Rich Wilhelm

Archive for September, 2017|Monthly archive page

Cassingles Going Steady (52 at 52, #14)

In cassingles, cassette singles, Really Cool Notebooks, Uncategorized on September 10, 2017 at 1:26 pm





Many years ago, cassette singles — aka, “cassingles” — played an oddly important role in my life.

Maybe you remember cassingles. Or, maybe you don’t, as you really need to be of a certain age to have experienced the wonder of the cassingle. If not, an article in the New York Times, published 30 years ago this week, will get you up to speed.

Essentially, the cassingle was the record industry’s attempt to find an alternative to the 45 r.p.m. single at a time — the late 1980s/early ’90s — when the death of vinyl as a means for music delivery seemed imminent. The Walkman had made cassette versions of long-playing records quite popular, and compact discs were rapidly claiming an ever-bigger market share. The future of the single was in the balance and it was decided that the cassingle was preferred over the possibility of the CD single, which was apparently more expensive to produce than the cassette single.

While the 1987 Times story details how cassette singles were becoming increasingly popular, it also notes that IRS records had released a one-off cassette single for “Vacation” by the Go-Go’s way back in 1982. In fact, according to the story, IRS invented the word “cassingle,” as if giving us R.E.M. wasn’t enough.

As it happens, the rise of the cassingle aligned perfectly with my late college/post graduation job at a chain music store, Record Bar, in Granite Run Mall near Media, Pennsylvania. Don’t look for that mall anymore. It’s gone now, but many memories, including those involving cassingles, remain.

I don’t remember ever having a managerial position at Record Bar, but I was good at the job. So good, in fact, that I found out just this week that co-workers called me “the human Phonolog,” for my apparent ability to know something about every song/artist/album/cassingle that customers requested. I do not remember the nickname, but, even today, I would take that as a compliment.

Eventually, my Record Bar responsibilities included ordering a weekly shipment of singles. At first, this order was primarily vinyl singles, but as time passed, I found myself increasing the cassingle numbers to meet consumer demand for the latest Bon Jovi, Milli Vanilli, and Paula Abdul songs in the handy cassingle format. Once the singles arrived, I’d display them in a way that would hopefully attract hungry pop music fans to purchase them.

I had a more-than-passing interest in the cassingle phenomena, because I wasn’t just ordering singles for Record Bar. The week I graduated college, in May 1988, I went to Record Bar and bought every single that was in the Top 40 of Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. The plan was that each week, I’d pick up the newly-added single to the chart.

Unfortunately, I launched this endeavor during what is perhaps the cheesiest period ever in popular music. If you don’t believe me, take a peek at that very first Top 40 chart I bought. (Actually, as I scan that chart, I’m realizing that it is not quite as cheesy as it would get over the next few years.) But my own personal taste in pop music did not figure in this project; it was all about building an archive of the hit music from the era.

I was undeterred. Collecting the Top 40 suited the cultural archivist in me.

I collected the complete Top 40 for a little more than a year before the inevitable happened. A song that was not released in the vinyl format hit the chart. The first of these might have been De La Soul’s “Me, Myself, and I,” or it may have been Sweet Sensation’s “Hooked On You.” In either case, I was aggravated that my attempt to own every record in the Top 40 was being thwarted.

Here’s the thing: while I had no problem ordering the cassingles for others to buy at Record Bar, I was just enough of a music snob to know that I would certainly never buy a cassingle. Quite simply, I was appalled at the utter disposability of cassingles. There was nothing even remotely archival about cassingles: the damned things were essentially designed to be played in car tape decks until precisely the moment when the purchaser got sick of the song, at which point he or she would toss the cassette, with or without its protective cardboard sleeve, into the back seat of the car, where it would languish until, well, until forever, I guess.

No way I was ever going to buy a cassingle.

I handled this problem in my collection by creating seven-inch by seven-inch “certificates of shame” that noted that such-and-such a song hit the Top 40 but was never released on 45.

Thankfully, my life moved on and I got over the idea of collecting the Top 40. Within a few years, I would imagine none of the charting songs were issued on vinyl, but I was done with my Top 40 mission by then. Cassette singles continued to thrive for several years in the 1990s, but iTunes put the final nail in the cassingle coffin.

