A Collector's Journey
By: Sandy Lechtick
Sitting on the porch of Richard Reutlinger's most unusual home at the 2012 AMICA convention in San Francisco, a friendly fellow approached me: "Are you the coin-op collector that recently hosted an AMICA meeting at your house in Southern California? I said "yes" and that is how I got to know Terry Smythe.
Terry, a collector who has been ensconced in the world of musical devices for three plus decades was clearly fascinated in the stuff I collect - 1900-1950's coin operated penny arcade machines, mechanical advertising window displays and other automatons such as Baranger Motions. We discussed the unusual journey collectors take - zig zagging from one collectible to another, traversing from the mountain to the desert to the sea. He noted that he himself, and his wife had over the years collected all sorts of different items. He was curious about my passion and journey. My story may sound familiar.
I got the bug when I was five or six years old. I went from collecting Papermate pens and matchbook covers to marbles to amethyst geodes to butterflies to yo-yo's to Brill Cream box tops to stamps and then to my true love at the time - coin collecting. Comic books took a close second and I am still upset to this day that my Mom junked those two old boxes filled with early Superman comic books! Most of the stuff came from rummaging trash cans in my neighborhood, or using all the change and earnings from my paper route to trade in coins from the drug store and grocery stores. Me and my brother went through the alleys and the back of all the grocery stores for Coca Cola and 7-Up bottles so we could redeem the bottles and get three cents per bottle and buy candy or look for rare coins. I chased down golf balls at Rancho Golf Course that the golfers hit the ball over the fence and then sold the ball to the next round of golfers for "two, six or eight bits". That money also went to trading ion coins. I moved upstream to rolls of nickels, pennies and dimes at the bank. There was something majestic about finding a rare penny, 50 or 60 years old. I was thrilled pushing coins into those blue coin books. Alas, the 1909 S-VDB and 1914-D eluded me! (I bought them from a coin store years later but it wasn't the same).
My collecting passion took a backseat for several years to athletic competition in table tennis and gymnastics and years latter paddle tennis championships at Venice Beach.
I have always been fascinated by unusual mechanical devices, wall clocks, well crafted mechanical mechanisms, unique looking machines that come to life through cranking a handle, dropping a coin or hitting a switch. Some have unbelievable craftsmanship and elegance. I was intrigued by the mechanisms that make things move - clockwork devices, unusual mechanisms, how they may have impacted history and even the industrial revolution. This interest in thingamajigs may be counter-intuitive since I myself am extremely non-mechanical and never have been a fix-it guy. In spirit, I am a "tinkerer," but in the real world, a California hustler.
As any collector knows, champagne tastes on a diet coke budget is no recipe to building a collection. Not until I achieved success in the executive search arena and built my own company did I have discretionary extra income to buy "toys". It took me more than 30 years to truly be able to step up to the plate and built a major collection.
The hunt was the thing. I always enjoyed swap meets, flea markets, garage sales and estate sales. With my girlfriend and eventually my wife, we enjoyed driving up the coast staying at bed and breakfast joints (we always took our bicycles) and explored the area stopping at every antique store around. In almost every antique store, I felt like I was entering a by-gone era, a world slipping away that no longer existed. There was always something magical about old, well-made antiques and vintage collectibles. Other than the occasional musty old book smell, these stores were always fun - until the good stuff stopped showing up and everything looked like replicas - and not even good ones! (Ebay may open a lot of doors, but it sure played a terrible role to the antiques store business)! At any rate, it was not just the feel or look of items, but its history that intrigued me. Where did they come from? What type of person bought it? Who on earth came up with this idea? How was it constructed? How much did it cost? How did it end up in this particular store in the middle of no-where?
