A kindness remembered

December 15, 2020

When I was a high schooler in the mid-1950s, the St. Louis Fox Theater on Grand Avenue was a favorite dating venue.  It was one of several twenties-era movie palaces clustered within a few blocks of each other in the area.  Many had long since been shuttered, but the Fox soldiered on.

A young Stan Kann (1924-2008) at the keyboard(s)

Its big drawing card was the theater’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, with Stan Kann in command.  He played before every performance.  What a treat! 

The Fox instrument and Stan Kann had a long history together. Starting in the late 1940s, Stan spearheaded the painstaking resurrection of the Wurlitzer. It was his baby. The organ is really big, more than 5,000 pipes, in seven chambers, with all the bells and whistles (literally)  typical of the type. It had an actual 32-foot diapason (that is a big pipe, my friend) which was more felt than heard. It had the mandatory Tibia, a shmaltzy stopped wooden pipe which, with tremolo, gives theatre organs their most recognizable sound. It also had the bee-in-a-bottle Kinura, a nasal reed, sort of a musical cayenne pepper, for comic relief. It is truly a grand instrument.

Stan was a local celebrity. His work at the Fox (and also at Rugierri’s Italian restaurant, on The Hill, where he had installed yet another pipe organ from one of the old theaters downtown) gave him wide exposure.  Everybody knew him. In addition to his musical skills, he was blessed with a winsome personality, quick wit, and show-biz polish. He even gained national recognition as a collector of vacuum cleaners.  No, really.

My interest in pipe organs started in the early 1950s when my dad was a field service technician, first for Kilgen Organs, of St. Louis, and later for Wicks Organs, of Highland, Illinois. I once traveled with him for a week in the summer.  I’d run errands, keep him company, and hold down keys while he tuned pipes.

Sometime in 1958 I picked up an album of theatre organ music, which I enjoyed.  It got me to thinking about the Fox Wurlitzer, and wouldn’t it be neat to see inside that thing?  So, I wrote a letter to the owners of the Fox (Arthur Enterprises, as I recall) asking if such a thing would be possible.  I would be home on leave in St. Louis in February 1959.

I got a prompt reply from Stan Kann himself! He graciously offered to give me a personal tour of the instrument some evening after hours.  We settled on February 9, 1959, at midnight.

What a delight.  I had never been back stage at the Fox (that is a huge building!), much less inside a pipe organ of that size.  Stan seemed to have as much fun as I did as he enthusiastically guided me through (most) of the nooks and crannies of those seven chambers, plus the basement room that housed the huge blowers that power the Wurlitzer. There are two of them, about 12 feet long and six feet in diameter.  They produce air pressure of about 20 inches of mercury.  Stan joked that the organ is constantly trying to blow itself apart. 

The visit lasted at least an hour, maybe more.  It is a  treasured memory. I still marvel that someone of Stan Kann’s stature would take the time after a long day to satisfy a 20-year old’s curiosity.  That he would do so reveals what a gracious and generous man he was. It is a kindness that deserves to be remembered.

The Fox theater still operates, stage productions, not movies, which is just wonderful.  It is as gorgeous as it was when it was built in 1929. The Wurlitzer still enchants, though Stan is gone. I last heard them together in 2002. (By the way, an organist friend of mine reminded me a few years back that the Fox has two pipe organs: the big Wurlitzer and another smaller instrument in the lobby.  I did not know that.)

There is a coda to this story

That night, at 2:07 a.m. on February 10, 1959 (I’d just returned from the Fox  to Mother’s place in north St. Louis),  a devastating tornado ripped through St. Louis. It destroyed over 1,700 buildings, killed 21 people, and did about $53 million in damage.  It struck within blocks of the theater district, and did extensive damage to the Gaslight Square area near Olive and Boyle. 

Later that year, after my discharge from the Army, I would take up residence briefly in a 1920s era apartment building in Gaslight Square–across the street from the Crystal Palace, a half block from the Golden Eagle.  But that’s another story.

Stephen E. Richie

December 15, 2020

It’s all about the swish

October 1, 2014

Once one learns how, there is no greater joy for a motorcyclist than a well-executed line on a wiggly road. That’s why wiggly roads are so highly prized among the two-wheel crowd.