Strangely, cassette singles again play a minor but important role in my life. Several years ago, I started Really Cool Notebooks, an Etsy site on which I began to sell notebooks made from the front and back covers of castoff record albums. Several months into this side gig of mine, I was down at my Mom’s house, where she and my sister Lisa were having a garage sale. Lisa was attempting to sell her fine collection of cassingles, but wasn’t getting any bites. Suddenly Lisa and I looked at the cassette singles, looked at each other, and exclaimed “Mini notebooks!”

This epiphany did indeed lead me to expand my business to include tiny notebooks made from cassingle sleeves, and, before long, to making notebooks out of VHS tapes. Since I started with Lisa’s cassingles, I began to donate the proceeds from the mini-notebooks to Savage Walkers, our family’s Relay for Life team, and generally speaking, I’ve continued to do this.

While I sell the mini notebooks in a special subsection of my Etsy site, the best place for me to show them and sell them is when I’m vending at a craft show. For whatever reason, people often become giddy as they sort through the mini-notebooks, especially when they encounter a notebook made from the sleeve of a cassette single they once owned, and tossed into the back seat of their car, back when cassingles ruled the world.

To sum up: if making people smile by reminding them of the cassingle is part of my purpose in life, I’m good with that.

For more on cassingles, check out this article in The Onion. And here’s what cassingle sleeves look like when they become the covers for mini notebooks:


Cassingle sleeves, transformed into tiny notebooks!









52 at 52: Getting Up To Speed (Nos. 2-13)

In Uncategorized on September 3, 2017 at 12:10 am

Necessary Metadata

(52 at 52, #2)

Here is what you need to know about this little project of mine. Back on my 52nd birthday on June 2nd, I posted an entry in which I proposed that it could be fun to start a series called “52 at 52,” in which I would post an entry to this blog every week during the course of my 52nd year. I thought this was quite a viable concept and I followed up one week later with the first of those entries.

Then…nothing. I was distracted by the siren song of summer, such as it was. It is not that I became suddenly busy with new experiences and adventures that kept me from writing. I just didn’t write. In fact, I wasn’t inspired to post here again until August, when I was moved to detail the origin story of my love for the awe-inspiring cheesiest Elvis movie of them all, Clambake. That entry was followed by more radio silence.

It wasn’t mere laziness and distraction that led me astray from “52 at 52,” though both played their roles. It was also the thought of “well, who cares what’s going on in my head at 52?” And, “maybe I don’t actually have anything in my head at 52, or maybe I have so much in my head I can’t think straight anymore.”

I thought my “52 at 52” concept had been swept away to the Isle of Good Ideas at the Time, never to be heard from again. But then, I thought: why not do one mega-entry, consisting of a series of microessays/photo ops/etc. that will get me up to speed. Then, once that’s posted, as “52 at 52, #2 through #13,”  I can move on to the weekly entry idea. That idea ultimately crushed the self-defeating ruminations. Besides, I need to collate my summer thoughts and memories, if only to get my brain organized.

So, that’s it. You’re up to speed on my thinking behind this. What follows are the bits and pieces of a summer, compiled as best as possible in chronological order (with the Clambake story incorporated therein). And the occasional photo from a cemetery…



Broken-Winged Angel, Laurel Hill Cemetery, June 10, 2017


Heavenly Intonations and Shakespearean Riots

(52 at 52, #3)


This has been an eventful summer for me at Laurel Hill Cemetery, a 180-year-old National Historic Landmark where I am a volunteer tour guide. Back on June 11, I led a tour called “Heavenly Intonations” — hat tip to Pee Wee Herman’s introduction of the Del Rubio Triplets on his Christmas special for that title — that focused on musical people buried at LHC. While I was researching that tour, I uncovered an amazing, largely forgotten story about two rival actors: Englishman William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest.

As these stories often go, Macready and Forrest, both Shakespearean giants in their native countries, started out as friends, then became frenimies before the relationship collapsed in a heap somewhere. This drama was dutifully played out in the newspapers of the day and culminated in an infamous riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City on May 10, 1849. More than two dozen people were killed.

While the Macready/Forrest rivalry was the ostensible cause of the riots, its roots went deeper than that, down the nativist and anti-British sentiments that were running rampant at the time. In fact, about the only thing nativist Americans and recent Irish immigrants could agree on was how much they hated the British.

