Thursday, February 25, 2010

“Monday Night, Geauga Style”

c. 2010 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Dennis Chandler is a figure of local and national renown who has interacted with some of the world’s most creative individuals including: Steve Allen, Andre Previn, Ferrante & Teicher, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Mack, Robert ‘Junior’ Lockwood, and Bill Doggett.

It was a Monday night in the Icehouse home office.

My wife was still in Wisconsin with our daughters, on an extended family errand. So the household continued to be a manly outpost populated by myself and our Pomeranian, plus his younger sidekick, a black Labrador Retriever.

Quigley, Riley, and I formed a testosterone trio of sorts.

While considering writing projects, I ran across an old notebook with entries about Dennis Chandler, the Cleveland music icon. It made me realize that several months had passed since our last conversation.

He and I had first connected during the summer of 2007. Since then, our paths seemed to regularly cross, again and again. We developed a productive relationship.

Our shared passion for Rock ‘n’ Roll made the difference.

Originally, I wrote about his appearance at a festival in Jefferson. Then, my attention turned to his incredible life as a Cleveland musician and manager for Gibson. But eventually, other storylines developed – notably, about his relationships with Bo Diddley and Les Paul.

Chandler inspired new features of all kinds. His familiarity with music history seemed to know no boundaries.

But then, I lost track of his career.

My last article about his work confessed this misdirected attention stream.
Now, it was strange to consider that my focus had been surrendered once again.

Still pondering my notes, I purposefully dialed his number. The phone rang twice.

“Dennis,” I said. “This is Rod Ice, from the Maple Leaf newspaper.”

He reacted with surprise. “Hey! How have you been?”

I apologized for once again losing touch. “As always, my routine got out of hand. But then I thought of you… and another winter on the Northcoast.”

Chandler was cheerful in his response. “I’ve kept busy while the snow was falling. Done some solo piano stuff, been running each day, and worked on a Telecaster guitar I bought from eBay. It’s Cleveland in the winter. What can you do?”

“A Fender?” I wondered out loud. Because I knew he had worked for Gibson as District Manager, the admission seemed out of place. Like a Chevrolet man suddenly owning a Ford.

“Dale Hawkins passed away recently,” he observed.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That was James Burton on the record, playing ‘Suzi-Q,’” he remembered. “Burton was using a Telecaster. You can’t get that sound with any other guitar.”

I nodded, silently.

“My new axe is a Japanese Fender product, with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece,” he said. “The stock pickups sounded too thin, so I called Seymour Duncan. They make pickups for the custom shop models. I had those added, plus an extra volume knob to blend the sound from each unit. That made all the difference.”

“Very cool,” I said.

“Collector guitars are artificially created,” Chandler exclaimed. “They aren’t really valuable. People buy them, but don’t play them. I prefer to have the proper tool for what I do.”

Curiosity made me pursue this line of thought. “So… why do the instrument manufacturers persist in trying to sell expensive, limited edition items over everyday products?”

He huffed at the question. “It’s like selling a box of Cheerios. They want something special inside, to entice the consumer. The only way to deal with it is to say ‘I’m not going to participate.’ (Otherwise) I don’t know the answer.”

Briefly, we conversed about the death of Les Paul. I asked if any other performer had touched him with a similar measure of artistic fire.

“Jennifer Batten,” he answered. “She’s the best guitarist I’ve ever seen. After listening to her, I wanted to quit playing!”

I knew his remark was offered in jest. But as a compliment, it echoed with meaning.
“You see, I never wanted to be the best player in my band,” Chandler mused. “I always wanted to be the worst.”

My breath stalled. “The worst? Really?”

“Because if I was the best, then how could I get any better?” he reflected. “Surround yourself with better people, and you will improve.”

I bowed my head. “Of course! But hasn’t that process been stalled, in modern terms?”

He groaned in agreement. “Look at the Grammys. Not one song was good enough to win an award. It was all about show business. Not music. You need certain ingredients to make bread… flour and water… just like you need certain elements to make music. From Bo Diddley to Michael Jackson, you have those things. But with Taylor Swift? I just don’t get it.”

I asked about other projects that had developed since our last conversation.
“The people from ‘Pack Rats’ did a show about me,” he said. “It is available as a DVD. They focused mainly on my vintage trains, but also on the musical instruments.”

