Profiles: Earning Bucks the Old Way
Aug. 11, 2003 -- --
But even decades into the digital age, there are people who still prefer typewriters. And typewriter repairers still have work, living on rat-a-tat-tat echoes of an older America.
Likewise, it's been 75 years since the age of talkies began, but some movie houses still play silent films, and even hire organists to accompany them live — just like the old days.
ABCNEWS.com would like to introduce you to some of the people keeping the old ways alive.
Mitchell, perhaps the last active musical accompanist from the heyday of silent movies, follows a general rule of thumb when accompanying Valentino, Chaplin and Keaton at Los Angeles' Silent Movie Theater.
"I never play anything that wasn't published before the picture was made," he says, "but I don't know how many people would actually know that."
If anybody would, it would be somebody like Mitchell.
He sprinkles reminiscences of his long and varied career with specific dates and names. He still has stories to tell about his childhood music teachers, including one who chastised him for a mistake on a church organ's foot pedals eight decades ago, preparing him to play in darkened theaters.
"This young woman, Frances Webster, intimidated me; I was scared of her," he recalls. "She said, 'Don't look at your feet,' and to this day I'm afraid to look at my feet, which is a great benefit."
Mitchell's mother, a music lover, finagled piano and organ lessons for her son, though money and instruments were scarce during his youth near Los Angeles and Sierra Madre, Calif. She disdained the movies as "vulgar and cheap," he says, but eventually arranged for him to do a stint on a theater organ at the Strand in Pasadena, Calif.
Mitchell was booked to play Christmas carols between movie showings on Dec. 24, 1924, though not to accompany the movie. As he rehearsed about a week before his engagement, a movie started. He kept playing. Ready or not, it was the start of a career.
"I played for four years … from '24 to '28, when sound wiped us out," he says.
Other than a performance in 1947, Mitchell never accompanied another silent movie until 1992.
"I don't think I missed them," he says. "I loved them, and I figured they were gone."
He tickled the keyboard for radio and stage productions, and kept involved in movie music as director of a boy's choir in Los Angeles. He and the choir scored or appeared in dozens of talkies from the 1930s to the 1980s. He also played the organ at Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games.
Then, silent films with live accompaniment came back, and Mitchell savors performances at The Silent Movie Theater (including three nights over Labor Day weekend), which have brought him audience and media acclaim, and a blast from his youth.
"The first day I played [in 1992] was Raymond Griffith in Hands Up!," he says. "I had played that many times at the Strand [in the 1920s]. … I knew it so well, it was easy to play because I knew what was coming next. After that, I had no trouble at all.
"I think that the picture with live music is essential," he adds. "I think it has to be live to have the real [feeling]."
He is heartened by a new generation of accompanists with new playing styles keeping the craft alive.
"The young people are keeping it up so wonderfully," he says. "They're all marvelous at improvising music in the mood. … I think it will live forever."
Armstrong got into the "nostalgia business" of player pianos in 1951, shortly after he graduated from high school.
"It was just kind of an overgrown hobby that grew into a business," he says. "I was working at a printing company making 75 cents an hour. I found that I could earn $2 an hour repairing player pianos."
He founded the Player Piano Co. in Wichita, Kan., supplying parts — such as electric suction box adaptor kits that could replace old, manually pumped bellows — to maintain the aging suction-powered instruments.
Even then, player pianos were considered antiques. Mass marketed in the 1910s, they saw their heyday in the 1920s, when vinyl records, radio and the Depression undermined their popularity.
It took a stroke of luck to turn Armstrong from a small-scale hobbyist into an entrepreneur: From the late 1950s to early 1970s, old-fashioned player pianos made a comeback.
"It reached a peak somewhere around 1973, '74," he says. "At one time, we had about 31 employees. We're down to five now … but we're still providing the same basic line of materials."
Most player piano manufacturers ended production by the mid-1980s, though Story & Clark Pianos in Seneca, Pa., still makes them. However, most are newer, digital, CD-driven models, according to the company's plant manager, Dan Shirey, and sales of the old-fashioned, paper-roll-driven machines that Armstrong deals with are "down to a trickle."
Armstrong estimated the Player Piano Co. does about the volume of business it did in 1958, but on a downward trend.
Still, Armstrong is happy.
"I still think of it as an overgrown hobby," he says. "I'll stay with it until I die."
