Ancient History

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WEST OAKLAND SERENADE

EXPRESS - The East Bay’s Free Weekly May 4, 1990

By: Catherine Mcever
Photographs by: Chris Duffey

 

 

Deep in the industrial wasteland, oxygen tanks at the ready to ward of toxic fumes, a few hardy urban pioneers huddle in a drafty warehouse, dedicating their lives to… pianos.

Everything I’d heard about the Immortal Piano Company had all the earmarks of an East Bay fairy tale. Certainly the description of the place, complete with the bizarre details like the massive walls made out of pianos, piano courtyards and a piano graveyard, sounded like stuff of myth. The location, somewhere out in the industrial wastelands of West Oakland, right near the collapsed Cypress structure, added another intriguing, post-earthquake touch of fantasy.

Martha Wilson, proprietress of this unlikely enterprise, has a melodramatic telephone presence and a melodic voice that wanders up and down the scale at random, with no particular concern for context. She admitted that her environment probably was pretty fantastic; she just wished it were a little cleaner. Some 21 artists have workshops within the warehouse space, she explained and artists tend to be terrible slobs.

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“At least let me clear up some of this God-awful mess,” she implored, sounding more like a despairing suburban housewife rather than a woman living in a fantasy. “I’m sending thousands of books to China this week. Come and visit when they are gone.” She offered a complicated set of instructions for finding the place and then signed off, sighing, “Who knows what the world is?”

Who indeed? And why was a piano company shipping books to China? A week later I parked in front of a gutted Victorian at 8th and Pine in West Oakland and gave my car a doubtful pat good-bye. Martha had assured me that cars are safe in this vicinity until nightfall, at which point they are fair game.

Across the street was a block-long factory building with corrugated steel walls, with the words, “Phoenix Ironworks,” written across one end. I walked down the long side of the building, found the small door that was supposed to be there, and banged the metal mailbox flap up and down aggressively, as instructed.

The woman who opened the door was young and surprisingly petite. Based on the wildly varying register of the voice over the phone, I had anticipated a large boned, well-seasoned, dramatic looking woman, given to histrionic gestures. Instead, Martha looked like a modern version of the little match girl, bundled in a bulky parka against the vagaries of her warehouse environment. Chestnut ringlets of hair were pushed awry by a long wool muffler doubled around her neck, and her eyes twinkled with amusement behind a large pair of spectacles perched on a small button nose.

Martha congratulated me on actually having found the place and apologized once again for the hopeless disarray that lay in wait beyond the narrow, dimly lit corridor cluttered with boxes, pieces of metal and planks of wood. “Watch your step,” she advised apprehensively.

Over the next few weeks, during subsequent phone conversations and a follow up visit to the warehouse, I became accustomed to Martha’s futile, ongoing obsession. Martha had a dream. Someday, somehow, she firmly believes that the rubble will be cleared away, the pianos will be arranged in an orderly fashion, all the weird objects will find some suitable niche, the junk will be sorted out, the artists will straighten up and fly right, and the warehouse will be neat as a pin.

On this first visit, emerging from the corridor into the stadium-sized warehouse space, I knew with certainty that Martha will never be able to realize this particular dream. Chaos this complete will never be transformed into any sort of order, no matter how cooperative the artists are, or how compulsive Martha gets. The environment at the Immortal Piano Company looks like an elaborate, rococo set for a surrealistic Fellini film, so visually rich that the senses immediately overload and start to shut down. The warehouse is a cavernous open space with a corrugated-steel roof way high up overhead, and a series of oddly stacked, assorted studios and offbeat shacks that provide workspace for the 21 artists down below. And, yes, pianos are everywhere. There are pianos lining the corridors, pianos cramming workrooms, pianos set out in courtyards, piano innards on the walls and walls made out of pianos.

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At ground level, the space extends over 16,000 square feet. Artists have created additional footage in the already vast space by building up, staggering interesting structures on top of each other to the height of three and four free standing stories in some areas. Ladders extend up to lofts tucked back into towers on higher levels, while foot walks bridge the air between studios overhead. Getting around this space is a cross between spelunking and mountain climbing, and Martha frequently warned me to watch my head when we were about to embark on a particularly difficult passage, or work our way into some tucked away grotto. The warehouse has the ambiance of a convoluted, renaissance village, with corridors running between studio towers and unexpected new scenes, shacks and spaces around each corner. Nine dogs prowl the alleyways, adding to the village flavor.

