by Fred W. Gretsch
This coming July 13th is an important date to me. It’s the 90th birthday of Bill Hagner—a gentleman who figures highly in the history of Gretsch musical-instrument manufacturing. In fact, for many years Bill was personally responsible for seeing that that manufacturing was conducted smoothly and efficiently.
Bill started working at Gretsch on December 1, 1941—six days prior to Pearl Harbor day. In a 2009 interview with Gretsch Family publicist Rick Van Horn, Bill recalls, “I had just finished high school, and I answered an ad in the paper for someone to work in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. I was essentially a clerk. One day I went in to the office of Phil Nash, who was a vice president, and he said to me, ‘I want to tell you something right from the start: Someday this is going to be big company. So I advise you, if you have any interest [in a career], learn what you’re doing and stay with it.” Bill took Mr. Nash’s advice to heart.
Because he was working for Gretsch in 1941, young Bill had the opportunity to interact with my grandfather Fred Gretsch Sr. during the last year that Grandpa was running the company. In that same 2009 interview Bill tells the following story about one such interaction: “Fred Gretsch Sr. came in one day and showed me a little piece of chrome-plated metal, about three inches long. He said, ‘I took this off of a can opener. Some day you’re going to need a piece just like this to use as a throw-off for a snare strainer.’ That’s the foresight this man had.”
One of Bill’s early jobs was to prepare the payroll for the factory workers. All jobs were done as “piece work” at the time, and Bill had to review and approve individual pay slips for each job. When he didn’t understand an operation that was being paid for, he’d go to the worker and say, “Explain what you’re doing to me.” In that way he eventually became knowledgeable about every operation taking place—preparing him to become plant manager down the road.
During World War II American industry turned much of its efforts toward war-related production, and Gretsch was no exception. Speaking of these days in Chet Falzerano’s Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” Bill recalls, “We manufactured musical instruments during the day, till 5:00 p.m. Then I set up a night shift to work till 1 a.m. making wooden parts for gas masks. We made one-inch-wide hoops, like for a bass drum, but only ten to twelve inches in diameter. They were used in the bottom and top sections of the gas mask. Those were the only war products that we made. We also manufactured musical instruments for the government.”
Bill remained with Gretsch after the war, eventually becoming plant manager at the Brooklyn factory at 60 Broadway. The 1950s and early 60s were heady days for Gretsch drums, with great endorsers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams on the jazz side, and future superstars Charlie Watts and Phil Collins on the rock side. Those drummers would visit the factory, and Bill would give them the grand tour, showing them every detail of how their drums were made.
When my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., sold the company to Baldwin in 1967, Bill stayed on. He eventually moved to Booneville, Arkansas when the drum factory was relocated there. But after operations were established by Baldwin, they brought in their own people to run things. Bill found himself transferred to Baldwin’s Cincinnati, Ohio headquarters as Sales Manager.
In Chet Falzerano’s book Bill recalls, “[Baldwin] really didn’t have anybody familiar with the drum situation. From there on it went downhill. About a year later Baldwin’s vice president in charge of all their factories came to me in Cincinnati and said, ‘You know Bill, I have to apologize. I should have let you run [the Booneville factory] the way you ran it in Brooklyn.’ It was really a nice thing to say, but it was too late.”
Bill eventually left the Baldwin Company, and for a short time he manufactured his own line of drums. But marketing problems impeded his start-up efforts, and his venture was not successful. So for a while he took his talents out of the music business completely.
Meanwhile, under Baldwin’s management Gretsch’s fortunes continued to decline. By 1983 they were looking to sell the company altogether. Baldwin’s loss became my gain in January of 1985, when we formally closed a deal that returned the Gretsch Company to family ownership. This was the realization of a dream for me.
Shortly thereafter I wanted to move drum-making operations out of Arkansas and into Ridgeland, South Carolina—where the Gretsch USA drum factory is still located today. Who better to help me in that effort than Bill Hagner? I got in touch with Bill, who was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the time. He offered his services to help in the move of both machinery and inventory. That help proved invaluable in getting the drum-making operation up and running in its new home.
All in all, Bill Hagner spent fifty-eight years associated with Gretsch. His contributions over those years are a significant part of the Gretsch legacy. So, on behalf of the Gretsch Family and all Gretsch fans everywhere, I want to say, “Thanks, Bill…and Happy Birthday!”
Fred W. Gretsch