A Collector's Journey
By: Sandy Lechtick
Who is it that said getting older is like a roll of toilet paper - it spins faster as you get toward the end. Time just flies by. Returning from the Denver, Colorado A.M.I.C.A. Convention, I thought about the various journey's we take on growing and expanding the thing we call collection. I thought about how these things we conclude in our life often defines us - and add to our life's experiences, friendships and passions.
Just a few short years ago, I was sitting on the porch of Richard Reutlinger's most unusual home at the 2012 AMICA convention in San Francisco. A friendly bearded fellow approached me: "Are you the coin-op collector that recently hosted an AMICA meeting at your home in Southern California? "I said yes" and that is how I got to know Terry Smythe.
Terry, the former editor A.M.I.C.A Bulletin is as many people know, not just a great writer and historian, but also a collector -who has been ensconced in the world of musical devices for three plus decades. An inquisitive soul, he told me he was fascinated and asked me how I started collecting late 1800's -1950's penny arcade coin-operated machines, mechanical advertising window displays and Motions.
This fellow I though clearly had a sense of curiosity and wonder. We discussed the unusual journey collectors take - zig zagging from one collectible to another, traversing from mountains to desert to sea. He noted that he himself, and his wife had over the years collected all sorts of different items and veered off path to new vistas. He asked me about my journey.
I got the bug when I was five or six years old, albeit from all the trash cans that lined my street. Soon I was hitting garbage cans around the block and eventually the whole neighborhood. I went from collecting junk to 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 old boxes filled with two or three hundred semi-priceless early Superman & Batman comic books!
Soon I was using all my spear change and earnings from my Herald Examiner paper route exchanging the coins at the drug store and grocery stores and then banks where John Dillinger said was the money. I'd sometimes walk in that bank two or three times a day with two dozen roles of pennies and nickels and then dimes. Me and my brother went through the alleys and the back of grocery stores for empty Coca Cola and 7-Up bottles so we could redeem the bottles and get three cents per bottle and buy candy or pool our resources and trade for more coins. Rancho Golf Course, a few blocks from my house was also the source of added revenue. I noticed that when the golfers hit the ball over the fence, it landed in the street and since none would climb over the fence to retrieve their ball, move on to the next hole. I searched high and low for balls that landed in the street or people's yards, found many balls in fine condition and sold them to the next round of golfers who wanted a deal on relatively new balls for "two, six or eight bits"- (25 cents, fifty cents and seventy-five cents). That money also went to trading coins. I moved upstream to rolls of nickels dimes and quarters at the bank. For this ten year old, awe-inspiring ??????? There was something majestic about finding a rare penny, 50 or 60 years old. I was thrilled pushing coins into those blue coin books and see it adding up. Alas, the 1909 S-VDB and 1914-D eluded me! (Years later I bought them from a coin store but it wasn't the same). As any collector knows, it's the hunt and when things get easier, a lot of the fun is gone!
My collecting passion took a backseat for several years to national athletic competition in table tennis and gymnastics and paddle tennis. (After not competing in table tennis for 37 years, I resumed competition at age 65 in 2015).
I have always been fascinated by unusual mechanical devices, well crafted designs, mechanisms, clock-work mechanisms, unique machines that come to life through cranking a handle, dropping a coin or hitting a switch. Some have unbelievable craftsmanship and sheer elegance. I was intrigued by how they impacted history or changed people's lives. Even more so, how in the world did this unusual device made 1,000 miles away, end up in this antique store in the middle of no where? This interest in thingamajigs may be counter-intuitive since I have never been a fix-it type guy. In spirit, I am a "tinkerer," but would have trouble removing a spark plug. Yet, for much of my life, I lacked the financial wherewithal to buy expensive toys.
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 (placing high powered lawyers) did I have discretionary income to buy "toys". It took me more than 30 years to truly be able to step up to the plate and build a great collection.
