Text and Photos by Sandor Nagyszalanczy
The first time I met Mario Maccaferri, it wasn’t one of the better days of his life. He’d just turned 90 and was clearing out an entire warehouse full of musical instruments that he hadn’t been able to sell when he’d produced them 30 years earlier. I was with my friends and some stringed-instrument makers who had come to help out (more on that later). I was anxious to meet him, because Maccaferri was one of my heroes.
A master luthier, virtuoso performer, talented inventor, and plastics pioneer, this grandfatherly Italian man, with kind eyes and a quick wit, had created millions of instrument-quality plastic ukuleles and introduced a generation of baby boomers—including me—to the joys of making music.
Born only a few years after a small four-string Portuguese instrument evolved into the Hawaiian ukulele, Maccaferri apprenticed at age 11 with the famous Italian luthier Luigi Mozzani, who taught him stringed-instrument construction and how to play classical and harp guitar. By his mid-20s, Maccaferri was an accomplished classical guitarist performing throughout Europe, considered to be in the same league as Andrés Segovia. In 1931, he headed a new guitar-production department for the French company Selmer, where he created a unique new guitar championed by Gypsy jazz virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Maccaferri went out on his own in the early 1933, starting a company that made clarinet and saxophone reeds using a manufacturing process he developed.
Mario Meets the Ole Redhead
With World War II on the verge of engulfing Europe, Maccaferri moved his family and his “French American Reed Mfg. Co.” to the States in 1939 and set up shop in the Bronx, New York. As raw materials became scarcer during the war—including the natural cane necessary to make reeds—Maccaferri happened to see a new material on display at the New York World’s Fair: plastic.
Modern plastics had grown out of the government’s development of synthetic materials for the war effort. For his new “Futurity” plastic reeds, Maccaferri chose polystyrene, a strong, moldable thermoplastic that wasn’t affected by moisture or excess humidity. The reeds turned out to sound pretty good, receiving endorsements from Benny Goodman and other big-band stars.
Early success encouraged Maccaferri to develop his own molding and manufacturing processes and to start his own plastic-products company, Mastro Industries. Mastro made everything from clothespins and hangers to fishing lures, tape dispensers, and toilet seats, eventually supplying postwar America with these inexpensive household items. In the mid-1940s, Mastro produced mountains of plastic tiles, which were used to build housing for soldiers returning from the war. However, by the end of the decade, industry competition had left Maccaferri deep in debt and scanning the horizon for new markets in which to exploit his plastics capabilities.
What happened next is the stuff of legend.
On vacation at the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami, Maccaferri had a chance poolside meeting with the popular radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey. Godfrey, the “Ole Redhead,” as he called himself, was a talented ukulele player and crooner. He and Maccaferri had a few drinks and played a few songs together. As Maccaferri tells it, they then chatted about the lack of good, playable ukuleles.
“At one point,” Maccaferri recalls, “Godfrey told me that if I could produce an affordable uke that played well and had passable tone, he could sell a million of them.”
This was no idle boast: Godfrey had a top-rated variety show on television, where he dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, played his custom-made baritone uke, and even gave on-the-air uke lessons twice a week. He was famously good at selling products on his shows, and promoted everything from tea and shampoo to chicken soup and cigarettes. But his best talent turned out to be selling his viewers on the ukulele itself, introducing them to an instrument that hadn’t been popular since the Great Depression.
Maccaferri once told me he’d been searching for a way to make plastic stringed-instruments years before meeting Godfrey, but he lacked the manufacturing capital and wasn’t sure they would sell. Inexpensive plastic ukes had been introduced as toys some years earlier—Mattel made a fortune selling their Uke-A-Doodle, which came out in 1947—but Maccaferri wanted to use his considerable lutherie expertise to create more than a mere toy. He wanted to create a serious musical instrument. After Godfrey bolstered his confidence, he quickly set about obtaining funding to tool up for production.
Introducing the Islander
Maccaferri spent months searching for a type of plastic that had the tonal qualities of wood. He ended up choosing Dow Styron, a versatile, resilient plastic that gave instruments a nice, warm tone. He based the design for his new Islander plastic uke on a Martin Style 0 soprano and constructed it from eight separately molded parts.
To ensure good intonation, he molded the frets into the fingerboard, adding a zero fret just ahead of the nut, a signature feature on all Maccaferri plastic ukuleles and guitars. Islanders were strung with nylon strings made by DuPont, and they used “Tune Tite” tuners that helped keep them on pitch. The first Islanders had cream-colored tops and “simulated rosewood” backs and sides. They came with a felt pick, a tuner adjuster tool, playing instructions, and a songbook by “Ukulele Lady” May Singhi Breen. Maccaferri introduced the Islander at a trade show, where he demonstrated how impervious the uke was to moisture by displaying it submerged in a water-filled glass aquarium!
When Godfrey got his hands on the Islander, he loved it and immediately promoted it on his TV show, telling his viewers, “It frets good, has good tone… and it’s only $5.95!” He also cautioned against buying cheap, poorly made instruments, and told parents, “If a kid has a uke in hand, he’s not going to get into much trouble.”
Godfrey did all this without asking for any financial compensation from Maccaferri. Maccaferri’s charming wife, Maria, did tell me that “for years, [Mario] tried to pay Godfrey back for the endorsement, but Godfrey never accepted a dime.”