A bit of research revealed that the program depicts ‘Men who take collecting to the extreme.’ The Dennis Chandler episode was titled ‘Train, Guitars and Stuff’ – a production of MavTV.

“Sounds fascinating,” I said.

Chandler exuded the enthusiasm of a true historian when expanding on his affection for Lionel trains.

“Recently, I found a rare caboose at a house sale,” he said with pride. “It cost twenty-five dollars, but on eBay would be worth much more. The rail car was similar to one I already had, yet very different.”

In closing, I asked about his upcoming plans with The Stratophonics.

“So far, we have a gig booked for University Heights, in July,” he said. “I like to keep busy.”

I nodded silently, once more.

Undeniably, summer was his season. Anywhere there were vintage cars and sizzling burgers gathered to celebrate the warmer months… the ‘Edu-tainer’ would be certain to please!

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

“CARS: A New Member”

c. 2010 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is a one-act play about the evolving state of automobile manufacturing. The participants have chosen to meet far away from the glare of media attention in Washington, D.C. or Detroit. In another venue, the group would face much scrutiny from the public. But in northeastern Ohio, they remain anonymous, and safe.

THE SETTING – A secluded boardroom near Lake Erie.

THE PLAYERS – Lee Iacocca, former chairman of Chrysler Corporation; General Motors; Henry Ford XVI; Antonio Chrysler; Hiro Toyota.

LEE IACOCCA- “I’d like to welcome all of you to Cleveland! Today, we are inducting a new member into our group. One who, until recently, didn’t fit our guidelines for membership…”

GENERAL MOTORS – “Guidelines? Ten hut, I didn’t get the memo on those.”

ANTONIO CHRYSLER – “Hey, I thought the only guideline for being here was hard luck with customers.”

G. MOTORS – “Hard luck? I’ve had plenty of that.”

A. CHRYSLER – “Me too, old man. I’ve got enough unsold cars to fill all the casino parking lots in Vegas. Heyy!”

HENRY FORD XVI – “Be quiet, Lee is talking!”

L. IACOCCA – “Today, we are bringing in someone who has begun to learn how difficult it can be to make automobiles in the real world…someone who used to enjoy a reputation for nearly perfect products.”

G. MOTORS – “At ease, soldier. Building cars ain’t that big of a battle!”

A. CHRYSLER – “Nah, not when the government pays for your screw-ups…what a deal!”

FORD XVI – “Quiet! Please!”

L. IACOCCA – “Let’s give a warm CARS welcome to our newest member… Hiro Toyota!”

(Everyone responds with applause)

HIRO TOYOTA – (Bowing) “I apologize for my presence at this table.”

G. MOTORS – “Apologize?”

FORD XVI – “Calm down, Hiro. There’s no shame in being with us.”

A. CHRYSLER – “At least now maybe we can sell a few cars. Heyy!”

G. MOTORS – “You got no class, private!”

FORD XVI – (Points to his head, then his mouth) “Think it, but don’t say it!”

A. CHRYSLER – “What’s a matter for you? We all crapped out in the big game. It ain’t a secret! Now maybe the odds will turn in our favor again.”

G. MOTORS – “Show some class, Tony! You shouldn’t gloat over Hiro’s failure.”

FORD XVI – “Give the guy a break. Building junk is new to him.”

H. TOYOTA – (Grumbling) “I not belong here.”

A. CHRYSLER – “Oh yes, you do! Make no mistake!”

G. MOTORS – “Mistakes are why we’re all here, pilgrim!”

H. TOYOTA – “And I not build junk!”

A. CHRYSLER – “You tell ‘em, Hiro! They just got their floor mats in a bunch. Heyy!”

L. IACOCCA – “Please! Let’s treat our guest with some respect!”

(All heads bow around the table)

A. CHRYSLER – “Sorry, Toy Man.”

L. IACOCCA – “Hiro is facing his greatest challenge in the marketplace… to restore consumer confidence after a firestorm of negative publicity. Each of us has experienced that kind of situation, and survived…”

G. MOTORS – “Yeah, hang in there, soldier! This too shall pass.”

FORD XVI – “They’ll forget in a decade or two. It worked for American Motors… almost.”

L. IACOCCA – “Can we stay on the subject, gentlemen?”

A. CHRYSLER – “So… reality bit you in the butt, huh? Bada bing! We all know that tune. Put a new body on the old chassis. It’ll keep them guessing!”

