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BEVIS HILLIER

Repro Man : The Fall and Rise of Al Deitsch, the Name Behind Some of the Best Reproduction Furniture in Los Angeles

July 06, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

History and literature are full of "rise and fall" stories. The classic example is Shakespeare's Cardinal Wolsey ("Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!"). The public likes it that way. It is satisfying to hear of some big shot who has got his comeuppance and has been brought down with a bump.

Al Deitsch's story is the other way about. Today he has a successful business in Los Angeles, selling some of the best reproduction furniture on the market--mock rococo Bombay chests, neo-Louis XVI armchairs, pseudo- art nouveau sideboards. But his career began with a series of notable false starts.

Deitsch's father ran Farmland Dairies, the largest independent processor of milk and dairy products in northern New Jersey. It was assumed that Deitsch would go into the business. At the University of Wisconsin he majored in dairy industry and agriculture, with a course in animal husbandry. Then he joined the family firm.

The first disaster occurred at Preakness, N.J., when Deitsch was in a truck driven by his older brother, Lewis, delivering some milk that had not been delivered by the regular route driver. It had been raining. Lewis was driving too fast on the wet highway and the truck overturned, ending on its side. "All the milk cartons were scattered--on the ground and in the trees," Al recalls. "I was kind of stunned. When they finally pulled me out, I looked around and it was raining milk."

The second disaster happened after Al's father had given him "his beautiful Oldsmobile 98, a big old bomb of a car." Al offered to deliver a can of milkshake mix on his way home. He put it in the back of the Oldsmobile. "And as I was going to deliver this can of gooey mess, I went around a corner and the can tipped over. And--the smell! Eventually, I had to sell the car just to lose the smell."

Deitsch decided that perhaps the dairy business was not for him. He became an assistant manager at the Virgin Isles Hilton, St. Thomas. That is where the third disaster took place. An inexperienced reservations clerk overbooked the hotel by 15 rooms. "That's not too abnormal a thing to do," Deitsch says, "because normally there's a 10% no-show factor. However, everybody showed up that day. The next day, he had also overbooked by 15 rooms, and those people all showed up. It was snowballing like crazy. We had people sleeping on private boats, in private homes and hallways, and we were rolling out cots in the ballroom. And finally, every morning I would get on a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and stand at the airport counter from which people would go over to St. Thomas, and I'd say, 'Don't go, because we don't have room for you.' People were threatening me. I remember one big guy from Biloxi, Miss. grabbed me by the lapels and said 'Whaddya mean, you don't have my room?' "

Deitsch moved on again, becoming director of sales at the San Geronimo Hilton, Puerto Rico, and later assistant general manager at the Puerto Rico Sheraton. At last, one good thing happened to him in Puerto Rico: He met Shira Cohen, an Israeli who has a degree in biblical history from the University of Detroit. She had been traveling around the United States as a Bible teacher and had come to Puerto Rico for a brief vacation sun before returning to Israel. They married in 1972 and now have a 12-year-old daughter, Karen.

Al Deitsch moved on to hotels in Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., and another in Miami. In 1977 he switched to the reproduction furniture industry. A New Jersey company founded by his mother's father 50 years before, the Invincible Parlor Frame Co., wanted to expand into California and asked if Deitsch would represent them there. He did so. Just over a year ago, Deitsch went independent, opening Designer Imports International Inc. at 7470 Beverly Blvd., near what remains of the Pan Pacific Auditorium. "We wanted to be more in touch with the California marketplace," he explains. "The California design trade is more into 'transitional' designs than straight copies of antique designs; for example, we might keep the baroque shape of a carved chair but reduce the carving. And Californians like bigger seating, tables and beds than Easterners do."

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