Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s 1976 neo-noir classic, Taxi Driver, will remember the brief scene with a street musician by the name of Gene Palma. It’s one of those little bits that remain with you long after the film ends. Palma’s slick combed shellac like black hair and makeup made him a unique figure on the streets of New York back in the 1970s and 1980s. He would flip his drumsticks banging out his music on drums, vending machines or anything else that was available in Times Square or other areas. Palma’s big dream in life was not only to play like Gene Krupa. He wanted to be Gene Krupa. He wanted to embody his spirit and soul. At thirteen, he became obsessed with the famed drummer after seeing him on screen as part of Benny Goodman’s band in the 1937 movie Hollywood Hotel. He began banging on pots and pans at home and using chopsticks his sister brought back from Chinatown. His father brought him his first drum. The young teen was in love.
In 1959, Gene went to the Loew’s 86th theater on the East Side of Manhattan. The movie playing was The Gene Krupa Story starring the then teen heart idol, Sal Mineo as the drummer. As part of the lure, the theater held an amateur drummer contest. Gene signed up, and he won! The prize was a one-hundred-dollar Slingerland snare drum. He also got to meet the man himself, the legendary jazz drummer, Gene Krupa. Gene Palma’s dream to become a drummer was born. In the beginning, Palma played catering halls at dances, parties, weddings, etc. around the city to earn a living. However, in 1970, he took his drumsticks to the streets. Palma played in the streets five days a week and could make a small living doing that. In the winter, he needed to find other work. It was too cold for him to do his tricks with the sticks.
Back in the late 1970s and into the 1980s I did a lot of photography on the streets of New York. One afternoon while photo hunting in the Times Square area I heard the beat of drums and saw a small crowd of folks surrounding the beat. As I got closer, I saw this strange-looking man beating his drumsticks on a newspaper vending machine. Having seen Martin Scorsese’s classic film, I recognized Palma immediately and snapped a photograph. On another occasion, I came across him again playing on an actual drum.
Gene Palma’s film career was brief. After Taxi Driver, he appeared in the John Ritter film, Hero at Large, for which he was paid $30. He received $172.50 for Taxi Driver. He also appears in Nicholas Doob’s documentary Street Music (available online). In the film, Palma’s ability on the drums is on full display and can be seen about thirty-five minutes into the film. He also appeared in the documentary Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography.
By the early 2000s, Gene was living in an assisted living facility. He died on October 17th, 2005 at the age of 81.