Kevin Riordan: Celebrating Audubon's 'Bon-Bons'

Helen Davis Miller (center), Carol Terreri (left), Coleen Donovan. "Those of us who had nothing . . . had an experience we never would have had," Donovan says.
Helen Davis Miller (center), Carol Terreri (left), Coleen Donovan. "Those of us who had nothing . . . had an experience we never would have had," Donovan says. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 31, 2013

No matter how hot the sun, long the day, or tough the competition, a "Bon-Bon" never fainted.

"We weren't allowed to," laughs Helen Davis Miller, a majorette in what was formally called the Audubon All-Girl Drum and Bugle Corps.

This homegrown marching ensemble - mothers made the costumes, fathers drove the tour buses - was founded by a patriotic and civic-minded Audubon couple, Joseph and Florence Bernert, in 1938.

The Bon-Bons lasted less than 40 years, a casualty of rising costs and changing tastes. But Miller and two other veterans I meet on a recent afternoon - around a table covered in Bon-Bon-abilia - insist the music has never really stopped.

"Those of us who had nothing, who came from nothing, had an experience we never would have had," says Coleen Dougherty Donovan, 53, who marched from 1969 until the group disbanded in 1977.

"It was family," says Carol Pennisi Terreri, who later married a fellow from another drum corps and still marches with a senior outfit in North Jersey.

For decades, hundreds of mostly working-class South Jersey girls between the ages of 9 and 21 - the mandatory retirement age - learned the drills and earned the pride that went with being a Bon-Bon.

The girls, most from Audubon and neighboring towns, went toe-to-toe with boys' groups and toured the nation at a time when patriotism, rather than show business, inspired local marching ensembles - before college bands, corporate sponsorships, and slick marketing transformed drum corps.

Not that the Bon-Bons (a nickname bestowed by a '50s magazine scribe) were unimpressive, mind you.

"One of our biggest years, we had 60 horns, 30 drummers, and 20 flags," says Donovan, 53, a day-spa owner who lives in Edgewood, Md.

"We went to 38 states and Canada," adds Miller, 75, of Woodbury, whose extended family included nine Bon-Bons, chaperones, or other volunteers.

"We were different from the other kids in high school," Donovan says. By the '70s, if an outsider saw a girls' bugle troupe as a bit . . . square, "I'd think, 'You have no idea what we do. We travel the country.' "

In military regalia and later in the cowboy-inspired costumes that became its signature, the corps moved with painstaking, breathtaking precision. Not a hair out of place and no scuffs on those polished white boots; the secret to pristine footwear, Miller says, was "to walk like a duck."

Year-round practice sessions and exacting behavioral requirements of all sorts (no makeup, no lateness) made for a tough program. But the Bon-Bons had a sisterhood, a camaraderie, and a pride inspired by "JB and Mrs. B."

The Bernerts, both gone for decades now, had two sons - and countless "daughters" through the Bon-Bons, says Donovan.

Their son Bill helped keep the legacy alive, inspiring former members to form a chorus 20 years ago (it still performs regularly) and attending reunions until his death in 2012.

Earlier this year, the Audubon Celebrations Committee invited the Bon-Bons to be a centerpiece of the borough's Fourth of July celebration. About 35 of the ladies joined the parade.

No bugles, no bass drums - just the Bon-Bons, some marching smartly on foot, others riding on a flatbed, past the high school and the crowds lining the streets.

"I don't see too well," says Miller. "But I could hear people yelling, 'Helen! Helen!' "

"I felt amazement," Terreri says.

"So many people remembered us."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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