September 16, 2011 | 8:55am
Though it moved a relatively short distance from the quaint shopping district surrounding downtown Fullerton to the bucolic splendor of Corona (cough), Fender has truly come a long way. Birthed in a small shop where Orange County tinkerer Leo Fender repaired radios, the company has created some of the most beautiful instruments ever to grace the stage.
Last night, in what proved to be a Willy Wonka moment, the venerable manufacturer of rock & roll's most iconic artifacts opened the doors of its Corona facility to media and assorted VIPs for the first time in its 65-year history. People were given the opportunity to munch hors d'oeuvres, sip free wine, enjoy a factory tour and witness the unveiling of a new visitor center housing a large collection of guitars, historical photographs and a small theater.
Among the evening's speakers, which included CEO Larry Thomas, author Tom Wheeler and State Assemblymen Jeff Miller, it was Phyllis Fender who proved most endearing. The diminutive grey haired widow of Leo Fender smiled broadly declared the 8,600 square foot facility to be Disneyland east. Speaking fondly of her husband, Phyllis mentioned that though he was unable to have children, he found immense fulfillment and pride in his work.
"Those guitars that went out the door were his children...he dreamed constantly of what could make your music better," she said.
Unparalleled access to this dream factory responsible for the creation of Teles, Strats and P-Basses witnessed wide-eyed visitors walking the halls of the building and mingling with swing-shift employees. There was no avoiding the kid in a candy store vibe--even if you weren't a musician.
Visitors were able to see how simple blocks of wood are processed, mostly by hand, into a stunning candy-colored arsenal of rock. The concrete-floor warehouse was a hive of activity bustling with workers--some operating machine stamps, and saws, while others used small tools to meticulously place fretboard inlays. All the while, a convoy of freshly painted axes dangled from a slowly moving track high above, hung like fine slowly drying garments.
Leaving the sawdust and paint fumes of the factory floor for the visitor center, guests looked high upon the walls which were emblazoned with the names of famous songs recorded either with Fender guitars, basses or amps: "Good Vibrations," "Respect," "I am the Walrus," "Ring of Fire," "Stairway to Heaven," "Layla," "Longview." Here, bassist Tony Franklin, known for his work with Jimmy Page, could be seen mingling with fans and jokingly adjusting his hair in front of a display with his picture as if it were a mirror.
Though the party was happening in a county once removed from where it all began, the ghosts of OC were in the room.
A small theater flickered images of early Fender employee George Fullerton taking a camera crew on a walking tour of the company's earliest days before his death in 2009. The film documented three spots located around the Fullerton Transportation center as well as the company's largest OC facility located at 500 S. Raymond, now Jimi's Bar and Grill. A drab gray building with tinted windows, it marks the spot where the first Stratocaster was manufactured.
While it was refreshing to witness the celebration of a company which manufactures a patently American product--in America no less, one has to wonder what the future holds for the company in these dire economic times. Assemblyman Miller made mention of the economy and declared there were a lot of people in Sacramento fighting for job creation. "I'm proud to say I'm one of them--to open up opportunities for Fender to grow and stay here in Corona."
As a liberal, I was tempted to ask if this involves tax cuts for the super wealthy, but I found it hard to knock a guy who has a telecaster hanging on his office wall, even if he is a politician.