John Millen happily marches to the beat of a different 0) drummer
In a geodesic dome house overlooking the autumn splendors of Gwynns-Falls/Leakin Park, craftsman John Millen shapes red oak and goatskin into haunting resonances. His business, ThunderHeart Drums, provides one-of-a-kind Middle East and African ceremonial drums for musicians, ethnomusicologists, dancers and music therapists throughout the country.
A Baltimore native, Mr. Millen studied trumpet at the Peabody Conservatory and worked as a music teacher before drifting off to the Caribbean for several years on a sailboat he built.
After returning, he constructed his dome house and made a living from crafting custom cabinetry and wooden bathtubs. He began making drums full time several years ago.
Last weekend, he brought some of his drums to an autumnal equinox festival held in a mine in New Paltz, N.Y. The event featured one of his best customers: Layne Redmond, acclaimed drummer, mythologist and leader of the Mob of Angels group of female drummers.
A lifelong musician and singer, Mr. Millen finds the sound of drums inexplicably powerful. He tells the story of an American Indian who is asked whether he considers the sound of drumming to be beautiful.
"His response was, 'We don't think of whether the music is beautiful or not beautiful. We ask, does it have a strong spirit?' "
"That's what intrigues me about the drums," he says. "I think a lot of Western music -- and the ritual of going to concerts -- is not about becoming empowered by the music's spirit, but about listening to its beauty. And beauty doesn't take us as far as we need to go."
When the crowds thinned at piano bars around town, Russ Margo came up with an ingenious idea: If they weren't coming to the music, why not bring the music to them?
He does that now via Club Imagination, a WITH-AM (1230) radio show that transports listeners to a mythical cocktail lounge. From 9 to 11 on Friday nights, Mr. Margo sits behind his keyboard, playing "Chances Are," doing knock-knock jokes and even offering last call just before the program's end.
Thanks to sound effects and Mr. Margo's imagination, glasses clink, sailors drop by and the hatcheck girl does her job. A few listeners have been so convinced that they've tried looking up Club Imagination in the phone book, he says.
While Mr. Margo isn't a flawless singer or piano player (he mangled the "Jeopardy!" theme during a recent show), he does have his charms -- especially for the Walts and Barbs and Donalds of the world found at home on a Friday night.
"Sure, it's silly," explains Mr. Margo, 44, who lives in Pikesville with his wife and two children. "But I think being a piano player in a cocktail lounge is silly and corny. There's nothing wrong with corn."
During some 25 years in the business, he's dabbled in many fields -- working as a scriptwriter, stand-up comedian and game-show contestant. ("I won about $2,500 on 'Joker's Wild.' ")
So far, he's heartened by his range of listeners, including a group of poker players who found his show while searching for an Orioles game.
"I was a little nervous when they called," recalls Mr. Margo. "But they were real gentlemen. They sang the intro to 'Lollipop' over the air and requested 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' "