Boyhood Memories of the Danelectro Factory

Howard Daniel, age 4 or thereabouts

To all readers who may be interested in stories about Danelectro and my dad, Nathan I. Daniel, and his many innovations in the field of electric guitars and musical instrument amplifiers, this post is for you.

A few days ago, I got an inquiry from John Ward, editor and publisher of Red Bank Green, an online newspaper serving the Red Bank, New Jersey, area. Since Red Bank was the initial home of the Danelectro Corporation, Mr. Ward asked for my thoughts on the significance in Danelectro’s history of a building, once home to the company’s factory, that may soon be purchased by a developer who hopes to raze it and replace it with housing.

That request got me plumbing my memory for recollections of Danelectro’s first two factories in Red Bank, at the second of which I worked summers as a teen. Following is a slightly edited version of my response to Mr. Ward:

Regarding the significance of the 10 River St. building in Danelectro’s history, I have nothing profound to say. Here are some memories of the building, in no particular order:

  • I remember when Dad moved the factory into that building (I was still a fairly young kid). Thanks to continually rising demand for its products, Danelectro had outgrown the first “shop” (as Dad always called the factory), and he’d found the River St. property, which he described to my mom and me as huge. It had apparently been empty for some time and needed a lot of cleanup. Among the abandoned junk he found inside were two very large magnifying glasses or lenses, which he gave me as a present. I used the smaller one (probably about 8 inches in diameter and weighing over a pound) to set dried leaves alight, focusing the sun’s rays.


Danelectro’s second factory building (River St.)

  • Dad hadn’t originally planned to move into such a large building. He’d actually bought an odd-shaped (parallelogram) lot on the east side of Hwy. 35 south of Eatontown (opposite the Bendix plant — or whatever’s there now) and had an architect design a building to fit the property. Later, after moving to River St., he sold the lot and, I guess, the building plans. As I recall, the building was then used by a dry cleaning firm.
  • It was in the River St. building that I went to work for Danelectro as soon as I got a work permit at age 14 (August 1958). My first job ($1 an hour, minimum wage, which is where Dad started all new employees till they showed they were capable, after which they’d quickly get a raise) was nailing together speaker baffles. I did it all week and got blisters on my palms for the effort, long before my first day was over. When I got my first paycheck (under $40, thanks to Uncle Sam’s cut), it felt like a huge amount. We were all driving to New York for some reason that Saturday, and Dad “suggested” I take Mom out to dinner with my new-found wealth. He suggested Mama Leone’s, an iconic but now long-gone Italian restaurant in the Theater District. The meal used up my entire week’s wages. My dad’s reaction: “Good! Now you know the value of a dollar.”
  • The factory had an old-fashioned vending machine that dispensed classic Coca-Cola bottles for a nickel.
  • Another thing I remember from that factory: there were several pinup photos of bare-breasted ladies tacked to the wall at various work stations, something of considerable interest to a 14-year-old. In fact, as I recall, one of the photos was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold from the first issue of Playboy. (I didn’t realize it at the time, but after seeing reprints of the photo some years later, I recalled it was the same image.)
  • I enjoyed my friendships with the other employees. I always looked forward to mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee breaks, at which I’d often swap off-color jokes with the guys. An important part of a liberal arts education.
  • Sometimes, on my lunch hour, I’d wander over to the Jersey Central Railroad’s freight yard, just a stone’s throw away at the end of River St. It was usually pretty quiet, but once I got an up-close look at a steam engine at work.
  • I also recall a “lesson” from my dad at a certain point when I was working there one summer. One of the employees had somehow managed to miss the toilet when relieving herself, leaving a stinking mess on the ladies’ room floor. My dad’s secretary said she’d go in and clean it up, but Dad said no and did it himself. As we drove home that evening, he told me that women are not all as clean and dainty as we males often imagine them to be, and that they have it in them to be slobs, no different from men in that respect.

Danelectro’s first factory building (Bridge Ave. & W. Bergen St.)

