In 1972, Two Canton police officers and a local businessman had the idea to start a music program using a downtown Boys Club. So began a long and winding road that has led to four decades of entertainment and education for thousands of young people and millions of adoring fans.
Art Drukenbrod, a drummer with many of Canton’s big bands and a member of Canton’s American Legion and VFW’s national champion senior drum and bugle corps, had a vision of starting a parade corps with hopes of it leading to a competitive drum and bugle corps. In 1966, he partnered with the Canton Police Boys Club to start a unit operating out of the building. Called the Canton Police Boys Club Drum & Bugle Corps, the initial summer saw 13 members who marched in two parades. That unit lasted a few years but in 1972, Canton police officers Babe Stearn and Ralph McCauley, directors of the Canton Police Boys Club, met with Drukenbrod, who was also a successful downtown businessman, and started another parade corps. This group would stick around.
The name “Bluecoats” was born in tribute to the police department’s retired police officers with a nod to its designation as a program of the Police Boys Club. The organization operated with borrowed uniforms and competed in parades, winning their first parade and using the prize money to buy gas for the return trip to Canton. The corps made its competitive drum corps debut in 1974 with a group of young musicians hailing from Canton and surrounding Stark County.
But the road to success had to cross a bridge over troubled waters. Twice within a five-year period, the Bluecoats were unable to field any type of performance unit. Yet the members and leadership of the corps were relentless in growing and improving and in the intervening years won the U.S. Open Class A championship during the 1981 season and in the off-season fielded a competitive winter guard.
But it would be a different Canton-area businessman who would take the corps to its next level – both on and off the field. Ted Swaldo took over the reins of the organization in 1984 and stabilized the finances and management of the organization and re-invigorated relationships with the City of Canton and the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Through a mutual business contact, Swaldo brought in Larry Hershman, a respected veteran drum corps program coordinator, to spearhead the performance aspect. Hershman’s reputation within the drum corps activity brought in new designers, instructors and a new commitment to performance excellence. Significantly, he recruited more musical talent for the ranks of the corps from outside of Stark County and into the tri-state region. The Bluecoats began growing in many different facets, and in 1987 became a DCI Finalist for the first time.
Within a few short years, the corps had vaulted from open class obscurity to a top 12 unit that set the crowd on fire with power drum corps, showcased by sizzling brass, dynamic drumming and a big band tune that became legendary in the activity. Autumn Leaves, which would become the corps song, ramped up the love affair between the spectators and the corps from Canton. It was the birth of the unique, and now iconic, roar of the fans yelling “BLOO” at the conclusion of each performance. And with it, also began the need for veteran drum corps fans to share with first time spectators, “They’re not booing, they’re ‘BLOOing’!”
It is challenging to maintain any non-profit venture, let alone a highly acclaimed musical endeavor. The Bluecoats placement during the 1990s ebbed and flowed as changing design teams tried to push the corps to the next competitive level. Big Band Jazz morphed into Jazz Night Club, and by the mid 1990s thematic shows that did not revolve around a singular musical style.
Almost a decade after creating a special connection with the fans in their splash into Finals, the 1995 corps brought a new emotional response to the drum corps field. Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II, the corps Bluecoats tugged at all the emotions surrounding a nation at war. A different type of ebb and flow existed off the field during the decade, as the corps structured and restructured management in an effort to best manage a world class organization.
The structural changes in the ‘90s led to a significant change in the early 2000s. A part-time director, funded by a series of seasonal events and membership dues, was scrapped in favor of a full-time Executive Director and a continual revenue stream through a bingo operation. David Glasgow was chosen to lead the corps. Having just missed finals in 1999, the Bluecoats immediately re-established themselves as a finalist corps and fought their way back to the middle of the finalist pack and to a then-high 4th place finish in 2006.
By 2010 the Bluecoats reached new levels, finishing the season as Bronze medalists at Drum Corps International’s World Championships. It marked a new era in organization’s history where the corps was considered a perpetual contender within the activity. In 2014 the corps scratched and clawed its way one more place to a surprise finish, tilting the final placements on the last day of the season with a Silver medal finish. After finishing in third place in 2015, the 2016 Bluecoats were the Drum Corps International World Champions with their entertaining and innovative program “Down Side Up.”
