Swinging for DeBence’s: Pipe Dreams and Piano-Playing Robots at the Antique Music World

antique calliope at DeBence Antique Music World

These pipes are smokin’! A deluxe calliope at DeBence Antique Music World in Frankin, PA.

Close your eyes and imagine what a robot looks like. Chances are, you might conjure up a blocky sci-fi stereotype–all shiny metal, wires, and blinking lights, rolling around assisting space forces in a stilted computer voice. Others may envision the kinds of already-in-the-real-world robots currently zipping through assembly plants and fulfillment centers with lightning precision, or the pure artificial intelligence powering high-tech interactive devices everywhere.

Whatever you’re thinking of, it doesn’t look like this.

wooden piano attachment to mechanically play a standard piano at DeBence Antique Music World

80 (or so) fingered mechanical piano-playing robot

A large, handmade wooden cabinet–maybe six feet long, four feet high, and at least 18 inches deep–is placed directly in front of a full-size upright piano, rendering the instrument completely inaccessible to any human hands that might wish to tickle the ebony and/or ivory. The add-on unit takes input in the form of elaborate scrolls and translates the paper’s precisely-cut notches to the mechanical operation of eighty-some wooden fingers, one placed on each (almost) of the piano’s keys*.

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion at DeBence Antique Music World

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion

DeBence Antique Music World has one of these piano-playing appliance-attachment-robots on display and ready to crank up for a mini concert on your next visit. DeBence’s collection also includes elaborate coin-operated mechanical music machines, calliopes, band organs, and more evolutions of disk-playing music boxes and phonographs than you ever knew existed.

The museum, located 80-some miles north of Pittsburgh in the über-quaint “Oil Country” town of Franklin, is a little out of our typical reach. But DeBence–and the region’s other many out-of-the-way attractions–are well worth the easy day trip from home.

metal musical disk on antique player at DeBence Antique Music World

Regina music disk and player

brass horns attached to elaborate band organ at DeBence Antique Music World

band organ horns

It’s probably safe to say musicians, record collectors, and those excited by domestic history and the development of America during its boom years will have an extra special interest in DeBence. The sheer volume of intricate, hand-cut music disks and elaborate, room-filling multi-instrument machinery is awe-inspiring and humbling to anyone who’s already dabbled in the media, fiddled with sound, or rocked the wheels of steel.

But you don’t have to be a music freak to appreciate DeBence. Just experiencing all the little gears clicking in metric time, wooden mallets tick-tocking stacked xylophone blocks, and the hair-blown-back blasts of dozens of brass pipes squonking in unison is a fascinating spectacle. The objects–polished metal disks, dark hardwood cabinetry, hand-painted decorative details–could stand alone in a design museum without ever hearing them play.

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display at DeBence Antique Music World

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display

painted detail on band organ frame at DeBence Antique Music World

painted detail on band organ frame

But, oh–you know where this is going–at DeBence, you do get to hear them perform. The collection is no mere array of historical objects entombed behind glass. No, they really don’t make them like they used to–and part of that means you can still hand crank the coil spring of a c. 1890s disk-playing music box and hear its metallic tines ting-ting-tingling out the popular music of the day. Try seeing if your 10-year-old Zune is still up to the task.

Our crew was fortunate enough to have an excellent volunteer guide who not only knew his stuff, but took us on the full tour even when we slipped in the door just before closing time. We don’t know how many of DeBence’s machines are still in working order, but an enormous number of them got cranked-up, switched-on, or otherwise sprung to life for the tour–each full of beans and with a song to sing.

costumed figures playing bells inside Victorian music box at DeBence Antique Music World

Dumb bells. Jesters ready to strike in a 19th century music box.

gold-colored pipes of a home pipe organ at DeBence Antique Music World

organ pipes

It takes a whole lot of mind-bending technology to enable the history of recorded music to be beamed instantly through one’s digital device and straight into their psyche. That’s great and all, but there is an intangible loss in this convenience.

Maybe it’s an extreme rationalization from a part-time blogger and full time record collecting junkie, but something otherworldly happens when the black lacquer spins up, a tone arm adjusts over and drops down into place. There’s an electric moment of heightened sensation when we get just the barest static sizzle of a stylus in dead wax before the Side A, track 1 music kicks in. Sure: by any objective measure, it’s low-tech, obsolete, and patently nostalgic. But there’s a magic here you just don’t get with a Spotify stream.

wooden dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

handmade wooden Victrola dancer attachment

ceramic and textile dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

ceramic Victrola dancer attachment

If it seems like that today, imagine what the technology must have felt like to the Victorians–pre-radio, pre-motion picture, probably before most had ever talked on a telephone. Those early adopters, who first plunked-down an entire paycheck for a Victrola and then had to send off to Sears for a couple two-and-a-half-minute songs to play on them, must have lost their minds at the variety of voices and sounds coming to them from far, far away.

