By Lisa Schmelz
Residents of Lake Geneva are often surprised to learn that the area once boasted a world-class music recording studio. Despite the string of hits this studio produced, it remains an underappreciated piece of local history. Even those familiar with its history have difficulty telling the story completely.
Performers who passed through included some of the industry’s biggest names: John Mellencamp (back when he still had a “Cougar” in his name), Survivor, T’Pau, Cheap Trick, Guns and Roses, Bon Jovi, Adrian Belew, Robert Plant, Enuff Z’nuff, Crash Test Dummies, Nine Inch Nails, Live, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more. All of these artists at one time or another recorded music in what is now an engineering office at Grand Geneva Resort.
For almost 20 years, world-famous acts came to this area and played, sang, jammed, recorded, re-recorded, mixed, and even occasionally stole nearby horses and rode them through the Burger King drive-through at midnight.
Bun E. Carlos is the drummer for Cheap Trick, a world-renowned rock band that formed in Rockford, Illinois in the late 1960s and went on to record several top-10 hits and platinum-selling albums. They recorded their 1985 album, Standing on the Edge, at the Lake Geneva studio.
“It wasn’t that they put a studio in there that was surprising,” Carlos says. “[The surprise was] that it was as good as it was.”
The Lake Geneva studio proved popular with musicians, but it struggled financially. Although in its final days, it produced three platinum albums — by Live, Nine Inch Nails and Crash Test Dummies — the studio struggled to make a profit. Studios make money when artists book recording time, not when they sell lots of albums.
Ron Fajerstein was the last of the studio’s many owners, and the one most heavily invested. Fajerstein had access to family money made in the diamond import business. Albums recorded in Lake Geneva went platinum, paved by diamonds. Pouring millions into the studio, Fajerstein was convinced Lake Geneva could be the next big thing in music. Unfortunately, that never happened.
Fajerstein returned to the diamond business and now lives in Florida. But ask him about his beloved studio — Royal Recorders — and he still gets wistful.
“It didn’t belong in Lake Geneva,” he reflects with the benefit of hindsight two decades later. “It belonged in London and New York.”
Andy Waterman grew up in Dundee, a suburb northwest of Chicago. A gifted musician, he frequently ventured north across the state line to play gigs here.
“Some of the most creative bands I ever worked with came out of Wisconsin,” he says today from his recording studio, Umbrella Media, near Los Angeles. “They were marching to their own drummer, and a lot of the bands that came out of Milwaukee or Madison had a fresh take on music, where bands in Chicago were just following the trends.”
During the late 1960s, Waterman, who plays the trumpet, bass, piano and sings, also took a side job working for McDonald’s writing advertising jingles. (A guitar store where he taught lessons was owned by an advertising executive working on the McDonald’s account.) When he was barely old enough to drive, Waterman began receiving residual checks from the fast-food behemoth.
“Anything to get into a recording studio, that was my mantra as a teenager,” he says.
AN OPPORTUNITY EMERGES
Waterman graduated from Northern Illinois University with a music degree in the mid 1970s, and he was still willing to do anything to be in a recording studio. When a Chicago audio supplier told him about a tiny studio in Lake Geneva, he decided to check it out. There he found Vern and Jan Castle, the husband-wife owners of Castle Recording. The Castles were retired, and though they weren’t household names, they’d made a good living in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s as an opening act for big-name entertainers. From their south-shore home, they opened Castle Recording, where they recorded mostly radio commercials. Some of those ads, written for brands like Wrigley’s, Menards, and American Family Insurance, are still played today.
Waterman took a job at Castle Recording; he was a Jack-of-all-trades. He produced, engineered, sang, and picked up an instrument when a jingle called for it. On the side, he picked up a gig with the house band at Lake Geneva’s Playboy Club. At least once a week, he’d don a tux and head up to Playboy, fi lling in for sick or touring musicians.
The Playboy Club provided the perfect venue for top-name entertainment. In 1977, Waterman had been in Lake Geneva for about three years and lobbied Playboy to expand their entertainment even further.
FROM JINGLES TO ALBUMS
The jingle business coming to Castle was good, but Waterman knew there were even greater possibilities for the studio. Midwestern bands needed access to quality recording studios and management. At Castle, he helped a group called Matrix record their fi rst album, which in turn attracted the attention of recording giant RCA. Sweetbottom, a jazz fusion band with longstanding regional success, sought out his skills soon after and also was signed to a major label. That same year, he struck a deal with Castles to buy their studio.
