1924. Waukesha, Wisconsin. A skinny, nine-year-old kid with a shock of fiery red hair sits on the floor of his mother’s living room. The family telephone is all around him in what looks like a hundred pieces. Lester Polsfuss (that’s the kid’s name) is painstakingly transforming the telephone into a microphone, and he’s trying to get the telephone transmitter to pick up sound better than it does. Of course, a microphone needs a speaker, so the family radio is in a hundred pieces on the floor, too.
He has to hurry because his brother will be home from work soon, and even though his mother is perfectly okay with letting him take the family’s valuable electronics apart, his older brother is not. The radio that Lester has methodically deconstructed and is about to repurpose cost the family $19, a huge amount of money. And it’s the only radio in the house… except for the crystal radio that Lester built for himself that his brother doesn’t know anything about.
Today it’s the radio and telephone. Other days Lester practices the guitar and harmonica for hours. Or he spends the afternoon messing around with the player piano, covering different holes in the rolls with cellophane tape and punching out new holes to change songs around and all kinds of crazy stuff. Somehow the kid manages to put everything back together in better than working order.
And Lester listens to the radio incessantly, late into the night. Not just to the old-time country music the whole family enjoys, but to weird, new stuff coming out of Chicago and St. Louis. It’s called Jazz, and gets into Lester’s blood and his soul, and he loves it and wants to be a part of it. He wants to be a musician. Not when he grows up. Now. A few years from now, he’ll be sneaking out of the house to go see Pie Plant Pete, Rube Tronson and his Texas Cowboys (a band he would later join for a summer), and other acts traveling the Midwest circuit.
That skinny kid from Waukesha is absolutely certain he will become a great musician, and he was right about that. The world will come to know him as Les Paul. What he couldn’t know back in 1924 was that the sounds he would create, the recording technologies he would pioneer, and the solid-body electric guitars he would build would change music forever.
“Not many people get to meet a wizard or a mad scientist or an inventor who changed the world,” said Joel Brennan, President and CEO of Discovery World. “We got to meet all three wrapped up in the person of Les Paul. We had the honor of working with him, building the Les Paul’s House of Sound exhibit with him, and becoming his friends.”
According to Les in a 2008 interview with Discovery World, the idea for the House of Sound came from none other than Bing Crosby. “When Bing and I finished making a recording, Bing asked me if I would like to take a ride with him. We drove up and down Sunset Boulevard looking for a place. And he said, ‘Do you like that building? Do you like that building?’ He’s pointing out maybe seven different buildings. I couldn’t figure out what Bing was looking for. So I say, ‘Bing, why are you looking at all these buildings?’ He says, ‘I’m looking for a place for you, Les. I want to see you build the House of Sound. Les Paul’s House of Sound.’ He says, ‘You make the greatest sound in the world, and you know so much about this. You should give this to the people. And to do that, I want to pick a building for you.’ That was in 1945, right after the war.”
Fortunately for Discovery World, Les turned down Bing’s unbelievable offer.
“I first met Les Paul at his home in New Jersey,” said Brennan. “Les shuffled out of his bedroom, and invited us to join him for breakfast. This was at 3:00 in the afternoon. Even in his 90s, Les worked until dawn and slept until the mid-afternoon. That’s just part of the musician, rock star lifestyle, I guess. Les didn’t know who we were. He didn’t know what Discovery World was all about. But Les always believed that asking questions and experimenting was the single most important way to learn and create. And he had an idea for a Les Paul experience. Since our mission at Discovery World is to educate and inspire young innovators with hands-on learning, I knew right away that we had found a kindred spirit.”
Within ninety days of that first meeting, the Les Paul’s House of Sound at Discovery World exhibition was born. It is truly a place where you can learn from Les.
Inside the House of Sound, you can explore Les’ life, his contributions to music and sound technology, and his lifelong commitment to innovation. Experience Les’ very first laboratory – his mother’s living room. Follow the roads that led Les from Waukesha to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and meet the people that influenced him and helped him along the way. Explore the science of sound. Take a look at the original solid body electric guitar prototype that he called “The Log”. Explore the guitars he built and played with the Les Paul Trio and later with Bing Crosby, the Andrews’ Sisters, Mary Ford, and Chet Atkins.
Throughout his life, Les never stopped experimenting. He never stopped creating. He never stopped trying to discover that next new sound.
“Besides being an incredible musician, Les was a formidable experimenter and one of the world’s great tinkerers,” said Brennan. He was also completely without pretension. We were talking in his kitchen that first day, and Les pointed to a beautiful guitar just sitting there, propped up by a kitchen drawer with the silverware in it. Les said, ‘Right there is Les Paul number one. That is the first Gibson Les Paul ever made in 1952.’ I was stunned, you know, that such a valuable instrument was just sitting there in the kitchen. But to me, that was the real essence of Les Paul. Everything about him was right in front of you for everyone to see and enjoy.”
Les Paul spent his entire life building his House of Sound. On Saturday, June 13, we are celebrating Les Paul’s birthday here at Discovery World. Please join us for 100 years of sound, music, and innovation that changed the world. Take a guided tour of the Les Paul’s House of Sound exhibit, see incredible science demonstrations, create a custom Les Paul guitar pick, make a custom video birthday card, and have some cake.
If you happen to see Bing Crosby, tell him thanks for the inspiration.