To see these old machines whir to life, sound spilling out–yes: creaking, wheezing, groaning, and, as Randy Jackson would say, “a little pitchy, dog,” at times–is a beautiful, transformative, and, yes, magical experience. I don’t know whether there’s a chance that gets your keister to dust off the phonograph and back in the record store [we’re rooting for you!] but it should at least get you up to Franklin.

Regardless, we can cross our fingers, hope the bellows push air, the paper score feeds the tickling digits, and the beautiful sound of magical music fills the air around you.

novelty decoration of real frog, stuffed with sawdust, holding a guitar at DeBence Antique Music World

Frog fantasy. Among DeBence’s novelties are many “real frogs stuffed with sawdust.”

exterior of DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, PA

DeBence Antique Music World, downtown Franklin, PA

close-up of pump organ keyboard and stops

All the stops: Vox Humana, Gemshorn, Dulcissimo, etc.

Getting there: DeBence Antique Music World is located at 1261 Liberty Street in Franklin. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Pittsburgh. DeBence has regular hours through the warmer months, but slows down over winter, so check the museum’s web site to make sure you’ll be able to get in.


Almost. The unit doesn’t quite reach the full 88-key range of a standard piano keyboard. If you want to hit those super low notes, you’ll have to do that yourself.

The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason

KISS super collector Bruce Gleason in his New Kensington home

The collection is called The Elder’s Closet of Heroes. One enters through a short half flight of steps, past walls of signed album covers from the likes of Heart and Linda Ronstadt, Belinda Carlisle and Cher. This alone would be an impressive attraction for the memorabilia-curious but for the imposing, intriguing, and attention-grabbing feature mere feet away at the foot of the steps.

The stout wooden door looks like it came from another world. It is a standard size for an interior space in the quaint, pre-war bungalow that houses it, but everything else about the structure suggests the darkest depths of Mordor or a final line of defense against banshees.

What a knocker! Entrance to Gleason’s KISS collection modeled on album cover art for “Music from ‘The Elder'”

The door is strengthened with gridlike cross braces, an array of irregular brass tacks hammered in for folksy verisimilitude. The giant ornate iron knocker is placed just so, where the visitor’s first visual detail is an inscribed brass plaque with a verse from a KISS song called “A World Without Heroes” from their 1981 album Music from “The Elder”:

A world without heroes
Is like a world without sun
You can’t look up to anyone
Without heroes.

cover art for KISS’s 1981 album “Music from ‘The Elder'”

KISS, the bombastic stadium rock act whose over-the-top antics and Kabuki-meets-Stan Lee stage personas helped define American popular culture in the 1970s, is still going strong today. For the past four-and-a-half decades, the band is also likely the most merchandised musical group to ever accept your Visa or Mastercard. There are KISS-branded t-shirts, posters, books, and concert videos, of course, but the marketing goes way beyond the standard collection of musical ephemera.

Over the years, you could purchase KISS garbage cans, flying model rockets, bubble gum trading cards, and a knock-off Rubik’s Cube. There was a KISS pinball machine made by Bally in 1979; a KISS board game, checkers set, and jigsaw puzzle from the years prior. There are KISS sneakers, bedspreads, pillowcases, neckties, and sunglasses. If one wanted a giant teddy bear made up like The Catman or Space Ace, that is available, as are KISS Pez dispensers, lava lamps, die-cast miniature stock cars, HO scale model railroad trains, and a LEGO set depicting the band on stage.

Hello Kitty, meet The Catman

Not content to live in the past, KISS has totally gone totally Merch 2.0 with branded earbuds, thumb drives, mouse pads, and insulated travel mugs. Famous teetotalers both, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are happy to supply you with KISS wine, ornate German-style beer steins, champagne flutes, shot glasses, bottle openers, and beer koozies.

And then of course there are the figures of KISS band members. Like the superhero characters they’re modeled on, Paul, Gene, Ace, and Peter have been turned into collectable dolls/action figures from six inches in height to several feet tall; adorned in various faithful touring costume iterations; rocking out in concert stage sets and alone with their thoughts; mythologized as Grecian gods in ornamental busts and as faces carved into a mini-Mount Rushmore.