“This whole idea that we could create a music scene here came from that success with Matrix and Sweetbottom. The results were going to a national platform,” he says. “What we were doing was attracting bands, mining for gold. The gold was in the band. The band is an economic engine of possibility, and once the album is done, that engine can be revved up to go all over the country and make money for the management, the label, and everything behind the scenes in the music industry.”
Top artists of the day were performing at the Playboy Club. Rock stars appearing at nearby Alpine Valley, one of the nation’s largest outdoor music venues, would also stay at the resort when they came through on tour. The region, Waterman thought, was ripe with a captive market. He hoped to capitalize on that, and at the same time, introduce the country to the thriving Midwestern music scene.
A PROPOSAL FOR PLAYBOY
So Waterman campaigned Playboy to build a recording studio, the only one its clubs were ever known to have. With a neatly typed two-page pitch in hand, he scored a meeting with Sam Distefano, with whom he’d brainstormed the idea informally and who had told him, with a snap of his fingers, to “Write something up.”
Distefano was the entertainment director for all of the Playboy Clubs and the bandleader at the Lake Geneva club; Waterman knew him from his gig subbing in Distefano’s Playboy orchestra. In a nondescript office at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club, a room so small Waterman still laughs about it today, he outlined why Playboy should build a studio and let him lease and operate it under the name of Shade Tree (formerly Castle).
Waterman says the idea initially took off “like a rocket.” In just three short weeks, after more meetings with Playboy suits and an audience with Hefner’s daughter, Christie, the studio got a green light.
In October 1977, Walworth County officials issued the permit that would allow Lake Geneva to take its place in music history. Adjacent to its massive convention center, Playboy would construct a 35-by25-foot recording studio.
OPTIMISM RUNS HIGH
Waterman doesn’t remember the month or day Shade Tree officially opened, but pegs it in early 1978. A story in the March 4 edition of Billboard that year alerted the industry to the new space and the studio, with its state-of-the-art MCI 528 automated console, quickly booked up. Even though Waterman was by this point seriously in debt, nobody was nervous, least of all Playboy.
“I’m almost positive [Playboy’s] investment was just under $60,000 to build the shell,” he says. “We were to pay $2,500 a month in rent to them. At that time, we could bill that in two days.”
Studios have always been expensive ventures, and Shade Tree was never solely owned by Waterman. Other stakeholders included his wife, Judy, whose banker father helped them secure financing, and Larry Schroeder, who also had ties to big finance and owned a local music store. Like Waterman, dates and certain details escape Schroeder, but he remembers his role clearly. “I was the guy who went out and brought the deals in,” he says.
For a while, the deals weren’t hard to bring in. In the beginning, business was brisk, though they were not yet attracting big name acts. But Judy Roberts, a famed Chicago jazz artist, recorded here. John Cougar Mellencamp, Matrix and Sweetbottom also laid tracks at Shade Tree. In addition to the recording studio, Shade Tree also formed a separate production company as a way to ﬁnd and promote new artists.
TROUBLE ON THE HORIZON
But as the new decade approached, problems began to pile up. The economy took a turn for the worse. Interest rates spiked. Playboy ceased being a trendsetter. Record labels began to slash studio budgets. Then Andy and Judy Waterman divorced. Waterman says his former wife wanted him to buy out her shares, but loans in that sinking economy came with 20 percent interest. Shade Tree took off like a rocket, but burned out of fuel just as fast.
“At the end of the day,” says Waterman, “I was not a major stockholder. I left in 1980. That’s my memory.”
After Waterman walked away, he says his ex-wife and Schroeder tried to keep the studio going. Studio credits for Shade Tree can be found until as late as 1982, but it was by no means thriving.
“It changed directions, going into 1979,” remembers Schroeder. “They were introducing cassettes and videos. The music business went into a very stressful time. [Recording] budgets that were $180,000 were down to $73,000, and you’re still constantly updating your equipment and you’re not billing what you were. When you sit down and do the math, it just didn’t look very good.”
Schroeder doesn’t remember what day he ﬁnally surrendered to the bottom line, only that he did.
“I just left it,” he says. “I just walked away from it.”
