Marvels in Miniature
by Vincent Fumar
(This story is a reprint from a 1986 issue of Dixie magazine, a former Times-Picayune supplement. When the article was written, Hub Hobby was on Broad St and carried radio-controlled airplanes – – neither of which is the case today)
Jerry Kelly speaks softly and saunters around the Hub Hobby Shop like a man wearing slippers In his den.
Between frequent roars of the passing Broad bus. Kelly fields phone calls and greets customers in search of model-train parts, tiny bottles of paint, miniature evergreens and accessories for radio controlled model planes. Such items are usually located within seconds.
The Hub Hobby Shop stands in a plain commercial block of South Broad Avenue between Washington and the pumping station. Its name comes from its Broadmoor location – near the center of the city’s proverbial saucer.
“We bought the business in 1951, when it was a radio-repair shop and sold small appliances.” says Kelly of the Hub. “We started to add hobby supplies. Very soon, they began to eclipse the radio and appliance repair business, so we got out of that quickly.”
The stock comprises a virtual candy-box of Lilliputian train accessories, plastic models of airplanes, cars and ships, and a host of oddities. Elaborate model planes hang from the ceiling. Racks of paint and books on military aircraft line the main room. An adjoining room is devoted almost entirely to plastic models.
“Thirty-five years ago the merchandise was much more limited,” Kelly says. “Plastic models were just beginning to come out. Since then, the expansion has been astronomical, and computers have done such an accurate job of creating plastic models. We divide it into the plastic models, the flying models and trains – ‘HO’ gauge and ‘N’ gauge.”
But the world of model trains, in years past the domain of young boys, is now almost exclusively the property of gadget-minded adults, according to Kelly.
“There are practically no youngsters interested in the trains,” he says. “It’s not that they don’t exist, but they’re a small minority. Then there’s the teen-age group, but we lose them during the 18-25 year-old period when they go off and start families and find other things to occupy their time.
“Frequently we get them back in the 30-year-old age range, when they might acquire the necessary space or income and spare time to accommodate model trains. It’s true of other hobbles, too. Our largest age group is 30 and over.”
The room devoted to plastic models seems to include everything that has ever taken to the air. World War II planes abound, as do fighters from the Korean and Vietnam wars. There are menacing-looking Lockheed SR-71 spy planes In several different sizes, armed-to-the-teeth F-14s and Harriers. Among civilian craft. Piper Cubs are found near Concordes, the Pan Am Airbus and “Big Orange” – a Braniff 747.
“As far as our customers are concerned,” Kelly says, “It’s the airplanes. They’re more popular than the cars. Military aircraft account for 95 percent of all the display models. Also, armored fighting vehicles -tanks, personnel carriers, cannons, anti-aircraft guns.
“My present Interest, though, is in radio-controlled airplanes. I’ve built many of them over the years and have taught a lot of people how to fly them. We always had sawdust: and balsa-wood chips all over our front porch when we were growing up. My brother and I grew up in this area and went to school at St. Matthias, and we started this business.
“Anyway you can’t just give radio-controlled planes to people and say. ‘Here, go on and fly It.’ It requires close supervision In the early stages. The average person may need six to 10 hours of help before they can fly one themselves. Nowadays some of them are 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 30 to 40 pounds.”
Kelly stands to the middle of the plastic-model room and gazes nonchalantly at the walls of boxed fighters, bombers, airliners and cargo craft
“It’s hard to find an airplane that hasn’t been done,” he says. “Only the most obscure planes haven’t been done in plastic. We also have helicopters and model rockets.”
At the other end of the store, tiny boxcars, flatcars and landscaping material dominate the train section. Train accessories include roadside diners and even trackside shanty shacks.
“These are scenic materials,” he says while pointing to some diminutive shrubs and trees. “They’re good for many purposes. We sell a lot of them to architecture students and architects themselves, as well as to the people who build model trains. Our busiest period for model trains is December, and during periods of bad weather.”
Tucked away amid the standard trackside depots and shacks, though, is a genuine novelty – a plastic model called “IRS on Fire.” The illustration on the box shows a blazing four-story brick building with an Internal Revenue Service emblem on It. Included are battery operated flashing lights to simulate flames, and liquid smoke.
It’s recommended for those age 8 and over.
Photo by Vincent Fumar
Jerry Kelly tries selling his niece Carol something she doesn’t know she needs in this 1952 photo.
Hub Hobby’s old building on Broad St was demolished. Word of it being torn down spread like wildfire.
One of our customers, Jim Letten, was emailed by his friend Martin about the demolition of their childhood hang-out.
The subject line was: ROSEBUD
“Rosebud” was the dying word spoken by Orsen Welles in the movie Citizen Kane: a reference to his childhood sled – the symbol of memories of youthful innocence.
I’ve known Jim for at least 40 years and he has given us permission to publish his reply to his friends email.
Here it is:
“Martin, thank you for this.
