The story of a banjo, a chair and a dresser

My loose definition of an antique is that it’s anything older than 50 that retains or evokes some sort of life experience or memory for its owner. According to that definition, I am an antique, so the revision to my initial thought is that an antique is any non-living material thing that retains or evokes some sort of life experience or memory for its owner.

Now that we’ve established this, I’d like to share the tale of a banjo, a chair and a dresser.

In December 2019, our family endured a devastating house fire that burned with such heat that it vaporized wood and other combustible items and melted metal. Where once a stately grandfather’s clock stood, keeping watch all through the night from its appointed corner of the family room, all that remained were a few melted gears.

Instruments and art I had collected through the decades simply appeared to have vanished from their display positions on our walls. What fire and heat didn’t destroy, smoke and water combined to finish off, erasing of a lifetime of memories, artifacts and, yes, antiques.

I share this not to lament, but to reassure you that no matter how precious a thing might seem to you, life is the most precious of all things. We weren’t home at the time of the fire, our lives and health were spared, and many victims of fires aren’t as fortunate. Now that you know this part of the story I can share the tale of three antiques that did survive the fire: a banjo, a chair and a dresser.

At the time of the fire, an antique but still functional tenor banjo that had been given to me by my first guitar and banjo teacher, Charlie Prutztman, was out on loan to one of my musician colleagues who was rehearsing with it to perform a Dixieland-style piece during a Christmas concert with the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra at the prestigious Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

When I was 12 years old, I kind of gave up playing accordion and began experimenting with drums, saxophone, guitar and banjo. The guitar and banjo came to the forefront of my musical dabblings because the grandfather of a dear friend had been a professional musician in addition to having a lifelong career with the Reading Railroad.

When old Charlie learned I was interested in music, he took it upon himself to begin to teach me guitar and banjo chords so I could accompany him during what he called jam sessions, which was a new term to me back then. Charlie was in his mid-80s when these interactions began. I’d visit his grandpop apartment at my friend’s home, and Charlie would tell me the most amazing and often funny stories about playing around the region at speakeasies, dance halls and union halls.

He used to have two fine banjos, but at one of his jobs, after drinking, as he described it, “too much bathtub gin,” he forgot the banjo and his jacket. The day after he and the band returned home to the Reading area from the coal regions, he noticed his loss. That banjo and jacket were never recovered.

His style of ragtime/Dixieland music was raucous, joyful and up-tempo. After I learned several tunes well enough to back him up rhythmically on guitar while he used his plectrum to buzz up and down the banjo’s neck playing lead riffs, I’d go to a session at his apartment, and he’d call his few remaining friends from the heyday of their playing antics.

Charlie dialed a number, the friend would pick up, and he’d shout into the phone, “OK Fred, Davey and me are gonna tear one off for you! Let’s go Davey, ‘Hand Me Down My Walking Cane’ in three, two, one,” at which point we concertized to his buddy on the other end of the phone.

Charlie died when he was 87, not long after he taught me the joy of performing live, but the memories and his beloved Paramount Leader banjo still fuel my imagination and desire to play music.

The chair entered my life on a cold winter night 40 years ago while I was doing observations for the Berks County Astronomical Society. As a member of the club, I had access to a huge telescope that was housed in an old barn out on a ridge near Blue Marsh Lake. Because there is less haze, dust and junk in the atmosphere on cold winter nights, they are the best for making observations of planets, stars, galaxies and other objects like remnants of super novae, or exploding stars.

One night I noticed a dust-covered chair, neglected, piled up in a corner with lots of things. What grabbed my attention was this chair, with its faded and stained seat covering, chipped paint and fragile wooden joints, displayed a musical lyre symbol in its seat back. The chair literally spoke to me, and I asked the barn’s owner if I could buy it.

He said that I could and also let me know there were other pieces to it, including a table, all adorned with the musical lyre theme. On the night of the fire, that table and four chairs, kindred spirits with me, at least in my mind, because they existed as a symbol of music, were tucked away down in a far corner of our basement. They didn’t burn, but they did get heavily damaged by heat and water.

I took them to Cross Keys Furniture Restoration where we discussed regluing, refinishing and recovering the table and chairs. About a month later, my beloved table and chairs came back to me looking pristine and ready to put in our family room, ready to have their story told to anyone curious about their unique design and connection to music and our family.

The dresser in this story suffered the same indignities as the table and chairs. It too was being used in our basement; it too was heavily damaged by water, heat and smoke; it too went to Cross Keys Furniture Restoration; and it too came back lovelier and livelier than ever.

I first became friends with this dresser when I was a young boy. I’d visit my Kline grandparents off of Hay Road in Temple, and the dresser was in the room where I slept, at the front of the house, upstairs. When trains went past just a block or so away on the old trolley line, I could feel the rumble. Once I got used to them, the trains always lulled me to sleep.

In winter, the windows of the room shook in their frames as they valiantly did their best to keep Jack Frost and his chill away from me. Nevertheless, candles in the window flickered from the wind as it somewhat defeated the purpose of the windows and frames and crept around seams and cracks. Sleeping under several quilts was a cozy necessity back then in a house that had just one central heating duct fueled by coal on the first floor between the kitchen and parlor, as it was then called.

The dresser and its contents were a wonderment to me. The upper drawers were filled with thousands of loose buttons. I don’t think my Grandmom Helen ever threw away a button. Instead, she removed them from unwanted clothing, then used the clothing to make rags or patches and saved the buttons just in case she ever needed to find a match or a set for a repair. How in the world she’d ever actually find any one specific button or set of buttons among the thousands was something we never discussed.

The lower drawers contained jars of buttons, coins and all manner of bric-a-brac. Back then, the dresser was painted white, and before that it had been painted what looked to be a rust color. When all the paint was stripped away and refinished, it turned out that the dresser is made of gorgeous cherry wood with dovetailed joints.

I recall my grandmother telling me that the dresser was her grandmother’s. Now it resides in my writing room where it stores various drawing and painting implements and is a constant reminder of Helen and those cold winter nights studying her curious collection of buttons.

The banjo and the dresser are well more than 100 years old, and the musical chair is almost 100. If a child or grandchild of mine asks me for them, I will surely pass them on to the next generation, and if not, they’ve served my mind’s eye and life well as they continue to exude love from people who have traveled on. I think, at their very best, this is what antiques do.

Dave Kline is an award-winning writer, photographer, show host and producer, singer-songwriter, travel guide and community advocate. Reach him at [email protected]