It’s easy to take things for granted in a movie, especially the props.
Maybe props do fit seamlessly into whatever’s going on in the movie, but these items don’t just show up out of nowhere. Films and TV producers need to acquire props from someone who has them, and if those producers are doing, say, a mid-20th century period piece in an office and they need some old-school machines from straight out of the era, these productions are increasingly turning to Mercerville’s own Karl Business Machines.
And we’re not just talking about indie filmmakers from Hamilton setting out on their first shoestring production. One of the films that turned to Karl Business Machines is “Hidden Figures,” about a real-life trio of African-American female mathematicians who helped land a man on the moon, and which was just up for three Academy Awards this year.
The room full of vintage typewriters you’ll see in that film and the IBM Selectric I that you’ll see Taraji P. Henson typing on came straight from Karl Business Machines. Karl’s owner, Rick Dutczak (son of the original Karl who started the business in 1976), repaired that very machine himself and says he was delighted to see it in all its working-order glory on the screen. It wasn’t the only machine from Karl in the movie.
“We rented a bunch of machines,” Dutczak says. Although not the adding machines.
“Hidden Figures” is hardly the only place you can get a cinematic peek at Karl’s vintage equipment. Machines from the shop have found their way into commercials for Land Rover and Bud Light, TV shows like “The Hunt” by John Walsh, and other films, beginning with “Men In Black III.”
That first rental for the Tommy Lee Jones/Will Smith threequel, Dutczak says, came in the simplest of ways—a phone call from the props department looking for machines. The producers needed several, which narrows the field when it comes to finding them.
“If it’s just one machine, that’s easy to find,” Dutczak says. “If you’re looking for 12 machines, that’s not so easy to find.”
Indeed not. Apart from productions and an admittedly sizable chunk of the young and hip who like retro in all forms, there’s not so much need for typewriters today as there used to be.
But, if you’ve driven on Nottingham Way through Mercerville any time in the past 41 years, you’ve driven past this unassuming white-and-blue building just west of where Nottingham Way and Route 33 split. Back in the 1970s and 80s, when the internet was still years from even being a pipe dream, Karl Business Machines was a common stop for newbies in business, college students and high school kids looking to get reports done without having to invest in a full-time typewriter.
And you’d think that once home computers and digital documents became the de facto way of getting the typed word out, that would be all she wrote for a place like Karl. Well, for many places like Karl Business Machines, it was. Back in the days when the U.S.S.R. was still a thing, places that rented and repaired typewriters and other business machines were all over the place.
These days, though, shops offering sales and service for things like typewriters and adding machines are a dying breed. New Jersey has few such shops left.
So, when the “Men In Black” team needed more than just one IBM Selectrict 1 (which was in its day one of the top typewriters in the world), it didn’t have many choices. And though some people still have a Selectric somewhere in their homes, not a lot of people have a dozen lying around.
When the producers for “Men In Black III” found Karl Business Machines through an online search, they found a trove of machines that ended up in the film. Dutczak loved it. The business had made a little extra money in a way he had never considered, And then … nothing.
OK, not nothing. Just no calls from filmmakers for a while. Maybe better stated, business at Karl just went on as it had always done. Dutczak says he chalked up the cameo as a nice story to tell and went about his business.
And then the phone rang. And then it rang again. And again. Soon, Dutczak said, word of mouth had spread through the film world about this unassuming white-and-blue shop in Mercerville that had an astounding inventory of classic business machines and a small collection of folks who know how to make them look and run like they were fresh off the assembly line.
With the emphasis decidedly off typewriters and adding machines and other business equipment that used to be part of the backdrop of Corporate America, it might be an obvious question to ask just why a place like Karl Business Machines decided to keep operating. The overall answer from Duczak is disarmingly simple.
“This is what we know how to do best,” he says.
Besides, he says, it’s not like people completely stopped using those machines. Some held onto them for sentimental reasons, some held on because they just prefer them, but whatever the reason, people (and yes, some businesses) still actually use analog typewriters pretty often. And those people need their machines fixed, so they bring them to Karl.
And they bring them from all over, Dutczak says.
“An hour’s common,” he says of the drive time people often take to get to his shop. Two hours is not unheard of either. One customer, he says, happily made her way down from Connecticut to have a machine restored. Karl also has customers all over the planet, Dutczak says—Europe, Canada, Australia. If there’s a mailing address to ship to, Karl will ship to it.
Granted, the movie cameos for the machine’s Karl has are nice, but Dutczak says the rentals to production companies are a small part of the business. A bigger part is a return to the simpler non-digital world, especially among younger writers who just love the feel of a real typewriter under their fingers, he says.
One of the things Karl Business Machines does when refurbishing old machines is to paint them. A lot of people do that, Dutczak says, but not to the degree Karl does.
“We strip the paint, we sandblast,” he says. “It’s not a home paint job.”
Homemade paint jobs, it turns out, are pretty common. But they’re just that. A casual browse on the internet will yield plenty of people with a garage-based business that involves little more than a can of spray paint. What separates Karl, Dutczak says, is that the shop will restore and repair the entire machine and make them look and work like they’re factory fresh.
That’s not always easy. Don’t forget, most such machines haven’t been made new in years, or even decades. A lot of them, Dutczak says, are gummed up, rusty, or in some other state of disrepair from being in an attic or basement or closet, unused for who knows how long. Fixing these machines is not a matter of dusting them off and spray painting the chassis. It takes knowledge of the actual machine, and considering Dutczak has been working on these kinds of machines since he was 16 (he’s 56 now), it’s a good bet he has seen one or two examples of the various machines over the years.
The movie cameos will keep coming, most likely. An upcoming film about the Detroit riots of 1967 (an as-yet untitled film being helmed by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow) is set to feature a dozen of Karl’s machines. Repairs will also likely continue to be the shop’s bread and butter, Dutczak says.
And maybe the need to keep period pieces accurate and the emotional attachment young writers have to retro business equipment will keep Karl’s increasingly niche industry afloat. But even if it does, there’s one piece of vintage equipment that cannot be replaced: Rick Dutczak.
“I’m the youngest of that generation,” he says, meaning the last generation of people who cut their teeth on business machines that were state-of-the art when he started. “There’s not a lot of us anymore.”