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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Ode to the California Typewriter

Gertrude Stein loved her typewriter. Her name was Alice B. Toklas. Toklas, a native of San Francisco, had been trained as a concert pianist so finger skills were her specialty. After writing Three Lives by hand, Stein tried to type her set of three stories on her “wretched little portable,” but, as she continued in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, typing made her nervous. Stein had a typewriter before Alice—Etta Cone who typed Three Lives. For Alice, Stein purchased a Smith Premier typewriter that had a double keyboard, one exclusively for capital letters.


What made the Steiny Road Poet think of Stein’s typewriters (both human and machine) is a documentary film entitled californiatypewriter2017-crCalifornia Typewriter, featuring filmmaker and star Tom Hanks, who collects typewriters; artist John Mayer, who makes sculptures from typewriter parts; historian David McCullough, who wrote two Pulitzer Prize-winning books: Truman and John Adams; and playwright and actor Sam Shepard. The film title draws its name from the still existing family-owned shop California Typewriter, located in Berkeley, California. Their motto is “We treat your machine like a member of our family.”


The hour and forty-three-minute film directed, photographed and edited by Doug Nichol begins with a somewhat surreal murder-mystery scene where a Royal typewriter is tossed out a car window.


This act would be sufficient to emphasize the later made statement about living in a throw-away society if the complicit typewriter murderers in the car didn’t circle back to map the crime scene. Stein loved murder mysteries as most Americans do. However, what the scene subconsciously does is set up an introduction to the work of artist John Mayer. He takes apart typewriters to create large-as-life people including Steve Jobs with a set of penetrating eyes, animals like deer, and a pulsing lotus plant.


And guess who California Typewriter owner Herb Permillion and Ken Alexander, Permillion’s master technician, turn to when they need a typewriter part? Yes, John Mayer who is repaid for his parts with typewriters that cannot be fixed. This movie is a smooth-running machine where what might seem out of place fits the delightful puzzle of this well-constructed film that has something for everyone.


There are talking heads like Hanks who owns more than 250 typewriters, but mixed in are people like a street poet who shows her process of typewriting on-demand poems.


Evocative for this Stein aficionado is archival footage which documents how women got high paying jobs (this is relative to what they were paid for jobs they were allowed to do) as “typewriters” on the first commercially successful Sholes & Glidden Type Writers. These machines began production in late 1873 and were first sold in 1874, the year Gertrude Stein was born. These first type writers were decorated with painted flowers and decals and looked rather like sewing machines since they were manufactured by the sewing machine department of the Remington arms company.


The biggest and most delightful surprises of the documentary were two musical moments. The first was introduction of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a current day group of mostly men and one woman who produce rhythmic music on a variety of typewriters. The second was pre-Bollywood footage showing chorus girls dancing on the round keys of what appears to be a larger-than-life old typewriter.


The film made Steiny regret anew having handed over to her brother the portable manual typewriter she took to Tangier, Morocco in 1982. That summer for three glorious weeks, she had the opportunity through the New York School of Visual Arts the opportunity to work on a novel with Paul Bowles and Fred Tuten. Ah, yes, 1982 when Steiny bought her first personal computer so she could write a novel. Steiny was no dexterous wonder on the typewriter manual or electric and her spelling was always suspect so she was elated to own and use a personal computer. Nevertheless, it is events like the current horrific hurricanes—Harvey and Irma—that make her think how useful it would be to have a manual typewriter once again. Long live California Typewriter, the store and the film which is spreading Herb Permillion’s gospel that the typewriter will rise again!


Herb at Shop


Ken at Bench

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas.
She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Read her Blog.
For her other commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2017 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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October 2017

Volume 18 Issue 5

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