The Business of Music

In August 1973, following graduation from Lackawanna Junior College, I interviewed for my first full-time job. Along with their job-hunting advice, my parents emphasized that benefits must include health insurance. My factory-working parents’ dream for their three daughters was to work in an office–even if the office was in a factory. An office job would be a step up from Dad’s exhausting and tedious assembly line work; and, I would not be subject to a floor lady’s shouts of ‘asses and elbows is all I wanna see.’ It would be a job better than the ones they experienced.

Traveling to Olyphant, Pennsylvania wasn't exactly venturing into the world; but, it was certainly outside the Calico Lane comfort level. As secretary to the Vice President’ of Specialty Records, a vinyl record manufacturing plant located three towns away from Jermyn. I’d like to think my years collecting 45s and LPs landed me the job, but it was more likely the letter from Dr. Thomas (President of LJC) that sealed the deal.

“My father, the senior Marquardt, started the company in 1946,” my new boss said as he led the way through the offices. “He taught me the business. My mother was my father’s secretary for years, and to be honest, I’m not sure about the tasks a secretary is capable of doing. She said you’d need your own space.” He stopped in the square hallway adjacent to his office. “We’ll figure it out together.”

A basket of assorted pens and pencils sat next to the smith-corona electric typewriter balanced on the folding card table in the square hallway: my work area. Mr. Marquardt promised a secretarial desk and office chair were on the way. Unlike the well-appointed furnishings in Mary’s office at LJC (Lackawanna Junior College), the folding table faced the bathroom door. After the third day, I angled the table toward the opposite corner; it was more appealing to watch who was approaching than entering and exiting the bathroom. Mr. Marquardt stopped in his tracks, looked at the new arrangement, and gave me the thumbs-up sign.

Up to now, I had not developed work-environment standards. I was satisfied to have a week’s paid vacation, two sick days, several paid holidays in addition to $2.14 an hour. All of this PLUS health insurance benefits!

Like Mary, my mentor at LJC, I paid attention to how I looked: my blouses were crisply pressed and neatly tucked into a skirt. I carried a small bottle of clear nail polish in my purse to stop runs in my pantyhose. Seemed I purchased nylons every week as I trained myself to keep my legs away from the sides of the wooden desk that arrived after my first week. I wore low-heeled pumps, which were quite the adjustment considering I had worn sneakers for most of the past decade.

Mr. Marquardt dictated several letters a day, and to his amazement, I typed the correspondence verbatim. His dictation rate was slow. Thank you, God, because I never received better than a B+ in Shorthand class. The office duties ranged from cleaning the bathroom to typing the shipping forms. I found the latter a bit puzzling as I tried to decipher the shipping clerk’s scribbles.

The manufacturing process fascinated me; I wandered into the factory often. The pressing room’s mechanical clanging noise hurt my eardrums as much as the burning vinyl odor irritated my nostrils.

George, one of the pressers, told me vulcanized rubber was the original material for making earlier records. “Did you know it was back in 1888 when Emile Berliner invented them? (I never forgot that historical fact, although it never came up in any Trivia Games.) According to George, as recently as twenty years ago, Columbia Records introduced the 33 1/3 RPM, the start of using vinyl for record making.

The worker at the press next to George added, “Vulcan is the Roman god of fire and forge.” His broad smile revealed a missing top front tooth. The Vulcan tidbit never appeared in Trivia Games, either.

It was pure magic to watch the heated vinyl pellets turn into lumps of black paste, and the black goo pressed to make a record. I couldn’t understand how machines pressed melodies into the vinyl, but George explained: “There’s a spiral groove that runs from the outer edge of the disc to the center to record and plays back sound. As the record formed, the sound causes a stylus to vibrate at certain frequencies while it is engraving the vinyl.” George held up a metal plate with grooves, “this is kinda like a mold, of sorts.” I didn’t understand the technology but nodded to be polite.

Specialty Records Corporation was at one time one of the largest pressing plants in the world. It pressed records for both major and minor record labels, including Asylum Records and Island Records, as well as for record-pressing brokers. Every now and then, a recording artist would make his way to Olyphant for a chat with the factory owners—I never knew the reason for such a visit, only that someone important was in the building.

The shipping clerk job belonged to a crotchety old-timer with smudges on his eyeglasses. I estimated him to be 107 years old. His apron, smeared with a black paste, hung loosely from his neck. He abruptly handed me the shipping list with a grunt and a puff of his smelly cigar. I would smile and fan the smoke away with my hand. He never let me forget the day I shipped a truckload of records to Southgate, Michigan, instead of South Gate, California. The whole factory probably heard Mr. Marquardt shouting about how much my typing mistake cost the company. From then on, I triple-checked cities, states, and zip codes and never assumed anything given to me for typing was 100% accurate. For the remainder of my time at Specialty Records, Mr. Marquardt’s neck and ears never turned that shade of red again.

One day Mr. Marquardt brought a record player into the office and set it up next to my desk. He said, “They returned the entire shipment; said there’s a skip. I need you to listen to this record, play it over and over until you hear the skip.” I listened to Mockingbird for eight hours and never heard a skip. The entire order got re-packaged and shipped out.

A few weeks later, I heard a skip in my Mockingbird record.

* * *

Not too long ago, my son listened as I reminisced about working at the factory. My involvement in something so revolutionary surprised Jason. He fact-checked using his iPhone (because that’s what tech-savvy youth tend to do in the middle of conversations nowadays). Curiosity satisfied, he said, “Mom, it says here: The factory changed ownership a few times, and they were open until May 2018.” He and I spent the next hour examining each record in my collection for the Specialty Record pressing marks. We found a dozen or so, including the Mockingbird 45.

As of the summer of 2020, the demolition of the manufacturing plant was underway. These days when I watch YouTube videos and read internet sites about Specialty Records, I smile. I fondly refer to this time as my “year in the music industry.”


A teaser from a recent draft of Calico Lane