Signal: Let's go back in time. You invented something that revolutionized the industry, that we all take for granted today. What was it?
Belli: I was able to develop a product made out of a synthetic material. The basic material was Mylar; that was made by DuPont and is still made by DuPont. What was normally used to cover drums and we're talking about drum sets now were animal skins, and predominantly calf skins.
Now, the problem is, with calf skins, they're irregular; not all calves are born the same. So you had a difficult time (with) quality issues within the calf business. But then, in addition to that, the biggest problem was that when you tried to travel if it was raining, or if it was too hot all climate conditions will affect an animal skin drumhead. So consequently, the drummer, the musician, was in constant turmoil of trying to adjust his instruments to accommodate the location that they were playing in.
Signal: So you invented the synthetic drumhead.
Signal: How did you come up with that idea?
Belli: The military was so grateful, all the colleges, all the high schools, when you put together all of the marching sequences that are outside.
I developed it as a result of transition. I'm a professional musician, since the age of 16. I worked my way through the profession, and then in 1952, I joined partnerships with Roy Hart and we developed a retail music store, a drum shop in Hollywood that we called Drum City.
In working at Drum City, where I met and got to know all of the high-level, professional people of that day, we were doing some shows in our Drum City, and in order to make displays, I tried different materials. I had been acquainted with Mylar, and so I tried Mylar. I stapled Mylar to a hoop, and I was delighted to see that it had a drum sound. So that was the beginning of it.
Signal: Why do you suppose nobody thought of it before?
Belli: I don't know. I'm in awe. And I'm forever grateful that someone like myself, with absolutely no training whatsoever, no knowledge of chemistry, hadn't seen a factory in all of my life, ends up doing what I'm doing.
Signal: It's understandable that it wouldn't have happened in the early 1940s, when synthetics needed for the war effort but this wasn't until the 1950s, right?
Belli: Well, the polyester film was developed in 1953, a joint venture of DuPont and ICI from England. So had they not developed Mylar, there would not be a synthetic drumhead. I certainly wouldn't be in it.
Signal: Did you start manufacturing them right away?
Belli: No, I then brought the idea I tried the idea, and because I was grateful for having such professional people coming to my shop ... my accountant for the shop then introduced me to a chemist by the name of Sam Muchnick, who was a very, very knowledgeable bonding authority. So we discussed it and we decided, well, hey, let's give it a try. Let's get together.
It was literally Sam Muchnick who came up with the idea of an aluminum channel in which (the Mylar was) bent and put into the channel; there are holes punched around the periphery of the Mylar, and then you pour in the liquid resins, which in turn flow through the hole and adhere to the aluminum. These are little trampolines, is what this amounts to creating the vibration that's necessary to get all the viable drum sounds.
Signal: You must have started manufacturing them by the early 1960s, because when the Beatles went on the "Ed Sullivan Show," they were using a Remo drumhead?
Belli: Yes. That drumhead in a (Sotheby's auction) the last price paid for it was $46,000. I don't know (when it will be) auctioned off next, but I'm sure that in the years to come, it'll still gain in value.
Signal: How did that come together did Ringo Starr walk into your shop and buy your drumhead?
Belli: No, no, no. We dealt with Ivor Arbiter in London, England, who was very close to the person who put together the Beatles. I forget his name. He ultimately passed away. In the early beginning, I was given the name of Arbiter in England as the person to contact, and I did. He was the one.
Signal: Was that a synthetic drumhead?
Belli: Yes, it was.
Signal: So, professional musicians found the synthetic drumhead to be superior to calfskin?
Belli: In some instances, depending on where you were located and what you were trying to do, the answer is yes. We, over the years, because of our personal knowledge of the nuances of the drum, and drum sounds, and so on and so forth we were able to anticipate some of the sounds that were needed. So consequently we were able to put together combinations of different materials....
Signal: In the early days, what kind of drums were you manufacturing?
Belli: I wasn't in the drum business; I was in the retail drum business. But then I had to leave it because this was so successful so immediately successful.
