Company Front – Issue 2
The Winter Season of a Drum Corps Lifer
Drum corps kids have called Don Warren “the Old Man” since he was a teenager.
Sixty years later, the nickname fits like plume to shako. Warren, founder of The Cavaliers and their president since the Truman administration, is as classic as a single-valve G bugle.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking the times have passed him by.
Warren is as devoted to drum corps – and as frank in his opinions – as he was when he stalked the sideline as Cavaliers director from 1948-73. His pulse rate still rises and falls with the outcome of each contest.
I’ve witnessed firsthand his continuing love affair with drum corps, even as he approaches 80. During the last two years we spent more Saturdays together than either of us can count, conducting interviews and reanimating the past for my book about his life in the activity and an inside look at the Cavaliers, Building the Green Machine.
The man tells some outrageous stories. About the time, for instance, the fledgling Cavaliers were preparing to dangle each other off a New York City hotel roof in the name of brotherhood. Or the way his cigars often broadcast who’d won shows in the 1960s. Or how he thought up the idea for the Midwest Combine – which morphed in 1972 into a little outfit called Drum Corps International – while standing at a stadium urinal. Really.
The guy’s a living drum corps library.
Which is why, even after devoting 400 pages to him, I still take advantage of times I get to pick his brain.
One of these instances occurred during this summer’s DCI quarterfinals. Cadets director George Hopkins had just led his corps off the field, petitioning for a solution to vanishing line markings. The jeers and boos in the big multiplex in suburban Chicago were as simmering with vitriol as the ones in Pasadena. Don was seated a few rows down – we’d separated in the packed theater after sharing dinner – and so I wondered: what did the Old Man think?
It’s funny. For as competitive as the guy still is, he’s as pragmatic as your mother’s oatmeal. We talked about instances where Warren fought for his Cavaliers. It was never a matter of whether he’d get the smile and handshake from rival directors or cheers from the crowd. He wanted what was best for his kids.
One such instance occurred 50 years prior. The Cavaliers were fighting for what would be their first VFW national championship, in 1957. There were murmurs that hot Miami night about the Cavaliers being penalized because, in those days, you had to exit the field after the warning gun had fired and before the final gun went off. Judges said the Cavaliers exited too soon.
But when Warren pressed them for the time the Cavaliers had entered, and the time the Cavaliers had exited, the judges didn’t have any data. With no proof, the penalty was stricken. The Cavaliers won.
Speaking of fighting for your kids, earlier that evening Warren had noticed a crowd of eastern priests gathered around the scoring tables. This was back when nearly every corps was attached to a church. So these were rival corps managers. Whether or not anything hinky was going on, it didn’t look right. When Warren asked about it, though, he was told in nicer terms to get lost. These were priests.
Fuming, Warren stalked the stadium grounds and came upon a white piece of cardboard in the trash which he tucked under his collar and wore when he returned to the tables. A flabbergasted – and likely amused – contest director Tony Schlechta granted Warren his point. The priests were dismissed, the tables kept clear of corps influence.
How’s that for erring on the side of unpopularity to help your corps?
It’s been a pleasure for me the last couple years to revel in stories like this, to trace drum corps from the days of the VFW and American Legion to today’s all-out-sprinting artistry with a guy who, despite all the changes, some of which he helped institute, cares as much about the kids as when they were buddies from his neighborhood.
I thought this week I’d give you the chance to pick Don Warren’s brain. Or, at least, do it vicariously. In a recent conversation, we touched on 2007 programs, modern drum corps, DCI’s move to Indianapolis, and what a “classic” looks for from the future.
As always, the Old Man spoke his mind.
CF: Let’s talk about the season just ended. Since 1952, when The Cavaliers attended their first American Legion national championship in New York City, you’ve only missed two season-ending contests – DCI in 1980, when you were recovering from heart surgery, and Pasadena this year, when driving would have proven difficult. (Warren, 79, has sworn off airplane travel all his life.) How did you tune in to the championships?
