French Dukes reunite for precision drill show at Veterans Memorial Park
In the mid-1960s Michael Bridges was part of a tight-knit African-American community on Ann Arbor’s north side. Bridges termed that time the “hippy-dippy” 1960s, and said there was trouble to be found at nearly every turn.
But he, his friends, and some of his family found something else to occupy their time: a precision drill team.
But it wasn’t just any precision drill team. They formed and carried on the French Dukes. Its members contend it was and remains the greatest drill team of all time.
The Dukes never lost a competition. They performed in front of President Richard Nixon -- twice. They were invited to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And they performed in parades and in front of countless crowds across the country.
But most important, members of the French Dukes say the group activity kept them out of trouble and taught them respect and discipline at a time when there were plenty of other distractions in Ann Arbor. Now, more than 30 years since they last performed, the Dukes are preparing for a reunion show at Ann Arbor’s Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday, July 14 at 5 p.m.
The Dukes are also trying to help revive the team and encourage Ann Arbor teenagers to carry on the French Dukes legacy.
The French Dukes drill team “was something that a bunch of the young men on the north side of town were doing,” Bridges said. “We were all close friends and we were a close-knit community. We got a chance to travel, and it kept us out of trouble and it gave us something to look forward to.”
A precision drill team is essentially a military-style performance troupe that steps, marches and performs in unison. The members create special moves that are unique to their team and perform them throughout a show or parade. The group’s commander calls the steps, and the other 16 team members must do them in unison.
Uniforms are also important, and the teams are judged during competitions on how well they dress. The Dukes were known for their beige and blue and beige and red uniforms. Most of the young men involved with the French Dukes and other precision drill teams at the time were between the ages of 13 and 15.
Bridges said the Dukes started around 1961 or 1962 at the suggestion of some Ann Arbor Elks Club members who wanted to see the boys doing something constructive with their time. Eight members started drilling in the basement of an Ann Arbor home, but quickly moved on to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where they began attracting crowds.
Their first competition was a high school talent show, which they won, setting a precedent for the next two decades.
The Dukes then began performing in parades and knew they were on to something when people would follow their group down the parade route and ask for encore performances at the end, Bridges said.
In 1968, the French Dukes, who derived their name from French tams they wore on their heads and the old 1960s song “Duke of Earl,” performed during soon-to-be-president Richard Nixon’s campaign stop in Lansing.
When Nixon was elected, he remembered the French Dukes and invited them to perform at his Inauguration Day parade.
“That was something new for us,” Dukes Commander Carlton Bell said. “We had never been around big people like that. It was just a real thrill for us. For a lot of people, that’s the first time they flew on a plane, and it went good.”
The Dukes competed mostly against teams sponsored by other Elks Clubs around the state and country, and they never lost. They collected 11 national and state championships by the time Bridges left the group in 1966 and dozens more after. They were invited to countless parades and events, and even ended up getting invited to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” though they were unable to raise the money needed to get to the show in New York City.
So what set the French Dukes apart from the other teams?
“We were very creative. It was remarkable,” Bridges explained, adding that the team members were also dedicated and worked extremely hard at perfecting their moves.
The Dukes had a signature karate step that was popular, and their uniforms were always impeccable.
“We knew when we put on a show we didn’t want to look bad; we wanted to look good,” Bridges said. “And when we got done we wanted people to stand up and applaud.”
For several months, the Dukes have been practicing three to four times a week in preparation for their reunion show. The youngest Duke is 45 years old while Bridges is the oldest at 60.
“It’s really tiring because we’re old, but we still can do it,” Bell laughed. “It’s taking a little time to get real, real sharp, but we’re working on it.”
They say the most important part of the performance will be renewing interest in the precision drill team. Already they have a small group working with French Duke Larry Young Jr. .
“We want to give them something to keep out of juvenile delinquency, ” Bridges said.
But on Saturday, around 20 French Dukes will see if they’ve still got their steps.
“I keep getting messages on Facebook from people asking ’Are those really the same French Dukes? ’ They remember us from when we were kids and a lot of people are excited to come and watch us again,” Bridges said.