This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of the Sheffield Times. Reprinted by permission.
UKULELE BUSINESS COMES TO TOWN
Among the many unique businesses that thrive in Sheffield are a world-renowned antiquarian bookseller, a canoe builder who is also a poet, a clarinet repairer, and our own Berkshire Mountain Distillery. This winter, we will also have one of world's very few ukulele makers.
The Magic Fluke Co., owned by Dale and Phyllis Webb, recently bought the former Shiels Builders building at 292 Main St., next to Cupboards and Roses antiques. The Webbs, who are coming to Sheffield from New Hartford, CT, are the largest makers of ukuleles outside of China and Taiwan.
Dale worked as an engineer for a large company and had expertise in molded parts and wood. Phyllis worked in her family's retail clothing business. They basically came into the ukulele business, well, as a fluke.
Phyllis's brother Jim Beloff, had played the guitar all his life and frequently travelled as part of his work for Billboard Magazine. He found it difficult to take his guitar on airplanes and was reluctant to put it in checked luggage. One day, he bought a ukulele at a flea market and found that not only could he play on a four-string instrument what he had always played on a six-string guitar, he could easily bring a ukulele onto a plane as carry-on luggage.
Jim started writing ukulele music and decided to publish a ukulele songbook with new and newly arranged songs. But he knew that in order for people to buy his songbook, they would need to own ukuleles. That's where Dale came in. Jim asked his brother-in-law if, with his knowledge of molded plastic and wood, he could make ukuleles that were of good quality and reasonably priced. In those days, there were a few luthiers in Hawaii making high-end instruments, but most were made in China and Taiwan and were of inferior quality.
The timing of his request couldn't have been better. Dale, who had grown tired of the corporate life, had been let go by his company as part of corporate downsizing. He decided it was the ideal time to try something new. Thus, in January 1999, the Magic Fluke Co. was created.
Dale says that being let go by his company was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” He made three prototype ukuleles and headed off to the convention of the National Association of Music Merchants in Los Angeles. He and Phyllis had a Hawaiian-themed booth where they displayed their newly made instruments—the only ukes at the show. In a few days they had orders for more than 300. As Phyllis said, “We were on our way!”
Magic Fluke instruments are not the usual hour-glass guitar shape. Flukes and the smaller Fleas have a bulbous body with a wood front and rounded plastic back, the flattened base making it possible to set the uke down without a stand. Prices range from about $200 to $400.
The company's first 10,000 ukes were made in the basement of their home in New Hartford. More than 40,000 were manufactured in a 1,765-square-foot building in that town that they bought eight years ago. Despite the recession, the company has continued to grow, leading the Webbs to buy the 4,000-square-foot building on South Main St., here in Sheffield. They hope to open by December. Currently, they have six employees, but they are looking to hire two to three additional ones once they move.
The ukulele was invented in 1879 by three Portuguese who came to the Hawaiian Islands to work in the sugar cane fields, based on stringed instruments they knew from their native country. The Hawaiians were impressed not only with the beautiful sounds of the instrument, but the speed at which these musicians' fingers flew on the fingerboard. They named the instrument uk u le le, which roughly translates to “jumping fleas.” Around 1915, the instrument became popular in San Francisco and a Hawaiian music craze swept the United States.
A second wave of popularity came in the 1950s when Arthur Godfrey played the uke on his television program. A third wave started in the 1990s, when musicians such as Jake Shimabukuro and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole showcased the ukulele as a virtuoso instrument. Phyllis also credits the publication of her brother's 21 songbooks with the success of their instruments.
Now, the Webbs and Magic Fluke are loosely partnered with Jim and his company, Fleamarketmusic.com, which markets his music and the ukuleles they make. Their primary customers, however, are music dealers, performing artists and musicians all over world.
“There are quite a few famous people who own and play our ukuleles,” Phyllis said. “Tony Danza, William H. Macy, Leonard Maltin, NPR's Corey Flintoff, Cybil Shepherd and Loudon Wainwright III all have Magic Fluke ukes. And Bette Midler had three specially designed for her long-running Las Vegas show. They were pink and white and encrusted with Swarovski crystals.”
The Webbs chose Sheffield because they wanted an area that had a certain ambiance and where they and their three sons could happily relocate.
“We knew that the Southern Berkshires are a vibrant music, arts and theater community,” Phyllis said, “and that it would be a perfect match for our business and lifestyle.” She and Dale saw the Shiels building at the end of February while passing by on their way up Route 7. Six months later they bought the building. When they are fully operational, probably sometime in 2011, they will manufacture more than 4,000 instruments a year. They also plan to have a small retail shop there where people can stop by, say hello and even buy a ukulele.
Dale and Phyllis are excited about their new location and will be buying a new home, possibly in Sheffield, as soon as they sell their current home in New Hartford. They look forward to meeting local business people and residents and becoming an active part of the Sheffield community.
Outside U.S., call: 413-229-8536