Beat it: `Gladiators' bring music to the streets

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PULSING through the air over a burned-out neighborhood full of dripping fire hydrants, abandoned cars, and broken windows booms the sound of bass drums and brassy trumpets. Pied Piper-like, the sound attracts children of all sorts in Chicago's West Side neighborhood of Lawndale. They appear, wide eyed, out of the inner-city woodwork to watch and listen to the local drum and bugle corps marching by.

The group is called O'Quinn's Royal Gladiators, an organization formed more than 30 years ago by John and Cleodia O'Quinn.

Then a young couple operating their own barbershop and raising a family, the O'Quinns realized the need for a place where kids could go, instead of hanging out on street corners.

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Their group allows young people to develop their creative energy. They teach anyone who comes to them with the desire to play an instrument and perform with the band. Famous for its parade performances, the corps has earned hundreds of trophies.

But to the O'Quinns, success means keeping kids out of gangs and instilling self-esteem. Mrs. O'Quinn says the music is an avenue to promote their philosophy.

``We encourage, challenge, and assist each child to develop a positive self-image with the underlying basic thought that `yes, I can succeed,''' she says.

In the early days, John O'Quinn ran a barbershop on the first floor of the apartment building where the couple lived. He also started a Boy Scout chapter, which has continued for over 50 years and is still going strong.

The couple operate a music school in the renovated barbershop studio and teach students how to play anything from guitars to tubas. Making a living as a barber and raising half the neighborhood is a big job.

``I would have a customer in the chair, and, someone would say, `Mr. O'Quinn, that child's missing a few notes.' I'd leave my customer in the chair, with the cloth around him, half his head hairs cut, and go and work on the note and work on the kid.''

There have been up to 200 Gladiators at times. Most of their performances are in Illinois, but the troupe has taken several bus trips to cities as far away as Atlanta.

Through the years, thousands have passed through the O'Quinn ranks and gone on to lead productive lives. The support has always been there.

In 1968, when rioting broke out across the country after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Lawndale was one of the hardest-hit areas in Chicago. Some buildings gutted during those riots still stand just doors from the O'Quinn studio.

Through it all, the Gladiators and their studio remained untouched. Respecting John O'Quinn, gang members checked on the barbershop to ensure the O'Quinns' safety. Entire neighborhoods in Chicago were set ablaze during those riots, but the drum and bugle corps didn't miss a note.

In the 20 years since the riots, fans say, O'Quinn's Gladiators have been a healing element in the community, doing what they do best - motivating kids to play music.

``We teach them pride, we teach them to respect authority,'' says Mrs. O'Quinn. ``They must do any number of things, but that is important.''

Not once in the band's almost half a century of existence has a single Gladiator member quit. They cycle through, moving on as they grow older, taking with them a good measure of character.

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