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Old phonographs are music to collectors' ears

“It’s an addiction,” Gary Stone said. “You get hooked on it, and if you’re not disciplined it becomes an obsession.”

Associated Press

“It’s an addiction,” Gary Stone said. “You get hooked on it, and if you’re not disciplined it becomes an obsession.”

DENVER

Gary Stone pulled a 78-rpm record from its paper sleeve. He placed the disc, which weighed about as much as a Big Mac, atop a felt-covered turntable. Its mahogany cabinet boasted as much craftsmanship as anything in an Ethan Allen store. • A stainless steel needle hit the platter's grooves. There was a crackling, then the vibrant, patrician voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt jumped out, announcing to Americans that they had just lived through a day of infamy, but that the foe would be fought and vanquished.

"Every time I hear that I get tingly and emotional," said Stone, who lives in suburban Denver. "Just listen to the anger in FDR's voice. He's telling the country we're going to war, yet no one could imagine what lay ahead.

"It's as if you're sitting in front of a tube radio on a cold December evening in 1941."

The lure of owning an aural time tunnel — in this case a Victor II Humpback Phonograph from 1904 — is what binds Stone and his fellow collectors in the Old West Antique Phonograph Society.

"It's an addiction, I'll be honest," Stone said. "You get hooked on it, and if you're not disciplined it becomes an obsession."

The machines are marvels, embodying a timeline of technological innovation that started when Thomas Edison — he of the 1,093 U.S. patents — launched the Edison Speaking Phonograph Co. in 1878. ("Phonograph," by the way, was Edison's coinage.)

There is also a deep aesthetic appeal. Cabinets were fashioned by master craftsmen from fine woods such as mahogany, quartersawed oak and bird's-eye maple.

Price tags on the machines run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Collectors vie for them on Craigslist and eBay.

"Each of these has a different story," Stone said of his 10 machines. "They're amazing. They were all handmade, and the wood they used was beautiful. You just don't see that today."

One of his prizes is a Victrola 18 model from 1915. Housed in a burnished mahogany cabinet, the machine cost $315 in its day — more than a car. It was later modified with an orthophonic speaker, an upgrade that was sort of the Dolby system of its day.

"It's my pride and joy," he said.

Stone's wife is good-natured about his collection, referring to the parlor as the "toy room," although lately she has imposed a "buy a new one, sell an old one" caveat.

Phonograph Society club member Fred Williams delights in cylinder players, where a steel needle traced a mechanical track across a spinning wheel. One of his machines is an Edison General, built in 1899 as an answer to the 1898 Columbia Model Q, with its "clockwork" motor.

His passion runs deep.

"It's all about the hunting," he said. "See this? It's a recording of President William Howard Taft. An original, from 1905, not a rerecording. Who else has that? Me."

Some record collectors specialize, concentrating on vaudeville acts, historical recordings or the works of a specific artist — say, pianist Jelly Roll Morton or Bix Beiderbecke, the cornet titan.

There are other collector niches, too.

Curt Vogt specializes in the record brushes used to keep 78s clean. They are housed in their original ornate tins, many of them stamped with the colorful logos of the stores that carried them. Vogt pointed to a cabinet holding an array of tins, brands from such labels as Okeh and the American Musician Co.

"When I started collecting, I couldn't really afford the machines themselves," said Vogt, of Denver. "Plus, I was in the Air Force, and most of the machines don't meet the weight restrictions for traveling."

Stone has several hundred recordings, culled mainly from auctions and to a lesser extent from antiques stores. "Stores aren't the best place to find things because they're often picked through and it takes hours to go through the stocks," he said.

The recordings recall another time.

Listen to Stone's century-old recording of The Star-Spangled Banner through a conical "witch's hat" horn, and you hear a version of the song with none of the melisma and swooping vocal tricks found in performers at today's ball games. The singer gets the words right, too.

Funny thing, how once-cutting-edge technology is reduced to an archaic novelty. Sony's Walkman is nearly there. The iPod will be there soon enough.

Somehow, it seems doubtful these inventions, in their compact plastic casings, will enthrall people on the cusp of the 22nd century.

"I bring kids in from the neighborhood, and they look at these machines with practically no reaction," Stone said.

"They're puzzled by it. Then I play them something, and they're mesmerized."

.ON THE WEB

A few resources

See phonographs and many other inventions by Thomas Edison at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates museum in Fort Myers. Learn more at edisonfordwinterestates.org.

Victor-Victrola history: victor-victrola.com

Edison phonographs and cylinders: edisonphonos.com

The Cylinder Archive: cylinder.de

Old phonographs are music to collectors' ears 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 5:30am]
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