Neither Macready nor Forrest are buried at Laurel Hill, but Edward Fry, the owner of the Astor Place Opera House is, underneath this worn and broken stone:



Gravestone of Edward Fry, Laurel Hill Cemetery. Note the remaining letters of the word “impresario” to the right of the broken section. A clue!


It was actually Edward’s brother, William Henry Fry that led me to Edward. William was among the first American composers of classical music, as well as the first American music critic, and he managed Edward’s theater. William doesn’t have a tombstone, or it is currently buried underground, but he is buried near Edward.

Knowing nothing about Edward, my friend Dave and I googled “Edward Fry” and didn’t immediately turn up anything relevant. However, after I looked at the stone, and saw that the word “impresario” appeared on it, I googled “Edward Fry impresario” and was immediately led to a story on the Astor Place Opera House, which included links to stories on the riot.

As far as I know, no one has told the story of the Astor Place riot on Laurel Hill tours before. It is amazing to me that a single incomplete word on a beat-up tombstone can lead to a story that sheds a bit of light on where we were as Americans in 1849.

Things Fall Apart, But Fortunately FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper Is On The Scene To Investigate

(52 at 52, #4)

On June 15, my younger son Chris and I took a train ride into center city Philadelphia to see an exhibition on decay called “Things Fall Apart” at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. We had been invited by my friend Alexis, who I met when she was working at Laurel Hill. It was a cool exhibit and I was happy that Chris and I got to see it, as well as to wander around the city a bit before catching a train back home. Here are some photos:



Special Agent Dale Cooper was fascinated the Things Fall Apart exhibit at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.


Christ Church Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 15, 2017


A meeting of the minds: Special Agent Dale Cooper at the gravesite of Benjamin Franklin, Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 15, 2017.

Father’s Day

(52 at 52, #5)

I have occasionally had a tough time with Father’s Day, since we lost Dad back in 2003. On the other hand, Chris was born on June 18, so every so often Father’s Day falls on the birthdate of one of my sons, as it did this year. While jokes could be made about Chris stealing my Father’s Day thunder, I actually enjoy the years when his special day and mine intersect.

This year, we spent Father’s Day/Chris’ birthday at the Phillies game. As is so often the case with the Phillies these day, if you go strictly by the numbers, the day ended in disappointment. Other than the loss though, we all had a great time. One of the Phillies’ ushers led our section in a “Happy Birthday” to Chris and dumped confetti on his head. In a moment of social media triumph, none other than Kyle MacLachlan liked a photo I tweeted of our trusty Special Agent Cooper enjoying the game.

At some point during the game, we became aware of an odd, rumbly sound that seemed to be coming from outside the ballpark. I walked down to the concourse to investigate and discovered that the sound was The Edge, U2 guitarist, doing his soundcheck for that night’s show across the street at Lincoln Financial Field. I stood there and listened for awhile, as an eerie instrumental version of “Where The Streets Have No Name” emanated from the enormous football stadium.

Standing there listening, I thought about how I’d seen U2, 30 years before, at the long-since-demolished JFK Stadium, right next to where the Lincoln now stands. Back then, seeing that particular show was an essential experience. These days, I still like U2 just fine, but hearing Edge’s lonely guitar wafting into the South Philadelphia air was all I needed in 2017 to conjure the U2 experience.





(52 at 52, #6)

It’s not like we planned to live in the town that plays host to Blobfest every July, but I’m glad things worked out that way. This year’s Blobfest–Phoenixville’s annual celebration of the part that the Colonial Theatre played in the classic 1950s horror movie, The Blob–seemed like a totally rockin’ affair, though I was only able to be around for a bit of the street festival on Saturday. Note to self: get my Really Cool Notebooks act sufficiently together to possibly vend at next year’s Blobfest!



Flat Miss W visits Blobfest!

Flat Miss W Visits the Office

(52 at 52, #7)

Speaking of Flat Miss W, here are some photos from the day Flat Miss W showed up at my office.


(Flat Miss W is my sister Lisa’s teaching project. Photos from Flat Miss W’s travels can be found here, if you are on Facebook.)

Twin Peaks

(52 at 52, #8)



Special Agent Dale Cooper in Philadelphia, June 2017.