PLAYBOY CUTS ITS LOSSES
In 1982, Playboy also walked away, selling its Lake Geneva compound. As the Bass Brothers from Texas, owners of the Americana Resort chain, took over the resort, Shade Tree Studio remained dormant.
At some point, sources associated with the studio say, the late Phil Bonanno decided to try and bring Shade Tree back into the light. Jim Bartz is a musician and audio engineer now living in Seattle. This studio gave him his start in the industry. Shade Tree, he explains, became Sound Summit.
“It was 1985 that I started working there,” he says, “and the studio had only been open [again] for a little less than a year. It wasn’t a world-class studio until it became Sound Summit. Then it got a Neve 8068 console. It was a rock and roll paradise. That’s a very coveted board. I was told it was the actual console John Lennon recorded Double Fantasy on. It had, like, a pedigree to it.”
Sound Summit, he adds, was Bonanno’s “brainchild,” funded with money he’d made as a producer for bands like Survivor. Bonanno also had partners. Julie (Whowell) Ieronimo was a receptionist there. She believes while Bonanno did have a stake in the studio, and was the studio’s chief engineer, a group of investors on the West Coast was the majority shareholder.
“Sound Summit was owned by a group of dentists, who I never met, that were from Van Nuys, California,” she explains, still shocked by the idea. “That’s what I remember being told. I never met them, but that’s where our paychecks were from.”
Why would out-of-town dentists want a recording studio in Wisconsin? Tax relief, perhaps. During that time, tax laws speciﬁc to record-making made studios a great shelter. It’s possible the investors cared little about the music and simply wanted a place to store their cash.
Bonanno’s connections in the music industry brought in bands like Survivor, Cheap Trick and Skid Row. But frequently, the studio was used to record or mix only a few songs, and not booked for the extended periods of time that would help it remain in the black.
In the summer of 1985, recalls Ieronimo, studio staff was informed that the majority investors had pulled out.
“The paychecks stopped coming,” she says, “and we all walked out. I couldn’t believe it.”
Ron Fajerstein loves music. He loves it so much that 27 years ago, he walked into Sound Summit, looked around, and decided to take the biggest risk of his life. His family had made millions in the diamond import business, and unlike the dentists, he wasn’t looking for a tax shelter. He wanted to make music, and he wanted to partner with people like Phil Bonanno who knew the business. Looking back, he realizes that he was in over his head almost from the start.
“Diamonds don’t talk back to you,” he says from his home in Florida. “They don’t have emotions. You put them in a safe and they don’t require psychiatrists. Musicians are very different to deal with. It’s a completely different business . . . I was unaccustomed to it. It was a very destructive experience for me.”
A LACK OF BUSINESS SENSE
Nearly everyone who worked with Fajerstein says his heart was in the right place, but his financial acumen lacked discipline in an era defined by excess. Though he would not formally take possession of the studio until 1986, Ieronimo remembers being contacted by Fajerstein in the early fall of ‘85 and asked to return. Bonanno and a number of other engineers returned as well.
In the UK, Fajerstein met Helen Tyler. Tyler was an assistant studio manager at Battery, part of Zomba Music Productions.
Fajerstein was in England looking at the best console in the business, one he was considering for the studio he would be renaming Royal Recorders.
“There was a really large console, Sound Studio Logic made the console, and Battery Studios was on the cutting edge and had it at the time,” recalls Tyler. “Ron being Ron wanted the biggest and the best in the studio he was building.”
MONEY IS NO OBJECT
Tyler led Fajerstein on his Battery tour, and not only did he end up committing to the 80-output SLS, he offered Tyler, still somewhat green in her mid 20’s, a job as Royal Recorders’ studio manager. Fresh off a breakup with Robert Lange (a record producer who would go on to marry Shania Twain), Tyler set her sights on the U.S.
“It was an adventure,” recalls Tyler. “I thought ‘I’m going to try it for six months or a year and if I don’t like it, I’ll go backpacking in the South of France because that’s what you did then.”
Looking back on what would become a two-year stint as Royal’s studio manager, she admits the decision to hire her was likely surface deep. She wasn’t an industry veteran, had no contacts in the U.S. Had she been Fajerstein, she says wouldn’t have hired herself.
“It was ridiculous,” she says. “I think Ron was trying to create this impression, with the name Royal Recorders, and I had an accent.”