H. TOYOTA – (Looking somber) “You sound like bad imitation of Robert DeNiro.”

FORD XVI – (Nodding) “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

L. IACOCCA – “Hiro, I think we could all benefit from hearing about how you’ve handled the gas pedal problem with your vehicles… and the brake issues… why don’t you tell us about that?”

H. TOYOTA – (Reddening with embarrassment) “I apologize to all customers. Meanwhile, my company make repairs!”

G. MOTORS – “Right, pilgrim. You’ve stonewalled the press while trying to get the troops in line. That always worked for me!”

A. CHRYSLER – “Fuggedaboutit! What worked for you was a nice big check from Uncle Sam!”

G. MOTORS – “Shut your trap, grunt! You were in the same soup line!”

FORD XVI – “Not me! I didn’t take a penny of taxpayer money!”

A. CHRYSLER – “Pasta Fazool! You sound like a broken record.”

G. MOTORS – “Ten hut! Give it a rest, Henry.”

FORD XVI – “You’re out of bullets, General. The war is over.”

L. IACOCCA – “Gentlemen, that is enough!!”

(Silence fills the room)

FORD XVI – “Sorry, Lee.”

L. IACOCCA – “That’s more like it. So tell us, Hiro, what changes will you make going forward?”

H. TOYOTA – “No change. We make good cars. This help us learn how to do better.”

G. MOTORS – “That’s the spirit! Don’t mess with the chain of command!”

A. CHRYSLER – “C’mon Toy Man. You gotta whack somebody!”

H. TOYOTA – “No whack. Make better cars.”

FORD XVI – “This is great, Lee. But why didn’t you invite Honda to join the group?”

G. MOTORS – “That’s right, soldier. His tanks have thrown a tread, too!”

L. IACOCCA – “He’s just about gotten a pass from the media. That’s probably why he won’t return my calls.”

H. TOYOTA – “Honor should make him come to table. He bring disgrace to family.”

G. MOTORS – “Disgrace?”

A. CHRYSLER – “Hey, you should know all about disgrace, General. Like the Corvair, the Vega, the Chevette…whoah!”

G. MOTORS – “Don’t get me started, soldier… or we’ll have a talk about the ‘K Car’ and its cousins!”

L. IACOCCA – “Lay off the ‘K Car’ will you?”

FORD XVI – “Can’t we all just get along? My company has a plan. And it’s working.”

H. TOYOTA – “Come down to earth, Henry. You make Pinto in 70’s.”

(Stunned silence overtakes the room)

L. IACOCCA – “Well, Hiro, I must say you surprise me…”

G. MOTORS – “I thought you boys were too disciplined for name calling!”

H. TOYOTA – “The shot was there. I must take it.”

(Laughter echoes from wall to wall)

A. CHRYSLER – “Bada bing! I like this guy!”

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

“The Finch – Part Three”

c. 2010 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is not completely true. However, it is guaranteed to be informative and entertaining.

Late last year, I was encouraged to re-open the old Thompson Center Market by members of the Ledge-Geauga Leadership Council. This proposition came through Ezekiel Byler-Gregg, Editor-in-Chief of the Burton Daily Bugle.

They thought that I would be able to accomplish this feat because of my background as a retail manager in the county.

The resurrected store would be named ‘Tiny Finch.’

After considering this unlikely idea, and touring the empty store location, I began to research the grocery business itself. My hope was that studying the industry might help in deciding whether to pursue this local venture.

The journey began with a corporate history of A & P:

“Nearly 150 years ago, The Great American Tea Company opened a store on Vesey Street in New York City and began selling tea, coffee and spices at value prices. (The company was founded in 1859 by George Huntington Hartford and George Gilman.) Soon stores sprung up all around the metropolitan area and salesmen took their wares to the road in horse-drawn carriages bound for New England, the mid-west and the south. In 1869 the Company was renamed the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, in honor of the first transcontinental railroad and hopes of expanding across the continent. A&P did extend its operations to the West Coast and became the first national supermarket chain in the United States. In 1880, A&P introduced the first private label product - baking powder. As the Company grew, private manufacturing became an important aspect of its business and by the 1920s, A&P had opened its own factory, packing plant and bakery with private brands such as Sunnyfield (bacon, butter, flour and cereals) and Sultana (canned goods, peanut butter and jams). A&P attributes much of its early customer recognition to its advertising and promotional activities. It launched the original customer-loyalty program in the late 1800s with premiums and savings coupons.”

