Maybe you knew about Marcel Duchamp’s passion for chess. But did you know about Marlon Brando’s passion for conga drums? Longtime fans may have first picked up on it in 1955, when the actor gave a microwave-link television tour of his Hollywood Hills home to Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person. Halfway through the segment (above), Brando gets into his history with the instrument, and even offers to “run downstairs and give you a lick or two” — and the always highly-prepared program had cameras in the conga room ready to capture this “impromptu” performance. While the interests actors keep on the side may tend to wane, Brando’s seems to have waxed, and later in life he even, writes Movieline‘s Jen Yamato, “enlisted the help of Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez while developing a new tuning system for conga drums.” We can behold the extent and seriousness of Brando’s pursuit of conga perfection with a look at one of those patents, filed in 2002, for an automatic “drumhead tensioning device and method.”
As The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Greenfield explains in a post on “Patents of the Rich and Famous,” “tightening a drum takes a lot of effort. Once the drum head loses its tension, there are typically six separate rods that need tightening. Far too many rods for Marlon. Brando explains that others have tried to develop mechanisms that would improve the drum tightening experience but none of them provided a simple or affordable solution.” Hence his motorized “simple and inexpensive drum tuning device that is also accurate and reliable and not subject to inadvertent adjustments.” And if you have no need for an automatic conga drum tuner, perhaps we can interest you in another of Brando’s achievements? “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,” says patent attorney Kevin Costanza in an NPR story on Brando’s inventions. Or maybe you’d prefer to simply watch The Godfather again.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.