ANGELIC AID FOR PLUCKY PLAYERS; HARP DOCTOR BRINGS HEAVENLY HELP TO KEEP INSTRUMENTS READY FOR ACTION.
Dale Barco's heart is in harps.
He can take one apart and put it back together again. He can pick out the harp in a commercial and tell you if the player is any good.
He just can't play. He never cared to learn. And he seldom attends his clients' performances.
``I don't really care to know what could go wrong,'' said Barco, 68, of Woodland Hills. ``It makes me nervous what could possibly happen to the instrument during the performance. I would feel responsible for it whether I've worked on it or not.''
Barco has been rebuilding and maintaining harps for professional and amateur musicians for more than 30 years. His clientele includes both schoolchildren and performers with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he has rubbed elbows with artists ranging from comedian Harpo Marx to jazz harpist Robert Maxwell.
Barco is one of only a few in this country who can heal harps, earning him the title of ``harp doctor.''
Patience, ingenuity and precision are what's needed in his line of work, where the instruments can cost more than $30,000.
``I'm a mechanic,'' Barco said, tinkering with one of the harps awaiting his care in his home-based studio cluttered with tools.
``One hundred years ago, I would have been a blacksmith.''
The would-be blacksmith is the best-known expert in a field where there are few, according to Dorothy Remsen, executive secretary of the American Harp Society.
``He's a marvelous, marvelous technician,'' said Remsen, a Hollywood resident. ``People seek him out to do repairs.''
Remsen once sought Barco's help to repair one of her harps' soundboards, which regulates the instrument's tone quality. He had to take the instrument apart and rebuild it.
``It takes a lot of trust,'' said Remsen, who retired from professional harp-playing three years ago. ``Who knows what happens to it once it is taken apart? (When the harp was rebuilt) it was better than when I had it before.''
Barco has made house calls to tend to ailing harps all over the United States and beyond.
Always in tow is his ``black bag,'' a mustard-colored attache case neatly filled with the tools of his trade - ordinary screwdrivers and files, a nail clipper to snip frayed strings, a wire-string cutter and a crank for removing rods. For long-distance trips, he adds extra strings and a strobe-tuner so he doesn't get caught off guard.
With some 2,000 moving parts in a harp mechanism, Barco's patients can be temperamental. Harps cannot tolerate moisture or extremes in temperature. And age eventually proves unkind.
``The strings themselves break constantly,'' he said. ``The owner should be able to expect 20 years before there are major problems with the instrument. Maybe 50 or 80 years, but we hope they go 20.''
The harp's strings together exert more than 2,000 pounds of stress between the soundboard and the neck, the arched part of the harp. As harps wear, the wood stretches, changing the length of the string and subsequently affecting the sound and mechanical intonation process.
``There's a saying: `Harp players spend half their time tuning and half their time playing out of tune,' '' Barco said. ``The harp doesn't want to be regulated. It's an antique, archaic piece of crap really. You have to struggle to make it work. The string length is crucial. If they build it just a hair off, you really have to struggle to get (the pitch) close. And I've never seen a perfect harp.''
It's not only frustrating to him, but to the harp players, too.
``It drives them crazy,'' Barco said. ``Each harp has its own voice. They build them in the factory, two at a time. The same mechanic pulling the wood and parts off the shelf can build two entirely different sounds, and no one knows why.''
Like doting parents
It's the instruments' owners who sometimes are in need of Barco's best bedside manner.
``They've brought them in in tears: `There's something wrong with my harp,' '' he said. ``There's a definite emotional attachment. I tell them, `It's a piece of machinery. They do wear out.' I do it gently and diplomatically.''
JoAnn Turovsky, who plays the harp in several area orchestras, including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and teaches at the University of Southern California, has been entrusting her instruments to Barco for three decades.
``There's no problem he can't fix,'' she said. ``He works on harps in an intuitive way. He can make them work no matter what is wrong with it.''
Although Turovsky currently has five harps, 15 years ago she only had one. When her cat pushed it over, leaving a gaping hole in the instrument, she thought her career was over.
``It was 11:30 at night,'' the 42-year-old Pasadena resident recalled. ``I called Dale and asked, `Can I bring it out?' I felt like I was in an ambulance driving it over. He put it back together.''
``It's actually very scary he hasn't had an apprentice to learn the trade,'' said Katie Kirkpatrick, a 44-year-old Thousand Oaks free-lance musician who first met Barco when she was a 12-year-old fledgling harp player.
`It's frightening to think if we had a problem we'd have to send (our harps) somewhere else,'' Kirkpatrick said.
And for her, that's not even a consideration.
``I consider Dale like my dad,'' she said. ``I feel that until he's off the planet, he has my loyalty and business.''
Despite his faithful clients' fears, Barco said he has no intentions of training someone to take over after he's hung up his tools. It would be too time-consuming, he said, and local instrument repair shops have people who could service harps.
In the early 1960s, Barco, a demolitions expert in the Navy, was working in Chicago as a machinist when his employer lost its government contract. Searching for a job, Barco recalled seeing an ad for a machinist. Only when he applied did he find out it was for the Lyon & Healy harp factory.
``My mechanic training prior to that certainly helped,'' he said. ``I also have an art interest, so the carving and woodwork and all that came naturally. That's why I like it so much. It's a hands-on type of thing. I'm not very smart, but I have good hands.''
He worked for harp companies for years, traveling all over the world repairing the instruments, before he struck out on his own, working out of the home he shares with Paula, his wife of 27 years.
``We now call ourselves harp technicians,'' he said with a laugh. ``They got fancy and had to give us a title. I was a harp fixer for 20 years.''
He has never had to advertise.
``It's a very limited endeavor. There's probably maybe 15,000 harps in the whole country,'' Barco said. ``There's at least that many pianos within 10 blocks of here. A guitar, there's probably a billion. ... That's why nobody's in the business. That's why I travel. If I stayed home, I might work once a year.''
When he travels, he usually stays with one of his clients.
``Then, the local people bring their harps to the house, or I go out and (repair) them,'' Barco said.
He can work on three or four harps a day, restringing the instrument, refelting, lubricating and adjusting the pedal mechanism, then checking the pitch of each string.
Sometimes, the job requires a little help, like the time he called upon an exterminator to rid some antique harps of their resident termites.
Triple bypass surgery in 1995, Barco's second in 13 years, has restricted his traveling, but he's not about to quit.
In his studio, he has a ``morgue,'' containing about a dozen used harps in need of repair. When he retires, he plans to fix those harps and sell them.
But don't expect that to happen any time soon.
``I'm not that retired yet,'' he said.
Photo: Don Barco, 68, works on a harp in his Woodland Hills workshop. The stringed instruments, which can cost more than $30,000, contain some 2,000 moving parts.
Tina Gerson/Daily News
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. Life|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||May 18, 1997|
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