The adventure in print continued with a look at the evolution of Kroger:

“In 1883, Barney Kroger invested his life savings of $372 to open a grocery store at 66 Pearl Street in downtown Cincinnati. The son of a merchant, he ran his business with a simple motto: ‘Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.’ Many aspects of the company’s business today trace their roots to Mr. Kroger’s early efforts to serve his customers. In the early 1900s, most grocers bought their bread from independent bakeries. But Mr. Kroger, always pursuing quality as the key ingredient for profit, recognized that if he baked his own bread, he could reduce the price for his customers and still make money. So he became the first grocer in the country to establish his own bakeries. He was also the first to sell meats and groceries under one roof. Mr. Kroger also spied the promise of increasing his income by manufacturing the products he sold. It began in that first Kroger store on Pearl St. When farmers came to town with their produce, he bought far more cabbage than he could expect his customers to buy. He took the cabbage home to his mother who, following her favorite recipe, turned it into tangy sauerkraut that proved hugely popular with his German customers. The manufacturing effort born in that back room was the beginning of what is today one of the largest food manufacturing businesses in America. Kroger operates 40 food processing facilities that make thousands of products ranging from bread, cookies and milk to soda pop, ice cream and peanut butter. Nearly half of the 14,400 private-label items found in the company’s stores today are made at one of these manufacturing plants. These ‘corporate brands’ today account for an impressive 26% of the grocery dollar sales at Kroger, providing the company with a huge strategic advantage.”

While these pioneers had undeniably left their mark on the business, I remembered another, lesser-known individual from Tennessee who had introduced the modern supermarket concept far ahead of its time:

“Piggly Wiggly, America's first true self-service grocery store, was founded in Memphis, Tenn. in 1916 by Clarence Saunders. In grocery stores of that time, shoppers presented their orders to clerks who gathered the goods from the store shelves. Saunders, a flamboyant and innovative man, noticed that this method resulted in wasted time and expense, so he came up with an unheard-of solution that would revolutionize the entire grocery industry: he developed a way for shoppers to serve themselves. Despite predictions that this novel idea would fail, Saunders’ first store opened September 6, 1916 at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis. Operating under the unusual name Piggly Wiggly, it was unlike any other grocery store of that time. There were shopping baskets, open shelves and no clerks to shop for the customer – all unheard of! Piggly Wiggly Corporation, established by Saunders when he opened the first store in Memphis, secured the self-service format and issued franchises to hundreds of grocery retailers for the operation of Piggly Wiggly stores… Piggly Wiggly Corporation continued to prosper as franchiser for the hundreds of independently owned grocery stores allowed to operate under the Piggly Wiggly name and during the next several decades, functioned successfully under various owners.”

Each story was compelling on its own. Taken together, they communicated a desire for excellence in the field. But above all, the collection of histories seemed to indicate the value of ‘service’ in any sort of commercial institution.

In personal terms, that message resounded with meaning.

I had always believed that the shopping ‘experience’ was undeniably important. Everyday store conditions and habits had to match the quality of goods for sale. Or the business itself would fade, over time.

After reading through these company biographies, I felt a sense of pride in my erstwhile career. Yet one nagging question remained.

Was I ready to start over again?

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Friday, February 05, 2010

“Cycle Film Collectible”

c. 2010 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Regular readers of this column know that I have had a long-distance friendship with guitarist Davie Allan for the past ten years.

Allan lives in southern California. He gathered fame by providing music for motorcycle films in the 1960’s. But since that golden era, he has continued to compose and perform regularly, creating a hefty catalog of recorded material.

Modern fans of the axe hero interact with him in a boisterous online forum called ‘King of the Fuzz.’ With amazing immediacy, he responds directly to questions sent through this network.

It was here that I first connected with Reverend Boobie Auten – one of the guitarist’s closest allies in song.

Auten is a musician, poet, motorcyclist, collector, streetwise theologian, and historian. He also has an ongoing ministry to help those who are on the fringes of society.

Those of us who share membership in the forum are used to taking inspiration from his unbridled zeal for outlaw music. But recently, he brought this passion to a new level.

