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How to restore a 40-year-old flying machine

How to restore a 40-year-old flying machine
The newly refurbished zeppelin in the window at Jadis, the longtime Santa Monica prop shop. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Behind the glass of the picture window, cornflower blue wings flap slowly beneath the balloon of a muslin-covered zeppelin. Wheels connected by bicycle chains to the airship rotate, while a tiny metal man scans the horizon with a bronze spyglass, another steers the wheel of the ship and a third pops up from a hatch on the deck. A red rudder pivots back and forth below the keel of ship, stirring the still air in the store, a prop shop called Jadis that first opened in Santa Monica in 1976.

The flying machine, powered by a small electrical motor contained within the balloon, looks like something Terry Gilliam might have dreamed up during his Monty Python days, or one of the late artist Chris Burden’s airplane factory art installations.

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Instead, the zeppelin was built by a Wisconsin couple almost 40 years ago, found by chance in a Ventura junk shop and installed in the window of Jadis by its owners, Susan Lieberman and her late partner Parke Meek, an artist who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames.

And until a few weeks ago, it was dusty, water-stained and rudderless, an aging flying machine that had seen better days but still drew crowds to the window of the oft-closed shop.

“I never thought I’d ever find the maker,” said Lieberman, 70, a tall woman with a cap of blond hair who has run the shop, mostly only opening it on the weekends and by appointment, since Meek died in 2010. Most of the shop’s business came from renting props to movies, including “The Artist,” “Gods and Monsters,” “Batman & Robin” and “X-Men.” What Lieberman had decided to do was not to sell the airship — she’s gotten many offers over the years — but to somehow find its makers and refurbish the machine. It was an improbable project, hampered by the fact that she initially had no idea who had made it decades ago.

When Lieberman and Meek found the airship, one of three machines by the same artists, in that Ventura shop, the shop’s owner had also given them an old notebook with sketches and clippings. Then, a few months ago, she started Googling and eventually found the name of the couple and their small company, called the Flying Dutchman, which for years was set up as a booth at EAA AirVenture, Wisconsin’s famed Oshkosh airshow.

Lieberman eventually tracked down Donna Wachtendonk, who had made the machines with her late husband Edward, called Skeeter, as well as hundreds of other items in their small Wisconsin workshop.

“I thought, what the hell, maybe she’d like to get out of the Wisconsin winter,” said Lieberman. So she sent Wachtendonk, 64, and her daughter Katye Stilen, 43, a pair of plane tickets and offered them a trip to Los Angeles. “It was a leap of faith,” said Lieberman.

In late February, Wachtendonk and Stilen came to Los Angeles from Wild Rose, Wis., with a suitcase of supplies and gear for repairing the airships. It was an emotional trip, as Wachtendonk had stopped making the machines shortly after her husband died 20 years ago.

A detail of the newly-refurbished zeppelin at Jadis in Santa Monica.
A detail of the newly-refurbished zeppelin at Jadis in Santa Monica. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the workshop in the back of the prop shop, surrounded by piers and drills, bow saws and calipers, a Tesla coil, two plastic skulls and a Van de Graaff electrostatic generator, Wachtendonk and Stilen disassembled the zeppelin, stripping the fabric that came apart in their hands from the balloon, then recovering the frame. “It’s like a lampshade, but so much more complicated,” said Wachtendonk, as she whipstitched muslin and recalled the early days of the business.

They cleaned the structure with toothbrushes and steel wool, put in new wiring and light bulbs, recoated and painted the parts, dabbed all the rivets with gold paint, and re-covered the balloon with muslin. “We just went to the Home Depot,” said Lieberman, who runs the shop with the help of her assistant Jenny White.

“This was all my husband’s fault,” said Wachtendonk. “He took a welding class in high school. He made this huge airplane out of his mom’s coat hangers, and it just snowballed from there.” Skeeter Wachtendonk joined the Air Force as a young man, and would make models of airplanes and ships for “visiting dignitaries.” Then, with the help of his parents, they set up a booth at the air show, and had a standing order from the museum at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Over the years that their shop was open, they made, she figures, over 100 airships, plus lighthouses, submarines, motorcycles, motorhomes with tiny dentists’ offices inside and ships, including a 14-foot model of the USS Wisconsin.

“They’re in dentists’ offices, in restaurants and bars,” said Wachtendonk of all the machines, which were disseminated across the country to museums, private collectors and junk shops like the one where Lieberman found the airship she’s working on.

“Katye’s been welding since she was 5 years old,” said Wachtendonk. “Oxy-acetylene welding,” said Stilen. “That’s how I got my braces,” she explained, as her parents would barter many of their inventions for services, including the Model-T that was the first car Stilen ever drove. “I got a ride on a P-51 Mustang,” said Wachtendonk, smiling.

From left: Katye Stilen; her mother, Donna Wachtendonk; Jadis owner Susan Lieberman; her assistant Jenny White.
From left: Katye Stilen; her mother, Donna Wachtendonk; Jadis owner Susan Lieberman; her assistant Jenny White. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

After a few days repairing the zeppelin, as well as a second machine they call the “thumper,” an ornithopter built on top of a steampunk tractor, Wachtendonk and Stilen reassembled the airship and rehung it back in the front of the shop as curious onlookers again peered in the window.

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The ship whirred into action, the wings fluttering, a bronze harpoon swinging back and forth. Nearby, metal rocket ships and bronze robots — one made by an Echo Park artist, another by a JPL engineer — completed the futuristic diorama.

“I should close it,” Lieberman said of the shop, which she came close to shuttering after the death of her partner nine years before. “But it’s very hard to walk away from. You see the joy on the kids' faces, even jaded passers-by.”

“What is it?” Wachtendonk said that folks will usually ask of the flying machines, jigsawed together with found objects, rotisserie motors and leftover rivets, embellished with metal lanterns, tiny wheels and painted wings. “Then they’ll ask, Can I have a ride?”

The fashion designer John Galliano once came into the shop, said Lieberman, and wanted to buy the machine. “I asked how I’d get it to him and he said, ‘Oh, it’d just fly by itself.’”

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Jadis, 2701 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 396-3477; jadisprops.com/moderne.

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