Build’n and Steam’n in Los Angeles: The Story of a Live Steam Train Enthusiast

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Sonny’s live steam Inspection Car. Photo by Rick Parker

The hobbies that Angelenos undertake in their free time are as diverse as the city’s population. Music, cooking, photography, homebrewing, and gardening are just a few of the endeavors that offer rich rewards to those who make the time to pursue them. Model railroading is another.

While it’s not as common to meet model train buffs as it once was, the hobby is still very much alive and is enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. One such LA based hobbyist is Saul “Sonny” Wizelman, a leading figure in the North American “live steam” community – a group of enthusiasts who are passionate about running, and often building, self-powered locomotives that are propelled by steam.

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Photo by Rick Parker

I first met Sonny six to seven years ago after becoming enamored of live steam engines. As a key organizer of Southern California backyard steamups for almost two decades, Sonny was a great ambassador of the hobby. He encouraged me to attend events even though I didn’t own a live steam engine at the time.

Since then we have run into each other at several National Summer Steamups. At the most recent such event, held this summer in Sacramento, Sonny invited me to visit his home so I could see for myself the variety of projects he has built over the years. That visit planted the seed for this post.

Following is an edited transcript of my interview with Sonny Wizelman.

GILBERT: What originally drew you to trains?        

WIZELMAN: I am not sure of the attraction. I was born in Highland Park, IL, which is outside of Chicago, and have a very vague recollection of a turntable somewhere in that area. I am not even sure it is real or not. I came to California before I was 5 and when I was a teenager there was a model train store near where we lived. I started with HO steam locomotive and caboose kits, which I built on my mother’s dining room table. She would put the pads on the table and some newspapers on top of the pads and I would build. I think the real attraction all these years has been “building.”

GILBERT: When and why did you get involved with live steam?  

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Sonny’s modified AccuCraft Ruby. Photo by Rick Parker.

WIZELMAN: In the early 80s I worked in Culver City with a man who had a G scale Garden Railway. He asked me to go with him to Allied Model Trains, which at that time was located on Pico Blvd. just west of Westwood Blvd. While I was browsing I saw an Aster Catalog. Aster is a Japanese company that makes Gauge 1 (1/32 and 1/24) scale live steam locomotives. The catalog said that all the machining and soldering was done and all I had to do was put it together. This was something I could do. I can read and understand drawings and directions. I had always liked the large ride on steam locomotives at the Los Angeles Live Steamers but did not have the skills to build one or the funds to buy one. This Aster locomotive was my way to have an operating steam engine. This was 1984.

GILBERT: How would you describe the live steam community?   

WIZELMAN: I have said this many times to many people. I have made friends worldwide through the hobby. If I had the time and the funds I could be steaming somewhere in the world any time. I think the following story reveals a lot about the nature of steamers. I have 10 grandchildren and many years ago started making decals using the name of the grandchild and the birthday as the loco number. I sold one of the locos on eBay to a man in Germany. When he received it he asked what “Katie” and the numbers meant. I told him that was a granddaughter and that was her birthdate. When Katie’s birthday came around he sent me an email in which he and his wife wished Katie a happy birthday. He has done this for many years and we have developed a very nice relationship.

GILBERT: Do you have a favorite era that you model?

WIZELMAN: No special era. I am attracted to many different time periods and themes. The first loco I built was a logging locomotive used to take the trees from the forest to the mill. I built many logging related things. The earliest model I have debuted in 1830 on the B & O Railroad. It was one of the very first passenger locomotives. I even built a trolley locomotive that really got power from a trolley pole. Of course I had to steam power it.

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Sonny in his home workshop.

GILBERT: Do you have a favorite model that you’ve built? If so, what is it and why?

WIZELMAN: It’s hard to pick favorites. I have enjoyed the experience each time I build something. I am often asked “How long did it take to do this?” My answer is “Not long enough”. The experience of letting my imagination take over and then being caught up in the creative process is the best feeling I can have. I never know where inspiration comes from but when it hits me I love the ride. I am the most creative when I am doing a piece.

The people who are a part of the build are so helpful and happy to participate in my creation. One time I read something about a steam powered inspection coach. I contacted the company that had built it and there was someone there who knew the history and was thrilled that I was interested in what they had done. Through the hobby I have met an endless number of people like that.

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Barnhart’s Log Loader. Built by Sonny Wizelman.

GILBERT: What advice would you give someone who wants to try their hand at creating their own structures, engines and/or rolling stock?   

WIZELMAN: Practice, practice, practice. There are no overnight successes in anything. Get the right tools for what you are going to do.  Read the instructions. In fact read them until you understand exactly what the instructions are saying. Make it a point to “really” look at things. What does rust look like? What does weathered wood look like? What does a water stain look like? I like to clutter up the scene. The world is a cluttered place. Order does not exist. The details make the scene look like you have captured “a moment in time.”

GILBERT: What brought your family to Los Angeles from the Midwest?