Photo1A well-executed line is fast, smooth and safe. A celebration of skill. Turns start wide and finish narrow. The line rocks from apex to apex without abrupt or awkward steering, braking, or gear changes. The bike leans without scraping and stays where it belongs, not too close to either the right edge (there be monsters) or the center line (there be bigger monsters). There’s a thrill. There is swish.

From my house, it takes about two hours each way to get to and from the twisties in the mountains. Going and coming, we pay the price in the interstate free-for-all or urban traffic. In hot weather or rush traffic, the last hour home is horrible, no matter how you do it.

The bliss is in the mountains. But only if you know how. My first time in the twisties scared me so bad I could hardly unclamp my hands from the grips, or my bum from the seat. Heavy rain, and the gravel it washed into the turns didn’t help. Mostly, though, it was simply my lack of experience.

Fourteen years, 100,000 miles and three bikes later, crooked roads are pure joy. No anxiety, just fun. The techniques are second nature, reflexive: look through the turn, counter steer, lean with the bike, roll on some throttle, and let the machine do that for which it was designed. Swish! It’s the kind of ephemeral, ecstatic experience we would bottle, if we could, to savor again and again.

It’s good that can’t be. As a fisherman’s hell would be a catch on every cast, a rider’s hell would be a wiggly road that never ends. As long as the swish remains something special, a sweet reward for the relative boredom or downright drudgery of all other roads, it always leaves us wanting more.SAMSUNG

This afternoon would be fine.

Fourth Baptist a charred ruin

March 24, 2010

Fourth Baptist Church

An old friend recently sent us a link to an article and pictures about the sad state of the Fourth Baptist Church building in North St. Louis. http://www.flickr.com/photos/faeriecat/sets/72157612521780833/

This is the church Deanna grew up in, and where we met in the mid-fifties. I attended there only for about a year and a half, before I went into service right after high school. We last saw the building, no longer in use, during a visit to the city in 2003. It had suffered some vandalism but was still mostly intact.

Today it is a fire-ravaged hulk, no longer fit for anything but used brick (which is now St. Louis’s chief export). It fits right in. After all, most of North St. Louis looks like a war zone. The landscape is mostly vacant lots and rubble. Housing we lived in no longer exists. Old schools are boarded up. Why should this building escape that fate?

So I was a little surprised at the sadness I felt looking at the pictures of the building in its current state: the caved-in roof; the charred sanctuary; the balcony my buddies and I preferred; the pipe organ reduced to ashes; the baptistery where I was properly dunked (the Presbyterians had already sprinkled me but that didn’t count).

As I say, I didn’t attend there very long, and I have long since refined my thinking about the beliefs I embraced there as a teen. But I remember with gratitude warm and sincere people who made me feel welcome when I needed it. We had a large and active group of young people, always on the go. And, of course, there was Deanna. We’ll be married 50 years in May.

Without “Fourth,” as we knew it, we probably wouldn’t have met, and our kids and grandkids wouldn’t exist. Messes with your head, it does.

Talent or toil?

October 13, 2009

Talent or toil?  Nature or nurture? What makes people good at what they do?

The common use of the word talent to mean innate ability—something one is born with, like blue eyes or big feet—does a disservice to all who are good at what they do mostly because they worked hard to get that way.

Truly, some things come easier to some folks. But without fail, people who are most skillful at anything were not born that way; they are accomplished because they were willing to work with focus and commitment. To pay the price.

It is also self-serving to dismiss another person’s abilities as (mere) talent, in this sense, because it lets us off the hook. “I can’t do that because I just don’t have the talent.” Never mind I waste my time watching television instead of practicing chord substitutions.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Practice. Practice.

The dulcimer project

October 4, 2009

About 30 years ago I made a 3-string dulcimer from a kit.  It was not too

Dulcimers old and new.  Top: a cherry teardrop made from a kit 30 years ago. Bottom: my latest hourglass dulcimer.

