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Not Just a Fluke: Sheffield Shop Perfects the Ukulele

Rural Intelligence ArtsThe Stradivari family has the violin. The Gibsons have the guitar. For the Webb family in Sheffield, while the family business has yet to hit the 20-year mark, it seems they have cornered the fast-growing ukulele market, which is beginning to enjoy celebrity status thanks to the likes of Bette Midler and William H. Macy (seen here strumming away on Oprah). The Magic Fluke Company, founded in 1999 by husband and wife team Dale and Phyllis Webb, is dedicated to perfecting the most humble of string instruments. Named after the fluke, the company’s slightly larger, 15-fret signature redesign of the traditional ukulele, it’s no fluke that the company is the largest national manufacturer of the endearing instrument (competing with companies in China and Taiwan), producing at least 100 ukuleles per week, 5,000 per year, with nearly 20 percent of this number flying out of The Magic Fluke’s timber frame headquarters during the holiday season alone.

The wheels began to turn in the mid 1990s when Phyllis’s brother “Jumpin” Jim Beloff, who at the time worked in sales for Billboard Music, discovered a vintage Martin ukulele at a Pasadena flea market, only to discover that there were very few songbooks to help him on his quest to master the instrument. Beloff took matters into his own hands and wrote instructional books for ukulele novices. Once that hurdle was conquered, that’s when he approached his sister and her husband, a composites engineer “looking for an out,” about fiddling around with creating an everybody-friendly ukulele.

“It was a fun project at the time,” Dale said while overseeing the quiet production floor. “There was very little uke activity going on at the time. So we developed some prototypes and took them to the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show in Anaheim. We came back with so many orders, it was surreal. We haven’t missed a trade show since. The growth has been constant.”

Rural Intelligence ArtsThe sleek design of the company’s flukes and fleas (the fluke’s more compact little brother) begins with the compact (and inadvertently cute) molded body made of an acoustically hospitable composite material. The hardwood sound board, which is available in solid colors with enticing names like Bubblegum Pink and Poiple as well as laser cut designs such as Tiki and Atomic, is topped by a solid maple (or walnut) neck and a laminate birch top. The instruments come into the shop as veritable puzzle pieces. It is the crew at The Magic Fluke Co. who give the little beauties their visual charm as well as their bright, cheery tone. And for as simple as the manufacturing process seems, Dale is clear that a lot of thought went into sourcing these humble harmony-makers.

Rural Intelligence Arts“The parts are picked and sourced as locally as possible,” he says. “The injection molding is done in Connecticut, and a lot of the wood comes from the family property. Everything is U.S.A. Made.”

Ironically, the biggest market for flukes and fleas is Asia, specifically South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and Singapore, where YouTubing one’s ukulele skills is a somewhat popular practice. And young voyeurs are not the only ones smitten with the high strung instrument that was a childhood first for music legends like Johnny Winter, Don Henley, and Tony Visconti. Rocker Eddie Vedder released “Ukulele Songs” in May 2011, a haunting collection of low-toned lullabies made sweet by the uke’s plucky, pure chords. In fact, the Webbs got to tag along with Jumpin’ Jim when he was invited backstage after one of Vedder’s shows for the uke tour. In that moment, it was the big wave sound rock star who bared his humility.

“It was amazing to see how excited Eddie was to met my brother,” Phyllis says. “He seemed to really believe in what Jim had done, and in the instrument itself.”

The Magic Fluke has also enjoyed the limelight with Bette Midler. The custom-designed pink pineapple flea adorned with pink and clear Swarovski crystals, which nearly cleared $9,000 in a Julien’s auction, was used by the Broadway baby during her two year stint (2008-2010) performing “The Showgirl Must Go On” at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.

Rural Intelligence ArtsCloser to home, The Magic Fluke Co. has encouraged a surge of eager students of all ages who have adopted the simplicity and portability of flukes and fleas. Local musician Rob Sanzone, who also constructs ukuleles at the shop, has formed the Berkshire Ukelele Band (BUB), which is open to players of all ages and skill levels, and meets every Tuesday night at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center. He says that he sees anywhere from 35 to 40 players a week during the winter months, and that the band has begun to perform at smaller venues such as community suppers and area music fundraisers. To Phyllis, this kind of involvement is exactly what the ukulele is supposed to inspire.

“It really creates community,” she says. “It takes people off the computers and brings families together. It’s easy to bring along while camping and traveling. In fact, we shipped one out to a fellow who was going to South America for a year but couldn’t lug his guitar down there. The ukulele brings music anywhere, for anyone.” —Nichole Dupont

The Magic Fluke Company
292 South Main Street
Sheffield, MA 01257
(413) 229-8536

Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
There will be a special open house on Saturday, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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