Coincidentally, I had just heard that the building had been demolished—but hadn’t been by to see it gone.
Your Rosebud metaphor and sentiments are moving to me.
Living in our sweetest dreams for sure—and literally.
I can remember so vividly my Dad taking me there—among my very earliest recollections…standing at the counter next to him and looking at the VERY first of the Roco Minitanks…and later with you, walking the easy, very pleasant mile after school so many hundreds of times—only to excitedly find a new shipment of Airfix 1/72 scale soldiers (maybe British 8th Army or Red Army molded in that light gray).
Or in 7th or 8th grade, having just seen your completed Aurora Raider Atlantis, rushing to the Hub to (fingers crossed) get one before they were all gone. And yes, mine is still on display at my house 55 years later—poorly but proudly painted in your garage.
In a tradition I cherished way more than most, I took my son James there beginning some 25 years ago—and each time was transported by the evocative, distinct and indescribably comforting aroma of cardboard and plastic—grateful that he could experience it too as my gift to him of sorts.
The sheets of decals; the flat military paints; the seemingly never ending surprises consisting of new releases. The Napoleonic field piece which you lovingly presented to me recently, remembering that my father had—like deus ex machina—completed it despite its stubborn recalcitrance of wood and brass. Thank you.
And the great treasures there notwithstanding, as our almost daily destination alone it will always occupy a sacred place for us in our hearts and minds. It didn’t matter if we left with anything tangible…for we had gotten our dose of incomparable sense of wellbeing, of security, of adventure, of joy.
We couldn’t travel to North Africa or southern Russia or Normandy, nor certainly not back in time…or could we? No—we could, and we did. With every examination of box art—with the purchase of that Airfix Junkers JU-52 seaplane or that Aurora Panther—we were at sea or in the skies over Europe or the hedgerows of northern France.
Later, not too long ago (well, 20 years!)—I would and did proudly present to Chuck, Jeff and of course our hero, Jerry—my own models I had built as an adult. The Nichimo Panther I built and detailed in 1971 as a freshman at UNO—and a Revell Type 7 U-Boat I had constructed in Baton Rouge at my hotel in 2000 during the Edwards trial…both of which miraculously survived having been submerged by Katrina and which stand guard in our home to this day. And even now, an Airfix “E-boat” built during that same trial proudly sits in the glass case in the new location.
It’s telling but I only wept twice after the destruction of Katrina. The first and hardest was very shortly after the very deep water in that low area had drained away. As the U.S. Attorney I was in my government issue Ford F-150 four wheel drive truck and making my way through the city meeting various groups of local police and federal agents deployed throughout. That day—alone—I summoned the courage to drive to it—to see it. And there stood that building, with all of its treasures and memories inside in a blur of toppled shelves and piles of soggy boxes—in cold darkness.
Seeing that was too hard. So I said a prayer and wiped away the tears and just stood there, remembering. Remembering you and me as kids in a place so special that it was our magic carpet…a place which in spite of its having passed into history—will always be one of the most important parts of our lives in so many ways.
Thanks for remembering, Martin—and thanks for sharing it all with me as my friend.”
(And thank you, Jim, for letting us share your highly personal, moving and heartfelt tribute to Hub Hobby. The photo below of our demolished old building was taken by Michael Toso)
Roy and Jerry Kelly essentially introduced radio control boats and aircraft to the New Orleans area over 70 years ago. Roy was the electronics guy who kept customers flying, repairing their radios when needed. In those early days, the radios needed a lot of repairs.
Meanwhile, Jerry was the flight instructor. At one time it could be said that everyone who flew radio control airplanes down here was taught by either Jerry or a ‘descendant’ of someone Jerry taught.
Radio control units were a lot different in the early 50s. It was the days of “bang-bang” technology. Since it was practically stone-age technology, we’ll have to check out what the internet said about it:
“All the rubber escapements were of the type termed “bang-bang sequential”—ie, they did not employ any type of speed governor to reduce the sensitivity while the rubber torque was high. And being “sequential”, ie, neutral-left-neutral-right, it was easy to miss a position and end up with left rudder when what you really, really needed was right!”
Nowhere near digital-proportional, is it?
Jerry related one story from the early days when a group was flying on the lakefront:
“My plane took off, did a couple of rolls, followed by a loop, and landed right in front of me. All the time I was flying, I was working the controls. Everyone congratulated me on the perfect flight. What I didn’t tell them was that after the plane took off, I had no control over it. The radio wasn’t working.”
He had, in fact, a “lucky” flight!
Jerry Kelly – – the Flight Instructor
Brass model train engines were big in the 1970s. Our engine case was filled with them. Each sold for between $250 and $350 apiece and most were a bright shiny – – – brass.
Most of the folks who bought one of these engines wanted them painted. The painter most in demand was Andy Sperandeo, who worked at the Hub. He must have been good as he eventually became Editor of Model Railroading magazine.
Andy told the story of how a customer balked at the price he quoted him for painting his plastic engine.