Dulcimers old and new. Top: a cherry teardrop made from a kit 30 years ago. Bottom: my latest hourglass dulcimer.

 difficult and turned out okay but was never a great-sounding instrument.  The single melody string has a hard time being heard against the drones. The sound chamber is smallish, which limits volume. Also, the soundboard is cherry, which is pretty but I’m not sure it produces the best tone. This instrument would be okay for chording, but it is not robust enough to carry a melody in the traditional way.


So I decided to make a 4-string dulcimer from scratch, using book-matched Spanish cedar for the soundboard and bottom, and hard maple for the sides and other parts. I used ebony for the fretboard, and a couple of small pieces of ivory I cadged from a friend for the nut and bridge.

I built to the plan, “Deluxe Hourglass Dulcimer” #MDP-04, by Scott Antes. I also bought his booklet, “A dulcimer builder’s reference manual,” which was very helpful. I purchased them from http://www.pilgrimsprojects.biz/dulc.html.


Bridge and tail detail.

Bridge and tail detail.

My shop is well equipped. The project employed my table saw, band saw, jointer, thickness planer, and drill press. I even used the lathe to turn a couple of decorative buttons. For carving, I used my Wecheer flexible-shaft rotary tool http://www.wecheer.com. I used all the usual hand tools: bench chisels, hammers, small saws, knives, rasps, and a ton of sandpaper. For specialized luthier tools that could come in handy, I’d recommend Stewart MacDonald http://www.stewmac.com. I bought my banjo-style friction tuning pegs from them.


I used my old standby, Titebond Original Wood Glue http://www.titebond.com to hold it all together and finished the piece with Minwax wipe-on polyurethane http://www.minwax.com.

This was a fun and very challenging project, which was what I wanted. It

The carved peg box with banjo-style friction pegs. The only parts turned on the lathe are the buttons between the pegs.

The carved peg box with banjo-style friction pegs. The only parts turned on the lathe are the buttons between the pegs.

 took me about 3 months altogether. The hardest part was carving the fancy peg box, as I have next to no experience with carving. The good news: I got the instrument I was after. Good volume, great tone, and not too shabby lookin’.


Now I just need to learn to make music with it.

But is it art?

August 26, 2009

Woodturning: art vs. craftPMILL

This question has been kicked around a long time, by a lot of people smarter than I. So I don’t expect to add anything original, but I would like to pass along an idea I find appealing.

The question has been on my mind for decades. Early on, I made my living as a Commercial photographer (note the capital C) and often wondered if my images, however artfully done, could be called art. I concluded no. I proudly considered myself a craftsman. Still do.

I was once invited, by the chairman of the Art Department at a college where I worked, to talk about photography to one of his classes. I recall one student asked me what kind of pictures I liked to take best.  I horrified all present when I replied, “Them what pays the most.”

Around that same time I figured out I could be very creative for a price, but it seemed artists were motivated to work whether or not a check was involved.  Hmm.

I’ve been paying serious attention to woodturning lately. I’ve sat through hundreds of demonstrations, read extensively, and talked with a lot of turners. I’ve also eyeballed thousands of turned objects (and carved, textured pierced, colored, and inlaid), which range from craptacular to exquisite. I’ve produced pieces I showed with pride—and some firewood.

Where is the line between art and craft? Does it matter? Are they the only categories to be considered? In his wonderful book, Woodturning Design, Mike Darlow opens his discussion of this question by admitting there is no clear demarcation. Huge gray area.

As he explores the subject further he says, “A perceived difference between art and craft concerns quantity. Manufacturing is often concerned with huge quantities, craft permits batch production, but an essence of art works is that each is unique.”

So, if I make only one, it’s art; if I make ten, it’s craft; if I make 1,000, it’s manufacturing?  Hmm.

My grandson’s high-school art teacher offers the explanation that crafts are three-dimensional objects that have a practical purpose; art is two-dimensional (!) and exists only to appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Hmm. Hmm.

Is it all about the money?

I was surprised once, walking through a display of turned objects at a symposium, when a fellow next to me said, “Isn’t that a nice piece? I wonder what he gets for those.” I was satisfied to agree that yes, it was a lovely piece.  The idea of market value didn’t enter my mind.

