The Wire Recorder ... or ... The Switch

  Mother's Store In Omaha Nebraska

Mom always knew a way to "skin a cat".  Often, Mom found that we could not close a sale because the  prospect was determined to buy a Hammond electric organ.  Makes one wonder why the prospects were in our store.   Eventually,  Mom found that if she had a used Hammond organ in the back room  "for sale" to show the prospect, there was an opportunity to convert the prospect to our brand of electronic organ.  This approach fell just short of being a blatant "bait and switch" scheme since Mom was willing to sell the "bait" ... of course Mom would sell anything.  As a kids, it was not unusual for Elaine and me to come home from school and find one or more of our possessions sold ... with no advanced notice.  Nothing was sacred, not your bike you owned for twelve years, nor any of your toys, nothing.  Perhaps the all time disaster occurred when I was about ten years old.  Coming home  from school, I found my "enemies" coasting down the street in "my" Irish Mail.  I yelled, "What are you doing with my Irish Mail?"  They jeered back that my mom sold the Irish Mail to their mother for $10.  I was overwhelmed.  I had not been consulted.  I never would have agreed to sell this singular item.  Even then, I knew that is was something that one should keep for ever.  Today, the Irish Mail would be a marvelous antique to own and display.  Recently, Renaissance magazine ran an article on Irish Mails with several pages of photos.

Stevie, sitting on Irish Mail at 5 years old 
Once the prospect tried out the Hammond, it was much easier to switch them to buying our product because our organs sounded nicer and looked better.  But our success ratio of converting these people to a sale of our product was not as high as we wished.  Also, every now and then, we would sell the Hammond! ... which was not the intended result.
 Steve 1954, when I was the electronic organ repairman

The Gray Market and the Cube
Thus, one problem with this sales approach was keeping at least one used Hammond organ in stock.  Mom  finally rigged a deal at one of the piano conventions in Chicago.   I loved these trips to Chicago.  Each year, Mom would take either Elaine or me with her to the convention.  The train ride in a Pullman car was absolutely a great adventure; much greater than a plane ride (but I didn't understand that at the time).  You rode in extremely comfortable seats wherein a pair of seats faced each other.  The bathrooms were very large, you could actually turn around in the bathroom.  You could even change clothes (try that on your next plane trip!).  In fact the bathrooms had a number of sinks to accommodate men shaving in the morning.  Porters stood by to attend to your needs.  The meals were outstanding.  The white cloth tablecloths were sparkling white and soft as there were a dozen tablecloths underneath the top tablecloth.  The food was excellent.  While we could afford to eat all our meals in the dining car, my wife and her family would travel to Portland, Oregon on a railroad pass and carry their meals for the entire two day trip in a hamper.   We were traveling on a pass also, since Max worked for the Milwaukee railroad (her dad worked for the Union Pacific).

But most fun was sleeping.   Listening to the wheels on the rails while the car swayed from side to side  was better than any sleeping pills.   Late in the evening, a black Pullman porter would come through the car and fold the seats into beds with a lower and upper berth (as in "Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon)..   He would make your bed with the crispest sheets while you went to the common bathroom and completed your preparations for the night.  The next morning, you would awake to increasing clackety-clack as the wheels passed over numerous and frequent rail crossings as the train approached Chicago.  After the Porter switched the beds back to seats, you could sit and watch out the window as the sets of parallel tracks got more numerous; and thus, wider and wider to accommodate the rail traffic into Chicago.  Through unseen switches, the train would change to another set of rails causing once again the extra clackety-clack sounds with extra swaying that was so soothing.  Often the train would make an angled crossing of many rails which was literally dazzling.

In Chicago, I remember Mom meeting a dealer in a hotel room.  As always, she was a gracious host with drinks for everybody.  I was headed for a movie at the new wide-screen Cinema Scope theater (perhaps to get me out of the way while she forged a secret deal).  The trip from the motel started on a streetcar-like journey on the "El" or "Elevated" with some subway sections which evolved into the famous elevated in downtown.  After getting off the "El" and following a map unsuccessfully, I finally had to hire a cab to take me about two blocks to reach the theater.  After the movie, I went to our favorite magic shop and bought Chinese wooden cube puzzle.  It was tradition that on every trip to Chicago, we come back with some cheap magic tricks or parlor stunts.  One year it was the dribble glass.  Mom and Max had more fun with the dribble glass.  Another year, it was the fake dog poop.  She was a terrible practical joker.  My afternoon in Chicago alone was a true adventure for a 14 year old.  At the magic shop, I noticed that the two teenage clerks were conferring and laughing as they tested the cubes before picking one for me.  After several frustrating hours of trying to disassemble the cube, I discovered that they had picked one that fit very tight making the secret to disassembly most difficult to discern.