On the other side of that incredible entrance door, Bruce Gleason, KISS super collector, has every single one of these–and a whole lot more.*

LEGO KISS stage set

Let’s put the “X” in Xmas: KISS ornaments

More precisely, Bruce has four of each. “The trouble with collecting KISS,” Bruce Gleason sighs, “Is that there’s never just one of anything–each band member has to get their own.”

While that’s not always the case–KISS M&Ms, condoms, and Christmas ornaments, for example, seem to be group-branded–for the most part it’s true. This results in many linear feet of Bruce’s basement shelf space, repurposed retail display racks, and enormous grab baskets devoted to individually-packaged figures nestled neatly side-by-side like the world’s most specialty of oddball boutiques.

KISS figures, Matchbox cars, soft blocks

one of two baskets overflowing with KISS plush toys

The packaged/made-for-the-collector’s-market items are impressive for both their volume and breadth [who knew the world needed KISS plush toys or a KISS skateboard?] but Bruce has a number of handmade pieces created by friends who understood how much he would appreciate them.

“My handmade pieces are my favorites,” Bruce says, “They’re all one-of-a-kind, but the most important reason is that friends have taken time to create something for me that I will absolutely love. I can purchase KISS items, which I love to do, but I can’t purchase someone’s creativity and thoughtfulness. These pieces are priceless to me.”

Plaster Casters: handmade, life size Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley figures

I haven’t met Bruce’s friends, but you can tell a lot about a person by the kinds of gifts he or she gives. You’ve got to love someone an awful lot to create all six-foot-something of a life-sized, tongue-waggling, codpiece-wearing Gene Simmons model or individually placing ersatz curly chest hairs on Paul Stanley’s likeness. Rest assured, full-size Ace and Peter, complete with the same tiny white repurposed jewelry model hands, are in Bruce’s basement as well.

handmade KISS nutcrackers

There’s a general truth that if it’s got a face, probably someone has slapped KISS makeup on it at some point. Let’s call it Beth’s Law.

That said, the handmade KISS nutcracker and marionette sets Bruce received from friends are truly some next-level fantasy-come-to-life. While they lack the sheer terror invoked by the trifecta of clown-like makeup, mannequins, and Gene Simmons, they make up for it in creativity and oddity.

Bruce tells us that KISS actually went on to market their own set of nutcrackers later on (surprise, surprise), but these predated that move. The marionettes are redecorated and bedazzled from a collection of puppets purchased in Mexico. The selection of Ace Frehley to be the one with the tequila bottle-turned-space beverage is a clever touch.

handmade KISS marionettes

handmade Gene Simmons marionette

This is all small potatoes compared to the elaborate big ticket items you’d expect to see in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame … err, Hard Rock Cafe, at least. There are eight sets of giant silver and black platform boots–exact likenesses of KISS stage gear for two different costume iterations; a dozen signed, framed replica gold albums; cymbals and drumsticks; Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons limited edition electric guitars.

“I would love to own an original record player from the ’70s in mint shape,” Bruce tells us, “I have seen them but have never let myself justify spending the amount of money they are worth. Other things I’d love to have: an original pinball machine and an original Ace Frehley signed guitar. His is the only signed guitar I do not have.”

Bruce goes on to say that he doesn’t actually have room in the basement for a pinball machine [your author can attest to this] and he’s got a strict rule that the collection doesn’t breach the main living floor of his house.

Strutter: Gleason’s collection replica platform boots

KISS collectables including signed gold record, Gene Simmons figurine, and four-headed ornament

Asked about his hopes for the collection, Bruce shares a dream that seems to cross all fandom–to be able to meet one’s heroes as equals:
My hope for my collection is that those who have seen it can appreciate the collection for what it shows and not what’s included–and that’s my love for this group of guys who have been a huge part of my life.  They have given me my sparks of creativity, my love for music of all kinds, my love of live music, and that’s it’s OK to be different and unique as long as you’re being yourself.
I would love for Gene, Tommy, Eric Singer, Eric Carr,  Paul, Ace, Bruce and Peter–all eight–to take a walk through my stage, without their boots, costumes, and makeup, just as eight regular guys. Then sit around my table and let me point out the things–toys, records, posters, or whatever–that meant something very special to me at the time and why.