I also have a few memories of Danelectro’s first shop, at the corner of Bridge Ave. and Drs. James Parker Blvd. (called West Bergen St. at the time Danelectro was there):

  • That was the location where the photo of me, at about age 4 (above) looking through the speaker aperture of an amplifier cabinet, was taken. (A similar photo, taken at the same time, appears in Neptune Bound, to which I wrote the Introduction.)
  • My dad would sometimes take me with him to work on school vacation days if my mom was not feeling well. Sometimes, I’d wander down the street to a nearby vacant lot and play with a little girl from the neighborhood. I still remember her name: Maria. One of the things we’d do was uproot wild onions. Very pungent. I once brought some home for my mom to use in cooking.
  • One of the employees had false teeth (even though he was not elderly) and used to amuse me by pushing them partway out of his mouth with his tongue. I thought that was hilarious.
  • I remember a Christmas party there (it was held on the building’s second floor, where the amplifier chassis were wired). There was a grab bag, and one of the female employees unwrapped a gag gift – a bra – which the guys then urged her to try on. (I was too young to properly appreciate the gag, but sensed it was funny. It stuck in my memory.)

One more story from Danelectro’s early days. This one has nothing to do with a building – and I was not there to witness it (I was a toddler at the time) – but it’s too good not to share. It’s about what it took for my dad to respond to the first order he received from Sears, whose musical instruments buyer was impressed with his amplifier samples. It was a sizable order. I don’t recall now many amps Dad told me Sears wanted to buy from him, but the order was large enough that to fill it, my dad would need to buy (at wholesale, of course) a thousand dollars’ worth of loudspeakers.

Nathan I. Daniel, late 1940s

Dad didn’t have $1,000, so he went to his bank – a local Red Bank institution – and requested a loan. The officer he was speaking with asked for collateral. At the time, my parents were renting our home, and Dad was renting the factory building. So he had no real estate collateral, which was, of course, what the bank was looking for. Dad produced the order from Sears – very likely the country’s largest and best-known retailer at the time – and imagined it would look to the banker as good as gold. It didn’t. “What kind of collateral do you want?” Dad asked. “A thousand one-dollar bills?” The banker said that would work.

So Dad left empty-handed. He turned instead to my grandfathers – immigrants of very modest means. My mom’s dad, a life insurance salesman, pulled what cash he could from his own life insurance policy. My dad’s dad, who was in the lampshade manufacturing business, came up with the rest. So Dad bought the speakers, manufactured the amps, shipped them to Sears, and promptly repaid my grandfathers with his earnings. That was the start of his roughly two-decade relationship with Sears, for which he soon became the sole supplier of musical instrument amplifiers.

It was also the end of his relationship with the bank. He told me that when he got the payment from Sears, he went to the bank, spoke with its president, told him the story, showed him the check from Sears – and closed his account. He then took his money to a competing bank and opened a new account.

This is not exactly the stuff of “history,” but it’s all real. Hope you find it of interest.

14 replies
  1. Bud Whittington
    Bud Whittington says:

    Love the amp photo! What a heartwarming story, one that just couldn’t happen in today’s times.
    I love my Dano U1 and several Dano Silvertones that have come and gone.
    Still lusting for a model 1457 red two pickup w/ the amp in the case, not cheap these days!

    Reply
    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Glad you enjoyed the story, Bud. I never tire of hearing how my dad’s work lives on in the minds and hearts of people like you. Thank you for writing.

      Reply
  2. Alan Mitnick
    Alan Mitnick says:

    I love Danelectro instruments, their unique aesthetic and tone and always loved that they were from here, the Garden State! Thank you for sharing these memories!

    Reply
  3. Juan Antonio Cagigas
    Juan Antonio Cagigas says:

    Howard as you probably already know, many of those old Danelectro amps and guitars are worth a great deal of money these days. I’m a big fan of your fathers’ products myself. Someday I plan on landing one of his amps, when I come across an attractive deal. I have two of the Evets Dano electrics. Your dad created some very nice amps, besides all the cool electrics he created.

    Reply
    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Thank you, Juan. It is heartwarming to know how much you and many others appreciate my dad’s work.

      Reply

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