While perusing valuable goods, Auten discovered a uniform vest from the 1967 movie ‘Devil’s Angels’ for sale. It was a faux set of ‘colors’ representing the fictional Skulls Motorcycle Club.

The movie itself was a Roger Corman epic presented by American International Pictures. In typical fashion, it portrayed a gang of outcasts seeking adventure and wreaking havoc.

Originally, the vest carried a price of $2500. But with a bit of negotiation, a bargain of sorts was struck.

Auten explained his acquisition in colorful terms:

“I purchased this vest back in October. Richard Bruno designed it. He also designed for (classic movies, including) ‘Fireball 500’ and ‘How To Stuff A Wild Bikini.’ I had saved money to purchase a special guitar but this was available and I had to jump on it. I talked the guy down in price but it still commanded a hefty price tag. He declined many offers from around the world. It set me back and I've never spent so much on an item like this in my life but I bought this jacket vest because it is my favorite biker movie. I often wondered where any items from these old sixties movies are! This was a once and a lifetime chance. Bill Dixon is a real biker that was only in the scenes where they were riding. He rode his own Harley and was honored to be asked to be an extra. They needed real bikers and he was in the right time and place (Patagonia, Arizona) for his fifteen minutes of fame. He never did any more movies. Being a true biker, he realized the vest was important to preserve as any gang member would his issued colors. So to be true as possible to the outlaw creed…it was treated with the respect the clubs demand from members by never being washed and as soon as the movie was finished it was hung in his closet for the last forty years untouched just as it was the two weeks of filming when he briefly rode as a Skull with 124 other bikers that rode through Brookville USA. Included are the stains and dirt and scars from the wild time. I can actually flake off gray dirt if I choose to! He and his wife had divorced long ago and Bill moved to the North Carolina mountains. He recently gave the special vest to his now adult son who recalled memories of it always hanging in his closet who sold it to me and has not told his dad as of yet and is actually scared to tell him.”

After hearing about this treasure, I searched through our household collection for the ‘Devil’s Angels’ vinyl LP. It had been my first actual Davie Allan soundtrack, discovered while I was in high school during the 70’s.

Cover photographs confirmed that the design of Auten’s vest was correct. I felt a chill of excitement while reading song titles from the record jacket:

Side One

1. Devil's Angels (Vocal)
2. The Devil's Rumble
3. Funky
4. Make-Believe Love
5. Cody's Theme

Side Two

1. Hell Rider (Vocal)
2. Hole in the Wall
3. Devil's Carnival
4. The Ghost Story
5. Devil's Angels (Instrumental)

American International Pictures was founded in 1956 by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. The company became a part of ‘Baby Boom’ folklore by releasing low-budget films of all kinds. In particular, they pandered to the tastes of young viewers who were attracted by breezy storylines and lots of action.

In its day, films like ‘Devil’s Angels’ were not well received by the general public. Mainstream motorcyclists fretted about the negative image created by such productions. Harley-Davidson was particularly despised as part of the anti-social ‘biker’ subculture.

But in the 1980’s, this perception began to change.

A generational shift brought more freewheeling attitudes into play. Anything associated with postwar culture became desirable. Vintage automobiles, guitars, and clothing began to fetch outrageous prices.

Milwaukee’s most famous manufacturer skillfully utilized this change to reinvent itself in the midst of market turmoil. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan famously observed: “Like America, Harley is back and standing tall."

It was a surprising endorsement - from one who had represented the old-line establishment with gusto.

Eventually, customized ‘choppers’ became part of everyday American life. Jesse James and the Teutul family prospered as icons of this new paradigm. And retail giants such as Kmart and Walmart offered T-shirts that carried ‘chopper’ designs.

Movies like ‘Devil’s Angels’ were rehabilitated by this change in social outlook. Instead of being viewed as crude and unseemly, they became fanciful portraits of an earlier age.

In the 60’s, Auten’s movie prop would have been little more than a cultural curiosity. Something left over from a childhood tantrum displayed with cinematic effects.

But now, it is an accepted part of our history.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

'My Bonnie' 45

Amazing what you find when moving things... this vintage 45 r.p.m. single was tucked between thrift-store books and old glassware:

As 60's Beatlemania swept across the world, lots of imitators appeared. They seemed to be seeking quick profit from the craze. They went by names like Buggs, Beetles, and yes... even the Boll Weevils.