Don P. Roberts is probably the only high school band director with top credits on both a blockbuster film and hit stage production.
“I direct a theatrical production and work with movies, but I’m a band director by trade,” he says.
Roberts gained national attention as the executive band consultant for hit film “Drumline,” showcasing the marching band tradition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
He went on to adapt the film’s concept into smash show “DRUMline Live.”
Before all of that, though, he was co-director of bands for Southwest DeKalb High School in Georgia.
But he was very good at it.
Under his direction, the band was selected to perform in the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, as well as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1997.
“It was one of the most popular band programs in the country,” Roberts says.
Fame Comes Calling
No wonder he received a call in 2000 from the office of Dallas Austin, Grammy winning record and film producer.
“They said, ‘Grammy-winning Dallas Austin wants to come to your band rehearsal,’” Roberts recalls. “I didn’t know he was a fan of my band program.”
Soon after, a fleet of luxury cars pulled up to his high school, with Austin stepping out.
The producer observed a full rehearsal, then asked Roberts if he’d like to consult for a movie.
“Honestly, I didn’t take him seriously,” Roberts says. “Lo and behold in 2002, I got a phone call and it was 20th Century Fox. The rest was history.”
Making a Movie
Making “Drumline” was “one of the coolest projects I’ve ever done,” Roberts says.
As band consultant, he trained the actors on their instruments, wrote the movie’s many precision drills, and even rehearsed the band.
Roberts admits it was sometimes exhausting.
“People don’t realize that scenes where it looked like it was morning, we shot at 2 or 3 a.m.,” he says.
As shooting progressed, he realized it was the first movie of such magnitude ever made about marching bands.
“The more we got into it, the more I saw how incredible this project was,” he says.
The HBCU Tradition
He wasn’t the only one to think so.
After the film was released, he received a flood of calls from the band leaders of HBCU institutions across the country praising his work.
“Legendary band directors called me and said ‘You made us proud, putting us on the map in terms of our culture,’” Roberts says. “That was the proudest thing for me.”
Marching bands play a significant role in HBCU tradition, he says.
Many football games even include zero and fifth quarters for additional marching band performances.
“During the course of 10 weeks in a football season, you can see eight or 10 different marching band shows,” he says.
Stage and Television
This demand led Roberts to eventually create “DRUMline Live,” spotlighting top marching band performances on stages around the world.
While the movie was fun, nothing beats seeing these performances live, he says.
“Everything we do (in the show) is very true,” he says. “People can see (top marching band performances) on stage without going across the country.”
“DRUMLine Live” runs at The Smith Center on January 26 and 27. For tickets, visit www.thesmithcenter.com/event/drumline.
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