The Coolest Thing That Ever Happened in a Building I Worked In

Once when I walked to the elevator of my office at 100 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a woman I hadn’t seen before was waiting alone in the lobby. I said hello and asked if she’s been at the photo studio that shared the floor with us. She said yes, then we withdrew to silence. A colleague from my office joined us as the car arrived, and on the ride down, he nodded in her direction and whispered with a cupped hand over my ear, “That’s Paulina Porizkova.”

Yes, Paulina Porizkova, the 1980s and ‘90s supermodel, dressed to not be recognized in floppy hat, loose-fitting clothing, glasses and little makeup. If my sharp-eyed friend hadn’t been there, I never would have known I’d shared an elevator ride with Paulina Porizkova. 

And so it is at most of the buildings I’ve worked in over the years. Surely many noteworthy things happened at other places I’ve worked, but nothing has crossed my path, nor have I done much research. 

But research did lead me to learn that a building I once worked in is where the laser printer was invented. That’s Building 114 on the Xerox campus in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, pictured above and visible along Phillips Road as you drive north past San Jose Drive. And I’m revealing it now because it’s the 50thanniversary of the 1969 invention, and in the anniversary year of Woodstock and the moon landing, I’m afraid it’s getting short shrift. 

I did the research as part of an assignment I had writing a blog post for Xerox about the 40thanniversary of the company’s first laser printer. My source was the inventor himself, former Xerox scientist Gary Starkweather. From my days in the early 1990s working with Xerox R&D in Building 114, I knew that the laser printer was invented somewhere in Rochester. Yet in recent years I’ve heard scientists from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) claim their institution as its home. Some Wikipedia pages and even the historic timeline wall at the Xerox customer center on the Webster campus place the invention there, as well. 

Gary Starkeweather (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

In speaking to Starkweather, I wanted to set the record straight with not just the invention’s city and building, but the very room where the light bulb went off. Maybe it was my old office!

As it turned out, that level of detail wasn’t possible. From his home in Lake Mary, Fla., Starkweather couldn’t remember his office room numbers. Nor did the Xerox historian I checked with have that information. 

So I got what I could. Starkweather conceived of laser printing in the now shuttered Building 114 and built his first prototype in Henrietta at 1350 Jefferson Road, now home to a Harris Corporation’s RF Communications operation, not far from Henrietta’s shopping mall row. 

Palo Alto also figures into the story. Starkweather transferred to PARC because Xerox Rochester management didn’t want him working on his laser-printing concept. Wait…what?

It’s true. At the time, Starkweather was relatively new to the workforce. He had recently earned a master’s degree in optics from the University of Rochester and had worked for a short time at Bausch and Lomb. His Xerox boss wanted him to focus on the engineering work he was assigned, which is reasonable enough. One of Starkweather’s first assignments was to make an early version of a facsimile machine run faster, as the cathode ray tube technology that was central to the imaging system had maxed out just at a few pages per minute. That was when Starkweather proposed lasers. As a brighter light source, it would provide capacity for increased speed. 

Lasers had been invented just a few years earlier, in 1961, and were still expensive. Starkweather’s manager discouraged him from the pursuit, dismissing the argument that costs would come down as the technology gained acceptance. 

Starkweather disobeyed, continuing to work on his concept. His boss soon found out and told him he’d be fired if he continued. Still he worked on it. A lot of inventions are created in teams, with the boss getting the credit. But there’s no mistaking this one. Starkweather was solo. 

Just about that time, in 1970, Xerox opened PARC to explore the future of office technology. Starkweather put in for a transfer. Really, it was an ideal place for him to develop his invention. But his boss objected vehemently. So Starkweather made an all or nothing bet, going over his boss’s head. Fortunately, his boss’s boss thought it was a good idea. “My boss was steamed,” Starkweather said.  

So Starkweather joined the mythic PARC team that was inventing the future of the office. His colleagues were developing the graphical user interface for computers that Apple’s Steve Jobs copied after seeing it on a lab tour, the Ethernet technology that led to the formation of networking company Cisco Systems, the page description languages for digital printing that led to the formation of Adobe, and so on. 

