August 1, 2009

Sweatin' to the Oldies: My Alethetone Story

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Marquette Monthly. I always modify these things a bit.

It was a hot, dry, windy day, the kind of day that jangles the wind chimes and scurries the dust up the driveway, through the house. At first it feels delightfully hot and summery; then nerves fray.

Time to relax in the sauna.

Not what you thought, huh? A sauna on a hot day? Maybe you're not from the U.P.

One hears much about saunas in the Upper Peninsula - like pasties, swimming in Lake Superior, and mosquitoes, saunas are a "yooper" thing. And one of the first things a yooper will snicker at is any mispronunciation of the word "sauna." But I don't think it really matters if one says "sow-na" (correct) or "saw-na" (snicker snicker) because no matter how you say it, it is still a wonderful thing, and that hot, dry afternoon was no different. The temperature outside passed 80; sauna temperature topped 180. Shots of cold water on hot stone made billows of steam that my dry skin sucked up and released, relaxing muscles, nerves, and brain in the process.

This particular sauna, somewhere in the western outskirts of the U.P., is nothing more than a small, two-room cabin built around 1940 and renovated in 1977. The first date is sketchy, but the last date is firmly etched in the sauna's cement floor near the wood-fired, rolled steel stove, which was made by a local guy who worked at the local sauna company. The sauna room walls and benches are cedar and there are two large galvanized steel buckets filled with cold water, two long-handled dippers, and a window that opens to the yard. Soap and shampoo are stored on the window ledge. A water pipe with an on/off valve rises up from the floor and attaches to a short length of hose.

The other room, the "cooling" room, has a floor, walls, and ceiling of painted wood. There's a bench for sitting and hooks for towels. There's an old painted dresser, a wringer washer, a new storm door (still in its carton), a sack of bird feed, a boom box, various trinkets and signs on the walls, a paper lantern shade covering a dusty electric light bulb, a faded wooden lawn chair folded up, rag rugs scattered about, for a while a new gas grill in its box, then out of its box, being put together, a tonneau cover off a pickup truck (again, just for a while), and various and sundry other items needing temporary shelter, including, depending on the season, bees, flies, hornets, and mice.

But on this hot, dry day much of the paraphernalia was elsewhere, and the old phonograph – did I mention the old phonograph? an Alethetone (True Tone) phonograph manufactured by The Stevens Organ & Piano Co. in Marietta, Ohio, probably some 90-odd years ago – was at last unburied. Sure, I'd seen it before. It's a dusty, dry, wood cabinet about four feet tall set atop short spindly legs. A strip of veneer is missing off its top. A steel crank droops tiredly from its right side. The fabric covering the speaker is an odd old orangey color, kind of like your kooky old aunt's lipstick, and it never once occurred to me that the phonograph might work. But then, well ... it all happened so quickly.

We were cooling off in the cooling room when my friend, whose sauna it is, nonchalantly lifted the lid of the Alethetone, cranked the handle, put the needle on a record, and moved a switch that started the turntable turning and the music playing. The sauna filled with song.

"When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along ... "

The music poured out of the Alethetone with a lilt and a bounce. The underside of the top of the Alethetone was a rich, dark, shiny wood, and the cabinet turned out to be filled with records by the likes of Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Vic Damone, and songs like "Ukelele Lady," "Skylark," blues and boogie, and "Roll 'em Girls (Roll Your Own)" - which turned out to be a song about women rolling their stockings down.

I was so taken aback by it all that it was a while before the two things that stick with me now surfaced: One, the phonograph required no electricity, no batteries (think about that for a moment); and two, oh boy, would Elmer Aho would love hearing about an Alethetone in a sauna.

Elmer Aho* hosts a radio show, American Country Gold, Saturday nights from seven to midnight on WJPD. The first time I heard the show was on a cold and snowy February night when I was at home, alone, and temporarily without a TV or CD player – all I had was an old radio with a grimy tuning knob and a dimly lighted dial. I remember sliding past a scratchy country tune and then turning back. The scratchy aspect was strange as it didn't sound so much like static, but rather more like a needle in the groove of a well-loved LP – but what DJ plays anything but CDs? I continued to listen, not really much of a country music fan, but enjoying this song all the same.
Then there was a skip.

"My (hiccup) My (hiccup) My (hiccup) ... "

I wondered if there was someone there to give that needle a push, and soon a broad scritch-scratch answered my question. OK. I was hooked. I had discovered Elmer Aho. A few years later I met Elmer and had the opportunity to learn a little about him.

Elmer, a young man in his 70s, drives into the WJPD studio in Marquette from his home in Gwinn toting a variety of LPs, 45s, CDs, and cassette tapes. He's been listening to country music all his life and has been a songwriter and performer since he was a teen-ager. After teaching art in the Gwinn schools for more than 20 years, now he's been a DJ for more than 20 years. Elmer knows his stuff, having been to Nashville hawking his songs a number of times, and Elmer knows his listeners, having been born, raised, and having lived most of his adult life in the central Upper Peninsula.

Elmer loves to hear from his listeners, and throughout the show they call in from places like downtown Ladoga and, as Elmer says, "the suburbs as well." Off-mike Elmer chats with callers, finds out where they're from, what they're doing, and takes requests for music that spans five decades, from Hylo Brown to Dolly Parton, from folk to boogie, from local Finnish favorites like Tanya Stanaway to local country favorites like Tiny C. Hart. On the air, Elmer tells us this one's for the snowplow drivers at the mines, or the guys out at deer camp, or the gals at Mather Nursing Center. As well, plenty of songs are going out to folks in their saunas - a sauna being a Saturday night tradition in the U.P.

In the cabinet of the Alethetone, I found "Throw Your Love My Way" by Ernest Tubb. Before Elmer, I had never heard of Ernest Tubb. Now I knew. I placed the heavy black disc on the turntable and spun the crank. I laid the heavy needle in the groove and flipped the switch that spun the platter. Soon a catchy country tune with a twang and a sway filled the cooling room. I returned to the sauna room, threw some water on the rocks, sat down and leaned back into the steam. My foot dangled in time with the music. I really must tell Elmer, I thought, about this Ernest Tubb record I've found, in the cabinet of this old Alethetone phonograph, in a sauna, somewhere out here in the suburbs of the U.P.

* Yes, yes, I previously wrote about Elmer.

To hear the Alethetone and to read other stories about it, click.

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