The concept of the drum corps traces its roots to the American tradition of the Drum and Fife from the 1800s and bugle bands of the early 1900s. Today, those drum and bugle corps have evolved, spreading throughout North America and offering a disciplined display of musical pageantry. It is from this tradition that our very own Ambassadors appeared in late 1973.
Started primarily as a street parade corps in September 1973 with Paul Ranso, and his wife, Bev, as the founding director. Mr. Ranson would guide the Ambassadors through a series of national accomplishment until 1981 when he retired and was succeeded by corps director Bob Middleton. Middleton was, at that time, the president of the Newmarket Lions, which took over sponsorship of the Ambassadors.
Ranson's idea to start the corps was presented to the Aurora Kiwanis Club by member Ray Philbey, who with his wife, Joan, also helped the early Ambassadors to get off the ground. Another notable founding member of the corps was Roy Munro, who offered valuable management services to the corps administration.
Initially, practices were held at Aurora High School Mondays and Thursdays, with 13 instructors on hand. Indoor practices were held at Meadowbrook Public School. Generally, they started in September. In May, the corps would head back outside to put the sound and marching manoeuvres together. During the winter, practice was every Tuesday and Thursday night. Saturday rehearsals were also common.
Every weekend, the Ambassadors were either competing or putting in long practice sessions, usually 12 hours at a stretch.
One year, they were unable to secure an outdoor site in Newmarket and were forced to pack their equipment and head off to a field in Kettleby. Eventually the town granted the corps the use of a recently purchased property on Mulock Drive. I would think that the Ambassadors would need a sizable property on which to execute manoeuvres, with excess sound rather than size being the major concern of the corps.
Financing was an issue for the corps, which was always hard at work on money-raising efforts, including sponsorships and weekly bingos at the Newmarket Community Centre and other special events. I am told selling citrus fruit turned out to be very profitable. The hope was to make the Ambassadors self-supporting. To be successful, you had to have good equipment. The yearly operating cost of the Ambassadors was between $75,000 and $90,000. Parents would also pitch in, making uniforms and stitching flags, driving and organizing fundraising endeavours.
The corps needed to take a different approach to recruiting to keep its numbers high enough to be in a position to compete with the big corps. The corps was marching 73 members aged 11 to 21 but preferred about 90 with 128 being the optimum number. There was roughly a 50-50 male-female split at the time.
I can remember the level of professionalism displayed by the volunteer group. We came to expect a display of semi-military preciseness, along with a high degree of musical acumen, making any appearance by the corps a visual and musical treat.
The corps was open to everyone, drawing members from Aurora, Newmarket and Bradford mostly, with those lacking formal training being trained from scratch.
While the high season for competition was spring and summer, preparation for competition and appearances took hundreds and hundreds of additional hours, a year-round endeavour.
The highlight of participation in a corps was travel to attend major competitions all around North America in front of huge crowds.
There was a huge group of volunteers behind the scenes, supporting the active participants. These volunteers were the backbone of the Ambassadors’ success.
The inclusive nature of the Ambassadors made this group a life-changing force within the community, allowing those with an interest or some musical ability an opportunity to belong to a community of like-minded individuals.
The drum corps become like a second family, developing many friendships over the years with other members, instructors and corps supporting groups largely made up of parents. Members indicated that belonging to the Ambassadors had helped them develop. If you were at all shy, the corps would help you overcome it.
The original uniform was made up of a white cowboy hat, white shirt, neckerchief, black pants or skirts and gold cummerbunds. Later they changed to royal blue shirts, crossed with white, black pants and white headgear.
High points in the corps’ history include being named Most Likely to Succeed Corps at its first public appearance at the Maid of the Mist parade in Niagara Falls, NY in June 1974. That year, the corps appeared in its first Christmas parade in Aurora.
In 1975, they participated in their first contest as a corps, becoming Canadian National junior E (Novice) champions. The next year, they brought home the title of Canadian National junior D (Bantam) champions.
In 1977, the corps moved to Newmarket under the sponsorship of the Newmarket Lions Club.
Other honours were to follow: 1978 Canadian National and Ontario Provincial C (Cadet) champions; 1979 Canadian National and Central Canada Circuit C class champions; 1980 DCI Canada C class champions (Hamilton); Canadian National C class champions (Jonquiere, QC); 1981 Canadian National B class champions; Central Canada Circuit B class champions; and placing in the top half of A class at DCI World Championships in Montreal. The intervening years brought more recognition and more titles to the corps and extensive travelling.
By 1985, they began to experience a large turnover of corps members, only competing in two contests, including the Canadian Nationals.
By 1986, reduced numbers and growing expenses facilitated an amalgamation with the Oakland Crusaders under the name of Out of the Blue.
By 1987, the Ambassadors are inactive and, in 1988, their bugles were loaned to the Dutch Boy Cadets Corps, effectively signalling the end of the Ambassadors Drum and Bugle Corps.
In an article from the Era in 1984, reporter Barbara Taylor shared an inside look at what it meant to be a corps member. Practice, parades and competitions became a way of life for the members. She, with other members of her family, saw the corps go through many changes, long practice hours, numerous bus trips and many tense high-calibre competitions. She had signed up in the fall of 1974, a year after the corps had been initiated in Aurora and spoke of her pride as the group was about to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
She expressed a thought echoed by those I interviewed for this article, that drum corps, more than any other organization or sport, required tremendous dedication. It was not just a seasonal interest but rather a way of life year-round. While the drum corps demanded a lot of the individual, it also gave back a lot. The intensity of battling stiff competition, the thrill of victory and the crush of defeat, hopefully tempered with good sportsmanship, emotions commonly experienced by marching members.
Many of the pictures accompanying this article have been provided courtesy of Gary Summers. Thank you also to Andrew Summers of Street Bistro fame, who suggested this topic, and also to Wolfgang Riel, Stirling Munro and Angela Jenkin who contributed to this article.
Sources: Ambassadors celebrate 10 seasons by Barbara Taylor, Newmarket-Aurora Era, 1984; Ambassadors: The First Six Years, by Stirling Monroe, The Ambassa-Bear News, 1979; Newmarket Centennial 1880 – 1980; Interviews with Andrew Summers, Wolfgang Riel, Stirling Munro and Angela Jenkin - 2019.
NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at firstname.lastname@example.org.