Dark Light: rotating KISS lamp

It’s been said that one spends the first half of his or her life acquiring things and second half trying to get rid of them. On the ride home, Bruce’s ultimate fan archive sparked a, dare I say, existential conversation about the nature of collecting.

Why do we collect? Is the enjoyment in the possession or is it in the chase? Who do we share the collection with? What do we hope will happen to all our stuff?

Heavy questions, indeed, and not ones we’ll answer here. But if there’s anything that KISS can teach us it’s that you go big or go home. And, sweet Jesus, if you’re going big, you’d better shout it out loud.

Watchin’ You: busts of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss

The Collectors is a new series documenting people with extraordinary personal collections. If you are, or know of, someone with an interesting set of stuff, we’d love to know about it.


* Bruce doesn’t actually own one of the KISS pinball machines–more about this later in the piece.

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.

In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.

The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?

The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.

With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?

[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

Some notes on the photos and dates:

Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
  • The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
  • Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island

Will View for Work: Reviewing The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

A real American hero: Weird Paul performing live at the North Side Elks, 2017

We of a certain age are either condemned or privileged (take your pick) to live out our days with one foot each in the entirely separate worlds of pre- and post-Internet existence. Digital immigrants, for sure, but arriving on the beaches young enough to speak the native tongue with only a slight accent.

“Weird” Paul Petroskey, a Pittsburgh multi-media institution for three decades and counting, both anticipated present-day, social media me-TV and manages to reach back into the halcyon low-tech ’80s and ’90s in his current work. Paul is old enough to have begun recording on cassette tape and VHS video, but now obsesses over his YouTube subscriber count and FaceBook reactions.

The themes of a relentless, driven creator, desperate to make a living from an unconventional lifestyle and build a future from an awkward, videotaped past, are explored in the excellent new documentary Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul. The film debuts with a world premier this Saturday at Harris Theater.

video still of teenage Weird Paul from the 1980s

The “Original Vlogger”, a teenage Weird Paul on video, sometime in the 1980s [photo: Weird Paul]

Way before YouTube, FaceBook, or Instagram, teenage Paul Petroskey was recording his life and arranging music videos and sketches along with an extremely cooperative cast and crew of parents and young siblings. The crudely-shot VHS bits had a limited audience in 1980s suburban Pittsburgh, but have since been given new life on the Internet.

Today, Will Work for Views argues, these hours of videotape form a sort-of Dead Sea Scrolls for the Media Age, linking the ancient with the modern in an audio-visual archive that predicts YouTube-style “vlogging,” tributes, parodies, and “unboxing” videos. The film may suffer from one too many talking heads restating some version of “this guy was doing this stuff before anyone else,” but it’s an important point.

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton as patient

Still from Weird Paul’s “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

Weird Paul’s teenage to middle age audio-visual continuum forms the backbone of the documentary’s dual narratives. In one, we ride along with Petroskey’s life commitment to a certain kind of low-rent/high-reward entertainment through quick-cut video bits past and present. Paul was a cute, precocious kid with a lot of goofy ideas and an inexhaustible ambition to execute on them. The adult version is still mining the same deep vein, but now it’s intertwined with nostalgia and a mortgage payment.

The other theme is more existential. Paul has the life goal of turning…something–sight gags, joke songs, thrift shop picking–into a career, or at least the occasional paycheck. What does the day-to-day reality of continuing to pursue this unlikely dream actually look like? In a social media landscape where everyone with a FaceBook account is turned into some combination of content provider, public figure, and narcissist, is The Internet the carrot or the horse? The gold mine or the shaft?

photo collage of Weird Paul Petroskey aping for the camera

Bowling for donors: the many faces of Weird Paul Petroskey today [photos courtesy of Interesting Human Media]

“We were looking for a subject for a documentary when we came across [Weird Paul’s] videos on YouTube,” says Joseph Litzinger, executive producer and co-director of Will Work for Views. The film is the first feature for his production company Interesting Human Media. “Our first thought was, ‘This is a great actor,’ but then it became clear Paul isn’t acting at all–this is who he really is. We were attracted by what a genuine, unique, and passionate person he is.”

That YouTube was the filmmakers’ entry point to the world of Weird Paul is evident as Petroskey’s vast musical catalog (some 700+ recorded songs over several dozen album-sized releases) and regular live performances are given a backseat to the video clips. If there’s a criticism of Will Work for Views, it’s that the Weird Paul Rock Band–his steady, hard-rocking, shenanigans-ready bass/keytar/drums backing group for the last decade–only appear in the film as (uncredited) talking heads and never seen, you know, full-on rocking[1].

