Walk into studios anywhere in the world and the name Clarence Kane will have preceded you. One of the true greats in ribbon mic repair and restoration, Mr. Kane started at RCA after returning from the Second World War. Later, he set out to start ENAK Microphone Repair, and has quietly worked out of his Pitman, New Jersey, workshop for more than 50 years. As we settled in to talk to Clarence, a vintage RCA 44-BX sat on the workbench. Mr. Kane expertly dissected the mic and expressed disgust at the interior condition. Clarence hates to see the old mics altered from company specs. "Who put in all of this cotton? Why did they destroy the rear RCA logo? Who the hell added this switch?" I felt like a student being scolded by a wizard. I smiled sheepishly and dug up my questions to gently change the subject.
Before you worked at RCA, you were in the Army during World War II. What did you do in the Army?
When I entered the Army they told me I was going to be a Reconnaissance Scout. Back then they gave you a choice if you wanted to ride a horse or a truck. I chose mechanized, so they sent me to Fort Riley, Kansas. I was deployed to the Philippines after training.
After the war you used your GI Bill to go to school. How did you get into radio?
Well that would be two years at The Radio Electronics Institute in Philadelphia. Television was in the early stages, so there were opportunities and I wanted to get on board. After school I worked for a furniture company that sold appliances, like TVs (which were big pieces of wooden furniture back then), washing machines, and such. I did all of the repairs on the radios and TVs. We also did the installations and had to put up the antennas. We had to hang over the edge of the roof and use guide wires because we were miles from the TV stations, being in south Jersey. I would have to hang over the edge of the roof screwing in hooks. It is scary to think about it now. And for what? A dollar an hour?
How did you get into RCA?
I just applied. I didn't apply for any particular job. I did several things there, but I ended up in the C.R.A.E. shop [Custom Repair, Assembly, and Engineering, pronounced "cray"] in the RCA Cherry Hill office. It was headquarters for worldwide fieldwork. The C.R.A.E. shop did all of the engineering for designing and installing TV and radio studios. So we would design them in Cherry Hill, and then install them worldwide.
Where are some of the places you installed studios?
We did a big TV install in Oakland, California, KTVU, Channel 2. They built a beautiful state-of-the-art TV station there. It took six months. We also did another station in California at the same time.
How often did RCA put you on the road?
About every month or so. The equipment was so big back then that it was easier to send us out to work on gear, like RCA tape machines, so that we could update them. They also had this tape machine that was built just for commercials. It had a big wheel full of tape cartridges and this arm would pull out the tape. It was a monster! They had the big RCA TK-27 TV projectors. All really big stuff.
So how did you go from this to working on microphones?
The service company of RCA did the same thing as the C.R.A.E. shop, such as repair microphones, cameras, and whatever. For some reason the service company dropped the microphone repair, so Engineering took it over. RCA had these people that used to put the ribbons in. That was all they did. If there was any mechanical work, they had guys in the machine shop that would do that. After a while things got so slow that they let all the ribbon people go. I told the boss, "Hell, I can do that in between all my other jobs." The boss said, "You want to do that?" And I said, "Yeah!"
What was it that intrigued you about the job?
It was simply that it looked like an easy job! And I could stay home more often; it got me off the road. At first it didn't work like that. They would just let the mics accumulate, and then I would repair them when I had gotten off the road. I didn't just refurbish mics; I had my hands in a little bit of everything.
Were you just replacing the ribbons?
No, I did everything, including the machine work. Back then I didn't paint them; I would just send them to the paint shop. It was a great setup. I had my own little private office, shut the door, and nobody bothered me.
Speaking of paint, what is the official RCA microphone color?
Dark Umber Gray for the 44-BX, 77-DX, BK-5, KU-3A, and many others. The...