“You’re the doctor,” Miloš said, and I appreciated his deference. We were in his apartment on the 30th floor in the Essex House, situated on Manhattan’s Central Park South. I was double checking the connections on the back of his new amplifier. Let me back up a bit and explain.
This is one of your “you never know” stories. At the time I was hosting The Cable Doctor television show on leased-access in Manhattan, and I had recently opened my service center (Cable Doctor) on East 14th Street.
During dinner one night, my younger sister Vicki and I were talking, and she said, “you are really good on television. Maybe you should go on some auditions for commercials.” Over the years I have gotten great suggestions from my little sister, so why not? “Hmmm,” I thought out loud. “I know nothing about that,” and she mentioned a commercial acting studio that offered classes on auditioning and aspects of that world.
I thought, why not, and signed up for the class. It was a short course, six classes, and would give me training and insight into the art of being in television commercials. It was not cheap, about $350 for the course, and this was 30-something years ago. There were 10 other students, and all were experienced actors. There was real talent in the group. Early in the course, one of the students (quite accidently) got a part in an American Express commercial that paid him ten thousand dollars.
Every one of these people was better…er…more talented than me, but I was the only one doing live television. I was airing weekly, and I was finding alternative ways to create income from my efforts.
For me, the class was discouraging, but I had already paid so I was going to finish the course. But commercials were not in the cards for me, and in hindsight that is a blessing. For the last class we had to do a mock audition for a real casting director. I was not thrilled by my audition performance.
I was pleasantly surprised when the casting director approached me after the class. He knew about The Cable Doctor Show, (while no one in the class ever mentioned it, apparently it was a well-known program) and he had an idea. VCRs (video cassette recorders) were changing the landscape of television, and almost no one knew how to set the clock on their VCRs. But that was a prerequisite if you wanted to use the timer for recording a television show and watching it later. Across America, VCRs were blinking at 12:00.
The Cable Doctor store on East 14th Street. Courtesy of Ken Sander.
The casting director (Gary) had an idea. What if the manufacturers, i.e., Sony, JVC, Toshiba, etc. included an instructional video with each purchase? Clever idea? It would seem so, but no, each manufacturer had a different approach to manuals and most of them were insufficient. Furthermore, each manufacturer had different protocols for their clocks and timers. I knew that these Japanese companies would not sign on. While it seemed like a promising idea, I knew it was not viable. For one, why would the manufacturers even care? Just look at the instructions they included with their products. They made little sense, were terribly written and badly translated into English; they were difficult to follow. but Gary thought this was an innovative idea. Me? Not so much. I Was flattered that Gary thought enough of me to float his idea past me. In retrospect, that was around the time, or at least the beginning of, the no-manual-included era.
Gary lived in Stuyvesant town which was near my shop, and he would sometimes stop by to talk. Gary’s main job was working for director Miloš Forman’s production house. He was a key aide and employee. One day he called and asked if I could do a service call at Miloš’s apartment. Miloš had gotten a new McIntosh amplifier and wanted to replace his old non-working one and have it integrated into his system.
The afternoon I arrived at his place Miloš was alone and he let me into his apartment. It was a nice sized space (I did not get a tour). The apartment had a lived-in look. He showed me the wall in his living room where his audio equipment was positioned on wooden shelves. They were physically like a bookcase. He was easygoing and stayed with me while I disconnected his non-working amplifier and unpacked the new McIntosh. At one point I paused to check out where his AC outlet was located, and he started to say, “why do you not…” and as I turned, he looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, you are the Doctor.” I liked that.
As an installer and service technician I found it slightly distracting when a client would make suggestions on an install, but more importantly, it was better if the client did not see how the sausage was made. For those reasons, I usually asked clients to give me space to concentrate and do my job. Of course, on the occasion when the client was a celebrity or someone famous, that was a different matter.
