Canada’s famous Scout House Bugle Band began in 1938 as an activity to interest local boys in the 1st Preston Scout troop, a single Boy Scout troop in the town of Preston, Ontario. Under the visionary leadership of a Preston pharmacist, Wilf Blum, the Preston Scout House Bugle Band, developed into “Canada’s Famous Bugle Band” with a deserved international reputation as an outstanding parade and performing marching unit.
Over 30 years, the Preston Scout House Bugle Band became the best-known drum and bugle corps in North America, winning more than 80 major awards and titles—many of them during a 10-year undefeated streak against all competition. At its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, Scout House traveled up to eight thousand miles a year, to perform for audiences of all sizes adding up to over one million annually.
Scout troop leader Wilf Blum, introduced music as a Scout activity after he noticed how excited the boys of Preston became each summer when traveling bands performed in town on their way to the Waterloo Music Festival. The bright, clean sounds of bugle bands, the splendid uniforms and the military precision displayed during parades and other performances captivated the members of his troop, so he decided to create a band.
As the Band evolved Blum was the band director. The success of the Scout House Band was shaped by his vision, his direction and his effort. Wilf Blum was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 1985, one of the first Canadians to receive this honour In 2005, he was inducted posthumously into the City of Cambridge Hall of Fame The entire Band was inducted in 1997.
The Early Years
With a generous donation from a local businessman, Blum purchased a few instruments, and the band began practicing. The first performance didn’t take place until June, 1939. Blum himself knew nothing about music, so the learning pace was slow in the beginning. None of the troop members could read music, so they learned by ear.
A distinctive knees-up marching style, with fully extended arms swinging to shoulder height was developed during the World War II years. When, for Sunday morning “Divisions”, the band would parade the women in training at HMCS Conestoga – the basic training facility for the WRENs (Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service). The marching style produced a comfortable, biting pace that made Scout House look different from every other drum and bugle corps in North America. In the 1950s and ’60s, the use of B flat horns also made the Band sound different from the other drum and bugle corps of the day.
The Preston Scout House Band was named for the building where the Scout troop met; an abandoned brewery stable that the scouts restored. The Scout House became the social centre of the town of Preston, attracting huge crowds to dances and music theatre events staged there. The organized activities for the community’s young people became so popular, Scout House and its activities were featured in national newspaper articles.
As the popularity of the Band grew in the 1940s, it began to march in parades outside of the Preston area. To reach these other towns, up to 45 members of the Band would travel on the open back of a Cherry Mills flour truck, often arriving with a light dusting of flour on their Boy Scout uniforms.
As the band was developing into an outstanding parade unit, the Waterloo Music Festival was also growing to become the largest event of its kind in North America, attracting bands and adjudicators from across the continent. The Festival program always included a massive street parade competition featuring all the competing bands and drums and bugle corps. Scout House came to dominate the street parade category, taking top place against the country’s finest military bands year after year. In many of those years, Scout House also won the top field show music award, even though most of the Band members still could not read music.
The Band’s first international tour began on Tuesday, July 29, 1947 when 45 members of the 1st Preston Scout Troop Band boarded a bus, with smaller boys sitting three to a seat for a 1,400 mile trip to play in Buffalo, Syracuse and Boy Scout Camp Yawgoog in Rockville, Rhode Island. The first international appearance by the Scout House Alumni Band was also in Buffalo, 52 years later, when the Alumni Band marched in the Labour Day Parade in 1999.
Band director Wilf Blum was constantly innovating in all areas of the group’s activities. In 1952, Scout House Band staged its first annual Spring Show at the Hespeler Arena. Over more than a decade, the annual Spring Show expanded to include fancy marching routines, uniform changes in mid-show; songs, skits, special lighting and sound effects. During the show on May 17, 1954 (40 years before alumni corps became popular) 32 former Band members wearing their street clothes came down from the stands to the floor of the Galt Arena Gardens, picked up instruments and played and marched in a seemingly-spontaneous performance. It was, of course, carefully rehearsed in advance. Attendance at the annual Spring Show quickly outgrew local arenas, and eventually moved to Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, where it broke all attendance records for any kind of event at the Auditorium.
The Band also was quick to introduce new instruments as they became available, adding tenor drums and glockenspiels to the percussion section, and introducing such new brass instruments as French horns, tenor horns, and E flat bass horns.
The biggest single innovation was the uniform that Scout House adopted after breaking away from Boy Scouts Canada to become an independent, self-supporting organization. The new uniform, introduced in 1954, took its styling cues from the traditional Boy Scout uniform. Scout House members wore knee-high socks, tight black shorts, a short sleeved maroon pullover tunic and lanyard, white gauntlets and stylish black Aussie-style hat with red and white plumes.
The combination of the Band’s instrumentation, its unique marching style and its distinctive uniform, when most other units were wearing a military type outfit, set Scout House apart from every other drum and bugle corps in North America.
By the late 1950s, Scout House was touring extensively every summer, from the Atlantic coast to the American Midwest, creating a huge fan base; particularly in the province of Quebec and in the Midwestern states.
But as field contest rule changes were introduced, Scout House lost its competitive edge. Score sheets no longer gave credit for the astounding general effect routines that the Band performed. Wilf Blum decided that retaining the Scout House character and image were more important that competing. Throughout the 1960s, Scout House performed mostly in exhibition, often at the top senior corps contests of the season.
Click here to view a YouTube video of some film taken at the Dream Contest, Jersey City NJ (1957-60???). At the 4:00 minute mark on the video there is a brief clip showing the original Scout House Band performing at the Dream. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYWKyNXTkps
Continuing financial problems forced Scout House to cease operations in the spring of 1967.
