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Sunnyside parade to celebrate freedom

When the group first hit the streets 24 years ago with its blend of abounding enthusiasm and uncertain musicality, their leader was dressed as a gorilla while marchers donned uniforms from an...

By Dustin Brown

The Sunnyside Drum Corps has never taken itself too seriously.

When the group first hit the streets 24 years ago with its blend of abounding enthusiasm and uncertain musicality, their leader was dressed as a gorilla while marchers donned uniforms from an ice-cream shop.

Although the outfits were justified by the occasion — Halloween — the group has never shaken its original image of playfulness and spontaneous exuberance. Nor has it tried to.

“When we’re coming down the streets, some of the boys who are playing the drums are really rockin’,” said drum corps director Tony Lana, who no longer marches in a gorilla suit. “Sometimes I wish they’d play a little lower.”

When the drum corps leads the annual Sunnyside Flag Day Parade on Saturday, the sober themes common to Memorial Day observances of the previous month will give way to a celebration focused on possibility rather than remembrance.

“We wanted the Flag Day Parade to be a more forward-looking parade, where we honored our past but also looked forward to our youth,” said Joanne Billharz, a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Sunnyside, the social-service organization which sponsors the event. “We wanted to expose them to some of the aspects of being in a free country.”

The Flag Day parade was founded more than 30 years ago by the late Joe Sabba, a World War II veteran and community leader who served Sunnyside as zealously as many of the corps members bang their drums. In addition to running a printing company, Sabba was editor and publisher of the Woodside Herald — a community newspaper currently managed by his son Buster — and served actively in Kiwanis.

About a decade after Sabba started the parade, he sought to create a drum corps to provide the neighborhood with a band of its own to feature in the event. After watching a gorilla-costumed Lana lead the spontaneous Halloween parade, Sabba recruited him to serve as the director of the corps. Only a few months later, 18 children appeared at that year’s Flag Day celebration as its founding corps.

Although Lana served as the director, it was Sabba’s brainchild.

“This is a guy who said, ‘Yeah, let’s have a marching band,’ and everyone contributed to it,” Lana said. “No one would say no to Mr. Sabba, not because of any fear of the press. He just was such a nice guy.”

In keeping with the American notions of opportunity and equality, children are not required to pass an audition in order to enroll in the corps.

“Our policy is if you can walk and chew gum, you can be in the band,” Lana said. “We just prefer you don’t chew the gum.”

Instead of chomping their jaw muscles, the corps members get their workout by manipulating flags and beating drums as they march, something they do more than a dozen times each year at events held across the borough.

This year’s Sunnyside parade will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday and proceed along Greenpoint Avenue from 39th Street to 46th Street, where the Flag Day observances will be held at noon.

A half-million-dollar renovation project will prevent the parade from ending at its traditional spot, Joe Sabba Triangle, a park wedged in the intersection between Queens Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue which was renamed last year in honor of Sabba’s service to the community.

The parade’s grand marshal is appropriately City Councilman Walter McCaffrey (D-Woodside), who financed the renovation of the park.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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