It seems that as a turner progresses he (she) more or less naturally grows into the idea of selling his work. Makes sense, I guess. When one runs out of room at home, and friends and relatives no longer chortle with glee over another cherry burl doodad, what’s to be done? Hey, I know, I’ll sell it!

There is a market for this output, and better work brings higher prices. So it is certainly logical to relabel one’s shop a studio and rebrand oneself not as a mere craftsperson, but as a person of unusual, (mystical is even better) talent. An artist. There’s more money in it.

I came across a turner in the UK who blogs that this is a good thing—the higher prices some fetch are good for the craft (oops, art) as a whole. We should encourage these turners. If money is the test, he may have a point.

A purer test

For what it’s worth, I’d like to pass along for your consideration an idea I’ve warmed to over the years. It is very simple but its greatest appeal is simply that it strikes me as obviously true. Here it is:


Craft is about the object. Art is about the idea.


There you go. Cuts through the blather, doesn’t it? Well, most of it; still leaves us plenty of gray area to debate where to slot any particular piece. But one thing seems clear: it makes it a little tougher to perceive most* turned objects as art, doesn’t it?

I think so, and that’s okay with me. I always thought it a high compliment to be considered a craftsman.

*We have all seen works that are jaw-dropping gorgeous. Inspired and inspiring.  No problem calling their makers artists.

BTW, have you noticed how many of these pieces are barely identifiable as turnings? So much has been done to them off the lathe one can hardly discern what was done on the machine.

So what?  I don’t know. What do you think?

Grandpa makes a pool cue

August 22, 2009

The finised cue

The finished cue

Our family’s last remaining 13-year-old excitedly presented me a longish branch of indeterminate species he’d hauled out of the woods.  “Can you make me a pool stick out of this?” he asked, “I think it’s straight enough.”

“Well, that’s not a great piece of wood for a pool cue,” say I, “but I’ll be happy to make you one out of better wood. How’s that?”

The prototype

Thinking he would probably use it mostly for knocking rocks down the street, I figure I’ll bang one out without too much effort or expense. I pick up a couple of 3’ pieces of 2”x2” poplar at Lowe’s.  Since my lathe is 42” between centers, the 58” pool cue will be made in two pieces.  No problem; most of the best cues are two-piece affairs anyhow.

Jumping in unencumbered by research, I settle on 1-3/8” at the butt, 1-1/8” in the middle, and about 1/2” at the ball-hitting end. The poplar cue turns out more like a long baseball bat. Way too fat. Unbalanced. Ugly. Okay, so this one is my prototype. 

Rather than waste my time on another poplar throwaway, I decide to make the best cue I can, with good materials. Take my time. Do it right. Have some fun. See what I can learn.

The steady rest


The steady rest

The steady rest

I learned from the prototype I’ll never turn those long, thin spindles without a steady rest to minimize vibration. So before I tackle the good one, I have to build a steady rest.  Factory-made steadies run about $150. Self-respecting woodturners make their own. Besides, I’m cheap. The jig itself is pretty straightforward: a few pieces of plywood, a couple of bolts, and three wheels.

I have some maple wheels left over from my days as a captive builder of toy trucks for toddlers. No good. Without bearings, the wood burns from friction on the axle and gets sloppy.  Plastic wheels salvaged from casters? Nope. Same problem.

No way out; I have to find some wheels with ball bearings. Might actually have to purchase them! In-line skate wheels would be perfect. After shopping around a bit on line, it turns out they sell in sets of eight, starting at about $40.  Ouch. Maybe I can do better at Wal-Mart. 

Off I go on my motorcycle. Well, Uncle Sam has no skate wheels, but look, there’s a skateboard for 20 bucks.  Sold. 

So I make my way to the checkout line, white hair glowing under the fluorescent lighting, motorcycle helmet dangling from my left hand, and a Spider Man skateboard under my right arm.  “I know this board ain’t for you,” smirks the checkout clerk.

“You never know,” say I.

Now I’m cruising out Independence Boulevard on two wheels with the board bungeed to my luggage rack.  Guy pulls up next to me at a red light. Looks at the skateboard. Looks at me. “In case you run out of gas?”