DW: Well, Thursday night for the quarterfinals we went to the theater to watch it on the big screen. And Friday night, my son-in-law (former Schaumburg Guardsman and Cavalier Dan Noel) got it on webcast, I believe they call it, and then transferred it to his big screen television at home. So, we watched quarterfinals and semifinals. Unfortunately, I had to wait until September 5, I think it was, and saw finals. We went to my son-in-law’s – I can get ESPN, but I like it on his big screen. And he feeds me.
CF: What took your attention about the performances this year? What stood out about the Cavaliers and about rival corps?
DW: Well, I thought basically, overall, most of the corps have been better in the last two, three years. Unfortunately, the championships are still amongst three or four corps. Well, of course I’d like to win them all, but I’d like to see other corps get into the challenge. It makes it more exciting. Because it doesn’t do much good to have one corps win all the time. There’s no competition that way.
I liked Carolina Crown. I don’t know, I just thought they played well. Maybe I was a little surprised they’re coming on as strong as they are. That encouraged me. And I thought they performed well. I wasn’t totally excited about their show. I mean they did a good job of it, but I didn’t feel it was really the most outstanding program. But they did it well. They play well, and I did overall enjoy them. It was clever. I guess I think that they could do better, and probably will.
The Blue Devils, as usual, played very well. Again, I don’t think they do much in the way of drill and general effect, overall. And to me, that helped them play well, when they’re standing more than moving, although they did move.
As much as I do not like the microphones – in fact, I think that kept the Cadets from winning – I thought the Cadets have one of the cleanest shows out there. Of course, the Cadets always do a good job. They played well again, and I thought their show – other than the constant interruption of the talking, which took away from it – without looking at the recap, my guess would be that their horn and drum line had to be right up there.
I thought the Bluecoats – I can’t say they disappointed me, because they were good, and I liked their show – but they kind of dropped from earlier in the season, which kind of surprised me. But I liked their show. It was just all-around pretty well done.
(On his own corps): Well, I guess I’m making an excuse, but from early on I thought that we would have a fight on our hands. I did not feel that we were as strong as we’ve been in the past. In playing ability. I think our drill was still the finest out there, and of course our guard won, and we were outstanding there. We had a lot of talent out there, but a lot of inexperience. Not only younger, but just plain new. We aged out a lot after ’06, and of course ’06 was an outstanding show. … So I think the corps did an outstanding job under the circumstances.
CF: We’ll see more from this group of guys in the future?
DW: Oh yeah. We’ll buy microphones for everybody. (And he laughs.)
CF: Anybody’s style remind you of the old days?
DW: Not really. First of all, I think the thing that’s changed drillwise is color guard. Back in the old days, the color guard moved, but there might have been three to six people in color guard. And when they moved around the biggest thing was the flag presentation! (He chuckles.) I think there’s such a big difference in what all color guards do today. I mean, they’re very much a part, in fact they’re a very good part of the overall program, so that’s the biggest change. Very athletic, very showmanlike.
And then of course I think there’s overall more talent today than there was back then. Especially in the beginning of when the Cavaliers entered, back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. (Today) you have hundreds of kids auditioning; back then we drugged them, chloroformed them and dragged them up into the headquarters, and taught them how to play. These kids are doing amazing things, playing.
CF: Who’s really pushing the envelope today – setting the bar highest for competition?
DW: Well, I would say since the end of the ‘90s, ’98 on up, there’s about five corps that really push the bar. We, of course, won five out of eight years, so we set the bar pretty high there. But other corps that do: I was, in ’06, very concerned that Phantom Regiment was gonna be maybe too close for comfort. Oh, they did really well! Well, they always play well. And I don’t know who won drums this year (Blue Devils did) – I know they won it in ’06. To me, their problem is their drill and program doesn’t keep up. I don’t think anybody should have beaten us in ’06, though.
