As we mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, a former Peter Pan Records employee who goes by the internet handle Lulu Maximus put up a brief piece on his blog about working at the Peter Pan factory in the 1970s. I reached out to Lulu, who was kind enough to give us some background about what it was like to work at a company that, still, looms so large in many of our imaginations:
Power Records Blog: How did you get the job? Did Peter Pan Records put an ad in the paper, something like that?
Lulu Maximus: I had just arrived from South America a few weeks before when I landed a job as a machine operator at Peter Pan Records in October 1971. I lived in a room on top of a go-go bar on Wilson Avenue in the so-called Ironbound, a Portuguese and South American enclave in Newark, N.J. aka Brick City with an 80% Afro-American population. I shared two rooms with a Portuguese man who had just arrived too and three young Brazilian fellows from the hinterlands who had been living in the USA a couple of years.
One of them used to make ash-trays at a factory called Synthetic Plastics Co. which was just a few blocks away from Wilson Avenue where we had our lodgings. He told me they were always hiring people for the record-making section which was called Peter Pan Records. Even though he hardly spoke English, he offered to take me along with him when he started work in the afternoon shift so that I could fill in a job-application at the Office (that closed shop at 5:00 PM). I had finished High School in my native Brazil before I left the country so I could read and write a little English...enough to fill in a job application. That was a plus in a place where 90% of the people were completely illiterate. I was hired to work the night-shift from 11:45 PM to 7:45 AM of the following day.
As far as I know Peter Pan Records didn't need to advertise in the Help Wanted section because there was always a glut of man-power waiting in the lines to start work whenever they wanted.
PRB: You mentioned on your blog post that while the work was repetitive, you didn’t mind it. Did you like the job overall? Were the bosses nice to deal with?
LM: Yes, I liked my job. Especially because my very first job in the USA had been as a cabinet-maker help in a saw-mill near Springfield Avenue on the "other side" of Newark and I hated the noise and saw-dust. I didn't have enough strength to hold those heavy chip-wood planks firmly when sawing them so they would come out "twisted". Soon I was given the sack by my boss. He told me he was sad to let me go but he couldn't afford me. I was afraid to be without a job but happy to leave such a noisy and dirty place. I felt I was lucky when--after less than a week later--I started working as a machine-operator in a much cleaner environment...making 45 rpm records. Besides, by December it was very cold outside but always pleasantly cozy in our section of the factory due to the hot vinyl being constantly poured on our metal side-table. We worked in our shirt-sleeves through the winter.
My job was repetitive all right but I didn’t mind it because my life had been so crazy of late since I had left my native country that I badly needed some "repetitive job" to steady my mind. Besides I always loved vinyl records and now I had a chance to make them myself even if they were not Top-40 hits. On top of that there was no interference from bosses or foremen. We, machine-operators were left alone literally. We worked in pairs; two record-press machines with two guillotines side by side with a small heated-bench between the two operators. We could chat eight hours non-stop. That's how I learned to speak Spanish because most of my co-workers were either Peruvians or Cubans. That’s when I also "lost" my Italian. As my family is of Italian extraction I knew how to speak a bit of Italian when I arrived in the USA but due to my massive exposure to Spanish in that factory I ended up mixing them up and finally forgetting Italian altogether.
The only time we remembered there was a boss in the factory was when the stampers got "unstuck" because we left the cooling period going on for too long; when we hit the button to separate them the stamper (usually the top one) would come undone. That was the only drawback for we had to call the foreman--Mike was his name--who sometimes would take five to ten minutes to fix the problem. In the meantime we fell behind in our production aims. Mike was a white American, the only one in the vicinities and a nice fellow. He knew that no one there spoke English so he didn't even bother to make small talk.
For us who worked the night-shift we had our lunch break at exactly 4:00 AM. It was a sweet 20 minute-break we could sit down and unwind. Note that we worked eight hours standing up but I got used to it. It's funny that at our lunch-break every one stuck to their own nationality. We Brazilians got together in a little bunch, the Peruvians got into two or three sub-groups and the two Portuguese guys stayed in a corner by themselves. My imagination used to wander South to Brazil because I knew my Mother got up at exactly 6 o’clock in morning and that coincided with my 4 o’clock lunch break as Brazil standard time is two hours before USA's EST. The only means of communications in the early 1970s was letter-writing. Telephone-calling was bloody expensive. There was no Internet then or cell-phones for that matter.