Fajerstein may have been looking to create a mystique, but he was also willing to outfit the studio with the absolute best equipment the industry had to offer.
“Ron bought the top-of-the-line of everything,” recalls Rich Denhart, a studio engineer for Royal Recorders, who toured with David Bowie and his guitarist, Adrian Belew.
Belew was a guitarist discovered by Frank Zappa, and most famously known for his work with Bowie and Talking Heads. Belew went on to have his own successful career as a solo musician and with his band The Bears. He was living in Chicago when Fajerstein invited him to come to Lake Geneva. He was so impressed with the studio, he moved to Lake Geneva.
“They offered us to come and mix for free,” he says from his Nashville home. “It was amazing. That’s the reason I moved there. It was for that studio, and I made a lot of records there. But then things started to fall apart and it was time to move on.”
OUT OF CONTROL
To say that things were “falling apart” is a condensed assessment. In addition to operating the studio and outfitting it with the best equipment available, Fajerstein also sunk a small fortune into a stretch Rolls Royce limo for visiting bands. At the same time, his production company was scouring the globe on his expense account, looking for new talent, and supporting it when it was found. For a while, his “spend first, ask questions later” approach worked.
“Ron came in and basically saved the studio,” says Bartz. “I hate to say that. I never really saw eye-to-eye with him . . . He was trying to production line music . . . He was trying to make a hit.”
And he did. Bands like T’Pau (produced by Roy Thomas Baker), Nine Inch Nails, Skid Row and Enuff Z’nuff all recorded here, and turned out albums that sold millions. But in the end, the money it took to get bands to Lake Geneva was greater than the money the studio earned.
Dan Harjung came to Royal Recorders as an engineer on Adrian Belew’s first session recorded there. He admits Fajerstein could have done things differently. But he’s also adamant that Fajerstein – like Waterman was with Shade Tree – wanted to do something different.
“I can’t imagine, unless I moved to L.A. or New York and worked someplace there, that the experience anywhere else would have been near what I had at Royal,” he says. “And it was mostly because of what Ron did, and the reason he put so much into it was he wanted to create something special, and in that industry, it’s kind of a rare thing. He was just a fan of music, a real fan, and he had a lot of money and he did it right.”
Eventually, Fajerstein reached a point where he decided he could no longer hemorrhage cash in the name of music. Sometime around 1993, he decided to quit the recording business.
For reasons they still don’t understand, Harjung and Denhart thought they could do what the diamond importer could not. So Fajerstein sold the studio to them under a land contract for about $500,000.
THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED
“We thought we had some great ideas,” remembers Harjung. “We thought we had everything figured out.”
From the outside looking in, it appeared they did. Live’s Throwing Copper album was recorded here and sold 9 million copies. Crash Test Dummies recorded God Shufﬂed His Feet almost entirely at Musichead; it reached triple platinum status.
“Things were looking great,” says Harjung. “We were making a little money and were able to put some of it back into the studio. Then the phone just stopped ringing.”
When the phone stopped ringing, the recording scene in Lake Geneva died. Seeing there was no hope, the duo gave the studio back to Fajerstein sometime around 1995.
Trying to recoup some of his investment, Fajerstein decided to sell the console. The beloved 80-input SSL console, the true heartbeat of the studio, was dismantled and sent to a studio in Texas. Fajerstein says it now resides in the basement studio of Chicago-based rapper R. Kelly.
THE BEAT GOES ON
Sometimes Fajerstein, the frustrated musician who lived vicariously through the musicians who came into the studio, wakes up in the middle of the night with a song in his head. In a notebook he keeps next to his bed, he jots it down and then goes back to sleep. Almost daily, he will record those songs from a studio in his home.
“I love music,” he says. “I always have music in my head.”
The story of the Lake Geneva recording studios was researched as part of a new book about the Grand Geneva Resort property. Built in 1968 as the Lake Geneva Playboy club, the property just east of the city of Lake Geneva is celebrating 45 years this summer. Playboy sold the property in 1982 and it became Americana Resort for a brief period. After years of neglect, the resort was rescued by the Marcus corporation in 1993. Marcus invested in a multi-million dollar renovation and the property opened as Grand Geneva Resort.
To read the full history of Grand Geneva Resort, purchase “A Grand Tale” now.