Tinseltown Tot Is Now a Glass Act

Times Staff Writer

Glass has played a leading role in the life of Joe Sewall. Glass frames the photographs of movie stars on the wall--John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Sewall or his mom and dad starred with all of them.

Glass is strewn about the office in various sizes, shapes, colors, textures. Sewall, 72, is a professional resilverer and hand beveler of glass. He's been at it now for half a century. He claims he's the only one in San Diego County doing it full time.

He's owner and sole employee of Sewall Glass Silvering on Fairmount Avenue in East San Diego. Most of his customers don't know that Sewall was a child movie star.

A Family to Think Of

It was glass that formed the lens that photographed Sewall in bit parts in "hundreds" of movies, both silent and talkies. He was an actor who could have stayed in the business, if the work had been steady enough. But a young man in pre-World War II America needed work, especially when he had a wife, and a son on the way.

Sewall is a gentle man with curly hair and a bright, cheerful countenance that calls to mind Mickey Rooney or James Cagney--actors he worked with and knew.

Sewall also worked with John Wayne in the Duke's first movie, the 1929 classic "The Big Trail." He first met Wayne when Wayne was a USC football star working as a grip in Hollywood studios.

Sewall went to school on the MGM grounds. Classmates included Rooney and Judy Garland.

"Whenever they had a shoot, a golf cart came and picked them up," he said. "Took 'em right out of class. The cart didn't come for me, though. I was one of the ones who walked over."

People who know Sewall professionally--who value his gift with glass--don't often ask about this starry past, mostly because he doesn't talk about it. At least not often.

"I didn't know that--I'm shocked. He was in the movies?" asked Robert Klusman, a friend of Sewall's since 1954.

Klusman, owner of Karl's Glass & Mirror Co., said Sewall is a household name in the world of glass.

"Everyone in the industry knows him or has heard of him," Klusman said. "He's smart--very smart. Hard-working and honest. He's one of the few honest people left in the business. He doesn't tell a lie.

"Joe has quite an ability as a resilverer and hand beveler," Klusman said. "I don't know that he's the only one in San Diego--I don't think he is--but he is the best. By far. His vast knowledge and experience--and his integrity--make him the best.

"The thing that makes Joe special is everything he's learned over the years. . . . Others can do the work; they just can't do it to the degree that Joe can. If something isn't right, he won't give it to you. You get Joe's work in perfect condition. His attention to detail is phenomenal."

Resilvering is a process by which sterling silver is applied to a pane of glass. A mirror is created when the back of the pane is then coated with lacquer and painted black.

Beveling, engraving, hand lettering--Sewall does it all, etching in flowers, curlicues and waves, whatever's necessary to keep a customer satisfied. Sewall loves the work, he said, for its creativity. It makes him feel like an artist.

Antique Dealers Know of Him

His fading craft is why antique dealers from all over San Diego know his name and knock at his door. He's patient and caring--the work is painstakingly meticulous--and apologetic to a point that dares credulity.

On a recent hot afternoon, a man walked in, holding a piece of glass. He looked concerned. He wanted special engraving. He'd heard that Sewall was the man to do it.

He looked around at the pictures on the wall and for an instant seemed frozen. He stared at the picture of Joan Crawford. She had written a glowing note to Sewall's mother, Lucile. He looked puzzled but said nothing.

"This is gonna be expensive," Sewall said apologetically.

The man looked worried. "How much?"

"Well, about $35. And I've got a backlog. It may take a while."

"Wow. How long?" the man asked.

"Ten days?" Sewall asked.

The man looked relieved. Beaming, he said sure, do the work. And thanks. He must have thought Sewall was gonna take a year.

A Throwback to Yesteryear

Sewall admits that his work--and to some degree his personality--is a throwback to yesteryear. He takes time , and he resents the computerized, impersonal, rush-rush approach of a high-tech world. He likes to "eyeball" people. He appreciates character development, whether in movies or real life.

He thinks the movies of today are weak, because development of character is weak or non-existent. Where are the stories , he asks. He remembers the flicks of his era much more fondly and passionately.

He harbors some regret. He could have stayed in Hollywood as an up-and-coming casting director, but Los Angeles felt risky and frivolous at the time. It remains, however, the road-not-taken question of Sewall's life.

He stayed in Hollywood for two decades. His father, Allen, was a legendary actor who first appeared in the silent classic "The Squaw Man" in 1915. His dad also appeared in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with Lon Chaney. His father's second heart attack--which was fatal--followed a strenuous stunt on an old back lot.

"You did your own stunts in his day," Sewall said. "And he shouldn't have done that one."

His dad once drove a car off the Santa Monica Pier. He had to--part of the job.

'You Were, After All, Dead'

And Sewall once hired scores of military men to play Afghans in "The Charge of the Light Brigade." They had to lie on the ground, playing dead, while horses stampeded about them.

"If you didn't lie perfectly still," he said, "the director got mad at you. You were, after all, dead."

Sewall or his mom and dad worked with, among others, Janet Leigh, Charles Laughton, Gregory Peck, Bing Crosby, Charlton Heston, Will Rogers, Ginger Rogers, Don Murray, Barbara Stanwyck, Dinah Shore, Rock Hudson, Carol Lynley, Cyd Charisse, Susan Hayward, Rosalind Russell, Rita Moreno, Fred MacMurray and Raymond Burr.

The odd thing to Sewall is that he first got a job at age 2 and hasn't stopped working since. Oh, technically, he's retired, but all that means is that he's worked for himself since turning 65. He still puts in a six-day week and never turns in before 11.

Customers aren't surprised only when the quiet, friendly Sewall 'fesses up and tells them about Tinseltown and the roles he played. Some are equally surprised when he tells them of the work he does for Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical.

Sewall has in his shop a closet-like contraption that costs $45,000 but looks like something the mad professor might have owned in the movie "Back to the Future." It's a vacuum deposition pump.

Don't Get Too Close

The force of the vacuum is so strong, Sewall said, that when it's operating, if the glass on its portholes were to break and you were nearby, it would suck you inside, like a tornado uprooting an oak.

Sewall uses the machine to apply a rare and highly protective coating to parts of a "drone" plane--one that flies, in his words, "on the edge of space." In layman's terms, the coating is able to resist high heat in an atmosphere where oxygen is at a minimum.

"The vacuum is 100 times greater than a depressurized plane flying at 35,000 feet," he said. "It's the largest vacuum box in San Diego--6 feet high, 46 inches deep, 54 inches wide. And it's mine."

Sewall admits that it's "very unusual" for a man of his generation and ilk to be carrying on such a relationship with high technology and national defense. It seems incongruous and terribly inappropriate, even bizarre.

What would Bogie say?

Would Cagney call him a dirty rat?


"After all," Sewall said, "I have to admit it, I hate high-tech. Give me yesterday anytime."

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