"If I had to, if it comes down to that, I'd run the whole business by myself," he adds. "I kind of feel responsible in a way. A lot of our customers have said from time to time, 'I hope you don't leave the business. What would we do?'"
Thirty years ago, Andler raised Morgan horses, the kind that pulled carriages back in the real horse-and-buggy days.
One by one, he bought about a half-dozen vintage buggies and carriages for his horses, but he couldn't hang on to them. People kept saying, "I'll buy that horse if you sell me that buggy."
Andler the entrepreneur got to thinking, quit his job at an auto plant, and hitched his future to horse carriages. His father thought he was crazy.
"He just about came unglued," Andler says. "[He said,] 'What the hell is wrong with your head, boy? They don't use horse buggies anymore.' But fortunately, he lived long enough to see it grow into what it was, and he was pretty proud of me."
Andler now has 13 employees, and he struggles to keep up with orders for about 30 carriages per year. He's filled orders from Disney, parent company of ABCNEWS.com, and built models that ride through New York's Central Park. Currently, he's working on three chariots he will ship to New Orleans for singer Harry Connick Jr.
"I've never been caught up," he says. "In fact, we're just getting ready to build some for Donald Trump out there at that casino" in Atlantic City.
"Probably the most rewarding thing about this business has been the people I've gotten to meet," he says.
Andler doesn't duplicate old-fashioned methods of production. Rather than making each carriage from scratch out of wood and lacquer, he builds rough wooden prototypes of custom orders, such as the Connick model, and then casts molds from which he can fabricate fiberglass parts. Afterward, the carriage can be mass-produced and becomes part of Andler's ever-expanding line.
His most popular models are his "Limited Edition" carriage and hearses.
"Hearses are hot," he says. "Here's my logic for that: The people who are of dying age now are the people who were alive during the horse-and-buggy era."
Though the business may seem old fashioned, it has propelled Andler from a country upbringing into the digital age. He runs an elaborate Web site, does a brisk, modern business, and travels the country delivering carriages.
"I spend more time on the damn computer and telephone selling the stuff," he says. "I'd rather be out there working with my hands, but it's just grown into such a monster that I can't do it."
In the production shop, he adds, somewhat jealously, "They're still wearing their bib overalls, chewing on grass and listening to Willie Nelson."
He says he's used to rustic ways and so doesn't spend a whole lot of time pondering the nostalgic aspects of the job.
"I've been at this for 30 years and it still doesn't stop fascinating me that people are fascinated by this," he says. "I'll keep doing it till I can't. It keeps me young."
Rice still drives a 1964 Divco milk truck that's had four engine replacements, and revels in the slice of Americana that is his job.
But his survival may be rooted in a modern trend — the two-career family.
Rice, who's broadened his line from dairy products to "a rolling grocery store," thinks he's been able to prosper because his vintage service saves time and effort for time-pressed modern families.
"Nobody has any time," he says. "So along comes this fellow who says, 'I can bring you one-third of your groceries for the same price as a major grocery store,' and suddenly business was very good.
"Each year that goes by, I get more and more appreciative of the uniqueness of this business," he says. "For me, the joy of this business is that when my head hits the pillow at night, I'm exhausted and happy that I've helped families to keep their car parked in the driveway and have a little bit more time."
Rice began delivering products for Sacramento, Calif.'s Crystal Cream and Butter Co. in 1968, and purchased his route from the dairy in 1970. Then, in the mid- to late-1970s, California deregulated its dairy industry, and he faced difficult price competition from supermarkets.
Four home delivery competitors went belly up, but Rice survived by working harder than he ever had. Eventually, he diversified his line to include bakery bread and muffins, breakfast meats, juices and bottled water.
Whereas about 23.1 percent of federally tracked milk sales were through home delivery in 1967, just 0.4 percent was delivered in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which does not measure sales in California and certain other regions.
But by the 1990s, Rice began to prosper again, and now is one of 10 contractors delivering Crystal products along separate routes in the wee hours of the northern California morning. Times have changed — most customers have moved from whole milk to skim or 2-percent — but Rice still loves the neighborly feel of his job, even if he works while customers sleep.
"As I drive down the street, people wave to me who I have no idea who they are," he says. "Obviously, there are customers I've never met."
Customers have sent him chicken soup and casseroles when he's been sick. Virtually none default on monthly bills.