But um, unfortunately, it’s the same: in the last eight to 10 years, it’s always been the same four corps: Cavaliers, Blue Devils, Cadets and Phantom Regiment. Now, Carolina Crown is moving fast.
CF: And Santa Clara made moves over the final weekend, improving their placing.
DW: More power to ‘em. I watched them, but I didn’t quite follow them.
Certainly, the Cadets do different things, but it doesn’t necessarily elevate the competition. They went from fifth (in ’06) to second, which is a big jump. They may have won this ’07 show had they not been on the mics. Who knows? I don’t want to be critical of anybody, I have my own favorite corps, the corps I really enjoy watching. I watch the Devils primarily because I want to see how good they are. They always have a good horn line, an entertaining horn line. Phantom Regiment, their playing is outstanding.
CF: As someone who’s long been recognized as an innovator – coming up with the idea of the Midwest Combine and being a cofounder of DCI – where do you think the activity has to grow next?
DW: Where do we go from here? Well, I don’t like the idea of turning it into bands. There are plenty of bands, and we don’t need another band championship somewhere. So that would be very disappointing. Our instrumentation, I think, has gone as far as it should go. If we become just bands, we’re gonna lose a lot of following, a lot of people. Not that I don’t like bands – but we’re different.
It’s a toughie (talking about the future). Reaching the age I’ve reached, I’m not really looking too far ahead as to where drum corps may go. A couple of new corps coming up excite me, they seem to be handled properly. It costs so much money that there are limits to how many corps there will be, I think. And of course you have to get dedicated people to take them, to run them. The Academy is just getting started in Division I; they seem to be doing very well. And I guess the other one I’m thinking of – (the Troopers) – is really not a new corps by any means, but they’ve returned, and they’ve returned pretty good, and I think they can only go forward. They were an outstanding corps, and different for their time, of course. I believe the first I saw the Troopers was in Seattle, Washington (in 1963), and I wasn’t impressed with them, and I wasn’t concerned about them at the time. But I was interested in them. They were so different. And sooner or later, they beat us.
The disappointing thing that I see, some of these corps are changing their uniforms, and I think they lose sight of longevity. Certainly, the Cadets, they not only haven’t changed their colors – one year, they kind of changed slightly, but they still kept their colors – but they probably have the longest-standing uniform of anybody. Now, Santa Clara keeps their style of uniforms since they came into existence. And the Blue Devils pretty much, too. And maybe it’s the old school coming out in me, but I admire that. I like the fact that we changed our uniform (in the 1980s), ‘cause I think this uniform fits us a little better namewise and so on, and I think it’s a nice-looking uniform. It’s not the uniform we started with – but the colors are the same: green, black and white. I think it lets people identify with you so much easier. The biggest thing is the public can identify with you.
Drum corps, to me, is a fantastic youth activity. And I hope in the future they do not lose the reason there is a drum corps and Drum Corps International: it’s for the purpose of youth. In other words, we don’t want to put drum corps and Drum Corps International out of business because of poor judgment, nor do we want to reduce the number of drum corps. We want to add – to reach more kids that way. I’d rather see more corps than end up putting 300 members, like a band, out on the field. You couldn’t move like drum corps does with that.
CF: About DCI’s move to Indianapolis – how will this help drum corps? What excites you about the move?
DW: It doesn’t excite me that they’re moving. But I can see benefits to it. Now, whether those benefits are going to end up being benefits, I don’t know and nobody’s gonna know. I like the idea that I believe housing will settle itself in over the years at the championships, and the locale will get used to having the championships and be more cooperative. It’s a lot easier going back to the same place, getting the same stadium, getting the same housing. Everybody’s more cooperative. When you come once every four or five years, people aren’t too interested in you. So from that standpoint, I think DCI is making a good move.
The second good thing about it is it’s in the central part of the country, and with all this bus-riding and fuel charges and so on, it kind of evens out the distance. Now, fortunately, we probably benefit the most from that category.