Organizationally, the Bluecoats took a major step in 2011 when a building owned by the Knights of Columbus in North Canton was purchased to house the bingo operation and serve as a rental facility for banquets and meetings. Named the Champion Event Center, this new home is less five miles from the corps’ first rehearsal facility in the long-ago demolished original downtown Boys Club. While that physical distance is short, the distance the corps has traveled in so many other ways over time is lengthy and continues to grow.
THE BLUE WAY Interactive Educational Experience started in 2009 as a way for high school students and prospective future members to interact with members and staff of the corps. In what is a miniaturized two days of drum corps tour, Blue Way participants house over night with the corps at Denison University, eat out of the corps Chuck Truck and learn the techniques and even part of the current year show side-by-side with the corps. Participants come to Denison for Blue Way from not just Ohio but from around the country.
Nearly four decades after starting a parade corps, the organization has bridged out to form a competitive off-season color guard unit to compete in Winter Guard International (WGI). In 1981 the corps briefly fielded such a unit, but it did not last. In 2009 the independent winterguard unit Anthem joined with the Bluecoats to become Artistry IN BLUE. In an affiliated program, the goal of the group is to stoke the support and involvement of young performers in Northeast Ohio. Artistry IN BLUE has earned top honors at WGI and is recognized, just as the parent Bluecoats, as one of the most creative and fan-engaging units in its activity.
In the winter of 2014, alumni of the corps, which by now numbered nearly 2,000, discussed through social media the idea of starting an alumni performance ensemble as a project of the Bluecoats. Within 10 weeks the project moved from idea, to rehearsal, to its first performance at the Bluecoat’s home show in Akron under the name Rhythm IN BLUE. The goal of the unit is to provide performance opportunities for Bluecoats alumni, and to become an entertainment wing of the corps for local events that conflict with the Bluecoats competitive schedule and limited performance season. The unit’s debut in June of 2014 saw over 50 alumni bring back to life iconic tunes from the corps’ past repertoire and has performed each summer since.
In 2016 the Bluecoats ushered in an era of change to the drum corps activity, shedding the militaristic sense of a uniform. The corps hit the field in all-white with a more theatrical costumed look and the very next year most of the top 12 corps followed suit in their uniform appearance. The corps grabbed the audience with a program that felt both old and new at the same time, with music that was unknown to the activity yet felt quite familiar. The use of large props, that doubled as ramps members performed on top of and slide down from, the titled show of “Down Side Up” upended the activity and when the dust settled at DCI Finals, the Bluecoats had won their first DCI championship. It was 44 years in the making.
Today the Bluecoats boast more appearances in Drum Corps International’s elite Finals than all but six other corps in the history of the activity, one of only two corps to have finished in every top 12 placement. They also attract some of the marching activity’s best designers and instructors and enjoy promotional relationships with many of the marching music industry’s top instrument and accessory suppliers. Audition camps for the corps spread from the original downtown Boys Club in the 1970s, to the “new” Boys Club and adjoining Souers School in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to regional auditions around the nation in the 2000s. Just like a premier college athletic program attracts national talent to its campus, the Bluecoats now attract the highest national – and international – talent to Canton.
For two police officers and a downtown tailor, then later a business executive who quipped he couldn’t even hum, what is likely the finest legacy of the corps they started and renewed decades ago is the unique interaction with the audience. For no other organization is welcomed with echoes of “Blooo!” heralding the corps appearance and serving as a thunderous refrain upon its conclusion. It is built into the corps’ underlying philosophy, stated simply and elegantly in just six words: be the best you can be.
- Gold Medal – 2016 DCI World Champions
- Silver Medal 2014 DCI World Championships
- Bronze Medal 2010, 2015 DCI World Championships
- DCI World Championship Finalist: 1987 – 1998, 2000-2017
- Great Lakes Drum Corps Association Champion: 1987, 1986, 1985
- US Open Class “A” Champion: 1981
- American International Open Class “A” Champion: 1978
- Great Lakes Championship 1978
- Ohio VFW State Champion: 1977 through 1984