You’ve seen them in parades and concerts all over Southeast Wisconsin and beyond. They carry a rich musical tradition of “Irish style” and tenacity. And they hold the title for the longest running, non-school affiliated, youth band in Kenosha.
In fact, Kenosha’s Catholic Youth Organization marching band is the the only one of its kind in the United States and has been making music for more than 70 years. It all began on an evening in late March 1939 when Peter Niccolai Sr. raised his baton and notes from 38 instruments rang out. It was the first rehearsal of the band formally named the Catholic Youth Organization Emerald Knights Band and Guard of Kenosha.
That night, kid musicians came from all 10 parishes of Kenosha: Holy Rosary, Mount Carmel, St. Anthony, St.Casmir, St. George, St. James, St. Mark, St. Mary, St. Peter and St.Thomas.
The origins of the band were rooted in a small group of high school students, all Catholics, that gathered informally at St. George School to sing the popular songs of the day. Three of the singers, Agnes Lazza, Ruth Rosing and Marjorie LeRoy, who were all members of Frank Bernardi’s All Girl Orchestra, got the idea that they could form their own orchestra. After interesting a few more friends in the concept, they discovered they were short on violins and cellos and long on drums.
So instead, the CYO Band was born.
St. George’s associate pastor Rev. Theodore Thome asked Niccolai, a talented Kenosha musician, if he would take on the task of band director, and Niccolai agreed. Francis “Cy” Morgan was named the band’s financial manager, a position he held for 17 years. Piacentino “Peter” Niccolai had his musical training in Italy, coming to America at 14 in 1904. He came to Kenosha in 1919 to be the solo cornetist with the Simco Band, the band formed of employees of the Simmons Mattress Company. During his career, Niccolai also directed the Boy Scout and American Legion bands, the Wooden Shoe Band, and he served as director of St. Mark’s Choir. The CYO Band became a real family affair for the musically gifted Niccolai, who had nine children. All but three of his children played an instrument in the band at one time or another, including Fritz (Alfred), Edward, Frank, Peter Jr. and Marguerite. Daughter Lillian served as a majorette for the band when she was a teenager.
Their first performance was on June 25, 1939 at the St. George School yard to an audience of 300. The teenage musicians wore white shirts and blouses, the boys with traditional CYO green ties, while the girls donned similar neckerchiefs. The band received its first uniforms (with the same color scheme that hundreds of youngsters have marched in since) on Jan. 23, 1941. From its inception, the Kenosha CYO band was the only one of its kind in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and soon Archbishop Samuel A. Stritch (who later became a Cardinal) began referring to it as “my band.” When it was reported to Stritch that there was a Protestant musician in the band, Niccolai defended his decision to allow the youngster to play and he remained in the band. In 1940, the archbishop’s band performed before 40,000 at a peace rally at Marquette University and before an audience of 25,000 at a similar event at Washington Bowl here in Kenosha. The band became so popular that the CYO junior band was formed in 1940 to become the training ground for the senior band. After a couple of decades, the musicians in the main band were younger, reflecting the transfer of the older students to the St. Joseph High School Band and other high school bands.
At its peak in the mid-1960s, there was a total enrollment of 205 music students in the Senior Band (seventh- and eighth-grade students), Cadet Band (sixth grade students) and Junior Cadet Band (fifth grade students). Pete Niccolai served as the CYO band’s director for 12 years until he suffered a stroke in 1951. Sadly, his physical condition kept from playing musical instruments after his stroke. He died in 1956. His son Frank took up the baton in his father’s place and led the band until 1959.
In “A Taste of Memories from Columbus Park,” Vol. III, Niccolai’s daughter Mary Niccolai Wientjes gave her impressions of her father.
“I think the way we would like to remember Dad best is when he stood in front of his band, playing solo cornet with his left hand, while his right hand pounded the stick furiously on the stand to keep the boys ‘in line.’ That scene always left an impression on everyone in attendance,” Wientjes wrote.
Today, the CYO Band operates as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. During the school year, there are four distinct ensembles: the CYO Beginner Band (consisting mostly of 4th and 5th grade students in their first year of instruction), the CYO Cadet Band (students in their second year of instruction), the CYO Concert Band (mostly students in 6th and 7th grade) and the CYO Honors Band (generally students in grade 8 or older, sometimes up to age 21). These bands perform at concerts and other events throughout the school year. In the summer, the CYO Emerald Knights Marching Band and Guard marches throughout Southeastern WI and the surrounding area and the CYO Summer Concert Band gives our younger students the opportunity to further develop their musical skills outside of school.