“You never know,” say I.


The woodturner’s pledge includes a tacit but nonetheless solemn oath never to pay for wood if it can be avoided.  So one develops a network of friends from whom to beg or with whom to barter for wood. My cup runneth over; J brings me fresh-cut cherry, walnut, birch, and maple from his property in the mountains. B comes bearing exotic burls from who know where. K has shelves full of dry cherry, Spanish cedar, maple, and other oddments he gets from his customers for application-testing the high-end production woodworking equipment he sells.

From this latter source I acquired some multicolored, laminated wood, which is impregnated with plastic resin and processed under extreme pressure to about half its original thickness. The result is a very dense, hard material that is impervious to anything short of nuclear fission.  My friend’s customer uses it for rifle stocks. Amazingly, it turns and finishes beautifully, though tools need more frequent sharpening. So this stuff will be the hold-it-here section of the cue.

I also have some ebony in the form of reject fingerboards from a guitar manufacturer. I paid for them, but not too much. Ebony is fantastic stuff; it is hard but silky smooth under the tool.  Grain is almost undetectable. It finishes beautifully. This will be used for accent rings to separate various segments of the cue.

The main body of the cue will be hard maple. Alas, must pay for it.

To the lathe

The skinny front half of the cue is all one piece, so we start there.  I’m going for a more-or-less straight section, about 1/2” in diameter, 14” in length from the tip; then a smooth transition and uniform taper to the join, which is 7/8” diameter.  At the join, we make a 2” long tenon, 1/2” in diameter, which will fit a matching mortise (hole) drilled in the butt section. I make the workpiece longer on each end so I have something to grab at the headstock, and some meat for the live center at the tailstock.  I mount the steady more or less in the middle of the piece. We start with the tool rest to the left of the steady, then move it to the right as the work progresses.

On a spindle like this I usually use a radiused skew chisel, of the type made popular by Alan Lacer and Richard Raffan, with a peeling cut to reduce diameter and rough out the profile. Now I discover this cut puts too much lateral pressure on the thin spindle, inducing vibration. So I revert to a quotidian roughing gouge, with which I can take a lighter bite with less vibration. I check the taper with a straightedge as I go along. When I’m happy with the dimensions and the taper I sand through the grits to 400, plus steel wool, and finish with sanding sealer and several coats of gloss wipe-on polyurethane. (This stuff is fantastic. No bubbles, no sags. No brushes, no spray. Goes on with a paper towel. Dries fast. Hard as a pawnbroker’s heart. Buy it now.)

The people end on the lathe

The back end of the cue on the lathe

The back end of the stick is more complex. At the butt, I make a glue-up of the impregnated wood (IW), an ebony ring, and a short length of maple, all held together with a 3/4” dowel. I use polyurethane glue because I think it might like the IW better than, say, Titebond, my usual stickum of choice.  At the other end of the IW segment, I add a length of maple with a tenon on one end and a hole in the other. The tenon goes through an ebony ring and into a hole in the IW. When it’s all assembled and the glue is cured, it goes on the lathe.

I take care to match the join diameter of the back end to the front end of the cue. I use a dial caliper to get it within .001” and burn a candle to the turning gods to ensure the mortise hole is truly on center. Again, we work on each side of the steady rest, making sure to get a taper as uniform as possible from one end to the other.

The IW material turns fine, but is a little hard on tools.  (It also produces dust, not shavings, so I wear a mask throughout the work.) Ultimately, I finish the profile with a scraper, then sand and finish as I did the front half of the stick.

Off the lathe, the mortise and tenon fit the two pieces together as planned. I add a factory-made replacement tip, and an ebony bumper at the butt.  The cue finishes out 57” in length. It weighs in at 20 ounces and balances right where you’d expect.

The kid is happy with his pool cue. I have an IOU for lawn work.

I had fun, learned some lessons, and the piece earned attaboys and  questions at my two local woodturning clubs.

It cost $65 but I get to keep the steady rest.

Sam’s store sells pool cues for as little $10 but they’re not Grandpa-certified.

Stephen Richie