A History of The Knights
by Bill Neuleib
The origin of The Knights actually goes back to a boy’s fife and drum corps formed in the 1930’s sponsored by the American Legion Post in Kewanee, Illinois. Within a short time the fifes were replaced by bugles and the S.A.L. (Sons of American Legion) Junior Drum and Bugle Corps was formed. That corps competed actively through 1942 when World War II took most of the members.
A few years after the war, interest in drum corps began again and the boys of the SAL corps were now men and a senior corps was formed in 1949. With the help of the Kewanee American Legion, the corps raised money for instruments and new uniforms and in 1951 the name Kewanee Black Knights was chosen. The Black Knights became a familiar corps on the state and national scene from 1951 to 1964. In addition to many local championships, the Black Knights finished in the American Legion National finals (top 12) every year from 1954 through 1961. The senior corps was disbanded in 1964. About a year later, one of the former senior members, Marshall Heene, felt that the area still needed a drum corps and he promoted the idea of forming a junior corps. In the winter of 1965-66, the idea became a reality. He contacted several of the former senior members who had been active and helped teach as well as play to be the instruction staff and the Black Knights junior corps was born. The junior corps became successful early on, in fact they made the finals in the 1966 Illinois State Fair competition and didn’t have a finals show. At that time, a corps learned a preliminary show of 7 minutes and a final show of 11 to 13 minutes. That first summer the staff conceived and taught a 7 minute show mainly to acquaint the new members with the drum corps activity. They entered them in the State Fair competition for the experience of being judged and seeing other corps from around the State. When they unexpectedly made the finals they had no choice but to do the short show again and take the undertime penalty, but the fact that the Black Knights were a viable drum corps was established that summer of 1966. In the 30 years that followed, at one time or another, they defeated every corps (except the Royalaires) in Illinois and most everyone in the Midwest.
The Black Knights of Kewanee dropped the Black from their name in 1972. There was always confusion with another junior corps from Belleville that was also named the Black Knights and, in addition, the corps was interested in broadening their program possibilities. This was much easier with just the name The Knights. The Knights were not one of the “premier corps” so some of the innovations they brought to the activity were not given as much attention, but one of these “firsts” was to abandon the traditional cadet uniform in favor of a “uniform costume” that depicted the name of the corps as well as the music they were playing in their program. They adopted a uniform consisting of a knight’s tunic with a cross and a robin hood hat and played selections from the musical Camelot. Several years later the Cavaliers and Phantom Regiment both followed suit and adopted uniforms more in keeping with their name.
The corps was moved from Kewanee to Geneseo after the 1973 season. Reasons for the move were both financial and membership. Membership had dwindled in the Kewanee area and grown considerably in the Geneseo and Quad City area and it was hoped that the move to Geneseo would give new life to the corps. This hope turned out to be true. Under the direction of Ken Hamilton (Director 1973-81), The Knights attained national status, a position they were to maintain through the 1980’s. One of the principle music arrangers for the corps was Larry Kerchner who did most of the arrangements from the late 1960’s through the mid 80’s. Ken Norman also did some arranging for the Corps. It has been mentioned that The Knights were always innovative and another example was presented in their 1979 show. Prior to a number called “Slavonic Dance” four of their guard girls disappeared into the percussion section and reappeared in full Hungarian costumes and danced to the music. They went back into the percussion section to change back into their guard uniforms while the show continued and many times the audience was not aware where they went. Costume changes like this are done frequently now but, as far we know, this kind of presentation had not been performed before The Knights did it in 1979.
By 1980, the membership and talent of the Corps had grown to a point where it was decided that their next objective was to become a DCI touring corps. Although the Corps had made week-long trips to Boston, Miami, and Texas, taking on the responsibility of touring most of the summer was a new and exciting challenge. Three 4106 busses were purchased as well as a used 18 wheel trailer which the staff customized for all the corps equipment. (A food trailer was added a few years later). One of the first tours involved a trip to the West coast for a series of shows starting in Utah, over to the San Francisco area, down to Los Angeles and Las Vegas on the way back. A lot of things were learned on that first tour. We learned how to handle real hardship when the motor on one of the busses “locked up” in Wyoming on the way out and other travel arrangements had to be made for a third of the corps for the rest of the tour The inconvenience was offset somewhat by performing in these new cities plus a special performance at Disneyland. For the next decade the Corps became a regular in DCI and DCM contests anywhere and everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.