Way back in the spring of 1990, I sat in a dark room with my dad and watched the two-hour pilot of Twin Peaks. I went to bed that night and had dreams directed by David Lynch. Twin Peaks has been my all-time favorite television show ever since, and I was cautiously optimistic that the return of Twin Peaks this summer would be a good thing, and not some empty exercise in early ’90s nostalgia.

As I write this, we’re two episodes away from the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, and even though I don’t know how it’s all going to end, I can say that this third season has exceeded my expectations. Maybe after I’ve seen tomorrow night’s finale, I’ll have more to say about it, but for now I’ll just note that this 21st century version of Twin Peaks has got me thinking, and has inspired me in ways that I’ve only begun fathom. More on this after I’ve seen the end and thoroughly absorbed it.

Ocean City

(52 at 52, #9)


For a variety of reasons, we did not get to do a big family vacation this summer. However, Jimmy, Chris, and I did get to spend the better part of a day down in Ocean City, New Jersey. We walked the boardwalk, played pinball machines and Guitar Hero in the arcade, and I ate both a Taylor Pork Roll sandwich and that pizza you’re supposed to eat when you’re in Ocean City. We missed Donna, who wasn’t able to join us that particular day, but it was very good for me to hang out with my boys and to see them hang out with each other. Those sons of ours are good guys.

Origin Story: Why “Clambake” Is My Favorite Elvis Presley Movie

(52 at 52, #10)

Every fascination has an origin story. Here’s the story, as best I can remember it, of the beginning of my fascination with the 1967 movie Clambake, starring Elvis Presley, Shelly Fabares, Bill Bixby, and — let’s not forget — Will Hutchens.

It all started with a toothache. It was the fall of 1986. I was living in Temple Towers, an on-campus apartment at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was getting later in my college career and I may have been beginning to lose the plot. I wasn’t adapting well to apartment life, after three years in the dorms. For several weeks during that semester, Temple’s professors were on strike, leading to massive bouts of confusion, ennui, and general disarray on campus. If I was doing anything other than spending copious amounts of time at the school newspaper office and eating from lunch trucks, I sure as hell don’t remember what it was.

In the midst of all this, my wisdom teeth started to hurt, as my gums began to grow over them. At least, I think it was my gums. I probably tried to ignore it at first, but before too long, I found myself taking the Broad Street subway north, to Temple’s dental school. There, future dentists, presumably under the watchful eye of their professors, would do basic dental work for cheap, mostly for Temple students and North Philadelphia kids.

It was quickly determined that my wisdom teeth had to go. And so it was that on two successive Fridays I again headed north on Broad and sat in a cubicle to have the pesky wisdom teeth removed, two at a time.

After the first of those Friday appointments, I found myself in my friend Greg’s dorm room, in some degree of pain. It hurt bad enough that I took Advil for the first time ever. I do not remember if it helped or not, but I do remember that taking my first Advil felt like a momentous occasion.

Despite that fact that I wasn’t feeling great, Greg and I, and I don’t remember who else, decided to go “where the hippies meet,” according to the Orlons — South Street. While South Street was certainly a hot spot for Philadelphia college kids to both drink and eat — I remember a delicious aroma around Fifth and South throughout my college years, though I never specifically pinpointed the restaurant of its origin — for me, the whole point of South Street at that time was to buy weird records.

Weird records were easy to find in the mid-1980s, mostly because, at that time, “weird records” were not yet the irony-laced hot commodity they became in the 1990s. But, I like to consider myself at least a bit of pioneer in the art of appreciating weird records and places like the Philadelphia Record Exchange and Book Trader on, or just off, South Street were gold mines.

I got lucky that toothachey fall Friday night on South Street. Or, at least I got lucky in the sense of finding weird records, since I scored two key Elvis Presley albums, the soundtrack to Clambake and an odd German RCA compilation of Presley film songs, which included both the title track to Clambake, and his other clam-related song, “Do the Clam.”

My reason for wanting these songs was simple: I believed, and continue to believe, that the word “clam” is one of the best words in the English language.

Now,  by the fall of 1986, I had not seen Clambake, or any Elvis movie. Seeing the movies wasn’t really the point anyway. I was all about the records. But, eventually, I did seek out a VHS tape and got hip to the cinematic wonder that is Clambake. It is my favorite cheesy Elvis movie and I have watched it several times over the years. It always makes me smile.