In the summers, he hires local college students to fill in so he can take vacations with his wife. People they meet can barely believe milkmen still exist: "Their eyes would go as big as sewer lids, and they say, 'Really?' "
Dairies around the country have discovered what Rice already knows — that overworked families long for convenience — and some have announced revived service by modern milkmen who deliver a wide range of other groceries.
But Rice may be reaching the end of the line. He plans to retire at age 65.
"I have a number of people who really, really want to buy this business," he says.
Several years ago, when police needed to know what kind of typewriter the Unabomber was using to bang out his frightening threats, they turned to Willi Kitz.
"I identified the typewriter according to the sheet of paper," Kitz says. "It was an Underwood."
It should be no surprise that Kitz — in consultation with a former colleague — would come up with the clue. By age 15, in his native Germany, he already had studied to be a typewriter repairman, completed an apprenticeship, passed a certification test and gone to work.
Now Kitz — along with his co-worker and son, Charlie — is one of the few remaining old-time typewriter guys in the San Francisco area.
Times have changed — out of necessity he's branched out to electric typewriters, fax machines and printers — but he still prefers getting the old manuals in his San Francisco-area shop.
"It's always been my passion to fix the old ones," he says. "To pay the rent and everything, you've got to go to the modern machines, too."
Luckily, even decades into the computer age, Kitz still gets to work on the old machines, often from older customers who still use them around the house, or office workers who use them to type up labels and forms. Writers are frequent customers, too — young ones who want to tap into an old-timer's vibe, and established ones such as Danielle Steele, who brings Kitz her many manual typewriters for maintenance.
"When it comes to something mechanical, it's not just replacing parts," says Charlie Kitz, 42, of the difference between typewriters and computers. "It's a lot of tweaking — a little bend here, a little bend there."
But when parts are needed, finding them nowadays can sometimes be a problem. That's why Willi Kitz has his own stash of unwanted Olympias, Torpedoes and Smith-Coronas cast off by modernization.
"If you saw my garage at home, I can hardly get my car in there," he says. "When I take my car out of the garage, my wife is like a co-pilot. She pilots my car into the garage because I've got so many machines in there."
Kitz does have a computer at his workshop to hook up to printers he repairs, but he does not use one at home.
"I like the old-fashioned type of things," he says. "My son just talked me into an answering machine at home."
He knows his profession evokes nostalgia, "but I would never mention it to a customer because it makes them feel old," he says.
"Sure, it's drifting into the past," he adds of his profession. "More modern things come out all the time. Just like I'm 68 and I'm drifting into the past, too. You've got to realize that. … But as an older person, I still enjoy what I do and I will go as long as I can."
Widespread automation has made Schubert the last full-time civilian lighthouse keeper in America, but he doesn't get real choked up about the fact that he could become the last of his kind.
"When I get out, that will be it," he says matter-of-factly. "They'll make sure it will be completely automated and everything else."
Schubert started out as a buoy tender in 1937, has been a lighthouse keeper since the 1940s, and has worked at the Coney Island station in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, since 1960. There is at least one other lighthouse keeper, in Boston, who is a member of the Coast Guard, the agency that oversees Schubert and the lighthouses.
"When I first started on this, it was all kerosene," he says. "Right now, it's not as much [work] as it used to be, but years ago, it used to take half an hour to light the light up."
He also had to physically and repeatedly wind a giant mechanism resembling a grandfather clock so the kerosene light would rotate in the tower.
These days, the system is electrified, mechanical and electronic, though Schubert still climbs the tower at least once per day to make sure everything is running smoothly, and makes repairs when necessary. A handful of cruise ships have replaced passenger ship traffic out on New York Bay.
Much of Schubert's time — now as always — is taken maintaining the lighthouse and the home next door, where he lives and once raised his family. The maintenance is a bit easier at Coney Island than at his prior posting, New York's Old Orchard Light, which was located well offshore.
"When they got a man to be a lighthouse keeper he had to have good knowledge, a little of everything," Schubert recalls. "If an electric line went out, you couldn't call an electrician. If a pipe went out, you couldn't call a plumber. You had to do it all."
Schubert also guides groups of tourists by appointment.
"School classes, college students, senior citizens and these different clubs," Schubert says. "I usually take them up in the lights, show them the light works."
Somewhat to his surprise — he doesn't see why people are so interested in lighthouses — he has become something of a celebrity in his advanced years.
"I've been on every TV station, every radio station, in all the papers," Schubert says. "In fact, I've been on TV in Italy, Germany."