Here's an example: At just about that time, rock and roll really started to get popular. Had this (synthetic drumhead) not been developed coincidentally at that time, rock and roll as you currently know it, and what it produced, would not have occurred.
Signal: Why do you say that?
Belli: It would not have happened because it didn't allow the drummer to travel indiscriminately, wherever they wanted to travel and get supplies. There weren't enough supplies of animal skins to make the drum sets that were made at that time it was in Japan and at that time, there were 23 drum companies in Japan trying to supply the markets. The thousands of drumheads per month that had to be made could not have been made with animal skins.
Signal: Is it because the type of music made the drumhead wear out or break often? Because in the '30s and '40s, there were certainly musicians traveling by bus all over the place‹
Belli: That's me! I was one of the guys.
Signal: What's the difference?
Belli: A big difference because what we had shared before was the fact that even though you were in the bus, it didn't matter. The drumhead was affected. And if you were in the military and you had to play some kind of a function and it was raining, forget it. You still had to play, although nothing came out of it.
Signal: How did you get your start in music?
Belli: I'm from Mishawaka, Ind. It's next door to South Bend. Mishawaka lies between South Bend and Elkhart, Ind., and Elkhart, Ind., at that time in history was the capital of the band instrument business of the world. So at 12 years old I became interested.
Then when I entered high school, 15 or 16, this event called World War II happened. They drafted all of the older guys, so younger guys who wanted to play became instant professionals and that's what happened to me. I became a professional player at 16, joined the Navy at just before 18, played in the Navy for a while, and then I came to Hollywood.
Signal: Who were some of your favorite drummers at the time?
Belli: Oh, no problem. Joe Jones. I'm a jazz drummer. That's what I did. That's what I enjoyed the most. There was Joe Jones, there was Davey Tough, there was Sid Catlett, there were so many of what I thought to be the real good jazz drummers, and I just emulated them. I had my garage all posted full of pictures of all the musicians and drummers and so on.
Signal: Turning up the clock, where did you open your first manufacturing facility?
Belli: On Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, and that's where Drum City was. Drum City was what they called "Gower Gulch." It was near Gower Street on Santa Monica Boulevard, so we were right in the middle of everything that was going on: Desilu Studios, Columbia, Paramount, so on. And there was no television at that time. There was no NBC; it was NBC radio, CBS radio, on Sunset Boulevard. We started off Johnny Carson, started off Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, just so many people‹
Signal: You ended up outfitting pretty much everybody who's anybody, right?
Belli: Yes. It was a good time. We started that in 1952.
Signal: When did you move the operation to Valencia?
Belli: Well, we moved to Valencia just 11 years ago, in '96. I had grown from 500 square feet in Hollywood, we moved through 1,000 feet that took about two months that lasted for about eight or nine months, then I had to move to 3,000 square feet, still on Santa Monica Boulevard, and then I finally came out to the San Fernando Valley, on Raymer Street, and I moved into 6,000 square feet.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up with 170,000 square feet in eight buildings.
Signal: The synthetic drumhead thing sort of took off.
Belli: So there I was, not very efficient to accommodate what we were going to do. Doug Sink who has been one of your pioneers out here, who is now CFO of our company, which I'm delighted to say brought up the idea: Why don't you give consideration to coming out our way? They're starting this new industrial park," the Newhall Land (and Farming Co.).
Well, not bad. When I looked at the chart of the people that I'm working with, I've noticed that a lot of the decision makers live out this way.
Signal: Decision makers in the music industry?
Belli: No, decision makers in my company.
Signal: So you moved your company to where they were living, as opposed to the other way around.
Belli: I switched. See, I used to live five miles from my plant, for 38 years. Then I started to drive 31 miles to here, so it was one of the better decisions. We moved out here to (the Valencia) Commerce (Center). The only other building that was there was ITT, in that whole development.
So we have 11 acres. The plant itself is 217,000 square feet. I like to say it's five acres under roof.
Signal: And drumheads are still the staple‹
Signal: What all are you manufacturing nowadays?