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At the end of the building, an enormous expanse of windows stretching from floor to ceiling has been partially protected at ground level by panels of corrugated fiberglass. Higher up, old windowpanes are broken and uncovered, leaving the warehouse open to the elements, and lending to Martha’s penchant for warm clothing. At one point in the warehouse’s history, Martha related, bird feeders were set out tat the end of the space to accommodate the flocks of wild birds that fly in and out of the environment.

Everywhere there is art, kitsch, and visual confusion. Scrawled drawings by graffiti artist Mark Bode grace a number of walls. A prosaic, white picket fence borders a second level communal lounge. Below, the hood of an old Riviera has been hung over a pool table to protect it from a dripping roof. Mannequins lean against stacks of crates near a set of interesting old vending machines. There are boxes, old tricycles, stacks of books, masks, lawn chairs, signs, ladders, shoes, hats. The list goes on and on. Neon-red wooden crosses and an old, rusted out motorcycle hang from support wires overhead.

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Martha paused to thump a huge metal pizza oven that is partially obscured by piles of junk. “Know anyone who needs a pizza oven?” she asked hopefully, and then sighed,” Somehow we keep ending up with stuff like this all over the place.”

Amidst all of this, Martha Wilson manages to conduct business, and tentacles of the Immortal Piano Company weave around corners, studios, and odd, massive objects. There is a piano courtyard where pianos wait to be repaired. There are piano workshops where trained apprentices restring and rebuild piano innards. There are cleared, almost tidy areas, where gleaming, refinished pianos await new owners. There’s the piano graveyard, where pianos that are too far-gone to do themselves or anybody else any good have come to rest. There are piano pieces and internal parts bolted up along the corridors. There are massive, amazing piano walls.

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Martha is well aware that the world she’s created inside this vast, drafty warehouse in West Oakland is pretty peculiar, but there’s simply nothing she can do about it. After all, she never really planned any of it in the first place-it just sort of happened. Like most of the pianos Martha cares for, Martha has been buffeted about by fate and somehow has ended up here, in charge of the Immortal Piano Company.

As far as Martha can figure out, the twisted road leading to this admittedly odd destiny started back in Boston. She and her friend, Steve Heck, a massive man with a sandy brown Mohawk haircut whom Martha describes wryly as “a heck of a guy,” were students at the New England School of Photography. One idle afternoon, Martha was reminiscing with Steve about her father, who was a gold miner up in the Sutter Creek area in California. She told him that her father had refused to teach her the tricks of the mining trade because she was only a girl.

She toyed with the idea that if she were to appear in California with some big strong guy like Steve, her dad might teach the guy all of his secrets. Then the guy, especially if he were the liberated sort like Steve, could turn around and teach Martha everything there was to know. But then Steve himself wouldn’t ever really be interested in a scheme like that, would he? “Sure,” Steve had said without a second thought, thereby changing the whole course of their lives.

At first, Martha’s father was indeed delighted, taking Steve into the fold and starting to train him on various projects. Her father, who had been fighting off a series of physical maladies, including a bad heart and the aftereffects of a broken back from an old mining accident, was determined to hang on until Martha was securely married. Steve finally refused to continue the ruse. He insisted that Martha tell her father the truth, which, Martha said reaped very predictable results. Steve was abruptly thrown out of the fold and off the projects. Her father berated Martha for “running around like an aborigine,” and died shortly thereafter of a heart attack. “It was basically heartache,” Martha admitted, “because he realized we were never going to get married.”

So Steve and Martha, both photographers and aspiring untrained gold miners, ended up stranded in California. Martha occupied herself with a series of “ridiculous odd jobs,” including working as a truck messenger, “driving all over hell.” Steve started moving pianos, a trade he had found to be fairly lucrative back in Boston. “And then – well, here it comes,” said Martha apologetically, grouping for a way to rationally explain the next part of the story.

