The Optimists Alumni Drum & Bugle Corps
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|While the York Lions Drum Corps was only around for a few years, its members are still around, playing in the Optimists Alumni, CADRE, DCAT and other groups. Dave Kirton (right) and Joe Lasko (left), both former members of York Lions, march in the Optimists Alumni. Now, if I could only get my brother Pete, another proud York alumnus, to join!|
A History, by Gord Moffatt,
York Lions Drum Corps, also known as The White Knights, had a relatively short but quite lively existence. Formed in 1961 and disbanded in 1966, the corps managed to cram a lot of travel and improvement into five short competitive seasons. The corps operated out of the Borough of York, a suburb of the City of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
York Lions, about 1964
The corps would not have existed without its founder and driving force, Doug Saunders. Doug had been the Director of the Leaside Lions Drum Corps (Jungle Kings). There are some question about Doug’s departure from Leaside, but he was instrumental in convincing the York Lions Club to start a new drum corps in what was then the Borough of York. York Lions Club had previously sponsored the very successful 180th Mosquito Squadron Air Corps, so they were aware of the needs of a competitive drum corps and readily provided the tools necessary to start the new corps. Throughout the fall of 1961 the corps rehearsed and recruited. By the start of the 1962 competitive season, the York Lions Drum and Bugle Corps was ready to take the field.
In the early 1960s, every small town in southern Ontario seemed to have a drum corps, usually sponsored by a service club, local branch of the Canadian Legion, or some other military-based organization. York Lions joined this large fraternity, entering in the Junior B competitive circuit, an equivalent to today’s Division II junior corps. There was no touring required in that era so that corps could select when and where they wished to compete based to their budgets. In the normal traveling circuit were such corps as the Brantford Belltones, Trafalgar Patrolmen, Columbus (Toronto) Simcoe Optimists and Hamilton Optimists (later to become Hamilton Conqueror). The York Lions finished 1962 in third place in the Canadian Nationals. Future Drum Corps Hall of Famer Doug Moffat was the drum major of that first York Lions corps.
1963 became a successful building year for the corps. The White Knights (as they were beginning to be called due to the white uniforms with purple and gold trim) began to dominate the circuit and by the close of the season had captured the Junior B National title. As a Lions Club sponsored corps, the corps had numerous parade and concert obligations to fulfill. One of the most desirable was a trip to the annual Lions International Convention, which in 1963 was held in Miami, Florida. The corps traveled two days via charter bus to Florida, arriving somewhat the worse for wear, but nonetheless managing to capture the coveted parade championship in scorching June heat.
The corps was clearly good enough by 1964 to move up to the Junior A circuit with perennial powerhouses Toronto Optimists and De La Salle. Although competitive throughout the season, the White Knights found National Championships to be a very humbling experience as they finished fourth. Toronto Optimists, De La Salle, and Sarnia Sertomanaires took the top three spots. For the first time in their short history the corps was not at or even close to the top. However, the corps was again fortunate to be sponsored by the Lions Club and traveled to Los Angeles, California, for the International Convention, where they again captured the best parade unit title. Of course, the Lions Club did not cover the total cost of all these trips. Corps members sold chocolate bars, raffled tickets, and conducted various other fund-raising activities to help defray the costs.
York Lions, about 1965
1965 was a truly watershed year for the corps. With enhanced instruction, professional musical scores from some of the activities’ finest arrangers, and an influx of personnel, the corps truly became a serious contender. Help came from such esteemed sources as Fred Johnston, Ted Key, Vinnie Radford, and John Sazzo, some of whom are now World Drum Corps Hall of Famers. The corps again finished fourth at the Nationals in Toronto’s Varsity Stadium but the quality of the corps had risen significantly, and the gaps between first and fourth had shrunk considerably. Sarnia Sertomanaires had unfortunately left the scene, but a new Quebec corps called La Salle Cadets filled the gap quite nicely, proving to be a very strong contender as they finished third. The big Lions Club trip of 1965 turned out to be a little anticlimactic as the convention was held in Toronto that year. Nonetheless, the corps again took top honors and participated in many local public appearances over the Lions Club week.
1966 was the last year of the corps’ existence, and truly marvelous one it was. The highlights included a fourth straight championship at the Lions International Convention in New York City, a very strong third-place finish at the Nationals in Montreal’s Autostade stadium, and a win over De La Salle at a mid-season show in Port Hope, Ontario.
The White Knights folded after the 1966 season due to the heavy costs associated with running a drum corps. Members spread throughout the local drum corps market, some going to the Toronto Optimists and De La Salle to finish out their junior careers, others migrating to local senior corps such as Canada’s Marching Ambassadors and the Canadian Commanders. Some drum corps fans would say the Ambassadors’ 1967 Nationals win was heavily influenced by the influx of well-trained York personnel.