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.
Optimists Alumni rehearsing (January, 2003)
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.
Optimists Alumni 2003 reunion picnic
Optimists Alumni at the 2004 G.A.S. show
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! We now wore the "traditional Alumni Corps Uniform" - Golf Shirts, Black Pants and Baseball Caps with the corps Crest". Performaing 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.
Optimists Alumni, Waterloo Band Festival, 2006
(photo by Peter McCusker)
Alumni Corps, May, 2007
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.
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.
Alumni Corps, Oshawa, 2009
Optimists Alumni Corps (Jeju South Korea, 2019)
2016 - Present
A meeting was held in September of 2015 to decide the future of the corps. Many members wanted to keep going so the Corps decided to reinvent itself.
The G bugles were replaced with traditional Bb instruments. Our music was s fresh new repertoire of New Orleans Mardi Gras style. The cadet style uniforms were temporarily put aside for Mummers Costumes to support the new show theme. A goal was set to compete at DCI Soundsport in 2016, and that's what we did, successfully returning home with a Gold Medal.
In 2019, the Band enjoyed a highly successful return engagement to Jeju, South Korea, continuing to use the Mummers costumes and supplemented with Hawaiian shirts with black shorts for venues where weather was an issue. The green cadet uniform was also brought back as the third option which was used throughout the fall/winter parade season.
In 2020, we had panned on a California tour through the late June drum corps competition season there, however, the pandemic of 2020 has shutdown all of our performance opportunities. Expectation is that this will resume in 2021 or 2022 when conditions allow.
We will continue to have fun, to enjoy the company of friends, to entertain others and, of course, to strive for excellence.