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band [l-r: Pam Hamlin, Jon Dowling, Weird Paul, Ben Blanchard] in the last days of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, 2017

It’s a minor quibble, as the movie is really about Weird Paul. Or it’s Paul as surrogate for anyone who’s ever pursued his or her passion–however unlikely–way past the point where every voice of reason has tried to talk sense into them. The line between obsession and sticktoitiveness can be perilously thin, but Petroskey has walked it long enough to not look back.

“I’ve been in a mindset for a good part of my life where I’m ready to share everything with everyone,” Paul says of the filmmaking process. “From a young age I felt like being famous was important for me and that’s what people want from celebrities–people want to see bits of their life…Going into a project like this–you either give it your all, or don’t bother. Give your best–that’s how I look at it.”

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton choking him

Still from “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

The portrait painted in Will Work for Views is supportive and respectful, but also honest in its portrayal of Weird Paul. The filmmakers are clearly rooting for this ultimate underdog of the underground–still struggling with the hassles of working a day job, trying to make enough money to fix his equipment, and fantasizing about having someone to mow his lawn.

It’s unspoken, but the story begs the obvious question: Is there really a (commercial) market for Paul’s brand of low-brow humor and lo-fi goof rock? Personally, I don’t know how any artist makes a living, but the movie has us all hoping Paul figures out the magic combination and is able to realize his dreams–or at least get the grass cut.

promo poster for documentary film "Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul"

“Will Work for Views” promo poster

Epilogue

Full disclosure: This blogger has known Paul, his band members, and entourage long enough that no opinion on a feature-length film about the guy could be legitimately objective–I’m a Weird Paul fan. That said, even if The Orbit didn’t have a personal connection to the subject–even if it wasn’t (largely) set in Pittsburgh–we’d recommend Will Work for Views for the simple reason that it’s a terrific documentary.

Co-directors Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader know what they’re doing. The two have reality TV series producer/editor credits on American ChainsawBachelorette Party: Las Vegas, and Swamp Loggers–so we know they can film timber sports and Jell-o shots. The filmmakers have weaved the archival teenage Paul’s antics into his present-day realities with engaging dexterity and an improvised narrative arc that may or may not actually exist in real life, but plays great on the big screen.

We’ll be there on Saturday, cheering on Paul and the gang. We hope we see you there, too.

Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul premiers with a screening this Saturday, June 23 at Harris Theater.
Showtime is 7:00 p.m., tickets are $15, and the event includes a Q&A panel with Weird Paul and the filmmakers.

See also: “Recording Existence: Life-logging with Weird Paul,” Pittsburgh Orbit, June 28, 2015.


[1] This may, of course, have as much to do with the technical challenges of filming in dark, noisy bars vs. the unlimited buffet of already-extant video content available.

All the Way: The Arthur and Alfreda Antignani Mausoleum

Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park

The granite mausoleum stands alone inside a marquee plot surrounded by a thin circular cemetery road. A long stretch of musical staff wraps the perimeter with twenty-some bars of melody notation spelled-out; vertical fence posts serve double-duty as measure lines.

Two six-foot-tall ornamental saxophones flank the doorway; a third marks the crest of the roof. Palm to forehead, one can squint through the gauzy haze inside to the mausoleum’s stained glass window. There, a backlit treble clef symbol glows where one might normally expect the image of an angel or flowers[1]. The footpath out front is yet another gigantic saxophone, this one rendered minimally in two dimensions on red-brown granite tile. The entrance step is engraved “All the Way”.

detail of giant saxophone ornament on the Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Saxophone ornament, Antignani mausoleum

All the Way could–and should–be the title of Arthur and Alfreda Antignani‘s bio-pic. The couple lived large in a Hampton hilltop property they built for themselves and named Skyvue Estate. Our story on what remained of that shag-carpeted, double-bedazzled, rhinestone-encrusted, tchotchke-strewn, twenty-four hour party palace and its grounds [Graceland North: The Antignani Estate Sale, 4 Nov. 2015] is one of the most-read Orbit stories of all time. Though the Antignanis have left this particular stage, we thought it was high time to call for an encore and visit this fascinating couple in their final resting place.

stained glass window with treble clef symbol, Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Mausoleum stained glass window

That the Antignanis loved music should come as no surprise. Every inch of Skyvue Estate–from the guitar-shaped patio to the band of frog figurines jamming on the credenza–confirmed as much. So it is fitting that as Alfreda spent the very the last years of her life designing and planning the memorial[2], she’d want the imagery of music–especially Arthur’s tenor saxophone–featured prominently.

