Back in May, 1989I sat down with George Zingali in his mother Mae's house and interviewed him about his life as the premier visual designer in drum corps. During the previous year he had left Garfield, signed on with the Blue Knights, and moved back to Revere from New York City. Many years later in 2000 Rick published the transcript of that interview in MMA. Wow, how the time flies. This past week I saw a thread on Drum Corps Planet that noted the 20th anniversary of George's passing and commemorated his genius and humanity. It gave me a moment's pause, and I went back and reread the interview, which I hadn't looked at in years. That jogged my memory, so I decided to share some other personal reminiscences.
I was not a confidant or close friend to George, but I was more than an acquaintance. From October 1973 until February 1976, Iwas a member of the management staff of the 27th Lancers, so I got to spend a lot of time around George, Peggy Twiggs and Steven Covitz, who were teaching the Lancer's color guard when Ralph Pace, then the most talented drill designer in the business, was the Lancer's visual caption head. George had come to the Lancers from St. Anthony's Band in Revere and was getting his feet wet as chief instructor and designer for St. Anthony's Winter Color Guard.
That guard was creating a sensation in the winter of '74 -'75, winning shows and threatening the dominance of St. Anthony's of Everett, the local leader. Everett, taught by the handsome and charismatic Bruce Leo, was a mature, confident and polished group with a traditional but effective program. George's charges, on the other hand were young, tiny and audacious, and George had given them a groundbreaking, radical and highly entertaining show. Excited to see them in action, I took my sister to the Eastern Mass Finals held in a high school gym somewhere in the boonies on a Saturday evening in April, 1975. The CYO finals were scheduled for the following day in the Boston College ice rink. That rink had a notoriously slippery polished concrete floor, so George had arranged for adhesive tape to be attached to the bottom of the girls' boots to counteract the anticipated slippage. Disaster. The extra traction on the gym floor caused all sorts of problems. Timing was off, there were stumbles and drops, and Revere lost. George was devastated. That championship and the CYO the next day were gone, but George, as we all know, used the loss for motivation and learning, and St. Anthony's and Quasar, which followed, went on to national glory over the next decade.
In 1977 Ralph Pace unexpectedly quit the Lancers before the season started, and George was left with the task of creating a drill on short notice. This first DCI effort was serviceable but undistinguished, and when Ralph returned early in the season, it was scrapped. Pace left again at the end ofthe 1978 season, after a veteran heavy Lancer corps finished a disappointing 7th at DCI, and George was appointed visual designer. This time, however, Zingalli's product was highly successful and gave a preview of the successful designer and teacher he was to become. George took an underdog and rookie laden Lancer corps to 5th place in 1979 and nearly captured the DCI title in 1980 and '81. Those drills, while wonderful, gave no hint of the monsters George would create with Garfield, starting in 1982.
Many years later another Lancer staff member told me that George had once mentioned that he could see the shapes he created on the field in his head. He had wanted to try his new, unconventional drill moves with the Lancers, but George Bonfiglio had demurred. Zingali knew he had to leave the womb that was the Lancers, to realize his true potential, so it was on to the fertile ground of the Garfield Cadets. There probably the most creative team ever assembled provided the perfect setting for George's creativity explosion. Headed by then wunderkind George Hopkins, the team included the immensely talented Jim Prime on brass and percussion wizard Thom Hannum. Michael Cesario provided additional input.
I first saw the new Garfield at DCI East in 1982 and was flabbergasted. What were they trying to do on the field? It was so different that I didn't get it. However, by DCI Finals two weeks later I was a convert. It's been said that the late Don Angelica, who served as DCI's Chief Judge and ruled with an iron fist, immediately recognized George's genius. Angelica paved the way for the judging community to reward the transformational product hitting the field. As I think back to my many viewings of Garfield from 1982 - 1988, and Star in 1990 and 1991, I remember being most impressed by the fact that you could never predict what was coming next on the field. George always surprised you, and the effects seemed to come out of nowhere. No one has come close to equaling him in that respect in my opinion.
As we know, George's years with Garfield and subsequently with Star of Indiana brought unparalleled success and acclaim. However, not everyone knows that George's success owed as much to his brilliance as a teacher and motivator of youth as to his design skills.
Here's an example of that brilliance from the 1989 interview. George is talking about his summer with the 1987 Garfield Cadets.
