Model trains began as a hobby for Harry Turner and became a way of life. Mr. Turner, of Cochranton, Crawford County, died Tuesday at UPMC Shadyside after weeks of hospitalization following a stroke. He was 63.
For two decades, he traveled around the continent with his massive model train display, which made the Guinness Book of World Records in 1989 as the largest Lionel mobile train display in the world. The display, which featured 400 feet of track, interactive displays and digital sound recordings, filled the trailer of the 18-wheeler that drove to all 50 states and Canada.
His wife, Diane, traveled with him when the destinations were appealing. After dating for 10 years, the two got married on Feb. 14, 1993, on the 18th hole of a golf course in Fort Myers, Fla. "We did it on Valentine's Day," she laughed, "so he wouldn't forget the date."
Mr. Turner was born in Farnsworth, England, but immigrated to the United States at age 2, traveling aboard the Queen Mary. He served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and worked in various jobs, including as a promoter for bands such as Foreigner and the Bee Gees. Even after he entered semi-retirement, the work in promotions came in handy to book dates with the model train display.
He collected trains since he received his first one at age 4, said his wife, and got the idea to build a mobile display after seeing the miniature railroad at the Buhl Planetarium. "He was so impressed by the Buhl Planetarium train," said his wife. "That was where he got his inspiration to build trains and take them to people who couldn't come to see it."
It took him about nine months to build his mobile display, including hand-painting hundreds of figurines of ice skaters, children on swings and even John F. Kennedy. A figurine that he made of his yellow labrador, Casey, was so admired that he began selling copies to other collectors.
With friends, he wired the display so that children could press a button and watch miniature skiers move downhill, or miniature men chop logs. He also included a fiber-optic display of the galaxy, with all the major stars in their proper places.
Over the years, he and his train display appeared on CNN, Nickelodeon, PBS and even Russian television. The train set still sits in the trailer bed of the 18-wheeler. "We were going to sell it for Harry's care," said his wife. "I'd love to be able to find someone who would take it on as a business and continue the legacy."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Turner is survived by two daughters, Suzanne Franklin and Sharon Turner, both of Springdale; one son, Harry W. Turner, of the North Side; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Mass will be celebrated today at 11 a.m. in St. Agatha Church in Meadville.
Harry Turner operated a music store in Oakland in the same building where Pittsburgh Filmmakers started. The Naked Sound purchased a Kustom PA system that was used for a show the band played in Bradford, PA, opening for the Spencer Davis Group. The sound system had previously been used by Tommy James and the Shondells.
The second Turner's Music was located in the 800 block of Penn Avenue, across from the 9th and Penn parking garage. Harry Turner had recently acquired a franchise to sell Traynor Amps. Harry was facing eviction and invited Bob Hinkson and Dan Gleason, two of Emmett's band mates (residing in Meadville, PA at the time) to crank the amps up as loud as possible. The sonics rang out along Penn Avenue. Harry and Emmett sat across the street on a wall and shared stories. Harry dug the music and exhorted to "Keep playing that woo-woo music".
JD Hopkins met Harry Turner when he moved to Cochranton, PA. Emmett went with JD to visit Harry the year before Harry died. Harry talked about managing a reggae band and their performances on college campuses. College students would ask if there was anything they could do to help the band. Harry would back the PA truck to the auditorium and watch the panic on the kids faces when they saw the huge amount of gear that had to be unloaded.
Another story was when Harry was older and was called up for a wedding gig. Harry had never played with the group. The guitarist would come over to Harry and say the chord changes to the tune while they played. On the break, the guitarist said, "I hope that it is helpful when I call the chord changes to you." Harry turned to him, smiled, and said, "That's cool man, but don't worry, it's really unnecessary,....I play the universal A".
Whatever the Universal A means went to the grave with Harry.
Another story in the Harry Turner folklore involves his years as a promoter. It is alleged that Harry Turner tried relentlessly to get an audience with a major record producer in New York. After many refusals, Harry found out that the office of the producer was on the 8th floor of a particular building. Harry then rented a small office in the building across the street. Pushing the desk up to the open window, Harry stood on the desk and proceeded to hit golf balls across the street, hitting the producer's window. Don't know if the producer ever met with Harry.
British Invasion (Contextual Reference to Marshmallow Steamshovel)