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Pound for pound, an old scale takes L.A.'s measure

It always tells the truth, and that's worth a dime to hundreds of people each week.

August 18, 2010|Esmeralda Bermudez

Johnny Smith of Hollywood stands before the platform like a man before an altar.

He steps up, he deposits his dime, then he holds his breath as the thin, red dial swings back and forth.

205 pounds.

"That's good," he says. "That's where we need to keep it. Can't go any lower than that."

For two decades, the 67-year-old with leukemia has made a ritual trek to consult a 108-year-old weighing scale. He walks as far as 10 blocks to weigh himself on this nicked, old device in front of a cutlery shop on Broadway near 3rd Street in downtown Los Angeles.

The store, Ross Cutlery, landed on the map when O.J. Simpson bought a knife there several weeks before his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were slashed to death in Brentwood in 1994. But some people have long known it for another reason, as the preferred place to keep track of their pounds.

Each week, store owner Allen Wattenberg said, up to 1,200 people weigh themselves here: businessmen, tourists, homeless people and sometimes entire families with grandparents and children in tow.

They've been hopping on and off the machine for more than 30 years, ever since Wattenberg bought it from a Florida antique dealer and rolled it onto the sidewalk outside Ross Cutlery.

Smith shows up once a week, always hoping his illness hasn't caused him to shed more weight. In the last few years he's dropped about 40 pounds. He sees more modern scales on Broadway -- in front of the pharmacy, the perfumery and the shoe store -- but doesn't trust them.

"This, here, is my scale," he said.

Like Smith, most are drawn by the old machine's accuracy. Others like its vintage charm: The black porcelain piece is shaped like a 6-foot antique clock and weighs almost 300 pounds. Its head is round with a giant dial and in gold capital letters, it silently casts guilt on those walking by, asking:

DO YOU WEIGH WHAT YOU SHOULD?

"Some mornings, before I even open, I see people pacing back and forth outside waiting for me to put it out," Wattenberg says.

From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. the scale stands outside the Bradbury Building storefront like a relic from another era, a time when sidewalk scales were as common as ATMs are now.

Back in the early 1900s, scales weren't found in bathrooms but on sidewalks, in bus stations, bowling alleys, bakeries and candy stores.

They gave the public a chance to weigh themselves without visiting the doctor. They reminded people to watch their weight and they kept pennies in circulation.

Many came full of attention-grabbing gimmicks: Some spoke the weight out loud, while others dispensed horoscopes, tunes, candy or photographs of celebrities.

Unique designs made many stand out. They were built to resemble skyscrapers, gas pumps, soda cans, Egyptian mummy cases and images of Mr. Peanut.

"In the blur of everyday activity, they were the silent salesmen," said Christopher Steele, a penny scale collector from Columbus, Ohio, whose pieces date to 1890. "They had to find a way to say to people passing by, 'Hey! Come over here and get weighed.' "

Around the 1960s, the popularity of the scales began to wane. Owners -- who frequently operated a large number of machines -- found it too pricey to maintain the devices and send workers to collect the pennies. Home bathroom scales had become affordable and offered more privacy.

Soon, the pieces that had been so meticulously crafted by such renowned designers as Harold Van Doren (creator of sleek, industrial toys and radios) were pulled off the streets. Most were destroyed and their parts sold; the lucky ones ended up with collectors.

The scale on Broadway survived. And not once has it broken down, Wattenberg said.

Today it turns as many heads as the blades on display in the storefront's windows. It has been featured in movies and photo shoots. Its tear-drop-shaped mirror has been scratched by vandals, but it has never been stolen or seriously damaged.

Only once, during the 1992 riots, when trespassers broke into the knife store, did Wattenberg find the machine knocked on its side. Its belly was still full of coins.

The man in Florida who sold Wattenberg the scale said it came from a train depot in Chicago. Weights and measures stickers from scale inspectors still adhered to its back.

He paid $1,100 for it, packed it in a wooden crate and had it shipped to Los Angeles. In 30 years, he's made a profit of about $150,000, all in dimes.

Each week, he collects $100 to $125.

"It used to take in a lot more, but we haven't gotten as much foot traffic recently," Wattenberg said.

The money helps pay for employees' Christmas bonuses and other business expenses. He has thought of converting the scale to quarters, but it's proven tricky to modify the coin chute.

"It's not really out there as a fundraiser," Wattenberg said. "It's become a landmark." If it weren't for the scale, he said, some people might not be able to find the store.

On a recent Friday, Robert Hall power-washed the sidewalk as people strolled by, some stopping to step on the platform.

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