WIZELMAN: As I mentioned earlier, I was born in Highland Park, IL. My father had some health issues and was forced to retire. One winter, to get away from the weather, he came to Los Angeles to visit his two sisters who were living here. This was about 1942. He called my mother and told her we were moving to LA. I was four when we came here on the train. We lived with one of my aunts in the Los Feliz area and several years later moved to the Westside.

GILBERT: When friends visit from out of town, what train related places do you take them to in Los Angeles?

WIZELMAN: If they are “steamers” I always try to take them to a scheduled steamup or arrange a run on my layout or a friends. I loved taking them to Allied Model Trains when they were in the Union Station replica in Culver City. We also would go to the Whistle Stop in Pasadena, Union Station and Philippi’s.

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Railroad scenery and structures built by Sonny Wizelman. Photo by Carla Brand Breitner

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Bar featuring digital audio and working electric signage – Built by Sonny Wizelman.

GILBERT: What is your favorite train related resource / destination in Los Angeles?

WIZELMAN: When I am building a project, I stop by Allied Model Trains to get paints, tools, wood, plastic, screws and so on. They have lots of things that I need to do what I am planning – including advice. The Gauge 1 live steam hobby is not present in hobby stores locally. Most all of the things are acquired by internet/phone shopping. It is a small niche in a small and shrinking hobby. There are, however, many available resources. A hobby magazine and web site will get you to the right source.

GILBERT: When you’re not building models and playing with trains, what sort of work do you do?

WIZELMAN: I work in the commercial printing industry. I have been in printing since 1961. I have always worked in cutting edge companies and have been involved in many really wonderful projects. The business lets me be creative just as the hobby does. I find lots of similarities.

GILBERT: You’re involved with the National Summer Steamup and the magazine Steam in the Garden. How and why did you get involved with those organizations?

2015NatSummerSteamup_posterWIZELMAN: The National Summer Steam Up was started approximately 18 years ago. The original person behind the event was moving out of state and would no longer be able to continue putting it on. Since I had attended the event every year, I was one of the people he contacted to see if I would like to be a part of the event in the future.

It is a great event and I firmly believed there was a real benefit in having it continue, as did six others who the founder also asked. We took over in 2002 and I continued to be a part of it until 2013, when I stepped down. I handled the checkbook, made the contractual arrangements with the hotels where we staged the event, printed the program at the printing company I work at, sold ads for the program and promoted the steamup at other railroad shows I attended. In that time we more than doubled the attendance and established a tradition. My favorite part was being the “host.” I tried to greet each person who came, thanked them for their support and encouraged them to come back next year.

Steam in the Garden Magazine (SitG) had been in existence for 20 years when the original owner/publisher passed away. His wife tried to find a buyer to continue publication, but that search was unsuccessful. SitG was about to cease publication when in 2011 she offered the magazine to one of the people I was working with on the Summer Steamup. He has extensive publishing experience. He asked me to be a part of the magazine and he and I then asked five others to get involved, including the original publisher’s widow.

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Issues of Steam in the Garden featuring some of Sonny’s projects.

I sell the ads. I believe that if you have a product for the small-scale live steam community, you need to advertise in the magazine. Steamers live around the globe and this is the best way for an advertiser to get the word out about their product. I believe it because I see the subscribers come from all around the world. It is really exciting for me to see the magazine’s reach. When someone in Russia or Iceland buys a subscription, it makes me feel that what we are doing has real merit.

GARDEN RAILROADING / LIVE STEAM RESOURCES

Garden Railways Magazine
Steam in the Garden
Southern California Garden Railway Society
Orange County Garden Railway Society

 

Comments

  1. Randy Wagner says:

    This is very cool. Sonny sounds like a guy I’d like to hang out with. Love to see people who are passionate about their hobbies!!! Well done!!!

  2. Penny Asher says:

    With all the instant gratification technology currently being used, it is enlightening to read about someone who takes great pride and pleasure in a longer creative process that yields satisfaction and rewards. Interesting article.
    Penny Asher

  3. Great article about a great friend!! Hope to see you next Saturday at the steamup

  4. Yup! This is the Sonny I know! Very nice gentleman and a real asset in the small scale live steam community. Well done, Jim Gilbert!

  5. Sonny continues to be a wonderful ambassador to the small scale steam hobby. Great article.

  6. Geoff Clinton says:

    Great article about Sonny! One of these days I’ll get back to the Summer Steam-up, too busy raising kids right now, but as soon as they’re old enough to fire their owner locomotive…

  7. See ya in DH 2015 Sonny

  8. Bryan Cockel says:

    Almost anyone with a depth of passion is interesting. This is a fascinating example of that.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Sonny is too modest to point out he was profiled by a Los Angeles Blogger so I thought I would. http://curatingla.com/2014/10/01/buildn-and-steamn-in-los-angeles-the-story-of-a-live-steam-train-en… Those of you who know Sonny will appreciate this and maybe like me, learn a lot more about a good friend.