One day, Martha went on, Steve picked her up and brought her to an old, block-long warehouse on Dwight Way in Berkeley. “I walked in,” recalls Martha, “and the entire place was filled with, like, five hundred pianos, hundreds of thousands of books, boxes of polyester clothes, and just lots and lots of trash. Steve asked me what I thought, and I asked him, “What do you mean, what do I think?”

He explained that the warehouse was being torn down in a week because of back taxes, and everything had to be salvaged and gotten out immediately. They could have it all if they wanted it, if they could cart it away quick. “I walked around for a couple of minutes,” Martha shrugs ruefully, and then I said OK.”

And so it changed my life,” she sighed looking around the Immortal Piano Company. “I had no idea what a piano was, what made a structurally sound piano. And there were hundreds and hundreds of pianos there. But,” she said regretfully, “hundreds and hundreds had been damaged. Kids had come in and spray-painted all of the keys black, or reached in and pulled out all of the hammers, and they made forts out of some pianos.”

In addition to the devastation wrought by the kids, there were the pianos moved by the team of ex-cons, who had apparently come up with the innovative technique for hefting heavy pianos around. “A hundred of the pianos had been moved from another shop on San Pablo,” Martha explained, “and all taken apart because they thought, well, it’ll make them much lighter if we took off all the wood. So they took off all off the wood and all of the pieces were just stacked in piles. It was the biggest jigsaw puzzle of my life. It was just incredible.”

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Life continued to get more incredible still. Steve and Martha moved the pianos and the books to the warehouse they now occupy on 7th Street in West Oakland, leaving only the polyester clothes and the trash behind. Martha spent the next couple of years studying under a man named Alan Werner, learning piano rebuilding and refinishing. Whenever she got a spare moment she sorted through the books, and finally managed to send the bulk of them off to the Republic of China the week I had contacted her. They needed books, she explained, “because of the mandatory dark ages that occurred over there, with all of the book burnings. All of the library shelves-everything-were emptied.” She’s shipped off 8,000 volumes so far, through an organization called Gateway to China.

Three and a half years ago, Martha, Steve and the pianos moved into the Phoenix Ironworks building on 8th and Pine, and since then Martha has established the Immortal Piano Company as a successful business venture. “I joined the guild and go to all the conventions with all the balding old men, and we talk about hammer butts together,” Martha said. “There are very few women in this business,” she added.

No doubt there are none like Martha. If the balding old men are surprised to see Martha at their convention, they would, no doubt, be even more confounded by her version of the piano business, and by the chaotic, creative character of the Immortal Piano Company. The industrial setting, in particular might generate some amazement.

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The Phoenix Iron Works building that houses the enterprise stretches out along a full city block. The Immortal Piano Company and its accompanying artists occupy one end of the building. On the other side, separated by a massive structural wall, working factories still operate, including Phoenix Ironworks itself, Cypress Autos and a plastic bag manufacturer.

ancient historyMartha admits that while the rent is cheap and the atmosphere is awfully artistic, there are disadvantages to working in a hard-core industrial environment. When it rains, drops hitting the steel roof high overhead create such a thunderous cacophony that she has to crouch under her desk and plug one ear when attempting to make phone calls.

Running a finger lightly over one of the graveyard pianos, she holds up a dusty finger for inspection. “See that? Steel dust. It’s not good for the pianos, not good for the lungs, and it blows in.” The dust comes from the Phoenix Ironworks, a foundry that has worked 24 hours a day on Bay Bridge parts after the Oct 17th earthquake. During Operation, in addition to dust, the foundry can also generate considerable noise. Although she hasn’t personally witnessed the casting process on the other side of the wall, she’s convinced that it involves dropping gigantic objects from a great height. When they hit the floor, the whole building vibrates.

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The plastic bag factory can also cause problems. “They have to melt down stuff next door to do…well who knows what they do?” Martha shrugged. “But it produces the most noxious fumes that you can imagine, so what I do is go up to my office the second I smell the burning, shut the door, and just breathe my oxygen for awhile.” Oxygen tanks stand ready along one corridor of the warehouse, part of Martha’s basic survival equipment. “Sometimes it’s just nice to take a breath of fresh air,” Martha admitted. “Talk about modern day living.”