There was something mysterious, mystifying - almost romantic about stuff made and used in the mid to late 1800's or early 1900's. Somewhere along the way, I became intrigued by coin-op penny arcade machines, especially those that had movement. With the insertion of a penny, nickel or dime, the machine came alive. Fortune Tellers that appeared life like that move their eyes, that spoke and breathed, that displayed a Fortune; strength machines that could tell you the force of your blow or measure the strength of your bicep; shooting gun games that could measure the accuracy of your target-eye; machines that were visually striking; colorful and unique - and all one needed was a magical coin. This to me was interactive art. I found all this so much more exciting than microprocessors, video games and the digital world of O's and 1's and the "cloud".
Since the only coin-op I was seeing at swap meets was a gumball and coca-cola machine, I decided to check out ads in Antique News and other newspapers. One fellow in California was advertising that he would buy 1-100 coin-op machines working or not and pay cash. I thought "Gee, this guy must be something. If he is buying so many, maybe he is selling too!" Little did I know, my life was soon to change.
I called him. He lived only a few miles from my house. While he seldom invited people over, my enthusiasm won him over and I was soon at his home - a virtual mecca of vintage coin-op machines. Talk about a "Eureka" moment. I was floored. Never had I seen so many 1800's and early 1900 penny arcade and gambling machines. In fact, most of the machines were ones I had never heard of or even known existed. This was no collection of gumball machines, but a world class collection of vintage, exceedingly rare cast iron and related coin-op machines. That was about 12 years ago. With the force of an IUD exploding, with laser focus, I set on building a fun and unusual collection that would be like no other. Never in a million years did I dream I'd accomplish what I accomplished.
Since knowledge is power and relationships extremely important, I slowly got to know almost every top coin-op collector in the U.S., especially those that focused on vintage penny arcade machines. Then I diversified into mechanical advertising window displays and Barangers jewelry store motions and other automatons. Then I expanded into early 1900 uprights (floor model slot machines). I've always loved music, taught myself how to play guitar, had a small Everly Brothers type band and eventually taught myself how to play piano. So the next zig was to add music to the collection. I had a baby grand piano with a disc player which played Broadway show tunes - but wanted more. Before I heard of AMICA and knew nothing about rare player pianos or orchestrations, I met a fellow at an organ rally. He was wearing what looked like a train conductor hat and he was playing his band organ. That fellow miraculously lived on the same street I do (within a few blocks) in Southern California, added the zig to my zag and introduced himself. That is how I met and got to know Frank and Shirley Nix, who have become friends. Visiting his home was quite eye-opening and influenced me to veer off into coin operated music devices. In the last couple of years I've added a Mills Panaram playing 1930's soundies, a Violano Virtruso, KT Special, Scopitone, two player pianos, animated accordion and three juke boxes. Some how, some way, I'd make room if a Werlitzer CX or an Art deco Decap orchestrion if they pop up for sale.
So what is the take away on this? The thrill of the hunt is often times more fun than the successful completion. The tales of the hunt are equally exciting. While many of my friends take photos of the rare machines, I take people photos since their collections are truly a reflection of their personality, tastes and vision. There is no question that collectors collect, but what is even more memorable is the relationships - the experience shared together, going on trips together, bonding at their homes, sharing experiences with those who share their passion - whether duo art rolls, music boxes, orchestrations or coin-op penny arcade machines and automatons.
The AMICA organization and the people we've gotten to know have opened up a new world to me and my wife. The 50th AMICA anniversary in San Francisco was stupendous. We've had many from AMICA and MBSI visit us. The AMICA trip to London a couple of years ago was super cool. The Southern California AMICA trip to Fresno was eye-opening.
In short, while I am still a bit of a neophyte in the world of mechanical music machines, it is exciting and me and my wife have met people who share the same passion I do - albeit more music related. Some have crossed over into the world of coin-operated machines, automatons and Barangers. I must say that AMICA is a great organization and look forward to getting to know many others. Even my wife Sumi is on board - not an easy feat for a collector's wife!
Sandy Lechtick's a collector of coin operated penny arcade, gambling and musical machines. He also collects Barangers, automatons and mechanical window displays. Sandy can be reached at or (818) 712-9700.