June 13, 2008 | New Orleans

by Errol Laborde

When George Ortolano would leave for work each day he could rightfully say that he was off to see the wizard. He could even go one step further and say that he was off to make the wizard. Ortolano, who died at 86 in 2002, was a craftsman who never got the publicity he deserved. He created a machine that triggered a native industry. At the risk of some generalization, he's the guy who invented the snowball machine.

His creation, the Ortolano Sno-Wizard, was not the only ice crusher on the market. But it was the one used at most local snowball stands. In New Orleans snowballs are a serious business and routine ice machines won't do. A New Orleans snowball differs from the miserable snow cones sold at traveling carnivals and in other more deprived localities in that the ice is finer – a true snowy blend. In 1937, Ortolano created the first Sno-Wizard and began using it to sell snowballs at his grocery on the corner of Magazine and Delachaise streets. His machine was a rectangular box with a door in the front for loading the ice, which would be pushed toward the grinders inside by a crank at the back. The original Sno-Wizard had a wooden cabinet. Its successors have been made of stainless steel. The machines got their wiz from a cutterhead which featured a triple-headed beveled blade that rapidly scraped the ice into a powder.

"There was no machine on the market that could do the job mine was doing," Ortolano once told me. "Mine could shoot the snow right into the cup. In ten seconds it could fill a 16-ounce cup." Like the impact Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin had on farming, the Sno-Wizard changed snowballs from a sweet shop knickknack to the object of a proliferation of neighborhood businesses. "Before I made the machine," Ortolano explained, "people couldn't go to all that expense because the amount of snowballs they could make with one of the old obsolete machines wouldn't pay them to go into it. But with my machine, a person can push enough snowballs to make a profitable business. The machines have revolutionized the snowball business. It made snowballs a business. It brought it to the front."

It also transformed Ortolano's store into what became a full-time snowball provisions business as well as the factory for Sno-Wizards. Marketed in excess of $1000, a Sno-Wizard was the critical investment for would-be snowball entrepreneurs.

Uptown New Orleans would become the epicenter for Snowball evolution. On the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Bourdeaux streets, not far from where Ortolano's business once stood, is a renowned snowball stand with a one of a kind invention, Ernest Hansen's Sno-Bliz machine. He and his wife Mary served snowballs made from his machine for nearly 60 years. Unlike Ortolano's invention, Hansen's is barrel shaped. And while Ortolano mass marketed his machine, Hansen's was exclusive to his shop, as were wife Mary's self-made syrups. Since the couple's death in 2005, the machine, and the business, have stayed in the hands of family members.

For those snowball stands denied their own in-house craftsmen, however, the Sno-Wizard would be the answer. With that, and splashes of commercially made syrup, small-time investors could be in business.

"Ortolano is a true craftsman," a snowball vendor once told me. "If someone wants him to just slap a sharpening job on a machine, he's not going to do it. Each machine and each set of blades that he puts in, he's going to try to make as good as any other set. That's how proud of his work he is."

It is a proud inventor indeed who is able to turn ice into gold.

Reprinted with permission of the author.