Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: It’s not junk — it’s magic that ticks, whirs and sings

Stepping through the front door of Ron Babb’s 1927 Proctor District home means entering a world he has spent a lifetime creating.

It’s probably not like your world. For one thing, it’s probably more fun.

The House of Babb is a world of dark wood and the ticking of more than 20 clocks. No hour or half hour passes without chimes and bells, although if Babb is listening to music, you might not hear them.

The dining room and long living room are home to Babb’s phonographs. Most of them are from the early 1900s, all but one of them playing cylinder recordings of a life all but forgotten.

Babb, 63, has never forgotten entering that world.

“When I was 4 or 5, I commandeered my parents’ old crank phonograph and played cylinder records on it for hours,” Babb said.

For those unfamiliar with them, cylinder records are about the size and shape of an empty toilet paper roll. Made with a thin wax coating — they were made harder as years went on — they were played on phonographs well into the 1900s.

And what phonographs!

Babb moved from one to another, lifting their tuba-like horns through which sound is conveyed. Some are made of glass, others wood, one brass.

Babb has only a thousand or more cylinder records from which to choose.

First, he selects one with a spoken voice.

“Know who this is?” he asked.

Clearly, a politician. The male voice discusses middle-class wages, the environment, family farms — not unlike candidates in today’s party debates. Who is it?

“Theodore Roosevelt,” Babb said. “Edison recorded him when he was making his Bull-Moose Party run for president.”

That family phonograph Babb snared when he was young stayed with him as his collection of records grew.

What happened to it?

“It’s at the top of my stairs,” Babb said. “Still plays beautifully.”

The clocks and phonographs can, when in use together, produce enough sound that Babb’s 17-year-old cat, Hilda, collapses on a carpet. She knows it can get louder.

On one end of the living room is a baby grand piano, decorated for the holidays with a large top-hatted skeleton seated at the keyboard.

“It’s a reproducing piano,” Babb said. “Pianists would play music and it would be recorded — down to how hard they hit each key — on player piano rolls.”

Unlike player pianos, the reproducing piano used electricity, not a foot pump. Listening to one play, it’s as if the pianist were there performing.

Babb’s player piano — of course, he has one — is at the far end of the dining room.

A Boeing engineer for 30 years, Babb was “retired” last year when the company moved his job to San Diego. He has spent his time since collecting and working on his collections.

How many collections does he have?

“Too many,” Babb said. “I collect clocks, pianos, phonographs as junk. No point in having junk if it doesn’t work, so I fix it. I collect miniature phonographs, pocket typewriters from the 1800s.

“I collect mechanical scary monkeys, memorabilia from the 1933 World’s Fair, art deco pieces, music boxes. …”

Almost none of it purchased in working order.

Babb prowls through antique shops and junk stores across the country. At times, friends have given him pieces that don’t work, have been badly damaged or simply seem beyond help.

There’s a bench in the basement and, in a pinch, the dining room table, upon which Babb goes to work. He has shelves filled with books about phonographs, clocks, monkeys, Model-T vehicles — oh, yes, there’s the one he drives, out in his garage.

There’s a friend who’s a magician with woodwork who helps Babb restore the cabinets and damaged fronts to most of his pieces. Another who knows the Model-T.

Babb figures he can recreate most any moving part, and those he doesn’t know about, he reads up on.

Even the house Babb lives in is a work-in-progress.

“When I moved in, the living room was painted pink and the colors throughout the house reflected that taste,” he said. “Doors were missing, the cabinets were falling apart, termites had eaten away beams under the house, and it was a mess.”

Now, it’s magical — though the work upstairs isn’t yet complete.

“People ask me what’s in my attic, and I admit I don’t always know,” Babb said. “When I need it, I can find it.”

He reached for another cylinder record, as delighted as a child.

Ruth Etting,” he said. “My favorite ’30s torch singer.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

@LarryLaRue

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