While I typically don’t plan on watching Clambake — as you might imagine, it’s better when Clambake just happens — I do have two viewings on the horizon. Clambake is playing this Sunday, August 13, at the Colonial Theater, right here in Phoenixville. I’ll watch it again on November 22. That will be the 50th anniversary of the release of Clambake, and it also happens to be the day before Thanksgiving. I hope to spend my time between now and then orienting my life to the point where I can settle in on that Wednesday night with a glass of my “best sipping whiskey” and a special 50th anniversary celebration of Clambake.

Here is the plot of Clambake:

The plot of Clambake is that it’s an Elvis Movie.

That’s the plot of Clambake.

I could say more, of course, but I’m no spoiler.

Now, of course, some serious Elvis fans despise the movie years, and that is completely understandable. But, if you turn your brain down to “simmer” for awhile, try to forget that Elvis was bored silly by the time he finally broke free of Hollywood, and accept that the Movie Years were simply an interlude between the raw talent of the Sun/early RCA records and the mature artistry of the post-“Comeback Special” Memphis recordings, then you’ll probably enjoy Clambake just fine.

In case you’re wondering, before too long my teeth felt fine again, the Temple professors went back to work, and South Street continued on its steady path to become just another haven for many faceless franchises that you can find just about anywhere else. I survived my year at Temple Towers and eventually graduated.

Life moved on, as it inevitably does. But Clambake will always be Clambake, and I guess that’s why I will always love it.


Donna and I, about to enjoy Clambake!

What’s New With Beth and Cliff?

(52 at 52, #11)

The Colonial’s showing of Clambake was sponsored by my friend Beth, aka Modbetty, the creative force behind the Retro Roadmap website and a new series of Retro Roadbooks. Beth is married to Cliff Hillis, one of my favorite singer/songwriters. You can find his music, including his latest excellent EP, Many Happy Returns, here.

Beth and Cliff live right here in Phoenixville. They’re two of my favorite people in this town. Of course, this mostly just has to do with who they are, but that’s not all. We now know many interesting, creative people here in town — some of whom can be seen in Cliff’s videos for “Start Again” and “Dashboard” — and we met nearly all of them through Cliff and Beth. It’s been something like ten years (!) since I first encountered Cliff, when he was opening for the Peace Creeps. Getting to know him and Beth, and others through them, added a whole new dimension to my life here in Phoenixville and I deeply appreciate that.

So, check out Cliff’s music and Beth’s website and books if you get a chance. You’ll be glad you did.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

(52 at 52, #12)


Here I am, my worlds colliding as I sell Really Cool Notebooks at Laurel Hill Cemetery’s “Gone, But Not Forgotten” craft and oddity market on August 25. It was a seriously fun event, though I barely stepped away from my table to see what the 70+ other vendors had to sell. But I did good business and I heard others did the same. I am not sure of exact numbers but I think a few thousand people showed up for the market. Many of them spent some of their time taking tours led by my fellow guides, which is fantastic for Laurel Hill.  All in all a great day and I’m glad I was a part of it, though it was a little odd for me to be at Laurel Hill but in Notebook Guy mode, as opposed to Cemetery Guy mode.

Oh, and that Flashdance notebook you see next to me in this photo? It sold. Because…what a feeling.


(52 at 52, #13)


And, finally, here is Jim on the morning that I dropped him off at his apartment about a week ago to start his sophomore year at college. This drop-off was different from the very organized chaos that accompanied getting him into his dorm last year. There were no other new students or nervous parents around, and just a modicum of emotion was displayed by either of us, but that was OK. Just Jim and me carrying the last few boxes of his stuff into the apartment.

It wasn’t until I was halfway down Ridge Avenue, heading to the goodbye lunch for our department’s intern, that I got a little emotional, realizing that I had just dropped my oldest son off at his first apartment, not his on-campus housing arrangement. It’s a subtle difference in a way, but a much bigger deal in another way. I guess I’m still sorting my feeling on this out, but I’m OK, and I think he is too

With that, it’s time to turn the corner on Summer 2017. On certain levels, it wasn’t the easiest summer ever, but that’s OK. There wasn’t One Big Moment that I can use to tie it all together, but there were lots of little moments, shared among the four of us, or some combination of the four of us. Smiles, laughter, conversation, music. And love. It was all there this summer. But then, in one way or another, it always is.



Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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