There were several attempts to revive the Band over the next 20 years, but none succeeded. However, a 50-year reunion organized in 1988 was enormously successful, attracting hundreds of former members to the Preston Arena to renew friendships and pay tribute to Wilf Blum. Former members of the “Glory Days” bands and Corps kicked off an association – the Great Alliance of Seniors (GAS) representing interested corps alumni folk from across Canada and the United States. A group of Scout House Alumni formed a Colour Guard and Drill Team to perform at a GAS reunion held in Cambridge (Galt) in 1994. There was so much interest in that performance and so many invitations to perform in other community events that the colour guard began to appear regularly in area parades and special events. As a result the Alumni membership decided to bring together additional former members to perform on stage at the GAS reunion scheduled for Mississauga in 1999. Rehearsals began in the fall of 1998. Enthusiasm ran so high that after the stage concert, the group decided to continue. The next performance was the July 1st, 1999 Canada Day Parade in Preston. Spectators stood in the rain to applaud the return of Scout House to the streets of Preston.
After its performances in the spring and summer of 1999, Preston Scout House Alumni Band marched into the new century to become Canada’s largest and most successful alumni drum and bugle corps. Since that first stage concert at the GAS reunion in Mississauga, Scout House Alumni Band has tripled in size and earned standing ovations from audiences at parades, field shows and concerts across Ontario and Quebec and many states in the central and north-eastern United States.
The Alumni Band retains the name of Preston, even though the town no longer exists as a separate municipality The former adjoining towns of Preston, Galt and Hespeler now make up the City of Cambridge. The old towns have retained their identities as neighbourhoods of Cambridge.
The original Band’s distinctive knees-up marching style, with shoulder-high arm swing, is maintained by the Alumni Band’s Colour Guard, some of whom wear the tight black shorts, short-sleeved maroon tops with lanyard, white leather gauntlets, knee-high socks and Aussie-style hat adopted by Scout House in 1954. Horn players and drummers now wear the same uniform top, with long black pants.
The Alumni Band’s music book includes selections suitable for parades, field show; concerts and such special events as Oktoberfest, Royal Canadian Legion memorials, other Veterans events and Christmas parades.
The 2010 Show
Parade and field show crowd favourites include many popular Scout House selections from the past including: “Waterloo Fanfare”, ”The Standard of St. George”, “Waltzing Matilda”, “The Maple Leaf Forever”, “Oklahoma”, “Wish Me Luck”, and “The Wayward Wind”. Additionally you will hear and the Carnival-inspired, latin-rhythym selection “Brazil”.
For 2010, Dave McKinnon has arranged for the Band a concert presentation the syncopated and up tempo “Sing, Sing, Sing”.
The traditional Welsh aire “Men of Harlech” has been part of the Band’s musical repertoire for years. A former Band member, the late Ken Whittington, authored the lyrics for the Band’s song “Scout House on Parade” sung to the tune of “Harlech”. It is a stirring occasion when all Band members proudly sing this Band Song before a major performance.
A crowd-pleasing highlight at every Preston Scout House Alumni Band performance is the slick percussion solo that showcases the adept stick work and showmanship of the Band’s talented drumline – swinging tenor drummers included.
The Colour Guard of the Preston Scout House Alumni Band reflects many of the hallmarks and traditions of the glory days of the original Band. On parade, with their “arms and gauntlets freely swinging”, the women and men who form the Scout House Guard proudly bring to life again the spirit of what made Preston Scout House “Canada’s Famous Marching Band”. Throughout the year, in addition to the Guard’s contribution to parades and field shows, many hours are spent refining a unique drill and flag presentation performed solely by the Scout House Colour Guard. This presentation is always a highlight of the Spring Opening show put on by the Band.
Maintaining a close relationship with the community is important for the Scout House Alumni Band. Each spring, the Band stages a free “Spring Opening” show; in appreciation for the support of many community groups and individuals. April 25th, 2:00 P.M. at the Preston Memorial Auditorium was the date for the 2010 free performance.
The Band is frequently called upon to participate in parades and Cenotaph ceremonies for The Canadian Legion and other Veterans’ organizations.For these events, the Band plays some popular march music including “The Colonel Bogey March” also familiar as the theme from the film Bridge on the River Kwai.
The veterans’ organizations in the Waterloo Region are strong supporters of the Alumni Band, regularly providing both rehearsal facilities and financial support.The Band is grateful!
When the Preston Scout House Alumni Band first got going, all of its first members had marched at some time in the original band. As the Scout House Alumni Band’s popularity grew, other women and men with marching / music experience were welcomed into the organization. Now, there are about 130 involved with the Band. Ages range from 18 to 78, with 61 being the average age of the Band’s membership. New members – both young and old – are welcome!
The Preston Scout House Alumni Band includes members from close to 20 different Ontario communities ranging from London to Ottawa– east to west and from Kincardine to Stoney Creek – north to South and two “Yankee Boys” from the Warren PA area.
Music director for the Band is John Conrad, who also taught the Scout House horn line in the late 1950s and early 60s. The percussion section is supported by Wayne Elliott, Don Reich, Lee Buckley, John Haines and Tom Conrad. A former original Scout House Band member, Gary Tones, is the Drum Major for the Band. He is assisted by another original Band alumnus Larry Blundell who is also the field show co-ordinator and marching / drill instructor. Ken Becker is the Colour Guard Captain / instructor.
The Band’s indoor practice site is the Knights of Columbus Hall on Speedsville Road in the Preston neighbourhood of Cambridge. Once the weather is suitable, every Thursday night the Band practices its field show on the parking lot by The Bay at the Cambridge Centre Mall.
Check our schedule and make a point to come out to see and hear – even join, Canada’s Famous Preston Scout House Alumni Band.
Updated: June 29th, 2010