The touch to include actual musical notation on the small fence–as opposed to any old clip art approximation of stray notes on a staff–was an inspired design decision. If you haven’t guessed by now, the melody is, of course, “All the Way”.

detail of saxophone-shaped tile walkway at the Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Saxophone-shaped tile walkway

“All the Way”, the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen standard made famous by Ol’ Blue Eyes (among many others) is a classic tear-jerking ballad of life-long love. It may be a songwriting cliché, but a lyric like “Through the good or lean years, And for all the in between years” speaks not to the eros of so many pop songs and rom coms, but to the pragma and philia of a couple that spent over half a century together[3] in what we can only imagine as one of the great eccentric long run romances of our time.

To Arthur and Alfreda Antignani, may you rest in peace, all the way.

Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Art & Al, R.I.P.

Getting there: The Antignani mausoleum is in Allegheny County Memorial Park, 1600 Duncan Ave., Allison Park. The cemetery has very few above-ground average-sized headstones (possibly none?) so the handful of large memorials/mausoleums stand out really easily–you won’t miss it.

[1] For comparison, see Allegheny Cemetery: Mausoleum Stained Glass, Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 12, 2016.
[2] “In life and death, eccentric Hampton couple makes beautiful music together”, TribLive.com, Dec. 5, 2015.
[3] The Antignanis were married and 1959 and Arthur died (first) in 2011.

 

Jerry’s Records and the $30 Instant Record Collection*

used record bins at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

Jerry’s Records is a local institution and a national treasure. If it were up to The Orbit, a giant likeness of Jerry Weber’s head would be carved out of the steep Mount Washington hillside so he could keep his eyes on all of us. Believe this blogger: he’s spent [those “with lives” would say wasted] an inordinately large amount of his adult life and disposable income in and around the nation’s recorded music purveyors. A visit to Jerry’s, coupled with the obligatory post-hunt beer and pizza at Mineo’s and/or Aiello’s, is also a great way to deal with ugly February bluster.

If you’re a red-blooded music-loving (or, heck, just music-casually-enjoying) Pittsburgher, you owe it to yourself to pick up a turntable** and get thee down to Jerry’s. If you don’t, you’re really missing out on one of the great joys of living here–cheap records, as far as the eye can see, Jerry holding court from his junk-filled checkout perch, and the constant stream of Pittsburgh’s weirdo record fiends drifting in and around***. Oh, and you can walk out the door with some great music too.

Jerry's Records storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

The combined Jerry’s Records/Galaxie Electronics/Whistlin’ Willie’s 78 Shop storefront, 2136 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill

This blogger loves records, but he’s also a career cheapskate and Jerry prices his merchandise to move. These are not marked-up collector’s-only stuff by a long shot (Jerry gets plenty of those items, but sells them in separate auctions). So we thought it would be a fun exercise to imagine the vinyl neophyte climbing up Jerry’s long entrance stairway with a $30 bill burning a hole in the pocket and the goal of walking out with an instant (if starter-sized) record collection. There are a ton of records that line Jerry’s sea of bins for three or four bucks each and are reliably available for your purchase any time you choose to stop in.

Here then is The Orbit‘s rough guide to making the most of previous generations’ recorded jetsam and a prescription for walking out Jerry’s door with what may not actually be a great “score” in record-hunting circles, but is at least a fine nuts-and-bolts starter kit.

Diva (motion picture soundtrack)

Vladimir Cosma’s soundtrack to Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 French neon-lit art/cult thriller plays like an old-school mixtape put together by a new wave sorcerer. No two tracks sound at all alike (except the one that gets two versions), but they all play great together. There’s an aria from an opera, a robotic dance jam, some eerie mood pieces, something that sounds like modern harpsichord, etc. Those are all really good, but if you’ve seen the film, it’s the heartbreaking Satie-esque “Sentimental Walk” piano solo that sells this record. Diva must have had a good run at Filmmakers back in the day because Jerry ended up with a bunch of copies.

Duke Ellington The Uncollected, Vols. 1-5 (1946-1947)

Jerry has so many Duke Ellington records they’ve been separately binned by record label, taking up linear feet of browsing space. Ellington’s material between the earliest (pre-album era) stuff in the 1920s through at least the late ’40s is untouchable and was repackaged countless times later on–so there are a lot of options. Smithsonian’s complete year 2-LP sets for the late ’30s and ’40s are great (and also turn up frequently), as are these five “uncollected” volumes from Hindsight that seem to show up all the time. On this day, we picked up Vol. 5 from 1947 with “Swamp Fire,” “Jumpin’ Punkins,” and “Frustration.”