Belli: Well, we manufacture we are the world's drum company. Why we say that is because we're fully intended on representing the world and its drums, as to how that integrates with everything that's going on.
There is a lot that's going on socially, in the education business, and somewhat in medicine that we work with quite a bit, that has to do with the intermingling there's an interest in people exchanging cultural values. When I go to Japan, you hear very good samba groups. When you go to another country, you'll hear pretty good taiko groups. So there's an interchange in music that's going on everywhere.
What has developed over the past 15 years is a real good understanding that playing the drums socially can be a nice experience. So I now find myself like I shared with you before, I'm in the life enhancement business now. I'm there because we make all different kind of drums. I brought along a frame drum here that we make. When I speak to different groups, I purposely pull out the cell phone and I say, "This is the technology today (the cell phone), and this is my technology today (the frame drum), and my technology is only 5,000 years old."
Signal: Where does drumming come from? How is it a socially binding thing?
Belli: I'm enjoying that. I'm enjoying the whole idea that it's been researched and not by ourselves, but researched by medical, by educational, that there is a very positive relationship between the actual playing of a musical instrument and the life enhancement possibility‹
Signal: What do you mean by "life enhancement"? Do you mean making life better or making life last longer?
Belli: OK, let me share that with you I think that's a good question. We do know that in some instances, it helps strengthen the immune system. And that's a study that if you want to get all the details on it, you just go to REMO.com and you can get all the details on what's going on there. We've studied everything. Brain waves, body symptoms, so and so forth.
We're not in the snake oil business. I don't sell miracles. I'm very comfortable knowing that if I would suggest to you that you get involved in group drumming as a recreational activity, you're more than likely to come out of it liking the idea. Whether you want to do it all the time or not, it's like tennis. If you're really involved with tennis, you'll play it, you'll learn to play better. Otherwise, you'll keep doing whatever you want to do.
I say it's the same thing with drumming. It's the same thing with group drumming, because in our situation, we're unconditional. We ask nothing of you but to enjoy yourself.
Signal: Where do people do that? What is the drum circle?
Belli: We have it at our Recreational Music Center on Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood. Otherwise, there's a drum circle at Griffith Park, there's a drum circle at Venice Beach often. There are now drum circles everywhere, and we have helped stimulate that on the basis that it helps. When we live in the crisis situation that we're living in now, totally, this is one of the conditions that I don't mind as a responsible citizen asking people to do.
It's not that I'm interested in selling another drum; I don't mind selling this other drum, but my purpose is further than that, because my wife is a physician, my son's a physician, and I've been in the caregiving business for 30 years now‹
Signal: You've come quite a ways since those old jazz, traveling-by-bus days.
Belli: Yes, yes.
Signal: How does a drum circle work? Do people bring their own drum or play one of your drums?
Belli: The drum circle at our recreational center, both. We have plenty of drums for anybody who doesn't have a drum, and a lot of first-timers come in, never touched it, never thought they were going to; they've heard about it, they'd like to try it. So we offer them the opportunity. There's no charge. They come in, they can try five different drums if they want to.
Signal: What kind of drums?
Belli: It's generally hand percussion. It's generally things like conga drums, bongo drums, frame drums, another drum we call a "tubano," African djembes, things of this nature here. Shakers, tambourines, all kinds of little noisemakers that are rhythmical.
And whether you learn to play it rhythmically or not is of no concern to us, because interestingly enough, there's enough momentum going on from people who have never seen one another, didn't think they could do it, and our responsibility is to make sure that there's a pulse. We make sure that there's a pulse there and then I'll be darned, of the number of people in very simplistic ways found out that they can play a pulse.
Signal: Is there something about hand drumming that is different from some other kind of drumming?
Belli: No. You can get as complex or you can get as simple as you want to be. I've seen some amazing things done with hand drumming.
Signal: Tell us about the drum you've brought with you.
Belli: Well historically, it's a Middle Eastern drum. It's called a dumbek. The cup-shaped drum has been around for eons of years in different shapes. But right now, in the Middle East, this is the drum, this has been the drum.
