R.I.P., Mickey Toperzer

(NOTE: Reposting this by request. The original post, itself a repost from a Washington City Paper piece I wrote in 1994, got lost in the Great WordPress Upgrade Disaster of ’13)

Frank “Mickey” Toperzer passed away on Oct. 12. He was the owner of Drums Unlimited on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda, when Bethesda was a place where you could open a small shop selling only drums.

Below is the article I wrote about him for Washington City Paper, almost 20 years ago. I was still fairly new at the journalism game and I started the interview with some question that did not meet Mickey’s approval. “Stop. Turn of the recorder,” he said sternly. Startled, I did as he ordered. He then informed me that my question was so foolishly broad and uninformed that it was impossible to answer and that it would only make me seem foolish. Then he told me the question I was really trying to ask and we started again.

mickey toperzer

I’ve been told that Mickey kept a copy of the article in his shop, framed a bit sideways–because he felt it would catch people’s eyes better if it was off-kilter and then they’d stop and read it. A perfect example of how how Mickey’s mind worked.

The reason I wrote the article is that I worked at Drums Unlimited right after high school and knew Mickey to be an entertaining raconteur, among other things. It was a great experience and Mickey taught me many lessons that I didn’t know I was learning until years later.

Drums Unlimited made much of its money renting equipment, any and everything for a band, school, and orchestra. For a symphony gig at the Kennedy Center, the store came up short for seats. So Mickey gave me the keys to his house and told me to grab the bar stools from the basement. And I was also to pack up his son’s drum set. He’d rented that, too.

When Burt Bacharach was playing the Kennedy Center, his drummer complained that the cymbal stand he’d rented from Drums Unlimited wasn’t tall enough. Highly annoyed by this affront to common sense, Mickey cobbled together a frankenstand that was probably 12 feet tall. I got in the van and drove it down to the KenCen. Because I was a clueless teen with no perspective, I just burst into the rehearsal room, interrupting the musicians, and walked the ridiculous piece of hardware right to the drummer. There were some laughs and a confused, then stern look from Burt. I don’t know who the drummer was–he could have been one of the Wrecking Crew who played on many of the original Bacharach-David songs. I hope I didn’t get him fired.

Much of my time was spent delivering equipment to and picking it up from the newly-opened Kennedy Center. In fact, Drums Unlimited rented several tympani and a large bass drum to the National Symphony for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass,” which officially opened the Center. Even though Jackie Kennedy was just one floor above me, I remember being annoyed that the ovation went on and on and on, making me wait so long to pick up the gear.

That was the real treat of the job — wandering around the still half-completed building, underneath the public spaces. One day I poked through a door and found myself standing on the stage in the empty Opera House. I took in the grandeur, took a bow, and snuck out quickly.

In exchange for the keys to the van, I had to wear overalls with a Drums Unlimited logo. One day after a delivery I was heading to the vending machines by the dressing rooms when I spotted a tall man with long but well-coiffed hair who was wearing platform shoes and carrying a purse. Well, it looked like a purse. It was probably a standard messenger bag, but in the early 1970s guys did not carry bags, nor wear platform shoes. At least none of my high school pals did.

But, because I watched The Tonight Show religiously, I recognized Robert Klein, who was appearing in a play. As he passed, I smartly called out, “Robert Klein.” He gave me and my overalls a snooty once-over and replied, “Drums Unlimited,” and continued on his way. I never much cared for him after that.

Also, when I tried to score points by bragging to my friends that I had seen Robert Klein, nobody knew who he was. Rubes.

Then there was the time I was hauling a couple of tympani drums back to the van, I got snagged trying to lug one down the stairs, tripped, and fell head-over-tympani. Bang, crash, boom, indeed.

Another time, I peeled out from the light at Wisconsin and Bradley on my way to the KenCen. At the next light, a driver frantically caught my attention — the 28-inch bass drum had fallen out the unlocked back door and rolled down the road.

I believe I was making $1.35 an hour — minimum wage at the time. After a while, tired of Mickey calling me at home at night to give me instructions on where I had to be the next morning, I asked for a raise — to $1.65 an hour. I was promptly told that my services were no longer required.

Bang the Drum Profitably

It’s been 32 years since Frank “Mickey” Topics hung the small sign over the door of his shop on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda. For any business to last three decades is a feat; it’s especially remarkable for one with as narrow a product line as Toperzer’s. The blue-on-white letters on his modest marquee read “Drums Unlimited.”

Perhaps the “Unlimited” part of the sign explains it best. The wee retail store is but the tip of the drumstick in an almost sprawling empire that includes a rehearsal space, a mail order and instrument manufacturing business, and a musical-equipment rental service.

All of which arose from the typical drummer’s complaint; having to lug carloads of equipment for the same paycheck as a less-burdened flute or guitar player. “I’m a musician, not a truck driver,” Toperzer scoffs.

In the ’50s, Toperzer was one of the busiest drummers in town, working hotel one-nighters with dance bands and orchestras nearly every evening—this after putting in a full shift as a public-school music teacher. The grind took a toll. “I don’t show up three hours early and leave three hours late for the same money as somebody who walks in with a fiddle, or a piano player who walks in with nothing,” declares the drummer, a trace of aggravation in his voice even now.

