The group was called “farmers” at one point, although the phrase was offered in respect because it was obvious the group was growing something special.
And a Lutheran Home at Topton resident was right there at the beginning.
In fact, Bruce E. Englehart, an independent living resident at Topton, recently received a Visionary Award from the Berks Arts Council for “his vision, dedication and commitment as a founding member of the Reading Buccaneers,” an all-age or “senior drum and bugle corps” based in Reading, Pennsylvania.
As a young man, Englehart played the soprano bugle as a member of the Temple Cadets, one of the most elite junior corps in Berks County, until he “aged out” at the age of 21 in 1952. But he continued a close friendship with fellow musicians George Price, Roy Miller and Francis Chupick even as he served four years in the U.S. Navy, two of them during the Korean War.
The four were committed to creating a senior corps and began distributing flyers and business cards that declared: “Watch out for the Jolly Rogers.”
In 1957, the group, along with Carl Bagenstose (a member of several Reading Corps) and Ron Fisher (a member of the West Reading Police Cadets Drum & Bugle Corps), held its first meeting for anyone interested in joining the new corps. “Everyone agreed on a nautical theme,” Englehart recalls, “and when the name Reading Buccaneers was suggested, everyone immediately accepted it.” Although Chupick was instrumental in helping to create the new group, he moved to New Jersey for a teaching position before he could join.
The Greater Reading VFW #179 backed a loan for the purchase of equipment and the group of approximately 40 men got to work. While the majority of corps at the time never made it, Englehart says the founders “wanted to create a top-notch corps with dedicated and talented people to compete with the best drum and bugle corps.”
Practicing at least twice a week, the Buccaneers started playing at concerts, parades and exhibitions. “You had to be invited to the competitions,” Englehart explains, “and early on the Reading Buccaneers made a name for themselves and built a reputation. Then we got our big break. A corps group pulled out of a competition in Jersey City at the last minute. They called us, and within a few days, we were competing.”
Soon, the Buccaneers were competing throughout the Northeast—at events and venues in Maryland, New York, the District of Columbia and, of course, Pennsylvania—nearly every weekend from late May to early September. They played nautical music such as “Hands Across the Sea,” “Anchors Away” and their signature tune, “Beyond the Sea.” The “Bucs” won the VFW/American Legion championship three years straight from 1960 through 1962.
When the Berks County-based corps began winning competitions, Englehart says, “The city boys from New York called us ‘the farmers,’ but said that’s okay because these guys are growing things. They grew to respect us as we climbed the ladder one competition at a time.”
And competitions then were rigorously judged, Englehart explains: “There were six judges on the field. Two judged the horns, two judged the drums and two judged the marching. Each corps began the competition with 100 points. As the field judges noted mistakes, they gave the corps a tick (which deleted one-tenth of a point). There was also a judge in the stands who judged the general effect—how it all came together.”
“Once you get the drum corps in your heart, it never goes away.”
Today, Englehart has many wonderful recollections of that time. One time, for example, during a field contest in Maryland, the sky grew blacker and blacker until a thunderstorm descended upon the competition. The Buccaneers continued to play as long as they could, and the fans continued to watch them—rain and all—until the Buccaneers left the field.
Englehart also will never forget the first time the Bucs beat the Hawthorne Caballeros out of New Jersey, one of the best corps competing at the time. “I really wanted to beat them,” he says.
But winning competitions was nothing unusual for the Bucs. The “superbowl” of drum corps competition, the Drum Corps Associates World Championship, is held every Labor Day weekend. The Buccaneers won the first one in 1965 and have since won a total of 14. During the last 12 years, the group won the title 10 times. In fact, the Buccaneers received the Berks Arts Council's 2017 Pagoda Award for Excellence in the Arts. Part of the 27th annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest, the event coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Buccaneers and the thirtieth anniversary of the Alumni Corps.
The only surviving founder of the Reading Buccaneers, Englehart stayed with the corps for 18 years. In 1973, he became a charter member of the Buccaneer Alumni Corps, for which he continues to play the bugle. In 1995, he became a member of the Buccaneer Hall of Fame and, four years later, was named to the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed on very few. In 2002, he became a member of the Pennsylvania Drum Corps Hall of Fame. He no longer competes, but plays for pure enjoyment.
As with any organization, the Buccaneers have changed over the years. When the group was formed, Englehart says, performances were all about military precision. Now, members dance and incorporate other elements. “It’s amazing what those kids are playing today! We have the best kids available,” he says. “Playing with the Buccaneers has become a stepping stone to many great things; many are going on to all aspects of the professional music world.”
As always, Englehart’s pride in the organization is evident. “Once you get the drum corps in here,” he says, pointing to his heart, “it never goes away.”
Bruce Englehart with his award.