Walter Wolff: cabbie, rocker, carpenter to the stars


Do you know where the second biggest stained glass window in the world is? If not, it could be because you don’t talk to cab drivers.

You know what happens. You see a guy – salt of the earth type, driving a cab in a small town that he just maybe has never left – and you figure there is not too much you could have in common to talk about. You worry you can’t sustain the conversation all the way to the airport.

Well, just ask one question… and see where it goes. I asked Walter Wolff, of Covington, Kentucky, about a couple of well-lit steeples off in the distance, and here’s what I learned in the next 20 minutes…

The second biggest stained glass window in the world is in St Mary’s Basilica in Covington. The facade of the church is a replica of Notre Dame – down to the last gargoyle. And the body of the church is based upon the blueprints of another church just north of Paris.

The church is as beautiful as any that you will see in Europe, and Walter would know. He spent 20 years as a backing guitarist in Europe and South America supporting first Motown bands like the Four Topps and The Drifters, and then moved into reggae and supported many Carribean bands whose guitarists had visa issues, presumably because of their, uh, ‘herbal preferences’.

He got sick of touring, so settled in LA and turned to his love of working with wood. Designing and making outdoor furniture and structures like decks and arches and arbors and hill stairs for homes in Malibu. Did you know that it takes about 8 years to get a permit to build a new home in Malibu? It’s much quicker if you just knock down an old one and rebuild.

Walter was no slouch in the outdoor construction business. “You might have seen some of my stuff on Oprah,” he said nonchalantly. That archway and gazebo of Barbra Streisand’s that Oprah loved so much, he made that. No big deal, though. He also made the Adirondack chairs from the boardwalk scenes on every episode of Hannah Montana… and a bunch of chairs for a beachside scene in the X-Men movie.

But I also learned that if you are truly talented in the furniture business, don’t display it at the garden center down at Zuma Beach. There will be cheap knock offs made in Tijuana, sold on the street corner and undercutting you viciously in a matter of days.

And this’s where I learned the most important thing from Walter on this trip. With his business ruined by illegal importing and underpaid labor, he saw the right opportunity to lease his home in LA, and go spend time in Covington with his mom, “who is getting on a bit now”.

And having played guitar for The Drifters around Scandinavia, and making Oprah go nutty for his artful handiwork, now he is simply and happily doing the best damned job he can of being a cabbie and making peoples’ trip as enjoyable as possible.

Well, Walter, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip.

And man, am I glad I asked that question about the Church!!

— Irish

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