As I was preparing a post about my fortieth anniversary in the audio-visual business, I got a phone call informing me that Steve Lutomski had passed on. I knew Steve for nearly all of those 40 years.
Ric Sorgel and I began Sorgel-Lee Multimedia (Also known as Sorgel-Lee-Riordan, SLI Multimedia, and Sorgel-Lee) February 1st, 1972. It’s easy to remember the date– it was also the day my wife of 6 months Barbara and I moved from the west side of the river to the east side. It was an easy move, and Ric borrowed his father’s GMC “Jimmy” to help make the move a bit easier.
We moved into a 3rd story one room apartment in the “Colonial” apartments on Cass Street. Across the street was a Drug Store and a Meat Market. Two blocks down was Northwestern Mutual, which had not yet taken over the far eastern portion of Mason Street.
It was in this apartment that I produced out first soundtrack, for Kiefer Corporation, a kitchen stainless steel fabricator. It was a virtual freebee. I narrated the script myself, doing my best Ed McMahon impression and reading into the winter coats in our one large closet (my first sound booth).
I didn’t want to be the voice of Sorgel-Lee; I just didn’t have the pipes.
That Christmas, I met someone who did: Steve. He came to a small Christmas party Barbara and I were having in our small living room. The Christmas Tree dominated, until Steve arrived, a plus one for a mutual friend. Steve was the life of that party, funny, wry, with a voice that simply could not be denied. This was a young Steve– he wasn’t quite yet a baritone, but he cut through the noise nonetheless.
At 23 years old; I was seizing every opportunity to make our business work creatively. We started with no money, just our talents, determination, and a devotion to the product– it had to be better than the other guys’– whoever they were.
By the end of the year we had landed a few small projects and a deadline was approaching: an “industrial” Corporate Overview for Milwaukee Valve Company.
I offered Steve the job on the spot– read the script for $25 bucks.
By the time we were ready to record, we had moved into our “palatial” offices at the Metropolitan Block Building, on what is now called Old World Third Street. If you ever saw 3rd Street back in those days, the name–at least the “old” part– was certainly appropriate.
We recorded on a Shure M78 line in to a 4-track Teac tape recorder. Steve had to be his own compressor, limiter, and noise gate. Of course, editing helped. In fact, and it is a fact, 100 takes were not uncommon. I was not going to let anything less than perfection go into our first for money “big-time” show.
The end result was, to my ears, perfection. Steve rolled with the punches, punched back, and always delivered, weaving and parrying a virtual symphony of human sound. The funny part was, we never let go of the leash; music was so important to our soundtracks that there wasn’t an announcer we used over the years that we didn’t have to subdue– the better to bob and weave in between the music flourishes.
Soon, he was always nailing it, although I never settled for one take, or even two. He was our voice for five years straight.
Milwaukee in the early 70′s didn’t have much of skyline, despite being dense with large industrial companies. The First Wisconsin Bank decided to change that with a 44 floor Tower.
To explain the roots of this “modern” monolithic building, we were asked to create a two-projector slide show telling the history of First Wis as it related to the history of the state of Wisconsin and City of Milwaukee.
Written by Rob Riordan, shot by Ric Sorgel, Soundtrack by Brien Lee, voiceover by Steve Lutomski, who was very patient while I tried to extract a more “depressing” depression era interpretation out of him.
In those days, Steve worked at Radio Doctors, a perfect home for his encyclopedic knowledge of music, from DooWop to Classical. Being just two blocks away, he could “drop in” to schmooze whenever he felt like it, and we in those days had time on our hands.
On Saturday’s, on his lunch break, we would meet at Major Goolsbie’s for a mixed solid and liquid lunch– three gin and tonics, and a burger or brat. When my father was in town, he’d join us.
As Sorgel-Lee-Riordan got busier, I found my workload increasing to the point of exhaustion. Ric was likewise encumbered; we each chose people to hire. Steve Lutomski, as an audio producer, and Greg Latsch, as a photographer, joined Rob Riordan, Linda Duczman, Dave Sorgel, Ric and myself as our first full-time staff. Things were going well, until:
It was Steve who called to give me the news… “The Building’s on fire!”
Our second floor world overlooking Odd Lot Shoes, Donge’s Gloves, and Lenrak’s Restaurant was gone, for the most part charred beyond recognition. A client in the Steinmeyer building down the street on Highland offered us temporary space, and things were never quite the same. They were serious, at times somber. Not an atmosphere Steve could thrive in. We were taking ourselves too seriously, and those who know Steve know that wasn’t his style. A few years later, he left, actually driving east to visit my family for comfort (my family loved him.)
There were hurt feelings,but our friendship continued outside of work, basically repairing itself over time. He attended my sister’s wedding, dated a friend of my brother’s, and help Barbara and I move from an apartment on Newberry to our house on Prospect. The song that was playing that weekend was one I’ll always associate with Steve– “Baker Street.” The music– and lyrics– fit.
Soon thereafter, we had a kid. Matthew. You would have thought he was Steve’s. He treated him like his own, with amazing generosity. Always the biggest presents (sometimes so big Matthew had to grow into them), always over for Saturday night dinner and Mystery Science Theater 3000. And of course, the holidays.
He was doing fine on a mix of income from radio stations gigs and voiceovers. But his continuity of employment was interrupted with two bouts of cancer, both of which he conquered. We’d visit him nearly daily at St. Joseph’s Hospital and later Columbia.
Steve eventually recovered and returned to form. If we hosted a party, we made sure he came early– he could turn on the charm and engage and entertain a crowd.
But the 21st century presented him with challenges.
Many helped whenever they could, and Steve was a survivor. He continued “schmoozing,” and if you attended any of the big sponsored events in town, he would be there. He was no shrinking violet, despite his health issues.
In the early days, we called him “the voice.” And he was– the voice of humor, the voice of music, and the voice of “the loyal opposition”, always willing to poke holes in the positions of employers, politicos, talk show hosts, even his friends and family.
But that was Steve: loyal, stubborn, funny, smart, and vocal, anywhere and everywhere.
Now, Steve is speechless and so are we.