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Rod Stewart’s Tiny Worlds
The man can sing, but he can also build one heckuva model railroad. How a Waukesha-based magazine broke the story.

 

Rod Stewart

When pop superstar Rod Stewart played Milwaukee some years ago, he made a point of visiting one locally based communications enterprise.

No, it wasn’t the daily paper (or a monthly magazine, alas). Nor was it an alt-weekly or a radio station. The visit in question had nothing to do with the raspy rock singer’s day job.

On an idyllic Saturday in April 2007, Stewart took a quiet ride out to Waukesha on Interstate 94 and dropped in on the offices of Kalmbach Publishing – and the enthusiast publisher’s flagship magazine, Model Railroader.

And so began what has played out as a prolific relationship between the hobby magazine and the man named twice to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. In December of 2007, MR broke the story of Stewart’s long-time engagement with the pastime of model railroading, and his work in the realm of trains and very small, rolling hills has graced the magazine’s cover twice more since then, including the February 2014 issue.

All three stories were written by Carl Swanson, a Kalmbach editor. “He’s the guy who has nurtured the relationship with Stewart over the years,” says Kevin Keefe, vice president-editorial and publisher at Kalmbach.

But what lured the busy Stewart out to Kalmbach’s offices in the first place? It all started with a letter.


For years, rumors of Stewart’s interest in models trains had circulated among hobbyists. “People would say, ‘I was in a hobby shop, and Rod Stewart walked in and bought a bunch of stuff,’” Swanson says. The entertainment press, however, either never caught wind of Stewart’s passion or never deigned to cover it.

Then, a handwritten note and some snapshots arrived at MR – an unsolicited submission from sender Rod Stewart. “He wrote that he had been a model railroader for 20 years and a reader of the magazine for far longer than that,” Swanson says. “He thought that Model Railroader might be interested in publishing some pictures of his home layout.”

Sure the guy was famous, but did his model pass muster? Yes, it did.

“The railroad was terrific,” Swanson says. “It blew us away. It was world-class, one of the finest we’d ever seen. It was obviously a model railroad worthy of a cover story. The fact that it happened to have been built by a famous entertainer was just a surprising extra twist to the story.”

A lesser setup might have put the magazine in a pickle. “I imagine it would have required a bit of editorial diplomacy to turn down a railroad built by an international celebrity who was also a 20-year subscriber to the magazine,” he says. “Fortunately, it was not an issue we had to face.”

Swanson, then employed at MR as a senior editor, was assigned to follow up and admits to being slightly star-struck when Stewart visited in April 2007 to tour Kalmbach’s staff layout, but he soon found himself at ease. “He’s a genuinely open type of guy,” Swanson says. “He was a fan of the magazine, and after a few minutes, he was just a guy who reads our magazine and [had] built a great layout.”

A week later, Swanson flew out to Stewart’s Southern California mansion to examine the gigantic HO-scale (meaning to 1/87th proportion) layout and interview the singer.

 

That first article ran in December 2007 and featured stunningly tall model skyscrapers Stewart had built while on tour – the musician would rent an extra hotel room, wherever he was playing, just to work on models in the early morning. Tiny details brought scenes to life in the intricate setup, a fictionalized version of railroads in the urban northeast.

“He approaches the hobby very systematically,” Swanson says. “He builds his railroad step by step.”

As the stories have noted, Stewart can afford to contract out for parts for which he has less time, skill or interest, such as carpentry to hold up the layout or electrical wiring to run the trains.

He also contracts out for photos. A professional photographer under his employ shot those of his layout, and he holds on tight to the relevant copyrights, licensing only one-time rights to the magazine.

Still, Swanson insists that Stewart is no prima donna. “It’s so cool to relate to someone who's really well known and yet who’s just a typical train enthusiast,” he says.

Stewart isn’t the only celebrity into model railroading. Others include actor Michael Gross of the 1980s TV comedy Family Ties; he’s recorded a series of how-to videos for beginners. Actor Mandy Patinkin and singer Neil Young also count themselves as electric train fans, and so did Frank Sinatra. Kalmbach’s sibling magazine, Classic Toy Trains, featured the late showman’s collection in its February 1998 issue.

Coincidentally, Swanson is now editor of Classic Toy Trains, but his byline returned to MR for the two follow-up features on Stewart’s layout that ran in the December 2010 and February 2014 issues.


Those with Stewart on the cover have sold well. “A lot of guys who are serious about model railroading will make darn sure to pick up the magazine when he’s in it because his work is so good,” Swanson says.

But perhaps the greatest sign of success isn’t Stewart’s appeal in the world of model railroading, but model railroading’s appeal among fans of his music. Some have taken to tossing railroader’s hats from the stands in tribute, and who knows, Kalmbach may have already signed up some of these concertgoers as subscribers.



 

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(photo via Shutterstock)

 





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