March On! ...the history of the
Toronto Optimists Drum & Bugle Corps
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Optimists Alumni Drum Corps
The story begins in 2002 when it was announced that the 2004 G.A.S. show would be held in Hamilton, Ontario, a mere 40 miles from Toronto. Over a brew (or two) some former members of the Toronto Optimists and the Seneca Optimists contemplated the creation of an Alumni Corps that would perform once, at G.A.S. 2004. The plan was to gather together a bunch of former Optimists, find some instruments to use, practice, perform at the G.A.S. show in Hamilton then disappear forever.
With a lot of work they managed to borrow instruments and gather together enough bodies to form the nucleus of the corps. The new Corps included former Toronto Optimists, former Seneca Optimists and representatives of many other corps! Special thanks go to Simcoe United Alumni who loaned us a great many of the horns that we used.
Having gathered instruments and bodies to play them, they needed to develop the talent that had lain dormant for so many years (some members hadn't touched an instrument in over 50 years!). Terry Warburton, who marched with the Toronto Optimists in the 1960s, joined the corps and commuted from his home in Florida. Terry manufactured mouthpieces and he donated mouthpieces to all of the brass players.
Putting it together
Kevin Matthews became the music director and one of his tasks was to get those lips in shape. He did a fantastic job. When it came to music the corps decided to focus exclusively on Truman Crawford arrangements. Why? In the 1960s most of The Optimists music was arranged by Truman Crawford. In fact, there was only one other drum corps that played more Crawford arrangements than the Optimists and that was Truman's own corps, the Chicago Royal Airs!
Fairly quickly the members coalesced into a group focused on doing a great job at G.A.S.. The enthusiasm and camaraderie that developed was amazing. That made a big difference because preparing for the show was time consuming. In addition to personal practice time there were rehearsals every Thursday plus full weekend rehearsals at least once a month. In between official rehearsals, the various sections would schedule meetings at members' homes to clean up the music for their section. After a great deal of blood, sweat and tears (and many choice words) their work bore fruit. In September 2003, at a Toronto Optimists – Seneca Optimists alumni picnic, the Optimists Alumni Corps first performed — to a very enthusiastic and, dare I say, extremely partisan audience! By the way, a big Thank You goes to the Preston Scout House Alumni Band who graced us with a performance at that picnic. It was a delight to see and hear them.
As time marched on we continued to gain more members. By the time the G.A.S. show finally arrived we had about 50 horns and 30 people on percussion! That corps was larger than any with which I had marched in my five years with the Toronto Optimists. We now wore the "traditional Alumni Corps Uniform" - Golf Shirts, Black Pants and Baseball Caps with the corps Crest". Performing at G.A.S. was an amazing experience! For those who are interested there is a video on YouTube showing the Optimists Alumni at G.A.S. 2004.
The Optimists Alumni had been created to perform at G.A.S. then disband. Life, it appears, wanted something else. The Corps had already performed at a show sponsored by St Joe's and they had invitations to march in a number of parades. Preparing for G.A.S whetted the appetites of many corps members and they wanted more. Somehow that "one show" grew into a second show, a third and more. The borrowed instruments were replaced with a set of well-used horns and a new set of custom-made drums was purchased.
An organization without goals is likely to wallow in lethargy and this organization did not want that to happen. The next goal was to perform at the DCA Alumni Spectacular.
Over the next couple of years the Corps continued to work hard and improve. Some members who had joined strictly to perform at GAS did not want a long-term commitment and left. At the same time, some people liked what they saw and joined us. Enthusiasm remained high because every year the Corps had more opportunities to perform.
In 2006 we performed outside as part of the MuchMusic Awards. For those of you who don't know, this is an annual awards show broadcast on Much to honour the year's best music videos. Performers at this show included featured performances by Fall Out Boy, Hedley and Rihanna. This was definitely not what we were about (newspaper reports mentioned the Geriatric Marching Band) but it was fun and a BIG step out of the box.
Each year we added more musical numbers, now from a variety of arrangers. As our musical skills improved the arrangements became more challenging and more interesting. We knew the corps was improving and we were enjoying ourselves. All the while, in the back of our minds, was our goal — to perform at the DCA Alumni Spectacular. A corps had to be invited to perform so we knew that we had to keep improving.
2007 was a year of change and, with those changes, came a new challenge. One of those changes signalled our graduation from "novice" alumni corps to Alumni Corps. We got real uniforms – Green Cadet tunics, black pants and shakos. Gone were the Golf Shirts and Baseball caps. Together with the uniforms there was a rise in performance expectations when the goal we had set for ourselves back in 2004, after G.A.S., was finally realized.
In the Spring we were invited to perform at the 2007 DCA Alumni Spectacular. As excited as we were, this brought a new challenge. In order to perform at the Alumni Spectacular we were told that we would have to perform drill! The only marching we had been doing was in parades. Could we design a drill and perform it in the next few months? If we turned down the opportunity it might be years before we were, once again, invited. Hey, we always loved a challenge.
Jack Roberts, an Alumni Corps member and former Optimist who had written drill for the corps in the 1960s, offered his services. He designed a drill show to accompany the music we were playing. We only had a few months to remember how to march and to learn a drill. During those months we dedicated almost all of our time to drum corps. We had music rehearsals every Thursday while drill occupied two full weekends every month. Sometime we spent other days and holidays on drill. In fact, if there was a field available, we would sometimes spend post-parade time working on drill. Looking back, we were VERY dedicated.
I think that we acquitted ourselves very well at the Alumni Spectacular. Video of that show is on YouTube. Want to check out how we did? 2007 Optimists Alumni at DCA
2008 – 2015
Over the next few years the Corps continued to improve. We learned new music, new drill, did all of the other parades and shows that we had been doing as well as going to the Alumni Spectacular. In many ways, though, these next few years were a time of maintaining the status quo.
In the past we had a goal of performing at G.A.S. Once we had accomplished that we set a new goal to perform at the Alumni Spectacular. That, too, was accomplished. During these years we had no goal and it affected all that was happening. There was nothing to drive (or pull) the Corps forward. At the same time, issues like time, health and death meant that members were leaving. Unfortunately, it was a challenge finding replacements. As a result, membership started declining.
In 2014 the Alumni Corps was still doing a drill show; however, the corps only had about 18 horns and about 8 drums. In 2015 the Optimists performed once – at a show in May. Clearly it was a time to either fold or reinvent ourselves.
A meeting was held in September of 2015 to decide the future of the corps. Too many members wanted to keep going so the Corps decided to reinvent itself.
We sold off our G bugles and got traditional Bb instruments. All of our music was dropped and a new repertoire of New Orleans, Mardi Gras style, music was selected. The Cadets tunics and such were replaced by Mummers Costumes. We would no longer be a traditional drum and bugle corps. Instead, we would be a "Party Gras" Band! A goal was set and that was to compete at SoundSport in 2016.
Below are links to some recent video footage of the Optimists Alumni.
In 2016 the Optimists Alumni competed at SoundSport in Indianapolis and returned home with a Gold Medal.
In 2017 the Corps had a very successful trip to South Korea where they were very well received.
2018 saw a return to SoundSport and another Gold Medal.
In 2019, the Band enjoyed a return engagement to Jeju, South Korea.
Who knows what the future will hold? What can certainly be said is that we will continue to have fun, to enjoy the company of friends, to entertain others and, of course, to strive for excellence.