Other warehouse strategies include never spending more than a dollar in thrift stores for any article of clothing that she wears to work; bundling up to ward off warehouse drafts; donning electric socks with batteries when the elements are particularly harsh. It’s difficult to imagine how customers manage to cope once they reach the Immortal Piano Company, but Martha assured me that they drive from all over the Bay Area and beyond. “Rolls Royces pull up here to buy pianos,” Martha advised, “and only the Marinites seem to get a little weird.”

Part of the attraction that the Immortal Piano Company holds for prospective customers is Martha’s meticulous approach to piano repair. By using apprentices, she is able to provide the intensive labor required to completely repair old pianos. “They take so much work,” she explained. “It involves so much to recondition a piano and I send out pianos that are totally reconditioned or rebuilt. I don’t just turn them over, like most piano stores. That’s the main difference. That’s why I’ve had such good sales, because people don’t have to worry about it any more. You know, they buy a piano from me and ‘Hey, it’s fixed! I don’t need a technician!’”

The apprentice system enables Martha to operate on a cost-effective basis. “That’s the only way you can work with these old uprights, because they just take too much time, too much energy. ”

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Martha has learned to be leery when taking on trainees, however. “Nobody will take on apprentices because, my God, they can be hell!” I don’t let anyone under 25 be an apprentice, because when they’re young they’re still exploring, and I don’t want to be part of that exploration. I want to be the final product. I need to know that this is what they really want to be doing.”

Martha pointed out pianos that are ready for resale, or in the process of being refurbished. She’s managed to work her way through almost all of the original stock on Dwight Way, and now spends about four days a week roaming around the area to follow up leads on old pianos.

Some sort of magnetism seems to draw wayward pianos toward the Immortal Piano Company. She lifted the lid of an old battered Bruenn, manufactured right here in Oakland, that she had received a few days before. “Oh, smell that,” she sighed. “When you first open them up, it’s just like opening an old book. It has that strange, musty, funky smell that brings back the past.”

It’s possible to instantly assess the potential of some pianos, Martha informed me, simply by origin. “Like, most Chicago pianos are absolute poo-ka-ka. They were economically done, cutting many corners. Instead of two pieces of leather per note, the manufactures used cloth, which does not have the same wear time as leather. And the list goes on. Something that was made economically back then, you try to fix it now, and it’s like trying to rebuild a Pinto automobile.”

Working our way along a corridor, we pause for a moment to appreciate an 1882 rose-wood Steinway that is nearing completion. Nearby, there is a Chickering baby grand from the 20s that has had its innards restored. “Chickering is quite the name,” Martha said, explaining that most people are only familiar with a few standard names of pianos, which she considers a pity. “At the turn of the century the piano was the major industry in America. You had to have a piano and a stove. That’s how houses worked.” As we moved into the piano courtyard to discuss other, less fortunate pianos, Martha looked back wistfully and said, “Abraham Lincoln had a Chickering.”

Lincoln would, no doubt, have commended Martha’s concern for the less illustrious pianos in her collection, poor but honest pianos whose only crime was being obsolete. “I’ll bring anything back to life if I can,” Martha assured me, with an expression of warm sympathy appropriate to a doctor or, perhaps, a veterinarian. “But some of them just aren’t going to make it.”

At the Immortal Piano Company, however, all is not lost after a piano is deemed “dead”. Graveyard pianos still have a chance to become something interesting on their way out of this life, “We burnt pianos this last year,” Martha confessed, showing me some memorial snapshots. “We had a funeral pyre of seventeen pianos stacked on top of each other. It was underneath a freeway in San Francisco.”

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She was quick to explain that the whole idea had really been Steve Heck’s ideas.

Steve lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, and still moves pianos, but never became a formal part of the Immortal Piano Company. “He has other dreams, other lives,” Martha explains helpfully.

Steve does, however, maintain a major presence within the warehouse. “Heck-land,” Steve’s sprawling space, is full of old telephones, tiny toy pianos, and what Martha describes as, “incredible, wonderful junk.” Steve also has some creative ideas about how to deal with old pianos.

