One day, mid-summer, I stopped by Benning Violins in Studio City for repairs on a friend's cello. German-born Hans Benning was at his work station, a violin on his bench and a wood plane in his strong, lean hand. To his left was his son, Eric. And next to Eric was Eric's son, Nathan. All three wore shop aprons and the fine dust of aged, hand-picked Bavarian and Bosnian spruce and maple.
Nathan, 13, was busy. Head down, he was working on a project that filled his dad and grandfather with pride. In a family that has been in the business since the early 20th century, faithful to an old-world craft that takes great patience, Nathan was making his first violin.
Hans surveyed his grandson through wire-rimmed spectacles, proud of the multi-generational operation. I asked Nathan what he thought of his work, and he deferred to the masters in his midst. His grandfather put it like this:
"He's got talent."
The shop's history is a bit complicated, but the roots go back to Illinois, Eric explained, where "my grandfather's sister married Carl Becker Sr., and he was the god of all violin makers in America."
Becker had a young protege on his wife's side of the family by the name of Paul Toenniges, who took what he learned and brought it to Los Angeles in the 1940s, later opening Studio City Music on Ventura Boulevard.
His daughter, Nancy Toenniges, grew up in the shop and started wielding a chisel at age 11. She had plans to become a scientist but canceled them at 21 to attend a German violin-making school, where one day a classmate invited her to a concert.
"Here comes this gorgeous, gorgeous woman in a beautiful, beautiful blue dress," recalled the classmate, whose name was Hans Benning.
They later married in Los Angeles, and for 50 years they've run the shop Nancy's father started, eventually changing its name to Benning Violins.
I didn't know any of this in 2005, when my friend Nathaniel told me that for violin repairs, he only trusted Hans and Eric Benning. The Bennings confirmed on my first visit that a homeless chap named Nathaniel dropped by periodically with his instrument in pretty bad shape.
He was polite, they said, and waited his turn, leaving his considerable cargo outside the store in consideration of other customers.
In time I met Nancy Benning, followed by Nathan, his brother Garrett, 15, and Laura Phillips, a cousin who has been helping manage the operation for 30 years. Eric's brother Brian, a professional violinist, also works at the shop on occasion.
A family operation, for sure. And one that Hans and Nancy retooled in the 1970s.
"When it was Studio City Music, it had everything musical under the sun, from kazoos and trumpets to trombones, electric pianos, clarinets, saxophones," Hans said. "My dream always had been to have a first-class violin shop, and when my father-in-law retired … we closed up and remodeled."
The new business plan was to repair, rent, sell and make stringed instruments. Hans and Nancy decided to see if their three young sons, when introduced to a pile of scrap wood and a few tools, might know what to do.
First came Robert.
"He didn't last a day," said Hans, whose oldest son went into law enforcement.
Next came Brian, the middle son, who had no interest in the scrap pile.
"All he wanted to do was play the violin."
And then came Eric.