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In Memoriam: Mario Maccaferri

In Memoriam: Mario Maccaferri

Passed on April 16, 1993

by John Monteleone

Originally published in American Lutherie #35, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

My first contact with Mario Maccafferri was fourteen years ago, the result of looking up Mastro Industries in the Yellow Pages. I already knew by then that he was the creator of the wonderful guitars made by Selmer of Paris which were made famous by Django Reinhardt.

His plant on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, a city block in size, was a shrine to a self-made man. The exterior of the building had the look of a factory built in the forties and dedicated to serious manufacturing. There were several large silos behind the factory which once held the many different colors of plastic pellets used in injection molding machines. The factory had many rooms and seemed to ramble on and on. Once inside, I walked into a room which once had forty huge molding machines running, each one the size of a locomotive. At this time there was only one of these machines in operation and it appeared to be the last gasp at the end of a long and successful, not to mention prosperous, era; The Golden Era of Plastics. I am referring to a special time of invention and pioneering, a time when Mario was a major contributor to the field of injection molding plastic. He proudly showed me the complete Mastro line of marbleized plastic wall tiles, clothes pins, toys, mosaics, clothes hangers, acoustic ceiling tiles and musical instruments. Mario was the holder of over fifty U.S. patents for these items and the processes by which to manufacture them. Among his many inventions, he was very proud of his plastic ukulele.

I discovered a warehouse room filled with several thousand guitars still sealed in their original cartons since 1954. There were many other rooms that were filled with all sorts of machinery and assembly lines. And there was the reed section. I was at that time unaware of the French American Reed Co. and its history. On the walls of Mario’s office were many personalized photos of all of the great saxophone and clarinet artists of the day. In the early years, the big band years, Mario ghost-manufactured reeds for every one of the other reed companies. It was there at one of the reed machines that I met Mario’s wife, Maria. She was a hard working woman of grace and beauty. And she was ready to revive the reed business that had gone by the wayside in the ’50s when the plastics plant was in full swing. But now, the plant was winding down all operations and Mario was retired and getting ready to take a rest.

I visited Mario quite often back then in the early ’80s. I would take the day off and jump in the car. After several visits he asked me if I could make him a guitar. He handed me a blueprint of his classical cutaway model. I was at the same time both surprised and eager to accept the challenge. While I was making this guitar for him, Mastro was getting ready to hold an auction. This was in November 1981. It was a sad time for him and Maria. Their whole life was on the block and before them, disappearing piece by piece. This was yet another transitional time in Mario’s life and I was there to watch it happen.

Mario Maccaferri, left, with John Monteleone, 1985. Photo courtesy of John Monteleone.

After I completed his new guitar I brought it to him. Upon seeing it his eyes lit up. And then I began to witness the intensity and devotion that he had when he was back in Italy, young and in his prime. Right away he wanted to make a change to the guitar to make it respond easier, to “wake it up,” as he would say. Without hesitation we went into the shop where he had retained some of his benches and tools from the auction hammer and I cut off the back. Time was of the essence so I was compelled to use a bayonet saw. I was sick about having to do this because I had used some of my best Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides. But there was no time to waste and it had to come off quick. And quick it did, ZIP! All of the fan bars were cut out and he made new fan set and glued them in and secured them with masking tape. We came back after lunch and made a new three-piece back and had it glued on with the tape. Masking tape was all that we had. We didn’t have any clamps on hand, since I hadn’t planned on operating so speedily on a guitar that I just delivered. Mario had it strung up the next morning and called me to tell me that it made a good improvement. We had a lot of laughs about it later on.

Well, that was the way it was with Mario, and I couldn’t have been happier because it soon got the juices flowing for the next project. I learned an invaluable lesson from him that it was more important to follow your instincts than to stand on pride alone. After a little prodding, I convinced Mario to make some wood guitars again based on his original designs. It was decided that we would make six classical and six jazz guitars. He had some forms for the back and side laminating but we didn’t have any veneers to work with. So we piled into the big green Cadillac and hot-footed it over to Constantine’s where we picked out enough Indian rosewood and poplar for the whole project. The next day I brought up some tools and clamps and we got right into it. The level of excitement was tremendous for me. I was about to learn first hand from the master himself how to make a Maccafferri guitar. And I could tell that Mario was feeling like a kid again and it helped him, I think, to get his mind off the retirement thing. Maria was happy to see him get involved in something constructive.

Mario and Maria always went to work together every day since they first met back in 1936. He regularly wore a suit and tie to work. And right up to 1993 it was no different. I will never forget the great times that we had. Lunch time was usually a time to relax in Mario’s office while Maria would prepare a simple continental lunch for the three of us. There was always a guitar handy and Mario would play. His talents extended beyond the workbench as well. Not many people were aware of what a great guitar player he was. His style was very classical, romantic, melodic, and confident. His technique was impressive, to say the least. It was such an honor to not only make guitars alongside one of the greatest figures in the guitar world, but to be serenaded by him too. I cherished those lunches with just the three of us. After coffee, desert, and guitar talk, we were off to the shop again to see if the glue was dry yet. He carried one of those little metal aspirin boxes in his pocket that jangled with his every step. Inside the box were his heart pills that he must have been taking for the last forty years. He also loved hard candy and always had one for each of us after lunch.

It was Mario’s wish to go into the guitar business and he offered me his cooperation, his plant, and his name. I faced an extremely difficult decision. Was I going to make Maccafferri guitars, or Monteleone mandolins and guitars? I decided to follow my own destiny, but not without utilizing my experience with Mario. His designs were a big influence on the Hot Club and Django models that I went on to produce later. Although I went on my own I remained in close contact with Mario and continued my visits to the Bronx.

All of those people who knew Mario were constantly amazed by his level of energy and great stamina. Once we had finished making the twelve guitars, I showed Mario my first violin that I had just completed. His reaction was to show me his secret stash of four sets of violin wood that he had brought with him when he escaped from Europe in 1939 just before the Germans invaded France. His face lit up once again and we were suddenly in the violin business. This renewed interest in the violin instantly sparked an old challenge in Mario. He had always wanted to make a plastic violin that would posses all of the finest attributes of a fine old Cremonese instrument. With this in mind, he drew a set of prints for the molds and went to work without hesitation. He was by then only 88 years old. He debuted the first plastic violin at Carnegie Hall on March 8, 1990.

Mario continued to pour all of his concentrated efforts into further developing the plastic violin until his dying day. He was disturbed by the fact that he could no longer play the guitar. His age was beginning to catch up to him after the move of the plant to Mount Vernon. He didn’t let it get him down. He would always call and say to me, “Can I come and work for you?” I would take it as a compliment and then think to myself, “If only we had met fifty years ago!” And then I’d imagine, “What if?”

I had always thought of Mario going on forever. No one expected it to end so quickly.

Time has its own way of doing things and it finally caught up with Mario Maccafferri on April 16, 1993. At his funeral, from the choir loft, a solo violin (the same one that was played at Carnegie Hall) touched our hearts with some of the pieces of music that he loved to play on the guitar. It was a befitting farewell and tribute to a friend who gave all he could to anyone who was willing to listen.

I often think of Mario as I go about my work. It’s like he’s there working with me sometimes. It was the greatest privilege of my life to have known and worked with him. It was an experience that I will never forget.

Mario leaves behind his beautiful and loving family. He was very close to them, especially his Maria. We all adored him. And we shall all miss him.