The bad part of it is it’s the same old place every year. I mean, you’re not going to Boston, going to California, going to Atlanta, here and there: the excitement of something new and different is gone. But I don’t think we can really say it’s a good (or bad) move until we’ve been there a while. Right now I can see the benefits to it.
CF: One change: Addison is practically in your backyard. I’m sure they’re going to miss you over there.
DW: As I said to (DCI executive director) Dan Acehson, he’d do anything to get away from me. Now I would go over to see Dan once or twice a year – purposefully, not so I bugged them. But Dan has done a tremendous job with DCI, and if he feels this is a good move, I would certainly give it a shot because I do see some benefit. And would back him on it. If that makes any difference.
CF: What strikes you the most about kids today – how are they different from the boys you led back in the 1940s through the 1970s?
DW: Well, first of all they’re higher average age in drum corps. Older kids. Today, every kid, or 99 percent of the kids (it seems), are college-bound. And with all the communications that are available today, there’s more of an overall opportunity of them being a lot more educated than they were back in the fifties and sixties. And of course there’s a lot more money floating around today.
CF: What hasn’t changed? What do you still delight in and recognize in these kids?
DW: Well, I don’t travel today, of course. I haven’t traveled in years, so I don’t know what shenanigans (they engage in) and what enjoyment they have. In the olden days, actually, we had more play time on the road coming and going than we had work time. That’s not the case today. Kids are in it for a lot of different reasons. They audition; they’re talented; they’re more into the music end and so forth. Years back, we took kids off the street and taught them to play. And I’d say whichever corps had the best street gang won! That’s not the case today. We don’t teach them (how to play), we teach them the show, we teach them the music that they play, and so on. “To play it, you blow in this end and it comes out there” – that’s long gone.
But as far as the kids themselves are concerned, I think they’re just as excited to be in a corps. They dedicate themselves to it, as did the others. They’re not able to be in it as long because they start later, but whatever corps they join, I think they’re very proud of it.
CF: For the last two and a half years, we’ve been chronicling your life in drum corps, a story that spans 60 years and comes out this December in Building the Green Machine. What was your favorite part of working on the book?
DW: Well, in working on the book, I think the most favorite part was starting with the 1948-55 and 1955-65 alumni that would come to talk and give their stories. To see those old-timers again – I’m very proud of myself that I was able to recognize the guys from the original Boy Scouts and so on. Remember, I wasn’t too much older than they were. I think the first time we went to New York, my drum major was 19 and I was 23! It was great fun to talk to ‘em, hear what they had to say. And we did it for almost two years. So that, and of course now I’m getting excited ‘cause the book is about ready to come out and I sincerely hope everybody will enjoy it.
CF: What do you hope readers come away with?
DW: It’s not only about the Cavaliers. There’s a lot of things in it that occurred over the 60 years involving drum corps (at large). The biggest single change, of course, was from the veterans groups to DCI. Everybody in it today will get a kick out of how the corps started, and what the kids did. At least in our corps, being all male, why it might have been a little rougher than the others, I don’t know, shenanigans. First of all, they had more time back then, and people will realize that. Secondly, the competition was more… not technically more competitive – they were more diehard; not that kids today don’t work to win, I don’t mean that at all. I mean they would nickname a drum corps, say we gotta beat those ——–, whatever. I mean, they could be friends, too, but there was a competitiveness that was really deep. On occasion, there were fights that would happen.
Of course, I certainly feel I did my part in drum corps, not only by founding the Cavaliers, but having the idea to organize ourselves, which ended up being DCI. Over 4,000 boys have gone through our corps, and with DCI, I don’t know how many thousands more, which is what it’s all about to me. I don’t know, I just feel it’s been a very good thing for young people. It was going before I got into it, and of course, now I’ve been in it 60 years. And I hope it goes on for another 60 years, including the Green Machine.
