When my cell phone rang in the car on the afternoon of July 29, and Rick Lombardi showed up on the caller ID, my stomach dropped. I knew it would be something too important to wait for Monday. He called to tell me Charlie had died earlier in the day of an apparent heart attack.
Charlie Churchman was notoriously prickly, ornery, or cantankerous, depending on where you grew up. When I first called Skip Elsheimer about acquiring a film scanner, he suggested I talk to Charlie. But first he needed to tell me that dealing with Charlie could be difficult. Over the next few years my staff and I would get to know a side of Charlie few people got to see.
Visitors to his home and shop in Lafayette Hill would quickly be overwhelmed by the abounding clutter. He probably had 20 film scanners, some working, some “hanger queens,” hundreds of vector scopes and waveform monitors, videotape machines, especially quads, and -- if you looked carefully -- a vast collection of cathedral radios, jukeboxes and player pianos. His forklift (an electronic model with 63 hours on it) dazzled guests. And the cars. Charlie loved cars as much as he loved film. There was a red Bentley, a 1960s Land Rover he managed to put air conditioning in, a 1950s Olds 98.
Charlie enjoyed a good laugh. When he knew you well enough and knew he could trust you, there was nothing he liked laughing about more than himself. I once texted him, “Hey Good Looking!” He didn’t miss a beat. He said, “You must have the wrong number.” Or after a rough visit where he scared the staff half to death, I messaged him saying, “They think you’re the devil.” He replied, “Call me Beelzebub, please.”
Coming up to his 70th birthday, Charlie had to lay down the law to his assistant and associates: there would be no celebration. But he had not told me. He would only allow me to take him to lunch. When he showed up in the parking lot, I dragged him in “to show him something special.” The entire staff assembled to sing “Happy Birthday” and share ice cream. On the way out he grumbled, “I knew something was up.” We went to his favorite lunch place, the Fairlane Grill. It was my first visit. He was a regular and all the staff greeted him by name when he came in. I turned to one of the waitresses and whispered, “Today is Charlie’s birthday.” She winked and said she would make sure the staff did something about that. Sure enough, all the regular staff came out and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He blushed and looked at me wide-eyed, “How did they find out?”
He loved to tell stories about growing up in the area. His parents had bought the property in the ‘60s. He knew which store was where in old Chestnut Hill. He could point out the hi-fi shop where he worked, tinkered, and learned his trade. For a time he was a factory service center for JVC professional video equipment. He was in the shop on Christmas Day when the phone rang. “Don’t you know I was dumb enough to answer it!” Somebody had gotten a consumer camcorder as a present and couldn’t get it to work. They’d found him in the phone book under JVC video repairs. Charlie said, “I had to think real quick. I put on a fake accent and said I was the cleaning company. The shop was closed for the holiday.”
Monday was a quiet day at my shop as the staff reflected on the sad news. James Voges, one of our video digitization engineers, said in an email, “Charlie was an absolute pleasure, I enjoyed every minute with him. Very sad to hear about this. We would often stand in his yard and talk about the cats that adopted him, great guy, big heart.” Eddie Austin, who does film prep and would go to Charlie’s, wrote, “I really enjoyed chatting with Charlie about his work as a projectionist, Ernie Kovacs, and diners in Philly while working in his barn or on the schlep down the hill. He was gracious enough to make repairs to a projector of mine while cleaning films. Very sad to hear of his passing, I felt a camaraderie with him.”
I know that feeling. When I was having a really rough time, Charlie said something that had me rolling on the floor with laughter. I saw him the next day and thanked him. I was having such a rough day, and he made me laugh. “You’re such a great friend to me, Charlie.” He said, “Yeah, well it cuts both ways.”
You were my friend, Charlie. We were your friends. We will miss you always.