13 Dec The Bridgemen: A Story That Comes Full Circle
At the command of an adamant voice, the sound of snare drums rolling in sync and brass horns resonate. These triumphant battle sounds send electricity up and down your body. These are the sounds of a triumphant battle. These are the sounds of the Bayonne Bridgemen.
This holiday season, the Bridgemen appear for musical performances as 5th street to 7th street of Broadway will be transformed into a Christmas Village. In a twist of fate, this is all happening in Bergen Point, right where the Bridgemen first began fifty-two years ago at St. Andrews Parish. Today, George Lavelle looks back on his younger years with the Bridgemen fondly.
“I got involved with the Bridgemen because my uncles were involved,” recalls George Lavelle. “I wanted to be like them. And when I got to the Bridgemen and put on that yellow coat, it became one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime.”
Formerly known as the St. Andrews Bridgemen, which was formed in 1965 by Father Joseph Donovan and local businessman Ed Holmes, the Bayonne Bridgemen have always been known for their lively performances and a plethora of talent. Particular numbers the Bridgemen were known for during the 1960’s and 70s were Boogie Down, Aw Quitcher Moanin’, and The Civil War Suite.
“We were very theatrical and very ahead of our time,” said Lavelle. “We were known as crowd pleasers and entertainers.”
George Lavelle has been with the Bayonne Bridgemen since 1972, where he performed as a soprano player and eventually moved on to the bugle. During his service, he’s been through everything with the peninsulas famed drums corps. From every tough year the organization faced, whether it was low funding or dwindling membership, or performing for ecstatic crowds of thousands, Lavelle has been a part of most, if not all of, their catalogued history. If the Bridgemen weren’t on their home turf of Bayonne, then they were out fighting all over not just the Garden State, but the country.
“There were times when we were playing for crowds in places like Birmingham, Alabama, with thirty thousand people going crazy when we haven’t even played a note,” said Lavelle. “It’s moments like that that have stayed with me to this day.”
While the memories of the competitions and marching parades remain close to George’s heart, there were times of uncertainty for Bayonne’s talented drum and bugle corps. Through the ups and downs and despite it all, the Bridgemen would still gain some of their greatest recognition in the mid to late 70s.
“By 1975, all the people that had helped put the drum corps together aged out and moved on in life,” said Lavelle. “The corps had a rough year then and Ed Holmes wanted to give it one last go in ’76. He brought in a gentleman named Bobby Hoffman and he created the Yellow Coates, otherwise known as the Bananas, which the Bridgemen became known as.”
The yellow coats became an iconic staple in the Bridgeman’s image, one that still continues to this day. From the mid 70’s to the corps quiet end in the late 80’s, the Bridgeman had an impeccable style of showmanship that remain iconic not just to Bayonne, but to drum corps all over America.
Following years of inactivity in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Bridgeman’s Alumni Association brought the Bayonne Bridgeman back from the dead. The 2005 Bayonne Memorial Day Parade saw the return of the Bayonne Bridgeman along with 120 new members. After years of inactivity, they hadn’t missed a beat.
“All we did was five practices,” said Lavelle. “We went out and did the Memorial Day parade and then the following year we started doing field shows again and brought back the yellow coats.”
The magic of the Bridgeman had returned. Older generations of Bayonne citizens were able to relive the memories that the Bridgemen had created for them in their younger years. Even now, a new generation could witness a part of their town’s history.
“When we created the Alumni Association and came back, we were able to create those crowd-pleasing moments again for people,” said Lavelle. “We may not be as good as we were back in the day, but we were able to help everyone remember what it used to be.”
Bayonne has been going through a renaissance and many of the staples that once made it great are now returning. Holiday decorations are going back up on Broadway and downtown will further that transition when Bergen Point goes through its Christmas Village transformation this year. The Bridgemen will be set up on every corner of Bergen Point. Their music that entertained so many over the years will now spread holiday cheer this season. Drums, brass, and even the Bridgeman Color Guard will be present. A new generation of Bayonne can now experience the magic their parents and even grandparents had experienced. For some, it will be for the first time.
“When the Bridge Art Gallery came to us and asked us to be a part of it, we knew this was something we couldn’t turn down,” said Lavelle. “We’re going to be all over the Bergen Point area for it and it’s really special for us since it’s where the Bridgemen began back in the sixties.”
George Lavelle currently serves as the President of the Bridgemen’s Board of Directors. The Bayonne Bridgemen will also be returning for Bayonne’s 2018 St. Patrick’s Day Parade and will also be a part of the New Jersey State Elks Parade in Wildwood in June.
By David Mosca