The Romantics The Romantics or In Heat

Used vinyl records by The Romantics at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

“In Heat”: in stock

I know, I know, but hear me out! If The Romantics are known at all, it’s as one-hit-wonders for the sports-rock/dude comedy staple “What I Like About You.” Those of a certain age may be able to conjure up their couple other minor MTV-ready power-pop hits, preposterous top-heavy pompadours, and matching tight leather outfits. But these two albums (at least) are both exemplars of hopped-up three-chord songs with themes that run the gamut from chicks, to girls, to sexy ladies. Yes: The Romantics pretty much cover the full range of the human experience. Whatever. Either record is well worth the three clams.

Fleetwood Mac Bare Trees

Rumours and the self-titled/white album are not as common as you’d think given the bajillion copies they sold back in the day, but Jerry’s got the hell out of Mystery to MePenguinHeroes Are Hard To Find, and Bare Trees. All of these are from the pre-Buckingham/Nicks “classic lineup.” The latter comes from the transitional Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch regime where the ecstatic heavy psychedelic blues of Then Play On and Future Games [you’ll have to cross your fingers and go to the New Arrivals for these] gives way to grooving pop rock. Bare Trees is not The Mac’s best album [that distinction is an evergreen music geek bar room debate topic], but it’s totally solid with no clunkers and well worth picking-up.

Fats Waller

Fats Waller at piano

Fats Waller

No particular title here–whatever you get will be some kind of collection–but ideally any of the Bluebird Records Complete 2-LP sets (I think there were three volumes total). Recorded eighty years ago at this point and they still sound absolutely great. In our household, these records are always in heavy rotation and have achieved “desert island disc” status for Waller’s any-occasion/always-great combination of show-tune song-smithy and barrelhouse wink-and-nod boogie-woogie.

Blood, Sweat & Tears S/T

Yeah, it took some arm-twisting from Mike Shanley, but he finally sold me on B,S&T–and I’m glad he did. “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” have deservedly made their place in the radio canon, but the whole record is solid. With everything old becoming new again, it’s a little bit of a surprise that “horn rock” never got the full-on retro treatment…or maybe it isn’t. Either way, there’s a whole new generation yet to develop a gag reflex at the sound of David Clayton Thomas’ voice.

Buck Owens I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/I Don’t Care/Roll Out the Red Carpet/etc.

Buck Owens "Roll out the red carpet for" LP cover

Pretty much anything from Buck Owens’ mid-60s Capitol Records peak period with gunslinger Don Rich on lead guitar is terrific. Jerry reliably has a wide cross-section of them in stock, in great shape, and ready to twang. If you see Buck’s grinning mug and slick Brill Creamed hair, it’s a safe bet. There was a time I picked one of these up with every trip to Jerry’s. That time is here for you right now, whenever you’re ready.

Popeye (motion picture soundtrack)

The soundtrack from Robert Altman’s legendary 1980 cocaine-fueled, Malta-filmed comic strip adaptation is as weird, wild, and wonderful as the film itself (amazingly) turned out to be. The thirteen Harry Nilsson-penned/Van Dyke Parks-arranged songs totally hold up to their great melodic pedigree and surprisingly lose nothing from Robin Williams’ and Shelley Duvall’s in-character performances. Worth it alone for the two great Olive Oyl (Duvall) numbers “He Needs Me” and “He’s Large”.

The Bee Gees (the pre-disco records)

The Bee Gees had at least three acts before the Rayon, jive-talkin’, and eights on the high-hat. There were the early Beatles-like pop harmony records (1st, Horizontal, and Idea), the pair of loose concept albums (Odessa and Trafalgar, about the Crimean War and the death of Lord Nelson, respectively), and the early ’70s breakup and transition period (Cucumber Castle, 2 Years On, To Whom it May Concern, Life in a Tin Can). Each era succeeds in some measure of rich pop production, warbling squabbling-brother harmonies, and hardcore creep rock. This junkie has them all, and so does Jerry. Take your pick: they’re all recommended.

checkout counter loaded with records, shot glasses, and junk, Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

All business: the checkout counter at Jerry’s


* Some of these records may run more like $4 or $5, so if you take The Orbit up on this challenge, it may actually cost you $35-$40. Relax: it’s still a bargain and a good time.

