meant the instructors could entice their charges to practice by following rehearsal with a little basketball. The Imperials remained largely a neighborhood affair until the early ’70s. As expenses mounted, they merged with the Thunderbolts, a nearby corps in similar straits. The united entity — which briefly went by the name “The Thing” — eventually earned sponsorship and a new name from the Pioneer Box and Container Corp. “ We’ve c h a n g e d w it h t he times,” Blenski says. “Every 10 years there are different variables. The biggest variable I see today is the amount of time we rehearse. And we don’t have kids who stay with us 10 or 11 years anymore because we recruit them at 15 or 16 instead of 9 or 10.” Yet Blenski notes one important connection to the corps’ earliest days. “We use Irish music as kind of our identity [and we] tend to lean toward being an audience appeal-type corps.” Another connection to the past is a staff that, while larger, is as dedicated to corps’ mission as the group’s pioneering trio. “There are tons of people who volunteer their time and energy. A lot of our alumni come back and teach. These are the kinds of people who have really kept the corps in the forefront.” pioneer-corps.org
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