Our Town

People and places that define Orlando




Alan Sneller (foreground) builds and rides high-wheel bikes.

Photo By Norma Lopez Molina

Riding High

A Winter Park company peddles replicas, not reproductions, of old-fashioned high-wheel bikes, each costing up to $4,000. By Kerri Anne Renzulli

Seated atop four feet of steel spokes and late-19th-century cycling technology, Alan Sneller cruises a bike trail near Florida’s West Coast. Where the path crosses a highway, a passing driver, eyes wide, stops his truck and calls out, “Hey, is that thing hard to ride?”

“Only when you stop right in front of me,” Sneller replies, laughing.

The shock of seeing an 1885 Victor High Wheel replica being pedaled along today’s roads is lost on Sneller. Maybe that’s because, along with partners Diane Blake and Jimmy Spillance, he’s building them for antique-bike enthusiasts like himself. As an offshoot of their Winter Park machinery business, the trio annually produces 10 to 15 handmade penny-farthings measuring 46 to 60 inches high. Also known as a high-wheel, a penny-farthing is easily recognizable for its large front wheel where the pedals are situated and a small rear wheel. There’s about 18 inches of clearance between the pedals and ground, so mounting the seat directly above the front wheel and stopping require some maneuvering to keep the bike upright.

With his stout build, gray beard and weathered complexion,  Sneller, 58, looks the part of a gentleman cyclist during the penny-farthing’s heyday. He has been an avid high-wheel rider since he rode an original one, given to him as a gift, in the late 1980s. Hooked on an experience he describes as “riding above the fences,” Sneller began to search for a similar bike for his wife so that they could ride together. Unable to find another, Sneller started making and selling replicas in 1999. He hopes to build them full-time after retiring from his machinery business.

Snelling’s company, Victory Bicycles, offers two high-wheel models, the Century and the Light Roadster, both based upon the Victor high-wheel design. Each costs upward of $4,000, with a wait time of three months. Sneller insists that the only way you can tell his bikes from an original is that his “are too good.”

Antique bike collector Brad Drexler of DeLand  agrees. He bought a high-wheel from Sneller because “it isn’t just a reproduction made with modern parts” but a replica made “like they did in 1885.”

Other than being made with stainless steel (instead of steel) and a different welding technique, Victory Bicycles are built to original specifications, down to the hand-crafted bolts and tires. The authenticity of the bikes is so convincing that the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., has them on site for visitors to ride and the Old State House Museum of Arkansas has ordered a Victory bike for a similar purpose. That they’re used for historical education pleases Sneller.

“They [high-wheels] take you back to a whole other time,” he says. “With modern bikes, there is all this pressure that comes from racing, but high-wheels aren’t about that. High-wheels let me go somewhere else.”
 


 

Prankster Rap

While the identity of radio’s ‘Carmen’ is in doubt, her talent for making irritating crank calls is unquestioned.  By LeAndra Valentine

Who in the world is Carmen Santiago de la Hoya Ruis Rivera Perez Tu Sabes?

The fictional Power 95.3 FM radio personality has prank-called nearly 1,000 people over the past three years, irritating or even infuriating everybody from a ballet school receptionist (Carmen asks about using a “ballet pole”) to a liquor store owner (she demands a club card for being a frequent drinker). The name-calling and (bleeped) profanity from Carmen and her victims jump-start Orlando listeners’ mornings like no cup of java can.

Yet the identity of the person behind the character’s high-pitched voice, showcased at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. weekdays on the hip-hop station’s The Obie & Lil’ Shawn Morning Show, remains a secret. There are four key suspects, and they aren’t talking—much.

 “In the movie The Wizard of Oz, remember how everything was all messed up once they pulled back that curtain and they saw who the real wizard was?’’ says Obie Diaz, 29, one of the show’s three hosts. “Well, that’s what we don’t want to happen.”

Omar Vazquez, 31, better known as Lil’ Shawn, will say only that Carmen is a renowned exotic dancer at Big Al’s, where she has had many run-ins with the law but has yet to be arrested.

Estee Martin, 25, another host, gives away very little about Carmen, but does reveal that the character wears a weave and dark lip liner.

