An interview with author of new book about Don Warren and The Cavaliers

Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 17).

The roll-out of the new book, “Building the Green Machine: Don Warren and Sixty Years with the World Champion Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps”, took place in early December. Author Colt Foutz has been working on the project for the past several years after a chance meeting with Don Warren and his wife Jan as a result of an article on The Cavaliers’ Naperville show in the local newspaper.

The 450-page, hardcover book, with a beautiful full-color dustcover and several dozen short messages from a wide spectrum of drum corps personalities, covers the Cavaliers organization from humble beginnings in 1948 to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the corps and Warren’s presidency through the six decades.

Don has been telling me for quite a few years that he intended to put his experiences into a book and the result is a fascinating overview of a performing group that has stood the test of time, like only a handful of other drum and bugle corps, to survive into the 21st Century and still be among the elite.

Colt and I have corresponded over the last year and I wanted to include some questions about the process of how the book came to the launch date.

Steve Vickers: Tell me a little about how you and Don connected?

Colt Foutz: In 2004, I worked as a reporter and columnist for the Naperville Sun. I covered city government, actually. But with my musical background — I majored in composition and minored in conducting at Carnegie Mellon University — I brought a lot to stories about bands, choirs, orchestra, anything musical.

The Sun’s features editor, Nichole Roller, handpicked me to write about The Cavaliers and their inaugural home show in Naperville that July. I had never heard of drum corps before, beyond a few high school classmates in Ohio attending Bluecoats clinics. But I was president of my high school marching band and played trumpet and baritone.

Nikki’s main editorial instructions for me were: “Show how hard these kids work.” And in the article, I did that. I drew on my marching background and my fraternal background as an Eagle Scout and with other groups to show the hard work, hustle, mind-blowing musical chops and camaraderie that characterize The Cavaliers and other drum corps.

The article received a rave response, much more than I was used to, and I’d covered some pretty juicy topics as an investigative reporter.

Later that summer, I got a call from Jan Warren, Don’s wife. She told me that she loved the article and figured I must have marched in drum corps.

I told her I hadn’t and that got us talking about writing, my career goals and so forth. I’d been itching to get to something longer and she started filling me in on Don’s long tenure and the Cavaliers’ amazing history. We agreed to meet for lunch in Naperville that November.

SV: When did you formalize the agreement to complete this semi-biography of “the Old Man” — the affectionate moniker the members bestowed on Warren early in the corps’ history — and his group of Boy Scouts that has transformed into a perennial DCI Champion?

CF: Well, Jan had told me that for years Don had been telling stories — hilarious insider tales — of his life in drum corps and that Cavaliers backers and others had been telling him, “you gotta get this down in writing.”

As I learned the scope of Don’s experience and the interesting arc of the Cavaliers’ story — their success in the Golden Age of the VFW and American Legion in drum corps; Don’s role in starting DCI, with which the Cavaliers and many other corps struggled; and their ultimate comeback in today’s drum corps activity — I saw that I could do much more with this.

The story of the Cavaliers is the story of his life and of so many others’ lives. If the initial newspaper article was about showing who the Cavaliers’ guys are, this book could shine a light on the entire activity — what it was like in the post-World War II years, how it’s changed, how certain qualities are lasting.

I basically agreed to bring all my talents as a reporter and writer and musician to bear in chronicling this story for a general audience, and Don agreed to be my ticket in. His life was my focus. It’s been a rewarding partnership for both of us.

SV: Did you spend a lot of time with past and present members of The Cavaliers as you researched your subject?

CF: Oh yes. I attended my first Cavaliers camp in December 2004 with Don, and he and I met, basically, every other weekend through spring 2006, every weekend we could spare. Once I had a good base of research — from Don’s individual memories and sources like the corps’ 50th-anniversary yearbook — we invited groups of alumni to Don’s condo and I began working through the decades: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s on up through today.

I’d interview around five to seven Cavaliers, including Don, in each session, generating about 50 pages of notes and plenty of material to spark further questions. All told, I interviewed more than 200 people for this book, including members, alumni, parents and instructors, plus fans and folks throughout drum corps.

I spent a week on the road with The Cavaliers in 2005 and attended events like their year-end banquet and the 2006 DCI Finals. This all contributed to around 2,000 pages of notes and a journalistic approach to the activity.

I wanted to give readers an idea of what it was like to be there from the people who lived it. The access granted to me by Don and The Cavaliers, and the generosity of so many people who agreed to be interviewed, made this inside look possible.

SV: Not coming from a drum corps background, how quickly did you get into the topic and grasp the meaningfulness and scope of Don’s passion?

CF: Very quickly. Coming from a Boy Scout and marching band background, my youth — it sounds funny to me, at 31, saying that — was enriched by my musical and fraternal experiences. I wouldn’t be the guy I am today without it.

Looking at The Cavaliers’ history, I asked myself, what traditions are important to them? How did being in drum corps change their lives? What are the lessons they carry with them still? Plus, I could sense very early on that part of being successful, being world-class, as corps is, is knowing when and how to cut loose.