While I was finishing up Miloš and I chitchatted. I had recently watched Amadeus and loved the movie. (It won the 1984 Academy Award for Best Picture), I was particularly curious about the fact that Mozart (in the movie) had this nervous giggle. I thought it was a unique personality trait. I asked him about Mozart’s giggle, and he said he always researched his characters and that indeed it was one of the great composers’ traits.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at age 13. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
When the installation was finished. Miloš asked me to check his television remote in the bedroom. His bedroom faced north with a stunning view of Central Park. His king-size bed faced a big picture window, and was tilted so that while lying in bed he could see the park by only slightly raising his head. Like a painting, you could see all the way north till the view flattened out around 90th Street near the reservoir. It was incredible. He was nice, and I appreciated his deference to my skill set.
A year later Gary asked me to do another service call and this time it was in the evening. When I arrived at Miloš’s apartment, he met me and explained what he wanted. He was working, so he left me alone, but his niece from Budapest was visiting and she was in and out of the room. She was attractive but a little standoffish. She was certainly in my wheelhouse, and after the call was finished, she mentioned she had to go to the East Village. It was in my direction, and I offered her a ride, which she readily accepted. I was mildly interested in her, but she was not that friendly. As she got out of my car, she barely thanked me for the lift. I was just hired help to her.
Over the next few years, I helped Gary and one of the gals that also worked for Miloš with issues that they’d have with their laptops. Gary invited me to one of the premieres of The People vs. Larry Flint at the Ziegfeld Theatre on West 54th Street. I really liked the movie. I made a point to watch Miloš’s movies, and I really liked his work. The only movie of Miloš that I was not wild about was Hair. I was biased because of all the time I spent hanging out at the original Broadway show. I know, I am an uppity know it all.
In October 1996, I took possession of a retail space on 14th Street between Second and Third Avenue. That is on the northwest corner of the East Village and was only about 800 feet from my apartment. Talk about an easy commute.
The repair business is a difficult business. Sure, I can help you out, which frigging door did you come in? Especially in our disposable society, it has become a harder decision for people to repair or replace. Many of my retail clients were looking for the best deal and everyone wanted a discount. I started with VCR and audio equipment repairs, and in a few years, I added televisions. That was before flat screens. Later we moved into computer repair and then we added iPhones. It was hard to be profitable. Even my technicians would undervalue their work and make it hard for me to determine what to charge.
However, the shop always made money. I was never late on paying any salaries or bills but while I could keep everything afloat, I never created the income I hoped for. Luckily, or should I say fortunately, I created other sources of income. I always developed multiple streams of income and by doing that I would cover expenses, since no single revenue stream would ever be enough. We kept the doors open for 17 years until April 2014.
One of the sidelines that started as an offshoot of my television show was service calls, and installations which I did in the evenings, or even weekends. For that I charged by the hour. If you wanted the Doctor to visit you it was gonna cost.
One time I was hired to fix an issue with one of my regular clients’ audio systems. He was a partner in a big New York real estate firm. No, not the Donald, but these guys were certainly on that level. He along with his wife and kids lived in that upscale environment, rarefied air. The service call was on Park Avenue in the high 60s. A fancy, high-end Pre-War building. I came in the building’s service entrance and took the freight elevator up. The client’s wife let me into the kitchen. They had the whole floor.
His wife, this beautiful woman, says, “the problem is in the den, but would you mind if I just made a quick five-minute phone call before I show you in.?” Now that’s nerve, I thought. I am on the clock. I answered, “Madam, I would take the garbage out for you or do anything you want, but please understand these are billable hours.” Her jaw dropped and upon her regaining her composure she immediately showed me into the den, and I got down to the job.
The truth of the matter is I have been called a trunk slammer by CEDIA professionals. A derogatory title for sure. But in my defense, most of the calls I went on were simple installations. On the rare occasion that I had difficulty fixing a problem, I would take a deep breath and silently say to myself, “this isn’t the technology, it is something you are not seeing.” That was my mantra, and with that, I would change my approach or mindset and figure out what the problem was. That worked for me 100 percent of the time.
In Part Two of this story, I’ll get into what it was like to do work for James Lipton, Ron Perlman, and Richard Gere, and have more on Miloš.
Header image: Milos Forman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Alinoe.