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Old World craft of violin-making is alive in Studio City

Since the early 20th century, members of the Benning family have been making violins renowned for their beauty, sound and craftsmanship.

September 24, 2013|Steve Lopez

One day, mid-summer, I stopped by Benning Violins in Studio City for repairs on a friend's cello. German-born Hans Benning was at his work station, a violin on his bench and a wood plane in his strong, lean hand. To his left was his son, Eric. And next to Eric was Eric's son, Nathan. All three wore shop aprons and the fine dust of aged, hand-picked Bavarian and Bosnian spruce and maple.

Nathan, 13, was busy. Head down, he was working on a project that filled his dad and grandfather with pride. In a family that has been in the business since the early 20th century, faithful to an old-world craft that takes great patience, Nathan was making his first violin.

Hans surveyed his grandson through wire-rimmed spectacles, proud of the multi-generational operation. I asked Nathan what he thought of his work, and he deferred to the masters in his midst. His grandfather put it like this:

"He's got talent."

The shop's history is a bit complicated, but the roots go back to Illinois, Eric explained, where "my grandfather's sister married Carl Becker Sr., and he was the god of all violin makers in America."

Becker had a young protege on his wife's side of the family by the name of Paul Toenniges, who took what he learned and brought it to Los Angeles in the 1940s, later opening Studio City Music on Ventura Boulevard.

His daughter, Nancy Toenniges, grew up in the shop and started wielding a chisel at age 11. She had plans to become a scientist but canceled them at 21 to attend a German violin-making school, where one day a classmate invited her to a concert.

"Here comes this gorgeous, gorgeous woman in a beautiful, beautiful blue dress," recalled the classmate, whose name was Hans Benning.

They later married in Los Angeles, and for 50 years they've run the shop Nancy's father started, eventually changing its name to Benning Violins.

I didn't know any of this in 2005, when my friend Nathaniel told me that for violin repairs, he only trusted Hans and Eric Benning. The Bennings confirmed on my first visit that a homeless chap named Nathaniel dropped by periodically with his instrument in pretty bad shape.

He was polite, they said, and waited his turn, leaving his considerable cargo outside the store in consideration of other customers.

In time I met Nancy Benning, followed by Nathan, his brother Garrett, 15, and Laura Phillips, a cousin who has been helping manage the operation for 30 years. Eric's brother Brian, a professional violinist, also works at the shop on occasion.

A family operation, for sure. And one that Hans and Nancy retooled in the 1970s.

"When it was Studio City Music, it had everything musical under the sun, from kazoos and trumpets to trombones, electric pianos, clarinets, saxophones," Hans said. "My dream always had been to have a first-class violin shop, and when my father-in-law retired … we closed up and remodeled."

The new business plan was to repair, rent, sell and make stringed instruments. Hans and Nancy decided to see if their three young sons, when introduced to a pile of scrap wood and a few tools, might know what to do.

First came Robert.

"He didn't last a day," said Hans, whose oldest son went into law enforcement.

Next came Brian, the middle son, who had no interest in the scrap pile.

"All he wanted to do was play the violin."

And then came Eric.

"He took to it like a duck to water," Hans said.

To Eric, there was history, romance and nobility in an ancient craft perfected by a relatively small number of shops in the world. He sees a fine violin, cello, viola or double bass as a work of art and architecture, created in the service of music that's lasted for centuries.

"We want to foster the next generation of musicians, so we decided to rent out violins very inexpensively," said Eric, who repairs and restores instruments but has now made nearly 100 of his own, selling them to a number of world-class musicians.

"I was on tour one time and went all over, looking for a brand-new instrument in Europe," said Jonathan Karoly, a cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

No luck. Instead, he found what he was looking for — an instrument with a bold and richly colored sound — in Studio City.

"It sounds great, but it's beautiful to look at," Karoly said. "A piece of art."

Eric Benning said he feels a kind of parental pride when he goes to a concert at Disney Hall or the Hollywood Bowl and his instruments are on stage.

"I'll go, 'Ooh, that sounds really good,' and feel a parental connection to the instrument."

Eric said he hasn't pushed his sons to follow family tradition, but at the moment they both seem inclined to do so, with Garrett probably more interested in managing the store and Nathan in making instruments.

Nathan, whose generation isn't known for long attention spans, began his project many months ago with a mold that has been in the family for decades. He wet the wood for the ribs, bent it with an iron, chiseled the top and went to work on the scroll and fingerboard. The bar, he said, has been set "pretty high."

If he stays on course, he thinks his violin will be done by Christmas.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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