A boob for tubes -- at least old ones

This collector could look at TV sets all day, and never turn one on.

Material World

January 16, 2000|By Knight Ridder / Tribune

LIVONIA, Mich. -- Outwardly, Glenn Bubenheimer seems like a perfectly sane human being.

Nice, cozy home in a woodsy subdivision. A wife named Jill, two daughters, Rebecca and Sarah. A fine job as a manufacturing engineer with Ford.

Just a mellow, middle-American fellow. Loves his family, pays his taxes, does his job.

But walk downstairs to Bubenheimer's basement, and you'll find a den of total television lunacy: more than 200 vintage television sets, mostly nonworking, stacked tightly but neatly everywhere you look.

"You'd never know when you walk into the house," says Bubenheimer with a bemused grin. "It's normal upstairs. We just have one TV."

But the basement is a mind-bending museum of old-school television cool: an astonishing array of old black-and-white TV sets from the late 1940s and early '50s, TV sets with itty-bitty 3-inch or 7-inch screens and only slightly larger 10- or 12-inch screens; tabletop TV sets that look more like radios, TV sets with bygone names like DuMont, Crosley, Pilot Radio and Muntz.

And then, boom -- a whole second wave of first-generation color TV sets from the 1950s, most of them carrying more familiar names, like Motorola, RCA Victor, Westinghouse and General Electric.

"They all think it's cool," says wife Jill of friends, neighbors and others who routinely go gaga upon their first glimpse of the TV treasure trove. "But they don't have to live with it."

Jill doesn't say this disparagingly. She has learned to go with the electronic flow, just as long as her husband makes sure there is a clear path to the washing machine.

"Glenn understands he's somewhat eccentric," says his friend and Ford colleague Dan Haramic. "He knows everybody else in the world isn't out there with a basement full of TV sets."

So where did Bubenheimer, 36, born in 1963, acquire his cockeyed passion for collecting very old TV sets? And why?

Growing up outside Chicago in Wheeling, Ill., in the 1970s, Bubenheimer developed a Mr. Fixit fixation. It was a harmonic convergence of adolescent curiosity, early engineering interest and a burgeoning bit of wholesome frugality.

Thrift and satisfaction

"The reason why I always wanted to fix things was maybe because of cheapness or thriftiness," he says. "And there was always the satisfaction of knowing that, whether it was a lawn mower or a TV set, I could get it running again."

"When I was 4 or 5 years old, I took apart my Popeye alarm clock. My mother says that's when it all started. I had to know how things work. ... And when I got older, anytime I would fix something, my mother and grandmother would give me so much praise. 'Oh, Glenn, you're a little genius,' " Bubenheimer recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle.

The household repair jobs included everything from vacuum cleaners to toasters.

"I still have the toaster my mother had when I was a child because Glenn has kept it going all these years," says his mother, Rose.

And the TVs?

The very first one was a broken 1949 Admiral Bakelite model that Glenn spotted on a shelf in his high school electronics class. People would donate broken-down, half-cannibalized TVs for the students to work on.

"That one didn't have a power transformer," he remembers fondly. "I started going to flea markets regularly with my grandfather when I was 8 or 9 years old. And that's how I found a replacement transformer for that old Admiral, fixed it up and used the TV for my bedroom."

Because her son regularly tracked down discarded TV sets from curbsides and flea markets, fixing them up and reselling them for spending money in high school, Rose Bubenheimer jokes that she and her husband became "gradually acclimated to Glenn's hobby. And then it grew into the monster it is today."

The little 1949 Admiral set is still in the collection.

The collection has expanded rapidly in the past decade. With the advent of the Internet, Bubenheimer frequently connects with other collectors and rare vintage TV sets online at popular cyberspace auction marts like eBay. At times, Bubenheimer and his buddy Haramic, who owns a pickup truck, have traveled as far as Cleveland and New York to retrieve his latest acquisitions.

"It seemed like all of a sudden, there were 100 sets and then 200 sets," says Jill Bubenheimer, amiably perplexed by the TV-set gridlock in her basement. "I kind of wish he collected stamps or baseball cards. But I don't really mind it. I tease him about it, though. All his friends tease him about it."

No more parts

Most of the sets, which are buffed up and appear to be in mint condition, don't actually work. You just can't find parts as readily as you used to, says Bubenheimer.

The most recent addition is a 7-inch Viewtone TV set from 1948. For that, Bubenheimer forked over about $800, more than four times what it might have cost brand-new.

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