Soon, Islander ukes were being packaged with a booklet titled “Godfrey the Great: The Life Story of Arthur Godfrey.” It didn’t take long for the orders to flood in. Maria, who ran the Mastro factory, recounted that on that first day after Godfrey’s TV promo, the phone rang constantly. By March of 1950—the same month that Maccaferri filed a US patent application for his Islander—Mastro was churning out a ukulele every 30 seconds, or about 2,500 a day. As orders backed up to 100,000 ukes and more, the company stepped up production to 6,000 ukes a day. Kids wanted them, and stores could hardly keep them in stock. By the end of that first year, Mastro had produced nearly 350,000 ukes. The Islander cost about $1.50 to make, but Mario said he only made a quarter on each uke—the balance of the profit went to dealers and retailers.
With this early success, Maccaferri expanded Mastro’s uke line to include the Islander Semi-Deluxe (with a decorative soundhole ring and a different bridge), Islander Deluxe (with an extended fingerboard), T.V. Pal (with a graphic image on the headstock that looks a lot like Godfrey), and the Playtune Senior. The instruments were produced in a rainbow of swirling colors—reds, blues, purples, greens, and a yellowish-red plastic Maccaferri called “mustard and ketchup.”
Because of the unpredictable nature of mixing colors in the injection molding process, each instrument’s color pattern was unique.
Mastro also introduced a cutaway Islander Baritone uke, a soprano banjolele, and sopranino-sized Ukettes. The Ukettes came in the Islander, Davy Crockett, and Sparkle Plenty models (the latter featured characters from the Dick Tracy comic strip). Although the Ukettes were usually sold as toys, Maccaferri took great pride in the fact that all his instruments were fully playable. May Singhi Breen (the Ukulele Lady) even carried a Ukette in the pocket of her fur coat and would occasionally play it at parties. Maccaferri also created—and patented—the Chord Master, an automatic chording device. Attached to a uke’s neck with rubber bands, the device allowed fledgling ukesters to play six basic chords autoharp-style, with the simple push of a button. I suspect this device held some special significance for Maccaferri, as his own classical guitar playing career had ended after his hand was seriously injured in a swimming accident in 1933.
Eventually, public demand for plastic ukuleles dwindled, and competition increased from brands such as Emenee, Fin-Der, Carnival, Mauna Loa, and Lisa. In response, Maccaferri introduced new models, including the Twist, and went so far as to license the Beatles’ names and images, which appear on the “Four Pop” and “Fab Four” models. Mastro’s product line grew to include other plastic instruments: castanets, horns, sparkly-red snare drums, child-sized violins, bongos, and more. They also made a few promotional instruments, the oddest of which has to be a banjolele for Carling Black Label Beer, with a head that reads: “Put More Flavor in Your Life.”
By the mid-1960s, the tectonic plates of popular music had shifted. Baby boomers who once rejoiced in playing Hawaiian hapa haole tunes they’d learned from Godfrey and novelty ditties heard on Romper Room and The Mickey Mouse Club now had a different beat thumping in their heads. Almost overnight, everybody wanted to play rock ’n’ roll music on guitars.
To meet the demand, Maccaferri did some clever sleight of hand, producing six-string ukes and re-branding some four-string models as “junior guitars.” But the uke faucet eventually dried up. In 1969, after selling more than 9 million plastic ukuleles, Maccaferri sold his plastic-instrument business to the rival Carnival company.
As for guitars, Maccaferri had developed an entire line of full-sized guitars a whole decade before the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. He made flattop models—including the Islander, Showtime, and Romancer (covered with colorful 1950s-era graphics)—as well as plastic versions of the jazz-style guitars he’d designed for Selmer. These instruments played remarkably well and bore the mark of Maccaferri’s inventive genius. (For example, the neck angle on most models is easily adjusted with a screwdriver.)
Plastic guitars, however, are much more technically challenging to build than ukes, and various problems plagued these instruments. Worse, guitarists simply didn’t like them—or buy them—perhaps influenced by Maccaferri’s undeserved reputation as a plastic “toy” maker. Eventually, he simply stopped selling his plastic guitars, entombing them in his warehouse.
Which brings me to the day I met Mario Maccaferri.
After I helped him inventory those hundreds of new-old-stock plastic guitars (which were subsequently sold off at bargain prices), I thought I’d sleuth around for any ukuleles that might still be in the warehouse. Alas, only a handful of spare parts remained. (Maria was kind enough to send me some replacement tuners she dug up later.)
But I did find one nugget of new-old-stock gold: On a high shelf, behind dusty boxes that held G30 archtop guitars, sat a much skinnier box. It turned out to be a GTA-5 cutaway electric tenor guitar.
It was the same size and shape as a regular baritone uke, but was outfitted with steel strings, a surface-mounted magnetic pickup, a volume control, and its own gold-vinyl-covered, battery-powered five-watt amplifier—no doubt part of Maccaferri’s attempt to keep step with the electric-guitar craze.
Can you imagine how cool it would’ve been to be a kid in 1965 and find this rock-ready plastic axe under the tree on Christmas morning?
A Parting Glance
The last time I saw Mario Maccaferri was on one of the happier days of his life, just a couple of years before he passed. He’d spent years creating and refining his plastic concert violin, and I was invited to its premiere at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. As I listened to the elegant soloist Dorothy Happel playing selections that ranged from Bach to Gershwin, I glanced over and saw Maccaferri beaming with pride.
Later, on the way home, I wondered if his final creation would take the classical world by storm. (It didn’t—the New York Times gave his violin a decidedly poor review.) Then again, he’d already changed the musical world once in his life.
As I drove uptown on Seventh Avenue, a phrase kept repeating in my mind: 9 million plastic ukuleles… 9 million plastic ukuleles…
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.