Starkweather soon built a prototype that became PARC’s central printer for several years. Over that time he worked out most of the bugs, so that when Xerox finally began developing its first commercial laser printer in the mid 1970s, a high-speed model for the lucrative centralized print market, his system was battle-tested and highly reliable. 

But the delay in commercialization had a consequence. IBM beat Xerox to market with its 3800 in 1976. Still, the Xerox printer, the 9700, was widely viewed as superior, and subsequent laser printer models used many of the standards Xerox had set. 

The Xerox 9700 laser printer. (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

That noted, Xerox also was slow to recognize the potential of the consumer market. Starkweather developed a prototype of a small machine, but “the marketing and product planning people couldn’t see where the money was to be made with such a device,” he said, and they missed the opportunity.  

It’s worth noting that those Xerox managers also missed the 2012 ceremony in which Starkweather was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his laser printer invention. 

Congratulations, Gary Starkweather, on the 50thanniversary of your laser printing invention, the coolest thing that ever happened in a building I worked in…at least, that I’m aware of.

Randy Rainbow Makes Show Tunes Great Again

In the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 20, there was a new twist in the Trump whistleblower scandal. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent phone call the U.S. president pressured the Ukrainian head of state eight times to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s potential 2020 presidential opponent Joe Biden. 

On our way that night to the Kodak Theatre on the Ridge to see Randy Rainbow, who has made a name for himself by posting parody songs about Donald Trump’s crazy ride in the White House, we speculated on whether this latest scandal would be part of the show. No parody song about it yet, we predicted, but probably a mention. 

We were wrong. There was no mention. And frankly, I was disappointed. I’d come to the show straight from riding my exercise bike to the latest breaking news from Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room. Randy’s show felt like when I tuned into the Late Show after a day of wacky Trump revelations only to find that Colbert is on vacation and tonight’s show was filmed three months ago. It’s funny, but it’s not the fix I’m looking for. 

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a show based on whether or not it provides your personal fix. Randy Rainbow’s song parodies were, like his YouTube posts, spot on. “There is nothing like a wall,” sung to the tune of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” Someday we’ll find it, the Russian connection,” to the tune of “The Rainbow Connection.” “Super callous fragile ego extra braggadocios,” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Rudy and the Beast” to “Beauty and the Beast.” They go on and on.

Fittingly for our data-driven era, his show mixed his live performance with big-screen video, sometimes timing voiceovers to work with his live music, sometimes edited to make Randy appear to be interviewing the Orange One. In those, he’s an endearing character with a great sense of comic timing. Onstage he’s also a bit of a whirling dervish, changing his costume frequently from black tie to red sequins to ruby slippers. 

But how do you keep your song parodies current with the never-ending onslaught of misbehaviors and scandals that spew from this real estate magnate turned president? It’s a difficult assignment, but Randy doesn’t back down. In a Q&A session with the audience he said he turns his videos around in 48 hours—all the writing, arranging, recording, editing and posting. Whew! 

Of course, that level of timeliness is pretty much impossible when you’re on the road. Rainbow had a reasonable solution, arranging his parodies in somewhat chronological order to give a sort of history of the Trump presidency, building up to the most recent atrocities. His latest, posted Aug. 29, played on Trump’s Aug, 21 retweet of praise that Israeli Jews “love him like the second coming of God,” set to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar: “Cheeto Christ, Cheeto Christ. He’s like if Jesus was pumpkin spiced.”

It was funny, but my inner Situation Room needed more. Not that I’d given up on finding the Russian connection, it was just that, at this moment, I was hot on the Ukraine. Sorry Randy. You can write that off as my problem. You know, and the nation’s. 

I Saw Brian Wilson at Del Lago

Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 must have been a difficult night for the Brian Wilson tour. Brian and his band the Zombies were performing at the Del Lago Casino, just off the Thruway in Tyre, N.Y., three days after their long-time guitarist, Nicky “Wonder” Walusko, had died in his sleep near Lewiston, N.Y. That was where the band had kicked off its new tour the very day after Walusko died, dedicating that show to him. 

So the del Lago performance was their second without him, and I was there. The stage was still mostly dark as the band filtered on. The scattered applause picked up as Brian appeared, supported on either side by an aide, guiding him to his center stage seat at the piano. Once settled, he announced they were dedicating this night’s show to Nicky, then launched into their first number, “California Girls.” 

