Ringo Starr and Make-A-Wish: A teenage drummer gets to meet the Beatle
Were it not an English hospital worker who used percussion instruments to help relieve boredom of patients undergoing long-term treatment, a 13-year-old kid battling tuberculosis named Richard Starkey might never have fallen in love with the drums, changed his name to Ringo Starr and become part of the biggest rock band on the planet.
“That’s where it all started for me,” Starr, 70, said Thursday morning a few minutes after briefly sharing a stage with 17-year-old drummer and brain cancer survivor Alexx Kipp, whose long-held wish to meet the Beatle was granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Hard Rock International restaurant chain. The event was the kickoff of a new partnership between the two organizations designed to help Make-A-Wish accommodate even more requests than the 14,000 it grants in the U.S. each year, about 900 of those involving celebrities.
“You like those drums?” Starr asked Kipp as they stood behind a gleaming black-and-white set of Ludwigs, the brand long associated with him.
“Hell, yeah!” beamed Kipp, who also has Tourette's syndrome and punctuated the dialogue with his musical hero with joyful birdlike chirps and whistles.
“They’re yours,” Starr told him.
It took several minutes, and a few prompts from his mother, father and sister, who had accompanied him to Hollywood from their home in Arlington, Va., before it set in for Alexx that the event not only included meeting his favorite drummer from his favorite band, but also a new set of drums to boot. Or to bash.
Alexx sat on one of two adjacent black stools set up behind the snare drum and laid down a steady rock beat, then Starr pulled up next to him to add some accents on a floor tom and one of the cymbals.
“We saw his doctor in November, and they consider him cured,” said Alexx’s mother, Sarah Pitkin. Playing drums since he was 8, along with Beatles recordings and in tandem with his father’s guitar strumming, has played a major role in Alexx’s ability to weather seven rounds of chemotherapy and one month of radiation treatment for his germinoma brain tumor, Pitkin said.
His parents said he’d expressed the desire to meet Starr for years, and the family logged his request with Make-A-Wish about a year ago.
“Alexx came to me one morning and he said, ‘Dad, I had a dream last night and I met Ringo,’ ” Charles Kipp said. “This was before we knew it was going to happen. About a week later we got the call. I told him, ‘It looks like your dream came true.’ ”
Make-A-Wish President and Chief Executive David Williams was on hand, noting that about 27,000 children in the U.S. from ages 2½ to 18 are diagnosed each year with life-threatening conditions, which makes them eligible for the foundation’s services. A little over half have wishes fulfilled by Make-A-Wish, which no longer limits participation to those with terminal illnesses as was the case early in its 31-year history, Williams said.
“Other organizations grant about 3,000 wishes,” he said, “so you see there are still a lot of people we don’t reach. Our goal is to be able to grant every wish.”
The partnership with Hard Rock International aims to help spread the word about the foundation’s mission. Hard Rock locations will carry new T-shirts with artwork created by Starr and carrying his pet phrase “Peace/Love” on the front, his signature on the back. Proceeds from sales will benefit his Lotus Foundation charity directly supporting Make-A-Wish.
Starr toured the Hollywood location with Alexx and his family, stopping at a wall holding a framed drum head, split down the center, that he had donated to the chain’s collection of rock-star memorabilia.
“It was right in the middle of a gig, and it just split. But you just keep going,” Starr told Alexx. "Never stop -- that’s the deal.”
A few minutes later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, vegetarian slim in a black blazer over black T-shirt and jeans, spoke of the impact on him of taking part in the Make-A-Wish program, for which he had granted about half a dozen other requests before Thursday.
“It's huge," he said. "It puts you in your place. You think you’ve got a cold -- you’re all, ‘Oh, what about me?’ Then you help these kids….You think of the families. I’ve got children too, and it’s got to be hard.”
One 8-year-old girl he met through a European Make-A-Wish chapter -- 41 countries have them -- wanted to meet Starr after coming out of a coma.
“Somehow -- I don’t know how it happened -- but ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was on TV and she fell in love with Ringo,” Starr said. “This is only a couple of years ago, so I was saying to the people who were setting it up, ‘You’d better give her a photo of me now -- things have changed!’ ” he said with a hearty laugh. “But she recognized me and we had a lot of fun.”
While recovering from his treatment, Alexx recently took part in a music school recital, where he played drums with the Lennon-McCartney song “In My Life,” and a school talent show at which he played Starr’s whimsical “Octopus’s Garden.”
Charles Kipp said Alexx’s next musical goal is to learn “I Am the Walrus.” From now on, he’ll be practicing on a drum set broken in by the man who played the original.
“I get the easy bit,” Starr said. “I come, I say hi, we hang out, we have a bit of fun….
“In the band I was in,” he added, “we knew when we’d done the take, because it just feels good. It’s like golf: When you hit that ball right, you know. You feel it -- you feel the connection. And connecting is good.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Ringo Starr helps 17-year-old cancer survivor Alexx Kipp break in a new drum kit presented him Thursday at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times.