“That’s the same price you charge for painting a brass engine!’ the customer moaned.
Andy replied, “It takes the same amount of paint and the same amount of time to custom paint a plastic engine as it does to paint a brass one.”
Even Earlier Days
Ask any youngster what they want to be when they grow up and chances are that the answer they give will not be the career path they ultimately take.
Not so with the Kelly Brothers. From an early age, they built model airplanes.
This 1942 newspaper article shows that they built ‘em good enough for the Navy to use as aircraft recognition models.
The caption reads: “Acceptance by the navy of more than 100 model airplanes made by students of Jesuit High School this summer testifies to the quality of the workmanship under the exacting instruction of the Rev. John Lapeyre, for the navy’s standards are high.”
Left to right: Jerry is number 3 and Roy is number 5.
Advertising Before the Internet
Getting the word out about a new business is always tough. In those days it was probably a bit harder as there was no Google search for “hobby shops near you.” There was no Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds, Instagram: It was a digital desert.
They had to rely on print ads, radio, and word-of-mouth. One way they did this was to attend shows, much like today’s Boat Show and World of Wheels. Here are a couple of photos of what a 1950s era Boat Show looked like. In the above photo, you can make out the cabin of some sort of boat.
This shot is of our display at that same show. That sign was eventually hung on the outside of our old Broad Street building. We’ve got the boat on the third shelf all the way to the left at our current location.
Crank It Up!
Radio controlled airplane competitions were a part of Roy and Jerry Kelly’s flying activities during the 1950s through 1980s. Pattern and Pylon racing required skill and speed. Then there were also events of a lighter nature such as Limbo and Balloon Busting. While Jerry was the flier, Roy often served as either Contest Director or in some other support role.
“I was there from the start,” commented Rick Kelly, who spent his teen years in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s working at the Hub. “I even spent my summers playing – I mean – working at the shop.”
And he spent his Sundays flying.
The Nationals were held in Dallas one year in the late 1950s and Rick went to it along with Roy and two other members of the Crescent City Radio Control Club.
He picks up the story: “The stuff we did in New Orleans was neat, but what was done at the Nationals – now that was really advanced. In New Orleans we were flying 2 or 3 channels – like rudder, engine, and elevator. At the Nationals they were using ailerons and flaps and retracts.
It gave us some really good ideas as what we could do. Roy started adding more channels to the radios. (Roy custom-made radios.)
There were even some people flying jets – that attracted some big crowds. I’d never seen anything like that. Being a kid at that time, everything was enjoyable.”
55 Years Gone
Hub Hobby opened its doors in 1951 and stayed at its Broad Street location until late 2005. Hurricane Katrina changed that, forcing us to move to Airline Drive. Hub’s original building was a freestanding, 2-story building located about 100 feet away from the largest drainage pump in the world – a drainage pump that got flooded and destroyed during Katrina. That’s Hub Hobby in the photo – – dead center – – surrounded by water; the pumping station is the long building to the left.
The shop had 7 feet of water, its roof ripped completely off, its windows blown out, mold that made it look like a moss cave, and looters: we had it all. It took 3 insurance adjusters 4 hours to inspect the building. Before they were finished, one of them was in tears. There’s a lot more to this story, and you can find it here. . .
Among the Ruins
Jerry had another hobby in addition to flying radio control airplanes – he and his wife Joyce were amateur archaeologists. For a month each summer for over 40 years, they travelled to the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America to document Mayan ruins. Joyce had been a frequent visitor to Mexico as a child.
“The people of the Yucatan Peninsula have a well-deserved reputation for their friendliness,” according to Joyce. ”In fact, the more remote the area, the nicer the people.”
For them the adventure lay in travelling the trails off the beaten path – or even where there was no path. Modes of transportation included bush plane, dugout canoes, burros, and 4-wheel drive vehicles. Shelter sometimes was a hut with a grass roof.
“One hut had Scorpions crawling all over the place,” reminisced Jerry. “I made sure to shake out my shoes before putting them on the next morning!”
In the late 1970s, Joyce decided to write a book about the places she visited. Jerry took and processed the black & white photos. Joyce wrote the text and took the color photos. As an artist (who trained and later taught at the John McCrady School in New Orleans) she drew the maps and did the artwork.
The book was printed by the University of Oklahoma Press, which over the years grew to three additional books on the pyramids. In 2010, the University of Oklahoma was interested in having them do a fifth book. Jerry declined.
“A question that I always got was ‘What about snakes’,” said Joyce “Yes, there are snakes, but we encountered few. When you walk through the jungle, you’ll be making lots of noise and will normally scare off any snakes that may be around. Nevertheless, it is advisable to look where you are stepping when you walk on jungle trails.”
Jerry continued. “I pointed out one of the snakes we did see to our guide. He told me it was harmless. Then whacked it with his machete saying, “One like that killed my brother.”
The following video is an introduction to the website featuring some of the photos they took. The website is amongtheruins.org