In a previous column we discussed the virtues and foibles of eBay. Acquiring the Gene Krupa playbill pictured here was an experience in both. This was one time I didn’t follow my own advice: ”Set your maximum bid and stick to it.” I stuck my neck out, but fortunately, didn’t get it lopped off.
I have been a fan of Krupa since I was a kid, and mostly saw him perform in small combos. For those of you who are unaware of this legend, suffice it to say Gene Krupa is the person responsible for moving the drummer from a timekeeper in the back of the band to the rank of featured performer. He began his career in his hometown of Chicago replacing Davey Tough in the Austin High Gang, a high school project band featuring soon to be famous musicians like Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman and Frank Teschemacher.
Though his family encouraged the young man to devote his life to the Catholic priesthood, Krupa’s father soon realized his son was destined for another path and bought Gene his first set of Ludwig drums from the Lyon and Healy Music Company in Chicago. Later, Benny Goodman recognized the immense talent and showmanship possessed by young Krupa and hired him for his first concert at the Congress Hotel. Wanting his son to have a new set of drums, the elder Krupa called the Ludwig and Ludwig offices and proposed a transaction with the sales manager. Since the sales manager couldn’t deal direct, he rejected the request.
Undaunted, Mr. Krupa turned to the yellow pages and found the Slingerland Banjo and Drum Company. Fortunately for H.H. Slingerland, owner and president, he took the call personally. Krupa’s father informed Slingerland of the imminent success of the Goodman Band with his son Gene on drums. H.H. being a gambling man sold the elder Krupa a new set of white pearl Radio Kings at the wholesale price, direct from the factory. William F. Ludwig, Jr. later lamented, “Gene went right to the top and had the greatest fame of any drummer in history. When swing exploded, everybody saw Gene Krupa and his Slingerland drums.” Krupa remained loyal to the Slingerland Drum Company, endorsing their drums throughout his illustrious career.
Like most collectors, I have collected original drum catalogs for many years. They are not only excellent reference materials, but also a trip down memory lane. Who could forget their first drum catalog? Krupa’s success prompted Slingerland to feature Gene and his Radio Kings on the cover and throughout almost all of their catalogues. Seeing this playbill with a similar illustration on eBay piqued my interest. I recognized that this was a period piece as it was announcing a performance of the Krupa Orchestra (big band) which the drummer formed after he and Goodman had a less than amicable parting of the ways. Though it was listed as “original” I had no way of knowing if it truly was, or an excellent copy. My early bid of $50 was quickly vanquished, so I sought the advice of an expert in the field. Fortunately for me, John Goddard – owner/operator of Village Music, a legendary vintage record shop in my hometown of Mill Valley, California – has one of the largest collections of playbills. John was quick to point out that the playbill could well be a copy. However, if it was an original, “anything under a $1,000 is a good deal.”
Armed with that information I returned to my computer and recorded a high bid of $350 for the Krupa playbill. Since the eBay bidding system only shows incremental increases, I watched in agony as my competitors tried to best my offer – $150 … $200 … $250, slowly the bid increased. As the closing hour approached I decided to increase my bid to a maximum $500. Lucky I did as the bidding closed at $354, just over my initial maximum bid. My first reaction was joy, then the evil “buyer’s remorse” set in. What had I done? What if it wasn’t original?
Fortunately I only had to wait a week for the shipping process and all my questions were quickly answered. When the Krupa playbill arrived I almost decided against taking it to Goddard for his appraisal. It certainly looked old. Not being an expert and having promised John a look, I brought it to Village Music. Goddard was as excited as I was for a first look. “Congratulations” was his response after a quick examination. He graded it “very good” noting the small tears and aging spots as normal for a piece of its age.
Luckily, the market for vintage paper (other than catalogs) lags behind vintage instruments and bargains like this can still be had. $354 may seem like a lot of money, however if you consider some drum catalogs are fetching that amount (and thousands of those are printed at a time), then a limited production item like this should demand more. Since acquiring the Krupa playbill I have purchased movie lobby cards (for the Gene Krupa Story), autographs and various advertising pieces. As these items are representative of the significant events in drum history, it is my belief they are a solid investment.