It has a number of different sounds. It has what they call the tek, the high-edged sound. And then it has the doum, the middle sound. What this says to me, and what I can share with you, is, you can do this in your living room and there's no problem with it. You can't do it with a drum set and I'm a drum set drummer. You can do it with they have electronic drum sets. Roland makes a wonderful drum set, electronic. So if you have the space, the time, the inclination, the expense, you can do it. Otherwise, you get a frame drum, a hand drum. Which means anybody that's alive and you'd have to be totally incapacitated before you can't do it.
Signal: What if somebody has absolutely no rhythm?
Belli: That's wonderful. That's impossible. I've never seen it. I really haven't. And I've been as observant as I can possibly be of this situation, because I've had too many people tell me this: "No, I can't do it. I've not wanted to do it. It's impossible. I can't get involved." It depends on what that person thinks "involved" means.
This is (bangs drum) rhythm. See what I mean? We can get you down as simple as you could possibly want to be before you're going to give up and before you're going to make a statement that, "No, I can't do it."
Signal: You manufacture all sorts of different kinds of drums Middle Eastern drums, African drums; did drumming sort of spring up thousands of years ago in all these different places all by itself?
Belli: Yes. At one time, historically, drumming was the focus point of any culture, of any civilization, of any grouping, because that was a way of communicating in some way. The drum preceded other instruments.
Signal: Do you think it's an innate thing?
Belli: I do, because the first thing you hear is rhythm. Before you're born, before you enter into the world, that's what you're dealing with. That's your first inclination; that's what you're all about.
Signal: Even when there's loud drumming going on, a baby can fall asleep.
Belli: Well, you listen to your mom's heartbeat, and that's it. So by the time you're born, you're already into it.
Signal: You've got the Recreational Music Center. You're manufacturing all these varieties of drums. What's next for you?
Belli: I have a deep commitment to see how much we can contribute to humankind, really, given where we are now.
We start in March, a program with UCLA Medical (Center) and the Los Angeles Unified School District. We've already done pilot studies, we're satisfied in the protocol we're going to use and how we go about it.
We have 740,000 students (in the district), we have 80 different languages, and we have a 40 percent dropout (rate). What are we going to do about it? If I speak to my sister in South Bend, Ind., she tells me the same thing. And if I speak to another person who's even in a smaller community, tells me the same thing. If I speak to somebody in Japan, they'd tell me the same thing. So there's an interesting situation that's out there socially, that impacts academia.
The latest thing we're beginning to work with is at the college sector now, how to get some of the discipline not in the sense of cracking a whip. We have a program that we introduced 10 years ago into the secondary level of schools, written by a Dr. Will Schmidt, Ph.D., a musicologist, who was familiar with educational environments. I now have 10 years' worth of testimonials, unsolicited, from teachers who said, "Thank you so much. I won't go into the classroom without it," period, for what they were able to do.
The drum is currently used as a tool. We have a health rhythm department that works with assisted living,. The drum is now a tool. This will hopefully help get you to a means to an end, because it's so undemanding in what it is. The whole idea is, if we can contribute in any way, shape or form to anything happening, that's going to impact somewhere in our lives, it's got to.
You asked, and that's basically what drives me. Because in June I'll be 80, but I have no thoughts of quitting. I'm enjoying what I'm enjoying too much.
Signal: What kind of music do you listen to?
Belli: My music is still jazz, but I listen to all music.
Signal: Is the stuff they're doing today music?
Belli: Yes. Do I like it? Maybe. Depending. There are some that I like. There are some that I don't like. We just happen to know 90 percent of all the bands that are out there who play, we know them. Most of them are endorsers, and so, my responsibility is to be aware and not to try to force a change or negate something that is of a public interest in going forward, because as a jazz musician at the time that I was in high school, they were still doing the Charleston. They were still Dixielanding.
Signal: And no doubt you were shocking them with the things you were doing.
Belli: There you go.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.