On soft summer nights the brash but beautiful sounds of marching drums and singing bugles would linger in the air.
In the early days of rock ‘n roll, before the Beatles and the Beach Boys, it was the soundtrack of the city.
Some nights it would be the renowned Lionettes in their brilliant gold and purple uniforms playing “You Made Me Love You.” Others, it was the drum corps known as “Canada’s Sweethearts” – the Marching Angels – playing the hauntingly tender ‘Look Homeward Angel.”
Sarnia’s love affair with its drum corps endured right into the 1980s.
Celebrated musician Johnny Bond, who played with the old Sarnia Garrison Trumpet Band and the Jack Kennedy Orchestra, traces the origins of the drum corps and their popularity back to the military’s wartime fife, drum and bugle corps.
Sarnia also had the Sarnia Citizens Band directed by John Gilbert and managed by Walter Thompson. It operated an Annual Tattoo in Norm Perry Park dating from 1936.
But the great era of the marching drum corps began in 1945 at the end of the Second World War with Jack Mann’s founding of an all-girl corps, originally sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion and known as the Legionettes.
When Legion sponsorship ended in 1948, the corps, playing with borrowed drums and plastic bugles, became the Sarnia Drum and Trumpet Band. Finally, with Lions Club sponsorship in 1953, the group became Sarnia’s famed Lionettes.
The 80-girl drum and bugle corps won honours for Sarnia in international competitions and fame under the direction of Jack and Bill Mann, Johnny Bond, Scotty Strachan and Jack Gladwish.
On Aug. 23, 1960, the Lionettes joined 15,000 other marchers on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue for the massive Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
A crowd estimated at over 100,000 people lined the street, squatted curbside and climbed lampposts to watch the colour and pageantry.
The Lionettes had raised the money for the trip through bake sales, raffles and bingo games, and for many girls who participated in the grand parade it was a highlight of their corps careers.
The Sertoma Boys Band, created in 1960, became the Sertomanaires in 1961. The prolific Johnny Bond was their musical director. In 1968, when Sertoma Club sponsorship was lost, the Sertomanaires disbanded and were reformed as the Marching Diplomats.
The Marching Angels, owned by Bill and Annette Mann, split off from the Lionettes in 1962. It consisted of girls aged 10 to 18 in black uniforms with a white silk sash, and topped with a flaming red helmet.
The last of Sarnia’s drum corps to be formed was the Bluewater Lionaires, a mixed-gender band that lasted only for 1973 before reforming as the Bluewater Buccaneers. It was active until 1986, practicing beneath the Blue Water Bridge.
“It was an exciting life for a young girl,” said Sarnia’s Michelle Rondeau, recalling her drum corps days “We had a sense of purpose and direction. We developed self-confidence. We felt loved and supported by the community.”
The Bluewater Buccaneers were active from 1973 to 1986.