“Love and Mercy” might have been a more appropriate tribute, and indeed, an hour and a half later, the band closed with that. But then again, maybe “California Girls” was right. Walusko’s enthusiasm for the Smile recordings is what piqued Brian’s interest in completing them and staging his recent tours. Maybe playing the Beach Boys sound that had captivated Walusko as a kid, the sound he helped recreate for the Smile album and the touring band, maybe that was the best tribute. 

At any rate, when I came to the show, I knew Brian’s one-time guitarist had died, but I didn’t know he was supposed to be in this show. That dawned on me when I noticed the guitar and floral arrangement spotlighted in the group’s back line. A few songs in, the band’s horn player gave a longer tribute to Walusko, filling in some of the gaps of Brian’s abrupt dedication. But it took a search on the Web to fully understood what was going on. 

And that was the show in a nutshell. The music was performed beautifully, the harmonies shimmering in fine pitch above the bedrock rhythms of the 10-piece band, which included original Beach Boy Al Jardine and jumped to 11 pieces when Blondie Chaplin joined in. Brian’s familiar timbre was recognizable when he sang lead, and the occasional missed pitch and shortened phrase was forgiven—I mean, good for him, he’s out there doing it. 

Brian Wilson’s band as seen from the del Lago balcony Aug. 9. The tribute to Nicky “Wonder” Walusko is in the back row on the right, behind the horn player.

But Brian didn’t appear to have full mental fitness—not really a news flash, I suppose—and that infused the show with an odd tentativeness. Brian is much loved and much admired for his catalog of infectious songs that populated his performance, and for the production techniques he pioneered in the 1960s that still inspire today. You could see that in the audience members who got up and danced despite the grip of age and gravity that would normally leave them seated. You could sense it in the band, whose members occasionally leaned down to Brian, perhaps checking on his welfare, perhaps reminding him that he was singing the next song. 

And there was Brian, sitting behind a piano that blocked the view of his hands, rather than sitting sideways as most singing piano players do. On some songs, his arms didn’t move, and with as many as three keyboardists playing on any given number, he didn’t really need to play. His face was consistently expressionless. When Blondie Chaplin sang a few songs, Brian appeared to sit it out, gazing rather vacantly at random points in the audience. Occasionally he spoke before a song, once introducing the next singer, but failing to give the singer’s name! Another band member snuck it in just before the song kicked off. They know how to cover for their boss!

About 30 or 40 minutes in, an inner alarm went off telling me that I pretty much wanted the show to end. I’d now seen Brian Wilson (I’d never seen him before), heard a few of his hits done very credibly, recognized that he was sticking pretty close to the original arrangements, and realized there probably weren’t going to be any more surprises. 

Turns out I was glad to hear the run of fun hits that ended the show. Still, I was left wondering, does Brian even want to do this? What does he get from it? The most excitement he showed all night was moving his slightly raised arms fore and back like an awkward sock puppet trying to find the rhythm to the rocked up solo in “Barbara Ann.” 

Perhaps he’s making up for all the lost time when he didn’t tour. Maybe part of his desired legacy is to see that he sings before as many of his fans as possible. 

Then again, maybe he’s one of those elderly folks who didn’t know how to say, “No” to the high-pressure salesman on the phone. 

Brian didn’t spill his heart at del Lago. He and his band just performed his songs pretty darn well, if somewhat predictably. Yes, if Brian had been more present, the show might have become an outright rally for this rock legend. But that wasn’t the case, and when the two aides took Brian’s arms after the last song to walk him offstage past the Nicky Walusko memorial tribute, we knew there wasn’t going to be an encore.

Brian Wilson and the Zombies Set List

California Girls

I Get Around

Shut Down

My Little Duece Coupe

Little Honda 

You’re My Baby ?

Little Surfer Girl 

Salt Lake City

Wake the World / Add Some Music

Don’t Worry Baby

Darlin’

Feel Flows (By Carl Wilson)

Wild Honey 

Sail On Sailor

Do It Again 

Let Him Run Wild

Wouldn’t it be Nice

Sloop John B

God Only Knows

Good Vibrations

All Summer Long

Help Me Rhonda

Barbara Ann

Surfing’ USA

Fun, Fun, Fun

Love and Mercy