While I was at the movie, (and here I'm guessing at what happened) the Hammond organ dealer in Minnesota agreed to supply us with new  Hammond organs.  Mom in effect invented what is called the Gray market.  The gray market is selling new product outside of the normal distribution channels, most often at a price below that supported by the manufacturer.  More recently, the gray market has sustained the sale of expensive european cars in the United States.  The sale to mother was very risky for the dealer.  If he was caught, he would lose his franchise.  It was decided that Minnesota dealer would load up his truck with new Hammond organs and we would meet at a location in southern Minnesota where the trucks  would be backed up against each other and the organs transferred.  The Hammond organ was the premier organ at that time.  Having a Hammond dealership was like having the Steinway piano dealership.  So putting your franchise at risk was no small risk.  Many years later, due to Mom's success at selling electronic organs.  As a result,  Mom was able to compete and win the Hammond franchise away Mr. Schmoeller.  Years later,  when  Mr. Schmoeller died and his store was closed, six new stores open within almost immediately based on the strength of the local market losing the dominant dealer .... so getting the franchise away from Schmoeller's was a considerable accomplishment.

The Truck at night
At one point, Mom was so successful at marketing the Minshall Chord Organ (as advertised by Art Linkletter), that she was offered a handsome salary, a free Cadillac, all expenses paid as she toured the country and taught other dealers how to succeed.  Also, they would provide someone to manage her store.  Mom appreciated the compliment, but she didn't want to be away from her kids and friends (and store?) that long.  In fact, we had learned the hard way that it was almost impossible to hire a manager that you could trust to run your store.  Anyway, she already had her pink Cadillac ... yes pink.  Mom had always wanted a pink Cadillac.  Finally, Elaine bought Mom a plastic car kit which we were going to assemble and paint pink.  .... Mom bought the car before we ever finished the car-kit.

 Volkswagon Microbus SS & MM

Later when Mom obtained the Hammond organ franchise, we learned what it was like to deal with the dominant force in the market.  Their position was so strong, they nearly ran your business.  They sent you stock in quantities and proportions you didn't order nor wanted.  They sent you tons of brochures you didn't order (and charged for them).  The demanded that you buy Volkswagon Microbuses for transporting the Hammond Chord organ.  Mom resisted this latter pressure until after she bought me the famous tomato soup colored Volkswagon sedan (love bug or beetle) for graduation and for use in servicing electronic organs in the far reaches of the state (this almost makes up for the Irish Mail).  The VW replaced the 1940 Chrysler which had become unreliable (my grandfather Lloyd drove me home from the hospital in this car after my birth).  (Due to the war, that Chrysler was the last new car for over five years.)  After Mom saw the quality of the Bug and met with people at the Volkswagen dealership, it was decided to buy a Microbus ... and then another.  While the Microbus was great around town, I'll never forget driving a Micro bus to college just after Marilyn and I were married to haul all our stuff to our apartment.  The seat was incredibly uncomfortable. 

1957 VW - note small rear window 
Salesman's Secret!
With the gray market solution, Mom had solved the Hammond supply problem.  Still, we could make more profit off our own brand, so it was desirable to sell our own brand and reduce the number of trips to buy organs  from the Minnesota dealer.

Mom noticed that Jerry (G. S. Halvorson) had nearly a 100 percent record in un-selling people on the Hammond organ, but he wouldn't tell anyone how he did it.  Jerry would evade the question with an answer that Mom was certain that was is disingenuous.  The reason we couldn't find out his secreat was that the Hammond organ was kept in a back room.  Jerry would take them to the back room and shut the door.  When he came out with the prospect, they were now a customer for our organ.

Jerry Halvorson was an interesting person.  I never quite felt comfortable around him.  He seemed kind of slippery or something.  Over the years, I develop a "liking" for Jerry and had fun working with him.  We had an absolute ball working the county fairs together.  Jerry had a natural talent to play a little of the most popular pieces (by ear I assume).  He knew more about music that you might suspect.  But his real talent was to sit down at a piano or organ with the prospects standing behind him and with absolute ease and he would hammer out a fun tune, while turning and giving the customers a big grin and patter.  He made it look almost effortless.  And of course if he could do it, I, the prospect, could do it.  Right?  Jerry was our best salesman.  He was also undependable ... and a motorcyclist.  After, he had closed all the prospects from the county fairs and completed all Christmas sales, he would disappear on his motorcycle as the Winter selling doldrums approached.  After a few months, he would reappear ready to sell again.

