Cranky Uncle Trotsky keeps the records spinning
I had a turntable that wasn't working right -- the sound was only coming out of one channel -- so I called the guys at Bullseye Records, 1627 E. Irving Pl., for advice.
Clerk Ken Chrisien suggested I take it to "Cranky Uncle Trotsky," a guy on the East Side who repaired record players from his apartment for years.
I liked the idea of giving my money to a local guy, so I Googled this cranky guy, actually found more information about him, and decided to call.
Turns out, his real name is Ralph Larsen, a former TV repair man and Milwaukee County social worker who has run a word-of-mouth business, called Cranky Uncle Trotsky's Vintage Stereo Repair, for 30 years. The business offers turntable and receiver repair.
A few minutes later, I pulled up in front of his Warren Street building complex. Larsen was sitting on the porch, waiting for me. Large cardboard cutouts of Snow White's dwarfs filled one of the windows and I noted the resemblance between Larsen and the friendly looking characters.
Hence, thanks to the aforementioned friendly-looking-ness, I followed him into his apartment, where a small brown dog named Scooby greeted me amorously. (Basically he humped my leg for the remainder of my visit.)
Larsen led me to his kitchen, which was stacked with turntables and player parts scattered across the table. One cabinet was filled with styli.
"I started fixing these things when I was a kid," says Larsen, 69. "I wanted a hi-fi set, but I couldn't afford one. So I went to Goodwill and Salvation Army and picked up old sets and figured out how to fix them because I wanted to play records."
Larsen still spends time combing thrift shops and rummage sales for record players, many of which he repairs and sells. He specializes in "large, elaborate record players" but can fix basically any model.
Larsen, who grew up in Bay View, says he fixes one or two electronics every day. He charges on a job-by-job basis and accepts barter.
"I just had a customer tell me he didn't have any money, but he gave me this trunk filled with interesting stuff," says Larsen. "People give what they can afford. That's how it works."
Larsen says he will, however, give an estimate before tackling the job if the customer prefers. He will set a price and then call the customer if he runs into problems and needs more time or parts to complete the fix.
He charged me $20 and after 15 minutes of repair, my record player functioned like it was at a 1977 garage disco party.
From 1980 to '84, Larsen ran a short-lived Milwaukee-based music magazine called The Milwaukee Review. He published the periodical without ads because he felt other local music mags at the time pandered to advertisers.
"A lot of reviews were kissing ass to get the ads, and I didn't want to do that, so I charged for my magazine instead of getting ads," he says. "But I guess I lost out."
Larsen says he got his nickname "Cranky Uncle Trotsky" from a combination of sources, including the movie "Bride of Trotsky." He says he also got "quite cranky" when the United States invaded Iraq.
Years ago, Larsen advertised his business via flyers that read "Join the 33 1/3 Revolution!" and in 2003 offered a 10 percent discount to anyone who said something "bad" about the war.
Larsen has always been a fan of the local music scene and claims most of his albums, cassettes and CDs are local. Although he has a fair share of CDs -- which he refers to as "modern stuff" or "new stuff" -- he does not fix CD players.
"I'm not a Luddite," he says, smiling. "I'm not opposed to the modern stuff. I just don't know how to fix it."
Great use of the word "styli" - haven't seen that word this year.
This guy sounds great. It almost makes me wish my record player wasn't working so I could take it in.
I was lucky enough to run into Cranky Uncle Trotzky on my way out of Summerfest last year, where he was handing out -- as business cards -- 45's of Mayor Maier singing polka (with a label on it with his contact info). If my mom ever needs to get my old record player fixed, I'll know where to send her. In the meantime, I got a little piece of Milwaukee history as a bonus.
If my lovely 1975 Marantz 2215B ever hits the skids and I can't fix it, the Uncle'll be the first one to get a shot at it.
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