Drum corps is just different in Allentown.
It’s not necessarily better, per se, at least not by any remarkable margin. Some fans may feel that way, though, if they’ve been going to the DCI Eastern Classic year after year. And there’s a reason for that.
Allentown was my introduction to drum corps. It was 2009, I was 11 years old and entering sixth grade, and I was a complete stranger to the world of marching music.
My parents weren’t, though. My mother had marched in her college band and went on to become a band director, and my father was heavily involved in the music industry from a sales perspective.
There’s actually an old photo of the two of them that had been hanging on our refrigerator for probably all of my childhood, and in it, my dad is sporting a Cadets of Bergen County logo T-shirt. I’d always wondered what on earth that block ‘C’ and ‘B’ with a curved, upward arrow in it could possibly be representing. Now, I see it, and it’s second nature.
They’d been to a handful of Allentown events in their lifetimes, but mostly before they’d met, and long before I ever came along, but in 2009, my older sister was getting ready to dive into high school marching band. It was time to finally return to DCI East.
Driving into the close vicinity of the historic venue was like getting off of a plane into a foreign country — I saw all these symbols I’d never seen before, unrecognizable logos littered across flags, shirts, signs and trucks as if they were unique nations arriving at the Olympic Games. There were obscure words and phrases — “battery,” “horn line,” and so forth — being tossed around like it was nothing.
To the outsider, it’s really a different language, and it’s spoken fluently in Allentown.
I’ll never forget seeing the seemingly endless stretches of concrete and metal bleachers that fill the coliseum-esque stadium. Built into a hillside, it’s really just one gigantic wall of seats, like if you took Michigan Stadium and shrunk it down to between the goal lines, and goodness, does that make for some incredible acoustics.
There are three small blocks of bleachers in their own section that create a miniature upper tier, and the cherry on top of it all is a small, unassuming press box. And on that press box — it’s more like a small shed, really — there’s the sign. Black background, white block letters. Nothing crazy.
J. BIRNEY CRUM STADIUM.
You’re surrounded by the unmistakable scent of funnel cakes, the distant echo of warm-ups in the beautiful park across the way, the sun slowly starting to set above you and the temperatures cooling as a result.
Each little detail doesn’t seem like much. You compile it all together, though, and it’s special. It’s timeless.
Other than maybe the DCI World Championships, if that, I don’t think there’s one single event that so accurately captures that perfectly niche, beautifully obscure world that is drum corps better than Allentown.
And people outside the activity are often surprised when I say that. Allentown, Pennsylvania? Seriously? I often say it’s just like Cooperstown, New York — the charming, beautiful, old-school hometown of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame — but for drum corps. It’s not a big city, but it’s home. It’s history.
No, it’s not Mercedes-Benz Stadium. No, it’s not the Alamodome. No, it’s not Lucas Oil Stadium. I’ve experienced drum corps at all three, and make no mistake, it’s amazing to see this art form come to life in such monstrous venues.
There’s just something about the small town, the outdoor stadium, the lights. That’s the origin of all of this, you know? I mean, the first and second DCI championship events were held in a bleacher-laden Division III football stadium in Whitewater, Wisconsin.
And there’s nothing wrong with progress; the fact that this activity has expanded to some of the biggest and brightest venues in the United States is truly incredible.
But if you have the chance to just experience drum corps, separate from all of the blinding lights of cavernous domed stadiums, separate from the “big stage” — just you and 154 performers, under a few stadium lights, packed into a slice of drum corps history with some of the most passionate marching music fans on the planet — do it.
It’s not necessarily better. It’s just different.
2020 DCI Eastern Classic
The 2020 DCI Eastern Classic will return to J. Birney Crum Stadium Friday, July 31 and Saturday, August 1. Two-night ticket packages giving you reserved seats to both exciting nights of competition are now on sale through the DCI Box Office.
Jeff Griffith never performed in a drum corps, but has been an avid fan of the marching music activity since his childhood. A graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Jeff spent five years as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball before making marching music his full-time focus. Jeff was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs and currently resides in Indianapolis. (Photo taken by Andrea Neff)