While Studio City mourns the passing of the landmark Henry’s Tacos, be thankful there is still some old Studio City history left in the neighborhood. One of those is Benning Violins on Ventura Boulevard, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. While Henry’s Tacos began stuffing ground meat into shells in the early 1960s, Benning Violins has been providing, as the front window says, “Studio City Music since 1953.”
I am beginning to appreciate anything that is older than I am. And ever since we started our column, Heidi and I have been thinking about dropping in on Benning Violins. It always seems so different from the other bustling, need-it-now businesses competing for our attention on Ventura. It’s easy enough to find a place to get gluten-free pizza, medical marijuana or sweat pants with a suggestive message written in rhinestones across the rear end. There aren’t so many spots where you can watch plain wood transform into a violin or cello before your eyes.
From the outside, this storefront we’ve passed a thousand times on our way somewhere else looked peaceful, quiet – like maybe you’d need an appointment to get buzzed in through locked doors. Or at least proof that you can play a stringed instrument, something that neither the dog nor I can provide (my short stint of violin lessons in grade school ended badly for all concerned). But we called – and found out that as long as we came in before or after the Benning traditional lunch period beginning at 11:30 a.m., we were more than welcome. No locks to keep out the musically challenged.
So at 10:30 on Thursday, there we were, feeling as though we were stepping back into the past as soon as we closed the doors behind us. Laura Phillips, who has worked here since she started coming to the shop after school 31 years ago, said that the proprietors take pride in maintaining an old-world feel. Heidi was excited that everyone here didn’t mind a German shepherd wandering off-leash among the treasures inside this longtime family business.
You can find the family history on the website, but here’s the short version: Instrument maker Paul Toenniges, from De Kalb, Illinois, opened his shop, then called Studio City Music, in 1953. His daughter Nancy went to Germany to study instrument making. There, Nancy met Hans Benning. The two returned to Southern California to work in the shop. In 1978, Hans and Nancy took over the business. Nancy was not at the shop the day of our visit, but Hans was busy in the back, restoring instruments. Their sons, Eric and Brian Benning, also work at Benning Violins. Eric makes new instruments; Brian, who is also trained as an instrument maker, is a professional violinist.
The store provides instruments for everyone from the beginning student to distinguished members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A fun fact for me: I was once wrote a profile of L.A. Phil cellist Jonathan Karoly for the Los Angeles Times. During this visit more than 10 years later, I learned from Eric that Karoly plays a Benning cello.
Heidi did not care about any of this history, so in order to keep her entertained I asked Brian Benning to play for her, which he was more than willing to do. Not surprisingly, the German girl loved hearing Bach on the violin. She was less pleased when Brian did an impromptu version of that scary shark music from Jaws. The dog was also happy to settle down on the soft Oriental rug in the shop’s parlor area to listen to a few notes on the cello (Brian is quick to point out that he is not a cellist, so scales only).
So, don’t despair. Maybe you can no longer eat a Henry’s Taco while listening to the great symphonies of the world (we all did that, right?) But, it’s possible that, when you hear beautiful music involving strings, instead of a Stradivarius or an Amati instrument, you just might be hearing a Benning, from Studio City.