The Hamilton Spectator
Sounds from The Sixties
Leo Lesar had big dreams for his guitar amp business but it went up in smoke
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a prosperous bass guitar business in Hamilton’s industrial North End that has had a 45-year history in the city.
F Bass company builds high-end instruments that are sold around the world. And these days the manufacturing plant on McKinstry Street is busier than ever.
After touring the facility and talking to owner George Furlanetto, it made me wonder about other instrument makers in Hamilton.
I don’t think there are examples today on the scale of F Bass, but there have been some notable ones in days gone by.
It’s the old story about Hamilton. It’s known as Steeltown. But if you look at the history, a lot more than steel was made here during better times for manufacturing.
For example, I had no idea there was a guitar amplifier production facility in the 1960s called Sceptre Instruments. Nor did I know about the piano maker C.L. Thomas Western Pianoforte Manufactory that operated in the mid-1800s.
The fellow who brought me up to speed on this was Dennis Missett, an avid collector of Hamilton artifacts and memorabilia.
He recently gave me a tour of his collection. And knowing my interest in playing guitar and other instruments, the first two things he showed me were his Sceptre “Cougar” amplifier and C.L. Thomas Piano. He picked up the amp on Kijiji for $300 a few years ago and the “square grand piano” was given to him in the late 1980s by someone who wanted to find a good home for it.
It piqued my curiosity to find out more about the stories behind these largely forgotten gems from Hamilton history.
The amplifier really captured my attention.
I’ve spent a lot of time perusing musical gear over the years and never once heard Sceptre amplifiers mentioned. Yet, here I had come upon one with a shiny “Sceptre Musical Instrument Co. Ltd.” nameplate on the back that proudly said “Hamilton, Ontario. Made in Canada.” And maybe even more remarkably, I stumbled upon a second Sceptre amp a couple of weeks later at a guitar repair shop.
It turns out, they are collectors’ items in some circles.
But where did they come from? What happened to the business? And were the amps any good?
With some help from Dennis – who remembers the company from when he was a boy visiting an uncle who worked there – I managed to track down the former owner.
His name is Leo Lesar. He’s 84 years old and lives in Stoney Creek. He never retired. These days he buys and sells heavy trucks for a living.
He says he used to love the music business. As a player – he was an accordionist in a polka band. And he also worked in sales. “I used to go on the road selling inventory to music stores. I was a roadman.”
But his dream was to be a manufacturer. He wasn’t a guitarist himself, but he noticed a lot of kids, caught up in the British invasion, were taking an interest in the electric guitar. In the mid-1960s, there were only a couple of notable amplifier manufacturers in Canada – Traynor and Garnet. And he figured it was time for another one.
His Sceptre Instruments started in 1966 and made two guitar amplifier models: The Cougar and the much smaller Custom Dart. The company also made speaker cabinets and columns. He had a tenperson staff operating out of building on Barton Street East two blocks west of Wentworth, on the south side.
But it didn’t go very well. There were technical problems early on, that got sorted out. But the big issue was money. He quickly went through tens of thousands of dollars in loans from the Canadian Business Development Bank and a private bank as well as other lenders. And production was moving way too slowly. They had only managed to produce 50 amplifiers along with a bunch of speaker cabinets.
And then there was the fire. July 8, 1968. A big one. Arson. He had no insurance because he couldn’t afford the premiums. He lost everything. The fire department estimated the damage at $50,000.
At the time, he was storing his inventory, parts and tools in a section of a building that was part of the former Peller brewing company on Burlington Street. He had left the Barton Street plant and was trying to regroup with his stuff in storage.
“It was a tough time. And for a long time, I didn’t want to dwell on it. It really put me behind financial. I went into debt for big money.”
I asked him if he had any memorabilia from the Spectre days. Not a thing, he said. Not even documents. They all went up in smoke.
In fact, over the 55 years since the company dissolved, he had never come upon one of his amplifiers. Maybe a picture or two over the Internet.
Well, I knew a way to fix that. I arranged for Leo to kick the tires of the Sceptre amp that Dennis owns. I brought a guitar over so we could hear it.
“It looks brand new,” Leo said as he walked in the room. “Just as I remember it.”
“I probably did the upholstery on it, ” he said taking a closer look.
And heavy. Wow. We could barely lift it.
So how did it sound after all these years?
Amazingly good. It was warm and rich, produced by a combination of tube and solid state components in a very sturdy cabinet. The guy who previously owned it had kept it in tip top shape, and did a few modifications.
Leo agreed. It sounded better than he remembered. But it was still hard for him to look at it without recalling the financial stress the company caused him.
“Music is a business of love. Not a business of money. It doesn’t matter if you’re building something or playing an instrument, it’s a business of love.”
As for C.L. Thomas Western Pianoforte Manufactory, the company operated on King Street in Hamilton from 1856-1893.
It employed 30 people who built as many as 75 pianos per year, according to the online Canadian Encyclopedia. Thomas, who for a time was an alderman in Hamilton, had a partner named Francis Drew.
Notable about the square grand pianos the business made, was that they had 77 keys instead of 84. And that was a big reason why they later fell out of favour, giving way to fullsized grand pianos and uprights.
So out of favour, there are stories about square grand pianos being burned in large bonfires. But today they are seen as collectible antiques.
Indeed, Dundurn Castle has a Thomas piano as does the Wellington County Museum in Elora.