The hunt was the thing. I always enjoyed swap meets, flea markets, garage sales and estate sales. For years, it seemed like I was going to a different swap meet every weekend. The first Sunday of the month was Pasadena City College. The second Sunday was the Rose Bowl. The third Sunday, the Long Beach Swap Meet, the fourth at Santa Monica Airport and so on. 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. While some had that musty smell of newspapers and old books, there was always something magical about visiting antique stores in unusual areas and seeing old, well-made antiques and vintage collectibles. Other than little floor space, these stores were always fun - until the good stuff stopped showing up and everything looked like replicas - and not even good ones! (Ebay almost single-handedly wrecked the antique store business). On top of that, all the landlord's of the antique stores started pushing up rents hugely. Along with waning interest in antiques, and lack of good inventory spelled the death knell for 70%-80% of antique stores. Some, thank God, have survived! 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?
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 vintage coin-op penny arcade machines, especially those that had movement. Perhaps the arcades I visited (or snuck in) reminded me of a happy time or where people forget about their worries and had fun or where there was so much cool stuff in a relatively small area. With the insertion of a penny, nickel or dime, the machine came alive. Fortune Tellers that appeared life like that move their eyes, 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 dropped in a slot. This to me was interactive art. I found all this so much more moving than the age of digital microprocessors, nanotechnology and computer graphics and digital compression ???? the Internet and the "cloud".
Before I discovered the hidden world of antique coin-op machines, I had no idea what I was looking for. Since the only coin-op I was seeing at swap meets were a gumball and coca-cola machines, one day, 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 machines, maybe he has duplicates or triplicates or no room for everything. Maybe I thought he might have something cool to sell! Maybe he is running out of room! 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 some of the rarest machines in the U.S. and all at his house. Many were show cased in a 1,000 square foot room - his Arcade. 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 slot machines, piker machines and penny arcade and related coin-op machines. It was like he had the Smithsonian Museum in his house! That was about 12 years ago. With the force of an IUD explosion, I set about building a fun and unusual collection that would be like no other. I was like the little kid that uses a magnifying glass harnessing the sun rays to burn a hole in the leaf. Never in a million years did I dream I'd accomplish what I accomplished. I've always had goals, but at the time this one seemed impossible.
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 at U.C. Santa Barbara (1971-197?) and eventually taught myself how to play piano. So the next zig was music devices. 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 old working clothes and a train conductor hat and regular fix-it guy. He was playing his band organ at a rally at Descanzo Park in Los Angeles. I approached this fellow, who I found charming and very, very into music machines. That fellow miraculously lived on the same street I do (within a few blocks) in Southern California and urged me to come to a meeting of fellow collectors. 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 the market of music devices. I was utterly amazed by Frank and Shirley's collection and how it grew from a tiny little music box to such a huge and diverse collection. Years later I visited and got to know Ken and Sandy Goldman and felt the same way about their collection. They have since visited me in California. In the last couple of years I've added a Mills Panaram playing 1930's soundies, a Violano Virtuoso, KT Special, Scopitone, two player pianos, animated accordion and three juke boxes. I was fortunate to outbid a rival for a Banjo orchestrion and that is the newest addition. Some how, some way, I'd make room if a reasonably priced Werlitzer CX or an Art deco Decap orchestrion popped up for sale.
So what is the take away on this? The thrill of the hunt is often times much more fun than the successful transaction. The tales of the hunt are 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 we share together, going on trips, 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. There is no question that non-collectors do not understand what motivates collectors and it is true that we all really enjoy sharing the passion with those who also have the passion.
The AMICA organization and the people my wife and I have gotten to know have opened up a new world. The 50th AMICA anniversary in San Francisco was stupendous. The Denver convention was grand. Terry Debacher and his team did a fine job. I must admit, I've never heard such an enthusiastic fellow reciting poetry about chuck wagons! We've had many people from AMICA and MBSI visit us. The AMICA trip to London a few years ago was ?????. The Southern California AMICA trip to Fresno was eye-opening ????????????. Me and my wife look forward to the convention in Princeton, New Jersey and the 2017 convention in Canada!
In short, while I am relatively new to the world of mechanical music machines, it is exciting. We have met many people who share the same passion we do, an appreciation for music and elegant machines that play the music the way folks in the 1920's and 1930's would have heard it. Some have crossed over into my 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 is a collector of coin operated penny arcade, musical machines and mechanical window displays such as Baranger Motions. Sandy can be reached at email@example.com or (818) 712-9700.