So Toperzer had the audacity to demand that promoters not only pay him for showing up, but shell out an additional rental fee for his station wagon full of gear. Surprisingly, it worked—to the point where Toperzer was soon contracting out equipment for other musicians. He quickly found himself with a house full of musical tools and a burgeoning rental business. He opened the retail shop partly to store his clattering collection. Eventually, he quit teaching, believing that he could have more impact providing materials to educators than teaching tots where the one-beat is.

Still, Toperzer retains something of a professorial air. Offering advice, criticism, support, and strong opinion in his lilting Boston brogue, he clearly enjoys engaging all who enter his store in hardy debate—and not merely about percussion. You may think you just stopped in to pick up a new pair of drumsticks, but if he senses you’re a bright student, Toperzer will hit you with a pop quiz. (Example: What’s the difference between a piano and an organ? You play a piano, you operate an organ.)

As philosophical as Toperzer can become, he is surprisingly dispassionate when discussing the mainstay of his business. “A drum is a drum is a drum,” he says with indifference. “It goes boom boom. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. If it does and you can’t play it, you’re in trouble. Otherwise, it goes boom boom boom.”

Of course, Toperzer is not entirely without sentiment. He points out an old red bass drum. “I bought that for $5 in 1945. At that time, it was about 40 years old. It was built by George Stone,” he says. Stone is one of the seminal figures in modern percussion, a drum maker and teacher whose books are still in use. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful drum,” he says affectionately. “The drum next to it is almost 100 years old,” he continues, indicating a scruffy wooden bass drum. “And they’re still working. I got my five bucks back a couple of times.”

Toperzer speculates that his old-time beater might have been used in John Philip Sousa’s band. “And of course that music is still played and that drum sounds like the drum should sound.”

Toperzer dispenses these heresies and verities from the Kensington warehouse/headquarters of Rehearsal Spaces and Professional Rental Services, the Drums Unlimited subsidiary run by his son, Michael. Conversation vies with the constant sound of musical instruments being tested and loaded onto one of five trucks that deliver them to such disparate places as Georgia theme parks, Atlantic City casinos, and the stages of Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. The clanging concerto of chimes, drums, bass, piano, and electric drills and sanders provides a suitably percussive background.

But we don’t spend much time talking the usual drum talk—Buddy vs. Gene, Ludwig vs. Yamaha, blah blah blah. We talk of history, discipline, and the cycles of nature. In explaining the complexities of sending musical instruments around the world, Toperzer mentions the half-dozen sets of tuned automobile horns that he supplies to orchestras intent on correctly playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

But to fully explain how one tunes automobile horns, Toperzer must first go back to the 1890s and the celeste, which, he points out, did not exist until Tchaikovsky heard it in his head and thought it might be nice for “The Nutcracker Suite.” “Somebody had to invent what he heard,” Toperzer says, beginning a story about the composer traveling to France to find a man who could build his imaginary device. “George Gershwin heard these taxi horns in Paris and found a guy in Germany who made things like foghorns and sirens.” He pauses slightly, knowing he has a good punch line. “And that man still makes them,” he says, before adding with a grin: “He’s hard to find.”

Not content to pick up the usual catalogs and order the usual soundmaking machinery, Toperzer acquired some of his inventory by roaming through Europe “finding lots of these fellows”—ancient artisans including “the man who tunes cowbells. And the man who makes the cowbells that the other man tunes,” he says. “The cowbells are made on an island in Bavaria. And a man 200 miles away goes to this island and goes through bins of these Swiss cowbells, and finds things that are close to a note. And he collects these and he puts them in his van and he goes back to Germany. And they have a little shop there and stroboscopes, and they bring these into tune by cutting them and reshaping them and so forth and so on.”

Simple. But Toperzer’s Indiana Jones-style adventures cover the percussive gamut. Though the more reliable plastic drum head has been the norm since the late ’50s, there are, says Toperzer, “purists out there who want calfskin or goatskin or monkey skin or snakeskin—or sturgeon skin even, which the Egyptians use—on different kinds of ethnic drums. And so we’ve had to find sources for these things.”

“It’s not just a primitive catch-as-catch-can,” he asserts, maintaining that there is a skill and an art to both the making
and the buying of musical exotica. He adds, almost sadly, “I never did find a safe source for fish skin that wasn’t rotten.”

In an age of digital sampling, where anybody can be an “artist” with the push of a button, this sort of insistence upon authenticity is refreshing. It also goes a long way toward explaining why that small sign in Bethesda is still beckoning after all these years. Another example: When Modern Drummer magazine published a list of “The 25 Best Drum Books,” all 25 could be found on Toperzer’s shelves, a fact the former educator is proud to announce.

These days, the globe-trotting is left mostly to his inventory. And as he has backed up the likes of Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, and Julie Andrews, you won’t find this sixtysomething stickman pounding out a fox trot at some wedding. But the lure of the traps remains.

Toperzer mentions a recent party where he ascended to the drum throne. “A number of wonderful players were there,” he says, including Ray Bryant and bassist Keter Betts. His face brightens as he remembers the fun. “Except Keter and I were exhausted. There were three piano players. They each played an hour nonstop, showing everything they could do. And we played for all of them.” He laughs softy. “That kind of thing is wonderful for me.”

Of course, he still had to set up all those drums himself. —DAVE NUTTYCOMBE

From Washington City Paper, Sept. 23, 1994