I wish I had taken pictures of myself working on those press-machines. I was told that no cameras were allowed in the factory because that particular mill had been a bullet factory during WWII and it was a "state secret". I don't know if that was true but I remember once a Peruvian girl who was a bit of a tom-boy brought her camera one night and took a few snapshots. I never saw them developed but I supposed they came out okay.
PRB: Did you ever get to see finished products, the records in the sleeves? Were they available to you for free as an employee, or did you go out and buy one if you wanted it?
LM: Yes, we did the whole thing. Wikipedia has a very good definition of the process of making a vinyl record in few words:
A record press is a machine for manufacturing vinyl records. It is essentially a hydraulic press fitted with thin nickel-plated stampers which are negative impressions of a master disc. Labels and a pre-heated vinyl patty (or ‘biscuit’) are placed in a heated mold cavity. Two stampers are used, one for each side of the disc. The record press closes under a pressure of about 150 tons. The process of compression moulding forces the hot vinyl to fill the grooves in the stampers, and take the form of the finished record.
We, machine operators cut the pre-heated vinyl paste in various "biscuits", stuck four labels onto the four stampers, waited for the press to compress them into two 45 rpm discs, push a lever that would release cold water to cool them new records, then separated the stampers, took the two discs out of the mould, put them into the "chopper" machine which made the two big holes in the middle and cut the excess vinyl on the fringe. We took them out of the guillotine and slid them into their sleeves. We did the whole process.
I've seen some pictures in the internet of people working at RCA Victor only inserting 45s into their sleeves. We at Peter Pan Records did the whole thing in one go. It probably took us half-a-minute to do the whole thing. It is just a matter of reckoning with arithmetics. We worked circa seven and a half hours and made between 1,300 to 1,500 records. If you divide 1,400 by two it would equal to 700 times movements a 7:30 hour-shift. Divide 7:30 by 700 you'll know how long it took for us to make 2 records. Gee, I wonder if this is right.
Ah, I almost forget to say that the incentive to work as hard--and as fast--as we did was that every machine-operator making 45 rpms had first to make 1,000 records (for the company) as a minimum amount. Then, after that we would get a penny (one US cent) for each added record. The fastest workers usually made the 1,000 record-aim after 6 hours and then he would "work for his own profit" making sometimes 400 to 600 more singles.
PRB: Did you have any particular favorites? Were there any kids in your family who listened to them?
LM: I don't know that I had any favourite records but I remember that everyone of us preferred to make 45 rpms they called "books". Stories that came with thick sleeves that were actually booklets that children could open and follow the story while the disc was spinning on the record-player. We ended up filling up the boxes more quickly so we had the impression we produced more.
In 1971, 1972 I was really infatuated with rock music like Chicago, Rod Stewart, Carole King, Don McLean, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Neil Young so I wouldn't listen to those records I made. But later on, when I was back in Brazil and had a chance to listen to them on my little sister's record player I became a great fan of "Smokey the Bear" recorded in 1952 by Dick Edwards and the Peter Pan Orchestra, "How Much is That Doggie in the Window", "Casper the Friendly Ghost" and especially a medley with Nursery rhymes featuring "Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley Grow".
PRB: Did you see the product in the stores and get that sense of “Hey, I worked on that!” pride? Were the records around lot at the time?
LM: I was never told I could take records home but I knew all of us took some. I still have quite a few 45 rpms from the 1970s. Actually these were the 45s I sent home to Brazil because my youngest sister Ruth was nine years old then and I thought she'd be interested in learning English listening to them. She actually learned all of them by heart and she can still sing "Thumbelina" or repeat "Hello boys & girls, I'm your Peter Pan story teller; when you hear this sound (tinkle) turn the page!" My sister still knows the words to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" or "The Little Drummer Boy"--after more than 40 years--because she played those records ad-nauseam.
I never entered a record shop that I could see some of the products we made at night. Actually something unexpected happened to me some 20 years later. I had migrated to Australia in 1981 exactly 10 years after my experience in the USA. I had been living in Sydney for a few years and as I was still a record-collector I used to visit a record fair in Ashfield, NSW twice a year. One day to my great surprise I found a Peter Pan Record 7" single made especially for the Australian market. In Australia 45 rpms have small holes in the centre just like those of 12" long-plays. The 45 rpm-single had been manufactured in Newark, N.J. and shipped over to the other side of the globe. I figured it had been made in the early 1960s. I knew I hadn't made that disc myself but I was briefly proud and nostalgic when I read the label: Peter Pan Records - Made in Newark, N.J., U.S.A.