This is fun for these guys — not life or death. I could definitely identify with that; that crazy, smart-aleck side to The Cavaliers, and I worked to bring that side out, too, in the writing. The story ultimately springs from Don’s life and how The Cavaliers’ story reflects that.

I worked to find those parallels so I could tell both stories simultaneously, but from the beginning I had a definite approach and definite ideas. I worked from the outline I made in November 2004 pretty much all the way through revisions. The main arc was there: rise, fall, comeback.

SV: You’re marketing the book heavily through all the regular drum corps outlets, but will it be available through book stores or

CF: Yes. The publisher, Savas Beatie, knows we’re trying something new here, getting into a new market — drum corps and marching music — that is very passionate and very literate, but not used to having a book like this out there. So it’s available first through The Cavaliers, which is the only place you can get first editions autographed by me and by Don Warren, which is a classy touch.

In summer, in time for the drum corps season, the book will be released in the traditional markets: you can find the book or order it at your local bookstore, or find it on Amazon and other retailers. But if you want to get it now and support The Cavaliers, there’s one place to go.

SV: Does the publisher, Savas Beatie, specialize in this type of book?

CF: Savas Beatie buttered its bread through military history. It has made a name for itself in military titles, especially on the Civil War, and that’s the market it knows. So this is something new for them and a great leap of faith.

We made the connection there through Gary Moore, a Cavaliers alumnus who authored the forward for “Building the Green Machine”. His wonderful book about his father, “Playing With the Enemy”, had great success with Savas Beatie and features a first page with just one word on it: “Splooie.”

That intrigued Ted Savas, but getting the chance to read about the tradition that Gary and so many others hold dear sold him on the story.

SV: The individuals whose comments are published in the book all got advance copies or the first few chapters, myself included. They obviously had a lot of interesting things to note in their short reactions. What kind of response have you received now that the book is in “general circulation”?

CF: This is the fun part, obviously. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. What have been my favorite reactions? I loved hearing about the guys who, as soon as they got the book, sat down for, like, six hours straight and read it cover to cover.

“But it felt like two!” one told me. That’s what I like hearing. I loved seeing the two 2005 Cavaliers who came for a reading I gave at my graduate school, sit there with big, tittering grins the whole time, hearing the old stories as well as the ones they participated in.

And the reaction that tells me I nailed it: when guys from the old days tell me, “You know, these kids today, they aren’t so different from us.” Exactly.

Because I think there’s this perception, you know, that as much as drum corps has changed, the kids must be practically aliens now, and they’re not. They’re drum corps kids, always have been. That was an important discovery for me in the writing and I hope will be a pleasure for old-timers and kids today as well.

SV: There are a number of other authors who have books out now about not only drum corps experiences, but also marching band. Do you see a trend toward more people putting their thoughts down on paper and publishing similar books?

CF: I hope so. It’s an incredible and largely untapped audience. Your own drum corps encyclopedias and the success in selling that run, should be a clue to the wealth of history and stories that are out there to discover. And it can be tapped through many styles, many genres: there is general history, biography, narrative journalism, which are the categories I feel my book falls into.

But then you have Jeremy Van Wert, writing a memoir of his time in the Santa Clara Vanguard; there’s Greg Kuzma, keeping a diary of his season with the Blue Knights; and Courtney Brandt, writing a novel about a high school drum line.

The readers are out there if you give them what they’ve hungered for: honest stories with heart that understand the activity for what it is, and don’t dumb it down or take shortcuts. Books that are as smart as the activity.

SV: How can subscribers to Drum Corps World order a copy?

CF: Well, you can read more about the book, and browse photos, excerpts and music, and interact with me at That site also links you to The Cavaliers’ store at, where you can purchase the book for direct delivery to you.
The book is also available by writing the Cavaliers at Cavalier Promotions Inc., P. O. Box 723, Rosemont, IL 60018 and sending $29.99 plus $7.00 for UPS insured shipping.

For multiple orders, or to order by phone, just call 847-685-8412. The book will also be available at most shows and events The Cavaliers’ souvenir wagon travels to this season. For instance, we’ll be at WGI Finals in Dayton in April.

SV: Any other comments you’d like to add?

CF: That I hope many more will discover and enjoy drum corps and marching music through the book. The Cavaliers are the window through which I made that discovery and present the activity for readers, and so this book truly is for everyone: alumni, parents, the diehard fan and the newcomer alike.

It’s a slice of American life that deserves attention because of all the great people who dedicate their lives to it and make it possible.

Don Warren’s story and the story of The Cavaliers is one that so many people have in common. That’s my pitch, sure, but I sincerely believe it.

So you, who are reading this, spread the word, share the news: it’s good news and a great story, being written every summer!

Thank you, Steve. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

SV: Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to my questons about your new book. I hope sales soar and maybe you’ll run across another individual or corps in the activity who deserves to tell their story. This one about Don Warren and The Cavaliers is definitely fascinating and worth the read!