John Barroso, 30, or John Boy Fresh, the show’s producer, rounds out the line-up. Although he rarely goes on air, could he be the mysterious mamacita?

Carmen, who professes to have a son named Arturo and a common-law husband who goes by Alejandro, joined the raucous Obie and Lil’ Shawn lineup in 2007.  Ideas for the calls, which are pre-recorded, come from listeners’ suggestions (many recommend friends and relatives to prank) and Craigslist. Most calls are made to locations out of state, Estee says, because Orlando listeners have gotten wise to Carmen’s antics.

One crank call had Carmen, acting on a tip about an upcoming wedding, claiming to be the baker whom the bride-to-be hired to make cupcakes for her reception. Sorry, Carmen tells the bride, there’s been a problem with the order. “Why can’t you just go to the grocery store and just buy a whole bunch of cupcakes?” Carmen suggests.

“Go to the grocery store for cupcakes for a wedding?!” the bride shouts back in disbelief. “I have people flying out from China for my wedding this Saturday, dear! I am the customer and the customer is always (bleeping) right!”

“Chinese people don’t like cupcakes,” Carmen replies, blowing her off.

The bride hangs up.

Regardless of the growing number of people who wish they’d never answered Carmen’s calls—one recipient threatened to cut her head off—the Obie/Lil’ Shawn team says the crank conversations are all in good fun. Indeed, Carmen calls back every pranked person to let him or her in on the joke—and to get permission for the testy exchange to air.

While Carmen’s identity remains a mystery, the tip-off that you’re about to be played as her dupe is not.  When a call starts with, “Hola, this is Carmen,” get ready for a joke—on you.
 


 

Big Shoes to Fill

A school’s beloved band director leaves the program she built on dedication. By Mike Boslet

As the last few days of the school year slipped away, Linda Orrantia surveyed the walls of her office.

One wall that used to be busy with plaques and photos was bare. Still hanging on another wall was a do-it-yourself frame with three photos arranged vertically and the words “My Second Mom” written in cursive under the middle image of her and a young student.

The smiling boy in the photo held a flute, and Orrantia was the picture of a proud “second mom.’’ Ms. O (as students, band parents and fellow faculty members have dubbed her) had accumulated lots of mementos like this over six years of teaching fifth-grade and middle-school band members at Windy Ridge K-8 School in southwest Orange County.

Soon, all the keepsakes would be in boxes.

Only a few days earlier, after she had conducted the bands’ year-end performance, Orrantia, 41, stood on stage with principal Sheilla Johnson by her side. To the band members, parents and others in the audience, Orrantia broke the news that this was her last concert as school band director.

A neurological affliction had undermined her independence, the diminutive teacher calmly explained, so she would return to Texas, her home state, to be closer to family while teaching music at a Dallas-area middle school.

“I will always keep you in my heart,” she told her students, remaining composed but fighting tears. “I love you guys very much and I wanted to say goodbye properly.”

Some band students had suspected for more than a year that something was wrong. They had noticed Orrantia’s occasional head twitches and how her eyelids would flutter uncontrollably for what seemed like forever. She was struck by the incurable but treatable movement disorder, called dystonia, after she came down with a respiratory infection two years ago.

Orrantia is one of those teachers who can unlock doors and turn on lights in young people’s minds. She took Windy Ridge students who seemed not to have a musical gene in their genetic make-ups—my two daughters included—and turned them into musicians, if only for a few years. Her devotion was unyielding, even during the time the spasms were undiagnosed and epilepsy was being mentioned as a possible culprit.

Orrantia broke the “band geek” stigma as she built Windy Ridge’s program almost from scratch. She had only 13 kids in the middle-school band and 24 in her fifth-grade band when she started. In her final year, 96 of Windy Ridge’s 300 middle-schoolers were in the middle-school band, with 90 students in the fifth-grade section. For the last three years her middle-school band gained the highest rating, superior, in the annual music performance assessment competition, the FCAT of school bands.

She will be replaced, of course, but she leaves big shoes to fill for someone with such tiny feet. On concert nights, her size 5s were usually adorned with designer heels bought with gift cards she’d received from many appreciative parents.

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