MISHAWAKA – In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a street lamp was installed at Mill and 12th streets in Mishawaka.
Elsie (Belli) Van Bruaene and neighborhood friends were hanging out, listening to the band her brother, Remo Belli, an up-and-coming drummer, was playing in as they practiced in the Belli Garage at 127 W. 12th St. with friends Conte Candoli, Joe Rotondi and others.
“We used to play and dance in that corner,” Elsie said of a time when there were no cell phones, no cars, no distractions in simpler times.
Little did anyone know that Remo Belli would move to California after graduating from Mishawaka High School in December 1944, open a drum shop in 1952, obtain a patent for a synthetic drumhead, and become the world’s leading drumhead manufacturer.
A historical marker at Belli’s childhood home will be unveiled at 1 p.m. Wednesday by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. Family and friends will be on hand to honor the man who her sister, Elsie, said had a work ethic that made it easy for her to make friends while still working at her craft.
“There was nobody below him,” Van Bruaene said. During his years in Mishawaka, Remo got drums and worked hard to the point that he started getting gigs in high school when many local drummers were sent to fight in World War II.
In 1957 Belli founded Remo Inc. and worked with a chemist to develop a synthetic Mylar drumhead superior to commonly used animal skin drumheads. When the era of rock and roll took off, the full sound and reliability of drumheads made the “Remo” symbol the gold standard for all drum types that continues today.
Peter DeKever, the city’s award-winning historian, claims that Remo Belli is perhaps the “most successful and important graduate Mishawaka High has ever produced.”
The origins of a drummer
Remo Belli was born in Mishawaka in 1927 and has always been around music with bands playing locally.
His father wanted Remo to play the accordion, but the drums were Remo’s instrument of choice and he began observing local drummers and learning the craft from them.
According to an oral history given by Remo Belli to the Smithsonian Institution, Remo said he was given a snare drum in middle school and knew he wanted to be a drummer the moment he entered Mishawaka High School.
The war brought many local musicians to serve in the military, which opened the door for Belli and his friends to get their union cards and start playing professionally.
By the time he graduated, Belli started playing with more bands until he joined the Navy. But in 1946, after beginning to play in the service, he returned home and found a route to California, where he gave concerts until he decided to open a drum shop in 1952 with Roy Harte who would serve the best drummers in the area.
Belli told a Tribune reporter in 2002 that his seasoning as a road and session drummer for Billy May, Anita O’Day and Betty Hutton gave him the impetus for the drum business.
New day for the battery
But a lot of things would change with the drumhead when Belli learned about Mylar.
He and a chemist named Samuel Muchnick discovered they could mass-produce drumheads out of Mylar, a polyester developed by the chemical company DuPont during World War II.
Belli said in a 2002 interview that Mylar was very difficult to hold in place and withstand the tension that drummers need to put on a drumhead and then withstand beatings on a drumhead.
Synthetic drumhead replaced the unreliable calfskin that had been used for drumheads up to that time.
It was only a matter of time before all skins adopted the synthetic skin produced by the Belli company. As the rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1960s boomed, the need for drums and drumheads bearing the Remo logo also increased.
Today’s current drummers may not have known Remo Belli, but they use his company’s skins.
Mike Shell, drummer for jazz band The Buddy Pearson 3, said he uses Remo drumheads because he values sound and durability.
“They have so much tonality and resonance, especially for rock and jazz,” Shell said. “It definitely has a place in my sonic palette.”
Email South Bend Tribune reporter Greg Swiercz at [email protected].