The most successful season was probably 1983. The Corps was marching 122 members and was recognized as a viable competitor. They placed third in DCM finals just behind Madison and Phantom Regiment , were 9th at DCI regional prelims in Whitewater, which was significant because all the corps in DCI were there, and also came in among the leaders at DCI East in Allentown, Pa. It was a real disappointment when they failed to make the finals at the DCI championships a month later after being in a such a good position in those DCI regionals.. Because of the success of the Corps that year, I was named “Director of the Year” by Drum Corps Midwest. This was a tremendous honor and the reality was that I was fortunate to represent a truly outstanding group of people consisting of a dedicated and talented staff, a great group of talented young people and an untiring support staff. DCI decided to recognize support people at the Championships, and over the next several years The Knights had Gene Herring, Dorothy Johnson, and Wayne Huntley recognized for their work and dedication.
In 1984, the Knights marched a smaller but equally talented corps and introduced another innovation in their program. In one of the last productions of the show, they featured a boy and girl from the guard in a solo dance number. This has become commonplace now but it was unique in 1984.
1985 brought about another major change for the Corps. It was decided to present “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and, typical of the Knights to try something new, they completely changed their uniforms to a cadet style in purple and silver with a large cross on the chest and shakoes with plumes. This was quite a surprise to the other corps they had competed against because early on some didn’t know who they were! This uniform became so popular that the Corps continued to wear it, or a variation of it, for the remainder of their existence. That year was significant also because of a last minute situation that prevented Larry Kerchner from doing the arrangements. Gregg Neuleib, who was Knights Director at the time and had done some arranging but nothing as ambitious as a complete book of a show like Superstar, stepped in and wrote the show. The result was a complete success and Gregg continued to do arrangement for the Knights.
The Knights were very active in sponsoring shows which gave local audiences an opportunity to see corps from all over the country and give work to fellow corps. The Spectacle of Brass in Geneseo ran for 20 years starting in 1969, and a second show, Pageant of Drums, in Davenport/Bettendof, Iowa, was started in 1985 and continued until the Knights went inactive in the mid-90’s. Both shows were well received and are still mentioned as one the most entertaining events to come to the Quad City area.
It was decided to move the Corps to the Quad Cities in 1989. Geneseo was just not a large enough community to continue to finance a competitive drum corps, while the Quad Cities (with a combined population of over 300,000 and only 25 miles away) could provide a much larger base for fund raising and local membership. It was hoped that this could bring the Corps back to the success it had enjoyed in the early and mid 80’s. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be a reality. In 1991, because of dwindling membership and struggling finances, The Knights decided to merge with another corps (Emerald Knights) in nearby Cedar Rapids, Ia. who were having similar problems. This merger was, by agreement of both Corps, to be for one season only and then a decision would be made if it should continue. After the season, both corps were in agreement that the merger did not work and decided to go on as they had before. Although small in numbers, the next several years would show that The Knights would continue to put a solid program on the field, and they continued to be a DCI/DCM touring corps performing everywhere. In 1992, they played music from the movie “Robin Hood” which was well received and the following year they brought back Jesus Christ Superstar which earned them 4th place at DCI Championships in Division III. This was significant since earlier in the season they had the kind of bus accident Corps don’t like to think about. They were on their way to a show in Ohio when a car traveling at excessive speed ran a stop sign and hit one of the corps buses broadside sending it rolling down an large embankment . The driver of the car was killed instantly but miraculously there were no corps fatalities: only bruises and a few broken bones.
The Knights went inactive in 1995 and their last competition was at the Illinois State Fair which was ironic since their very first competition 29 years earlier (1966) was in that same show!