By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Company CEO Arthur Levitt III, a fast-track ex-Disney wunderkind who took over the reins in January of this year, is another story altogether. You get the sense that Levitt desperately wants you to like him, and the minute you do, he's going to sell you something. It's the same kind of sneaking suspicion that leads one to conclude all the Hard Rock's "Save the Planet" and "Love all -- serve all" sloganeering is really just part of a cynical strategy to appear hip and PC in order to sell more T-shirts. Levitt discusses at length plans to sponsor a manatee farm, and can rattle off statistics about how many of the wild sea cows were killed last year, how many remain, and how soon they will become extinct at the present rate of attrition. It's a convincing spiel. Then he just sort of shrugs and says, "Or maybe we'll do something to save the rain forest."
Levitt works hard at being a regular guy. He majored in marine biology at Southampton College, and did fisheries research in Hawaii for two years before moving to L.A., where he landed a job selling office furniture. He's personable, accessible, goes on three-week adventure vacations to New Guinea, and has a penchant for loud ties. His handshake is firm but not macho. But Levitt's family tree tells a different story. His grandfather served as New York state comptroller and his father chaired the American Stock Exchange. Hard-nosed businessmen. Not the types to fret over the irony inherent in snapping up those rebellious, anti-establishment rock stars' instruments and using them to sell seven-dollar hamburgers.
And free spirit that Routhier may be, if he were too sympathetic to Elvis Costello's point of view, he'd be out of a job. Not surprisingly, he steers discussion toward the treasures tucked away in the memorabilia warehouse's guitar room, such as the Fender Telecaster with a body fashioned out of yellow-green bowling-ball plastic. "The bowling ball Tele was part of a limited edition, one of only seven produced, only three that color. It didn't belong to anyone famous, but it may be the only one of its kind still around," he explains.
Then there's a battered old acoustic with what looks like an elaborate winter snow scene painted on it. "We picked that one up from a Russian water skiier who was part of an exhibition team visiting Orlando before the wall came down. He'd sell us caviar and vodka he'd smuggled over, and one day he came by with this guitar painted by a famous (or so he said) Russian religious iconographer. Nowadays we probably wouldn't buy something like that, but it seemed like a good idea at the time," the curator says.
To a guitar aficionado, entering this domain must be akin to the rush Goldfinger experienced when he finally breached Fort Knox. Ignore Michael Jackson's spangled white glove. The walls are lined with dozens upon dozens of classic axes. Slash's black Les Paul Custom. Steve Vai's Ibanez. B.B. King's black-with-gold-trim "Lucille." Keith Richards's Gibson L6-S. Tom Petty's Rickenbacker. Steve Howe's double-necked Gibson SG. Neil Young's Gretsch Tennessean. David Gilmour's black Fender Strat. Glen Campbell's blond Ovation electric with the pearl inlaid "G.C." A Spike Jones Rickenbacker. Chet Atkins's custom Gibson. Glen Frey's lavender Yamaha. Bo Diddley's square Gretsch.
All told, the Hard Rock owns 629 electric guitars, 96 basses, and 151 acoustics. They have early instruments that belonged to legendary electric guitar innovators Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as the favored Strats of Hendrix and Clapton. The collection is worth millions, although that's not necessarily what the Hard Rock paid to assemble it. "In the early Eighties, it wasn't uncommon for people to sell stars' guitars for the value of the instrument alone, regardless of ownership. They were selling them for the price of the guitars. At the time everyone thought the Hard Rock was crazy for putting so much emphasis on the star's name. Now they hate us for it," notes Routhier, the man most responsible for Hard Rock's policy of paying a premium for instruments formerly owned by famous rockers.
His office, located in a nondescript Orlando warehouse, is an expansive desk that faces a plump settee with a fist-size hole in the wicker back; the couch was Lennon's and the hole is from the head of his guitar repeatedly banging the rattan while the Beatle practiced.
The curator keeps a little Fender Champ amplifier near his desk, and sometimes at night, after everyone else has gone home, he'll pick out one of the vintage six-strings, tune it up (guitars are stored with the original strings slackened), and let her rip. He wouldn't admit to it, but you wouldn't be surprised to find out he occasionally even dons one of the Voodoo Chile's embroidered jackets or silk shirts (Hendrix was partial to Velcro buttons!) to put himself in the mood. After all, no one's stopping him.
No clear line of demarcation exists between Routhier's office, his staff's, and the memorabilia. Valuable junk is strewn everywhere; it looks like a teenager's bedroom. Routhier and his four underlings would have visitors believe they keep tabs on the disarray, and emphasize that every item is tagged and logged in a computer. But you'd never guess that from the quantity and variety of odds and ends that litters the area. A black cloth voodoo doll from Jane's Addiction. A foot-tall porcelain Mick Jones figurine. The white roller skates with red laces from Warrant's Cherry Pie album. A plastic bag containing one of Keith Moon's drumsticks and some foot pedals. Bono's bug-eyed glasses from the first leg of U2's Zooropa tour. It's the ultimate novelty shop.