Late  one evening, Mom took an old fashioned "wire" recorder in trade for a piano.  As the electronic "wizard" in the family, I  was greatly intrigued by the device and it worked quite well.   Knowing  Mom, she probably didn't really cut the price any lower than normal to take the wire recorder in on trade ... but just made the customer think so.

A wire recorder is what you often saw in the old black-and-white movies of the 30's.  The recorder actually moves a thin wire between two reels across read and write heads.  The thin wire permits the reels to pack an extremely long wire and thus provide long recording time, but the wire moves faster than magnetic tape which offsets the longer length.  I had fun that evening recording people as the walked into the store.  I recorded an accordion student, Max and a few others "live" just like candid camera.  People were quite surprised to suddently hear themselves ... a novelty back then ... something which is common place now with video cameras.

After goofing around with the wire recorder for a while, I came up with the idea, "Mom, why not bug the a back room?  The next time Jerry gets a prospect back there, you turn the machine on."    I've always had these unusual ideas which has created many problems at work.  Managers are expected to come up with the common place ideas like everyone else.  I drilled a hole in the wall and snaked the microphone into the room.  After a few test runs, we were ready.

The big day finally arrived, Jerry had taken a prospect into the  back room and had sold them on NOT buying a Hammond ... and ... we captured the event on tape!  We expectantly gathered around the tape recorder to find out the BIG secret, Jerry's patter went something like this:

Jerry:  "This organ is a little tricky to turn on but there is not much too it, you just ..." screech of the bench being moved back ... no doubt Jerry was getting on his hands and knees " ... reach waaaay under the keyboard like this, uuuh!   OK found the switch.   Now, first you flip the starter switch and hold  it ...." sound of a click, next you hear the sound of the synchronous motor spooling up "rrrrahahaheeeeee ...'" with the sound getting higher and  higher " ... Next you flip on the main switch while still holding the starter switch..."  sound of bench being moved back.

But instead of music, we hear some whining tones and some frustrated patter as the motor spools back down,  "eeeahahrrrrrrr" with the pitch getting lower and lower until  it stops.  By careful timing, Jerry had ensured that the synchronous motor was not up to enough speed to sustain its rotation before the main switch was thrown.  The electronic organs merely require flipping the "On" switch.

"Oh-oh, I must not have held the starter switch long enough, we'll have  to do it all over again." So Jerry repeats the entire process.  "Now we have to wait for the tubes to warm up."

Finally with the organ warmed up and running, Jerry set up some rather harsh tone bar settings so that  the organ sounds screechy, a common complaint about the Hammond versus the more mellow tones of our electronic tube organs.  The Hammond used a huge bank of saw-toothed wheels running on a common axle.  Magnetic pickups would capture an electronic square wave which would contain all the harmonics required to create any desired tone.  Simple filtering would allow one to very closely approximate the sound of a pipe organ, including mellow tones.

Now we knew the BIG secret.  Once it was known, the secret lost a lot of its mystery ... the un-sales technique was easy rather than requiring some great sales mastery.  I doubt if Mom ever let any other sales person know about this sales technique, but I'll bet she used it from then on.  After all, she had to outsell anyone on her staff ... and she could do it.

A side episode occurred with Jerry.  At one point in her marriage to Max, Mom got so upset that she went to a Movie with Jerry.  Max would never take Mom to a movie nor a play.  Elaine and I were shocked!  This was particularly difficult for Mom since both Omaha and San Diego offered great theater (Henry Fonda started in Omaha as did Johnny Carson).  Elaine and I tried to make up for this by taking Mom to shows and movies.  I remember once on a trip to New York with another couple (Harry and Ronnie Miller), Mom and Max to go to a movie ... would they ask Marilyn or I, experts, which movie to see?  No, Mom picks Midnight Cowboy since Max likes westerns!  He was so disgusted, they never went to another movie.  Crazier yet, after Max died, Mom married another man who didn't go to movies nor plays and didn't like parties (which both Mom and Max enjoyed greatly).  This is especially strange since all her other pursuers took her to movies, baseball games, bridge tournaments, etc.  Some days, you just can't figure.  Elaine finally asked Mom the crucial question, "Did you marry Bob because he looked like Max?" ... "Yes."

In any case, Mom's business acumen and creativity makes you real proud of her accomplishments along with a little embarrassment for her methods.  But her greed and methods have provided Elaine and I many episodes of laughter.

 Just in case you haven't noticed, "The Switch" can be taken two ways ... bait and switch ... or the starter switch.

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