By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Apr 26, 2012 at 5:31 AM

There is nothing ordinary about Ding Lorenz, starting with his name. It is Michael on his birth certificate, but Ding describes him so much better.

"I have been hitting things since I was a little boy," he likes to tell people. "I've done nothing else my entire life. It's all I have ever done. It's all I have ever wanted to do."

Lorenz's life has been devoted to musical percussion. He began playing the drums at 5, and soon the native South Sider was in a drum and bugle corps. He became so good at it, he moved up to a national champion corps based in Chicago.

Classes at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, playing with Sigmund Snopek and the Bloomsbury People, and work in a wide variety of genres and places, including the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as an extra, followed. He was a percussionist for the road company of "West Side Story" when it played the Marcus Center recently.

But that doesn't really define Ding.

  • World-class collector of all things percussion.
  • World view skewed by a penchant for the funny and absurd.
  • Only W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have a stronger claim to being a Skylight Music Theatre tradition. Lorenz was married in the orchestra pit of the old Skylight Theatre on Jefferson Street.

Those are the things you must know about Ding, and they are the catalyst for "Things That Go Ding," the next Skylight show, which is his 104th with the company. It opens Friday night in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Walk into Lorenz' suburban home, a 94-year-old former one-room school house he has spectacularly renovated and enlarged, and you don't know where to look first. The world's largest wind chime, measuring about 16 feet including the custom-made wrought-iron hanger, dangles in the two-story living room. It's a basso profondo manufactured in Texas, with 13 gongs tuned to notes.

Temple bells, gongs and huge Chinese tom-toms decorate the space. "I've always had an attraction to Asian percussion," Ding recently said.

A drum serves as a base for his glass-topped kitchen table. On it, a train plays "London Bridge is Falling Down" when it circles a track lined with ties that are small xylophone keys.

"I'm into stuff. I'm all about toys," he explained with a grin.

The ground floor of Lorenz's home is just an appetizer. His basement is in reality a private museum stuffed with percussion instruments large and small.

"This is the motherlode," he continued as we walked down the cellar stairs. "It is pretty well known around the country among percussion nuts.

"I have filled my house with my lifelong collection of exotic instruments, antique instruments and weird stuff. I have a lot of things from the novelty instrument era, when performers were looking for instruments that set them apart."

Ding has a keyboard-operated glockenspiel called a Una-Fon that when played is in your face, or I should say ears. It is loud.

He has a bass marimba owned 80 years ago by Universal Studios. The logo is still on the instrument. "I had to fly to Florida to pack it up after I bought it," he said.

Lorenz also owns a marimba that can be played with a bow and another that was built in the 1930s to be played in the 100-piece International Marimba Symphony Orchestra. He drove to Pennsylvania to buy the latter from the estate of the original owner.

He has 100-year-old sleigh bells that are tuned to notes, and cowbells, whistles, bicycle horns and shaker chimes. Much of the collection, including the drum from the kitchen table, has been hauled out of his house and into the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center for "Things That Go Ding."

Accompanied by pianist Jamie Johns and assisted by Skylight associate artistic director Ray Jivoff, Lorenz will be using more than 175 percussion instruments in a mostly classical repertoire. "The show is part concert, part old-time variety show, a little bit of theater and a little bit of vaudeville," he said.

"It is inspired by Spike Jones, Victor Borge and P.D.Q. Bach," musicians known for lacing their performances with humor. "The music has to be really well played for the comedy to work."

"Things That Go Ding" was first staged as a cabaret show in the Skylight bar in the fall of 2009. It was such a hit, Lorenz greatly expanded the show into the "Ding" that opens tomorrow night.

"I'm doing classical music in a wacky way," he said. "I love making people laugh, usually at my expense."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.