GZ: I could change the whole corps' performance in one night and give the whole corps a different look by the way I thought. And I did it every night. I'd give them a whole new circumstance.
JF: Can you give me an example?
GZ: In '87, one show, for instance, I was talking about relationships with people. So I sat the whole corps down right before they were going on the field, and everyone's going crazy. We're meeting the Blue Devils tonight. No, they weren't like that, but everyone was excited. They wanted to go on the field. I sat the whole corps down right before they went. I said, "Well, I just want to tell you a little story." I started explaining about a very, very important relationship I had with this human being. And I started talking, describing it, what it meant. What my commitment to it was. So, by the end of this little talk, I was in tears, and it was tears of joy. I wasn't sad. It was excruciatingly positive and beautiful. It was just one of those, and they knew it. And tears just started coming down my eyes. I said, "Okay, you're not going on the field tonight." They said, "Why? What are you talking about? Get out of here, Zingali" I said, "'Well, I'm sorry. George Hopkins called DCI, and we are pulling out for the next two weeks of every show we're in. I'm sorry we have to do this to you, but I have to change the whole show. It's not good enough. You're not going to do well. I want you to do well. It's a very special show for me, etc. etc." And first, they were furious. They started believing me. And Ann Genelikis said, "Oh, come on, Zingali, let's cut the bullshit. We gotta go on the field in five minutes." "Sorry, Ann, take off your uniform."
JF: Who's Ann?
GZ: One of the girls in the color guard. She'd been with Garfield for nine years. You know the ones that have been around for years that you can't pull anything over their eyes. I kept going. "Nope, you're not going on the field. We have to...What do you think about that? Are you willing to do it; are you willing to take the chance? You're not going to win the finals. I can tell you that already. This show is very special to me." And it was about my relationship with Donald (Angelica). I explained that, and they knew how I felt. (JF: Don Angelica had passed away before the 1987 season had started.) They were in tears right before they went on. And I said, "We can't do it. I have to change the show." And I got to that point where they all stopped. And it got real quiet. And they said, "You're really serious, aren't you?" And I said, "Ya." And I said, "How do you feel right now?" And I had people say things. "Hurt, angry. Let's go for it. What do we have to do? A relationship like that is so important. I had one, etc." People started telling me about their relationships I said, "Good. See how you feel right now? That's your action for tonight. Your action for tonight is everything that you just said right now. Use it; respond to it while you play and while you dance. Respond to it. Don't have a fear about it. Use it and let it come out of you' Let the energy come out of you and feel what it is. If you're upset with it, that's all right. Be upset with it and then let it come out. Let us see you can be upset." I said, "That's what you've been trained to do." Just marvelous things like that we used to do. And that's a specific example.
JF: So, how was their performance that evening?
GZ: Fabulous. They just kept grabbing you. That's what Garfield did in '87; they did this.
A few months after this interview I ran into George in Cambridge, and we talked for a few minutes. I asked him what was he thinking about creatively; what did he want to try next? He said he wanted to experiment with making shapes in the air, but didn't elaborate on what that might mean. I guess we'll never know if he abandoned the idea after trying it out or if in his move to Star he just got pushed in other directions.
Over the next two years I had a couple of lunch get togethers with George, and each time the competitive fire and ambition that drove him were on display, as well as the outsize personality and generosity of spirit. He loved working with Star, and he loved the fact that he got paid regularly. He had no use for the drill composition computer software that was becoming available and was disdainful of the drill writers who used it. He was eager to beat the Cadets, but still loved and respected Hopkins and his former teammates Marc Sylvester and Peggy Twiggs, who were now running the visual show. He was happy to be home and had many close friends looking out for him and sharing his company.
I saw him near the end at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, when he was too sick to really visit, and it was sad. Mae, was there and close friends were calming and soothing him. The love for George on display was wonderful to see in that sad situation. And then he was gone.
It feels a bit strange when I read postings by drum corps folks who say they only got to meet George once, or saw him in the stands and felt the presence of a celebrity. To me and to all of us who knew him from the Lancer days, he was just Zingali, a working class kid from Reve-uh. Ya, lots of talent, but a down to earth, regular guy you could call an A-hole, and he'd just laugh. That was George. We still miss him and wonder what he might have created.
Gone much too young.