SUSAN STAMBERG, Host:
So, Samuel F.B. Morse was a painter and inventor. Here's a story about an actor and inventor. It begins in a nondescript storage facility in West Los Angeles, which contains a little known bit of Hollywood history. It concerns the late legendary Marlon Brando but it's not about any of his stage or screen roles. NPR's Felix Contreras travelled to Los Angeles to find out more.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
FELIX CONTRERAS: Behind this roll-up door sits a collection of items from the very public life of Marlon Brando the actor. Among them is a marked up script for the film "Mutiny on the Bounty" and a large box of letters of admiration from people like Frank Sinatra. There is also a peek into the life of Marlon Brando the inventor.
PONCHO SANCHEZ: I see the conga.
KEVIN CONSTANZA: There were three made. This looks like the second one.
AVRA DOUGLAS: You want it shipped to New York?
CONSTANZA: Let's take a look and see a little bit, huh?
CONTRERAS: Grammy winning Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez, patent attorney Kevin Costanza and Brando estate executor Avra Douglas - they're all here to dust off Marlon Brando's patented invention for tuning conga drums. Yes, you heard correctly. The Oscar-winning actor was also an amateur drummer and an inventor with four patents to his credit. Attorney Costanza says Brando was a regular reader of Scientific American magazine and had a seemingly endless stream of ideas.
CONSTANZA: He had these shoes that you can wear in the pool that would increase friction as you walk on the bottom of the pool to give you a better workout. And he was fascinated by the geodesic dome, always talking about ways to build things using the geodesic dome.
CONTRERAS: Through assistants, Brando contacted Costanza and hired him to work on the drum tuning design. But Costanza says Brando's people laid down some very strict rules before any conversations could begin.
CONSTANZA: He doesn't want to be called an actor, he doesn't want to know he's your favorite actor, he doesn't want to know how much you loved his movies, he doesn't want to talk about acting or Oscars or any of those kind of things. He was inventor hiring a patent attorney to get him patents for his drum invention.
CONTRERAS: Brando spent more than five years working with Costanza on schematic drawings. Production designer Jack Connor made custom drum parts. Then in 2002, Brando was awarded the first of four patents for various parts of his design. Basically, Brando's system would replace the five or six bolts around the head of the conga used to tune it or change its pitch with a system of linkage connected to a single tuning lever.
SANCHEZ: Boy, Marlon had to sit around and think about this for a while. Let me tell you, man.
CONTRERAS: But Brando died in 2004 and efforts at licensing the design to conga drum manufacturers came to a halt. The design became something of an urban legend among Latin percussionists.
SANCHEZ: I heard about the drum but I never seen it before. So, this is the first time I'm seeing it. Pretty far out invention, man.
CONTRERAS: Poncho Sanchez met Brando in the late 1970s. Brando called him two decades later to later to seek advice on the invention, and the two spoke on the phone frequently.
SANCHEZ: It was outrageous at first. I'd be out on the road and my wife said Marlon Brando called you today.
CONTRERAS: All three prototype drums made for the patent applications were thought to be lost until attorney Kevin Costanza recently tracked this one down in this storage facility. He was anxious to see the design in action; Sanchez was eager to finally test it out.
SANCHEZ: If you want to hit it, I can crank on the crank and see if you can get it to change the pitch.
CONTRERAS: Brando's invention attempted to improve on the design that has been in place for well over six decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)
CONTRERAS: Inside the storage room, Costanza turns the crank on the side of the drum connected to the linkage inside while Sanchez tested the tone.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)
SANCHEZ: So, you have to tighten it up. So, this would have been a good idea where I could just reach down and tighten. And the pitch would go up. That's kind of a good idea, you know?
STAMBERG: Soon, the drum was ready for a test drive.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND SINGING IN SPANISH)
CONTRERAS: Ultimately, there were no takers for Marlon Brando's invention. A representative for a drum manufacturer that considered marketing the design told me he thought the idea was practical but he was reluctant to tell the actor it was not very cost effective, joking that he was afraid of an offer he couldn't refuse. When Costanza mentions Brando's frustrations at all of the productions delays and his own failing health, the executor of his estate, Avra Douglas, suggests the great actor, or rather inventor, would have been more than pleased with today's events.
DOUGLAS: I know he was very excited about it. He had really high hopes. He was passionate about it. And he would have been thrilled to see Poncho playing it.
CONTRERAS: For now, the drum will go back into storage. Douglas says there are no plans to do anything with the design other than let it rest with the other mementos of a very full life. Felix Contreras, NPR News, Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.
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