** Galaxie Electronics (same building/same entrance) will happily sell you a (reconditioned) turntable and/or service the one you’ve got.

*** Footnote: On our most recent visit, a regular named “Shoeless Bob” popped in to drop off some homemade mix CDs for Jerry. [Apparently even Jerry needs more music!] True to his sobriquet, Bob arrived in what was near zero-degree snow and ice outside with just some very wet, pallid bare feet projecting from his bluejeans.

Unread: The Record Label Next Door

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

Chris Fischer at Unread Records headquarters, Lawrenceville

This isn’t Richard Branson.

No, when Chris Fischer jets to London, it’s on the shoe leather express.  And it’s probably just over to Long John Silver’s.  That certified gold Nathaniel Hoier cassette?  Dubbed by hand, artisanally, they way they did it in olden times (er…the 1990s).  Your order will arrive with a personal letter, in block letters, with fancy spellings.

Last year Fischer’s record/cassette/art/zine enterprise Unread Records & Tapes celebrated twenty years of pressing the Record and Play buttons with a two-day all-hands-on-deck (ahem, most hands) label festival and art show in Omaha, Nebraska. For the lion’s share of the label’s twenty years, Fischer lived in Omaha, which is why the fete was back there. Some majority of the Unread’s enormous (170+ releases, and counting) output comes from that part of the world, including household names like The Debts, Lonnie Eugene Methe, The Dad, David Kenneth Nance, Places We Slept, and Noah Sterba.

Noah Sterba "The 12 Bar Blues" cassette cover

Noah Sterba “The 12 Bar Blues” cassette (Unread #170)

The Unread diaspora extends much further, though, with folks like South Carolina madman Charlie McAlister, Milwaukee’s Ramon Speed, Furniture Huschle/Furniture Three, John Thill, and Dennis Callaci from California, Portlanders A John Henry Memorial, George Willard, and Mean Spirt’d Robots, etc. all calling the label (part-time) home.

So why is this profile appearing in the Pittsburgh Orbit and not in, you know, the Omaha Orbit? Well, I’m glad you asked! Fischer, a Pennsylvania native (though, from the other side of the state), relocated to our fair city a couple years ago and is steadily making this place home. Here in Pittsburgh, Unread has invested in our own Swampwalk, C. Frank, and some other cats.

[Full disclosure: This music-loving and -making blogger also sings and strums, blurts and bleeps on the side. Some of those sounds have been captured and capitalized by Unread Records.]

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

In the kitchen, cooking up beats

We started this piece way back in the late winter, hence Fischer’s very un-Summer attire in these photos. But it never felt right. What they told us in our journalism correspondence course (D is still passing, right?) is that like a winter coat–or a mackerel–every great article needs a hook to hang on, and we just didn’t have one. So we put this post on the shelf and went off looking for weird pizza and Jimmy “The Greek’s” graveAnd while Chris hasn’t exactly been sitting on his keister (the label has issued at least a half dozen new cassettes and one l.p. in the last few months) we found our hook–or at least our exclamation point–with Public Coffin.

Unread Records "Public Coffin" 8 cassette single + book box set

Unread’s “Public Coffin” 8 cassingle box set + book as, they say, “unboxed”

This Coffin is as pure a representation of the Unread aesthetic as anything you’ll find: hopelessly, uncompromisingly in love with that most outdated and maligned of media: the audio cassette, (cassette singles, no less!) and filled with whole-heart no-fi stuffing. The package features eight of the label’s standard-bearers, including collection co-conspirator and plains troubadour Simon Joyner, each turning in e.p.-length mini-albums that range from damaged and noisy to weird “pop” to pure, lonely desolation.

The mustard yellow cassettes arrive in a hand-silk-screened package that includes a 32-page book that serves as liner notes, fanzine, artists’ excrement, and head-scratching objet d’art. Fischer is also a printmaker, artist, and zine creationist whose scratchings and silk-screenery decorate much of the Unread catalog.

Razors "Besides" cassette cover

Razors “Besides” cassette (Unread #162)

Unread’s twenty-first anniversary is coming up this fall. This time, the annual “Junkfest” event will take place in Pittsburgh (date and location still to-be-decided, but we’ll report back). That’s plenty of time to find yourself a boombox, clear off a little counter space, and get your old Fast Forward and Rewind chops all worked-out. You’ll need them.

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

Chris Fischer: on the ball and havin’ fun