CF: Next summer will mark the Cavaliers’ 60th. How does it feel, contemplating all those summers?
DW: It makes me feel pretty old! It’s been an exciting run. I’ve met lots of people – 90 percent good – and of course a lot of young people. I’ve enjoyed them. When I traveled with them they were really fun. And I think they’re fun kids today. It’s just that I don’t spend the time with them as much. That’s (Cavaliers director) Jeff (Fiedler’s) job now.
The Cavaliers organization has had five directors in 60 years. (He falls silent.)
CF: What does that mean to you?
DW: It means there’s a closeness, a brotherhood if you want to use that term. And excluding myself – I guess ‘cause I never marched in the drum corps; I was always the director or manager – other than two years where we had a gentleman as director who was not an alum, other than that, our directors were all alumni.
CF: Uh, you may not have worn a uniform, Don, but when you go back to the neighborhood, when you were the original Cavaliers’ scoutmaster and buddies with them, just because you can’t play an instrument worth a darn doesn’t mean you’re not one of them.
DW: Well, I do play a mean radio, that’s what I tell them. But it’s their corps. I just ran it. So aside from me, there’s been Dan Heeres (1974-78), an alum; Adolph DeGrauwe (1979, 1982-90), an alum; and Jeff Fiedler since. Jeff’s been with me and the Cavaliers since he was 13 years old. And it’s gotta be 33 to 35 years, somewhere in there, that he’s been with us. So he knows the Cavaliers, he’s into drum corps. He’s not going to run it like I run it, but then, nobody does the same thing the same way. And times change. I think he does a great job.
CF: What should fans look for, what special surprises might be coming their way in your anniversary year?
DW: All decisions haven’t been made, yet there’s big plans. We’ll have to see what the alumni does. They’re planning on having an alumni corps. They’re talking about expanding our color guard. And music-wise, I’m not sure yet, it’s a little early. They’re working on it.
CF: How does the founder of the Cavaliers and longest-tenured president in drum corps keep busy these days? How are you still involved in the day-to-day of the corps?
DW: I focus on doing a lot less than I used to. I used to do everything. I’ve had good people all these years. I mean, Don Heitzman, the treasurer, has been with me 40 years, plus the time he was a member. Jeff, and (transportation manager) Adolph (DeGrauwe) – I mean, I could go on and on. I’ve been very fortunate that way. Besides being lucky – I mean, we have a one-and-only sponsor. I couldn’t ask for a better sponsor in the Village of Rosemont. Well, I still, if there’s a problem going on somewhere in the corps, I get very much involved. I’m still president. I try not to micromanage, but at times there are things, things don’t go the way I’d like, or at least I’d like an explanation. Unfortunately it’s my responsibility to handle the corps’ insurance (Don was an insurance professional for more than three decades), and it’s a lot of work. But I love it. Obviously. I’d have to, or I’d be a complete idiot, doing it this long!
CF: Finally, will we see you in Indianapolis next August?
DW: The good lord willing.
CF: What are you looking forward to from drum corps in your 80th year?
DW: Winning. A good show, and hopefully winning. And I think we’ll have it, a good show.
Company Front is a regular series of articles and essays, written by a group of young authors that have published books related to the marching arts. You’ll find all of the issues of Company Front by clicking here.
In six years as a journalist in Ohio and the Chicago suburbs, Colt Foutz won fifteen state and national awards for his newspaper writing. Foutz was president of his high school marching band and studied music composition at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a B.A. in creative writing. Foutz is a Follett Fellow and Getz scholar in the M.F.A. writing program at Columbia College Chicago. His essays have been featured on Chicago Public Radio and in Chicago Parent magazine, among others. His book, Building the Green Machine, tells the story of the Cavaliers and founder Don Warren, and drum corps history before and after DCI. He lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and son. The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author, who may be reached by writing to CFoutz [at] drumcorpsplanet [dot] com?subject=Question%20from%20DCP%20Company%20Front.