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Brushes With Greatness

November 25, 2001|Sondra Farrell Bazrod

Russ Gardner saw "chimney sweep" in the classifieds 20 years ago and thought the profession might be fun and romantic. After all, sweeps danced on rooftops in "Mary Poppins." Today, Gardner, 40, employs five other sweeps as the owner of Fiddler on the Roof, based in Canoga Park. From August to April, he does at least five jobs a day around Greater L.A., using brushes on poles. His advice to home fire-starters? Have a chimney cap, be sure your damper is open, use a grate and screen and have your fireplace serviced frequently.

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What qualities does a good sweep need?

Have a good education and continue it by taking classes. The Golden State Chimney Sweep Guild, National Chimney Sweep Guild and the Chimney Safety Institute of America issue certification. You must really enjoy the job. You also can't be claustrophobic or have a fear of heights.

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What sorts of things get put in chimneys?

Toys, tools, empty beer cans, old papers--and we find lots of birds, both dead and alive.

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How about people?

I heard a few years ago that in the [San Fernando] Valley, a boy was playing hide-and-seek and became stuck. The chimney had to be broken to get him out. A guy robbing a downtown restaurant came down the chimney but became stuck.

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Can you give us some anecdotes?

Once I rescued a mother raccoon and her babies, who were born in the smoke shelf inside the chimney. She would go out and bring them food. We cut the damper out, got the babies and put them on a blanket on the lawn.

On my second visit to [another] home, the man said his wife had seen the check he wrote to "Fiddler on the Roof" and accused him of taking a girlfriend to see the musical.

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Tell us some chimney sweep folklore.

In the 1600s, a sweep saved a bride from a runaway horse or carriage. From then on, it was good luck to have one at weddings in England. One of my employees does several weddings a year. He wears the traditional top hat, tails, gloves with fingers cut out, carries a chimney brush and puts a little soot on his cheek. He stands at the back of the church and the bride kisses him when she gets outside.

Years ago in England, children were brought from orphanages to go down the chimney and sweep by hand. [After] child labor laws came from this, the top hat and tails came to be worn to improve the image. Chimney sweeps went to the undertakers' trash and got the hats and tails.

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What's best and worst about the job?

Customers are the best. They're happy to see you because they like the fireplace, and like to talk to you. One 75-year-old woman followed me up the ladder onto the roof and talked the whole time. The worst thing is, it's a hard, dirty job--but worth it.

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What really gets a chimney sweep mad?

When I arrive at the home and they have a fire in the fireplace!

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