(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.
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