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Meet the Wisconsin man who makes theremins in his Vernon basement

Posted at 10:51 PM, Aug 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-13 11:01:16-04

TOWN OF VERNON — It’s an instrument that sounds straight out of a 1950s science fiction movie. It’s an instrument with no keys, strings or pedals. It’s an instrument that has never had a lot of commercial success, but Charles Collins has managed to sell around 10,000 theremins out of his Town of Vernon basement.

"I sell all over the world.”

Collins has been making this unique instrument since 1993. He has sold thousands of the seemingly unpopular and difficult instrument to play through his 'theremaniacs' website.

"People buy them as gifts," he said.

It's so difficult to play because there is no physical touching of the instrument. It involves placing your hands closer and farther away from two metal antennas that control volume and pitch. However, it has garnered a lot of attention for the eerie sound it produces.

Each one is handmade. Even though he never had any specific schooling for electronics, Collins figured out how to make them through tinkering and a dozen trips to the library. Even though it's not a household instrument, he loves theremins for their uniqueness.

"I still think it's a futuristic instrument."

It sounds like the suspenseful moment in a 1950s science fiction movie or a spooky Halloween scene.

Collins used to work as an instrument repairman. That's how he got the knack for fixing things. When he first saw one in a magazine, he knew he needed it. Although he didn't have any luck until he stumbled upon it at a radio swap meet.

"Of course, I bought it. The guy didn’t know what it was. He thought it was a burglar alarm that didn’t work very well.”

Even though he makes instruments, Collins said he isn't even musically inclined.

"I couldn’t grasp music."

It's just fun for him and a way to make a little cash. Albeit, the 63-year-old said money isn't the reason he makes them.

"Of course, I bought it. The guy didn’t know what it was. He thought it was a burglar alarm that didn’t work very well.” — Charles Collins, who makes theremins

"I’m not going to get rich doing it."

It's just for the love of making an instrument he thinks is different.

After selling and making thousands, he actually owns a bit of theremin history, too. Only about 500 theremins were made commercially in October 1929. Collins said there are about 300 around today, and he owns one of them.

“I paid way too much for it, and I’d be doing good to get what I put into it."

As to whether the nearly 100-year-old theremin still plays, Collins isn't sure. He said he would have to refurbish it a little, but right now he is content with it being a decorative piece.