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Kitschy disks spin to a halt

This is the way a once-proud technology ends: not with a snap and crackle of low-fidelity static, not with the incessant clicking of a needle stuck in a groove, but with silence.

Once upon a time the flexi-disc _ those novelty records stapled into magazines, tucked in cereal boxes and mass-mailed to millions by presidential candidates _ was a kitschy yet honored way of distributing sound recordings.

The lids of special Chun King frozen Chinese food entrees could be spun on a record player. Remington offered flexi-discs of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney for "music to shave by." Noxzema asked teenagers to write lyrics for The Noxzema Rag, an instrumental track they included in Seventeen magazine. Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt put speeches on flexi-discs and sent them to registered voters.

Some of the most collectible pop-music items are rare songs by the Beatles, Beach Boys and R.E.M. on flexi-discs included with music magazines. And 15 years into the CD era, the flexi-disc survived thanks to a Library of Congress program that provided books and magazines to the blind on long-playing, flexible records.

The era came to a final end recently when Eva-Tone of Clearwater, the last U.S. producer of the flexi-disc _ or as they preferred to call it, the Soundsheet _ retired the plastic phonograph recordmaking technology for good. The 78 rpm record, the eight-track tape, the Beta-player, and now the flexi-disc.

"Though outmoded now, Eva-Tone Soundsheets provided a revolutionary way for people to use recorded sound 40 years ago," the company said, in a wistful but forward-looking release announcing the news.

"The demand dried up. Turntables went away. But the product line had a nice run," Eva-Tone vice president Mark Evans says.

"They were a genuine novelty, and that was the fun of it," says Michael Camella, who curates the Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records (www.wfmu.org/MACrec). "The heyday was really the 1950s and '60s. But they were very widespread for 100 years, starting with playable postcards that people could play on crank-up phonographs.

"They were cheap to make. Anyone who wanted to put a record in something could do so easily. You could put them in a publication, or an advertisement, and they were easy to distribute."

"It was not about the high quality of sound," Camella says, "but about the novelty of having records mailed to you, or discovering them someplace different."

Poor sound quality didn't stop popular or underground bands from recording flexi-disc singles that were stapled into teen mags, fanzines, sent out as tour promotional items or included as bonus items in LPs. Flexis from the Beatles and the Who command astronomical prices from collectors. More recently, music magazines such as New Musical Express or the Bob would give readers B-sides or cover songs from artists including R.E.M., the Feelies or Robyn Hitchcock. And because vinyl continued to live among indie-rock fans, record players never completely went out of style with the gleefully obscurist, giving flexi-singles a certain cachet even in the '90s.

Not everyone looks back on the flexi-disc with such nostalgia, however. While the Library of Congress contract kept Eva-Tone alive, those who benefited from the once-cutting-edge flexi technology are happy to see easier and more convenient media flourish.

"I don't miss it," says Betty Woodward, the Connecticut president of the National Federation of the Blind. "The discs collected lint like crazy. They'd skip sometimes. The record machine itself was not small. You had to be where it was to be able to listen to it. . . . No, I'm happy for its passing."

What's really amazing, says Camella, is that the flexi lasted as long as it did, even after vinyl records began disappearing from record stores. "It was just so limited because people didn't have turntables anymore. The music industry stopped producing records, so there was less production of record players, and that was probably about it."

And as for Eva-Tone?

It's just fine. These days the company helps businesses create CD-ROMs, Web sites and multimedia presentations to advertise.

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