March On! ...the history of the
Toronto Optimists Drum & Bugle Corps
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
In 1976 a merger took place between the Toronto Optimists and the Seneca Princemen. The new corps was called the Seneca Optimists. This corps accomplished something that no other corps had managed to do – in its very first year of existence they made the top 12 and joined the ranks of the DCI elite!
How the Seneca Optimists began
The beginning of all this had its roots in 1975. Al Tierney and Wolfgang Petschke, directors of the Optimists and Princemen, were watching a competition. They observed that without size no corps had much of a chance of getting anywhere in DCI. Unfortunately neither of their corps was large enough to compete at the top levels of DCI. From there, it was a short step to discussing a merger. Many details had to be ironed out, politically as well as technically.
In some quarters, this was regarded as a takeover of one corps by a bigger Corps. Had it been seen as such, it would not have worked as well as it did, with executive and members of both units meshing almost immediately and working smoothly, together. There was some dissatisfaction, which resulted in a falling away of some people.
What helped all this to happen was the selection of a uniform distinct from that of either of the founding Corps. A brilliant yellow, cadet-style uniform, replaced the green of the Optimists and the red of the Princemen. If any tears were shed, they were not evident. What was evident was a common desire to get on with it, win Nationals, make D.C.I. These goals fuelled the machine and inspired the events of the next few years.
From the first day, there was much enthusiasm. Attendance at winter and spring rehearsals averaged 90% and this helped the program move forward at a fast pace. Numbers even grew a bit, as others, from outside, were attracted. Anyone could join; you did not have to be from the original Corps.
The Seneca Optimists had a local rival, the Oakland Crusaders, who had taken 6th place in the 1975 DCI finals and the competition between these two corps promised to be interesting. They met in competition for the very first time in June of 1976. This was also the first field show for the Seneca Optimists. Seneca won that contest. A week later, at a contest in Waterloo, the Seneca Optimists once again beat Oakland. The Crusaders won the next competition which was in Ajax; however, Seneca beat them the following day in Peterborough. For a new corps, the Seneca Optimists were off to a very good start.
When they began competing in the USA the Seneca Optimists started off well. They finished third in Michigan City, just over 6 points behind Phantom Regiment and about 4.5 behind the 27th Lancers. They did, however, beat both the Cavaliers and the Blue Stars. As the summer progressed it was clear from the scores from other contests that some their competitors were improving more rapidly. In an August 10th contest in Pontiac Michigan they placed 5th. This time, however, they were behind the Cavaliers but ahead of the 27th Lancers.
DCI arrived and the Seneca Optimists placed 11th in the prelims; however, scores were tight and they were less than a point away from the 8th place corps. Seneca moved up one spot in the finals for a 10th place finish. This was an exceptionally good outcome for a corps in its very first year of competition.
Seneca Optimists' 1977 show included the Finale from Gustav Mahler's 7th Symphony, Children's Dance, a West Side Story medley, Drum solo and Pippin. Mahler's 7th, the only holdover from 1976, had been modified for 1977. Congas and bongos were added to the percussion section. One challenge that arose was the West Side Story Medley being played for concert. It didn't arrive until the Victoria Day weekend (late May) and the Corps' first competition was on June 3rd, only 2 weeks away.
Oakland Crusaders pulled out of that first show because they weren't ready. The Seneca Optimists, although rough, handily beat their closest Canadian competitor in their first two contests. Their next two contests were in the USA and they came second in both, about 2 points behind the Garfield Cadets. In late June they met the Oakland Crusaders for the first time and beat them by over 6 points. 1977 was looking pretty good!
Seneca came in 6th place at DCI East, beating Garfield by over 3 points. The next day, though, at the CYO Nationals they were again 6th but less than a point ahead of Garfield. The next couple of contests had Seneca about two points behind the leaders, Madison and Phantom Regiment. In early August, Seneca placed 3rd at DCI North, behind 27th Lancers and the first place corps, Phantom Regiment. This Corps was doing very well!
Two days later the Seneca Optimists won the US Open in Marion, OH, the first Canadian corps to win this show. Interestingly, the Cardinals of Precious Blood won the Class "A" Division so it was a double win for Canada. My recollection is that there were a bunch of rain delays during the show. I do remember the post-win celebration - BBQ steaks, potatoes and salad at 1:00 am! (Thankfully the corps had a day off before their next competition.)
In a couple of shows leading up to finals Seneca placed 3rd, behind 27th Lancers and the first place corps, Phantom Regiment. In another they were in second place, 4 points behind the Santa Clara Vanguard. Seneca placed 9th at DCI prelims. In spite of taking top drums at prelims the Oakland Crusaders never made the finals; however, during the finals they sat in the stands, loudly cheering for Seneca who moved up one place to finish in 8th place. Audiences loved the parachute routine near the end of the show.
With top twelve placings in each of its two years of existence this corps was promising to be a real powerhouse!
At the end of 1977 things could not have looked better for this Corps. If nothing had changed, they could have carried on where they had left off, probably surpassing the accomplishments of last year. Unfortunately, something did change in ways that counted most. After the 1977 season the Corps lost almost half of its marching members! In addition, they had another serious problem and that was money. Two of the requirements for a top-level DCI corps are members and money. This year looked challenging.
The corps had multiple contests scheduled for 1978; however, they did not have sufficient members to compete. After much thought and discussion a solution was found. Someone mentioned the Peterborough Krescendos. They had moved from the "B" division to the "A" class, perhaps before they were ready. The corps was taking a sabbatical from competition for one year. Meetings were held to discuss having their members march with the Seneca Optimists for one year, after which they would return to their own corps. Members of the Krescendos were quite interested since this might be their only opportunity to march in a DCI corps. An agreement was reached and details were worked out. Perhaps things would have been different had these arrangements been made earlier; however, all of this happened in May!
Members of the two corps smoothly meshed together. They worked very hard to learn the music and the drill. They did their absolute best; however, the challenge of beginning a DCI show in May was monumental! The corps had a tough year and they ended up in 23rd place in DCI prelims. Still, should be very proud of all that they accomplished. They took on an impossible task and did their absolute best. No one could ask for more.
The Seneca Optimists disbanded after the 1978 season.
A much more comprehensive history of the Seneca Optimists can be found in Colin Hedworth's book "From Toronto... The Optimists!".
Other Material relating to the Seneca Optimists
- Competition Video: 1976 DCI (at DCI in Philadelphia, PA)
- Competition Video: 1977 DCI (at DCI in Denver, CO)
- Slideshow: 1976 (uses the 1976 show as a musical back-drop)
- Slideshow: 1977 (uses the 1977 show as a musical back-drop)
- Slideshow: 1978 (uses the 1978 show as a musical back-drop)
- Recording: 1976 (at DCI in Philadelphia, PA)
- Recording: 1977 (at DCI in Denver, CO)
- Recording: 1978 (at the Canadian Nationals)
- Scores from contests that included the Seneca Optimists
- March 1976 article from Drum Corps World about the creation of the Seneca Optimists
- Article about the 1978 Seneca Optimists that was published in "The City" (a publication of the Toronto Star)