“Steve always had the idea in the back of his head,” Martha recalled. “He had all of these incredible, piano destruction ideas.” Steve’s concepts became reality through a scheme he cooked up with a San Francisco performance group called Survival Research Laboratories (SRL). “They’re boys that make machines of destruction,” Martha said with enthusiasm, “and they have these insane performances of destruction.”

Steve had moved stuff for SRL in the past. Some of their more noteworthy performances involved gigantic, lethal-looking machines with odd parts and square wheels and, Martha added doubtfully, lots of dead animals. “They didn’t kill the animals themselves or anything,” Martha assured me hurriedly. “These were dead animals they collected from railroad train tunnels. But then the ASPCA got onto them, and well, you know the ASPCA.”

Since the animals were out, Steve proposed pianos as an alternative. Seventeen pianos were bolted together in a giant funeral pyre underneath a freeway. Martha said. “Then they attacked them with a bizarre, giant drill machine with a huge corkscrew drill, and there were flame throwers. One piano all the way at the top was bolted at an angle so it was teetering while the pianos down below burned. And then there was a catapult thing with dead fish. All the cool people in the Bay Area were there. Can you picture all of the cool people dressed in black, getting sprayed with dead fish, getting their leathers ruined?”

She directed my attention over to a wall where a series of interesting piano innards were displayed diagonally, looking like a heavy-metal abstract sculpture. “These are the parts out of them. I cannibalized as much as I possibly could.”

Other graveyard pianos go on to a new life in the theater. “Some people call because they’ve heard about the graveyard,” Martha explained, “So I’ve done this for a couple of theater groups, where you just completely gut the insides and take out all of the heaviness, and then it’s just a prop. It’s a theater prop. It looks just like a piano, but they can take it on and off the stage in two seconds flat.”

There is a final option for graveyard pianos. They become part of the Immortal Piano Company itself, incorporated into one of the piano walls. “We have three piano walls in the place,” Martha said. “Just pianos stuck on top of pianos, sometimes on top of more pianos with grand piano archways. We’ll be having another piano wall soon, because I have to clear out more pianos so that some marble sculptures can move in.

The innovative guys at SRL came up with some heavy metal L-shaped brackets that are used to bolt the pianos together with-out damaging them.

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The piano walls are astounding to look at. So astounding that the owner of Club DV-8 in San Francisco approached Steve about building one for some future venture. My favorite piano wall is composed primarily of English uprights and birdcage pianos. They looked to me like exquisite instruments, with scrolled woodwork fronts, carved griffon feet, and pastel stained wood. “This is the absolute trash wall-all unable to be tuned,” Martha said, shattering my illusions. “These pianos are just death.”

We went back towards the middle of the warehouse to look at what she considers a more interesting piano wall. Here, a crescent shaped grand, turned vertically on one end forms an archway in the middle of the wall composed of player pianos. “These ex-player pianos are from the original warehouse salvage job,” Martha said, tapping one of them regretfully. “They’d been pushed out of the building by the city. Actually, the city was not supposed to be touching the pianos- they were just supposed to be salvaging the building- and they were pushing the pianos out in order to destroy the building. I had them stopped, and that night a fifteen minute rainstorm happened. It was the only rain of the summer, and fifteen minutes of rain destroyed the pianos. They were players, most working players, and they’re dead.”

Tragic piano tales abound here at the Immortal Piano Company. On my way out of the warehouse, I felt compelled to stop at one particularly sorry specimen and ask of its history. It was obvious that this piano had been through hard times. The case was made of black walnut, which was marred by the words, “White Trash,” scrawled across the front in white spray paint.

“It’s just another one of those weird, piano death stories,” Martha said sadly. It was a beautiful piano up to about a week and a half ago. It was an Estey, a nice brand- made in about 1915. It came in from the city. Steve had already worked out the deal to get the piano, and then he got to the house. It was one of those hell scenes with jealous lovers, and someone moving on someone else, and so she wrote, ‘White Trash’ on the piano, and poured water on part of the action.” The patient may be terminal, but Martha hasn’t given up yet. “I have damp chasers in there trying,” she said.

I have faith in Martha’s expertise and hope for the piano. Here at the Immortal Piano Company, most anything seems possible.

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