Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Character Studies--Russell Hunting(1864-1943)

"I don't give a @$%* about Comstock! I'll give 'em what they want to hear!"
That was Russ Hunting's logic when it came to his smut cylinders.

Russ Hunting was one of the more daring and crass of the early recording stars of the first full decade of recording. He really tried to get his message out that the "smut" he was recording was what his friends wanted to hear, and what the majority of the public wanted to hear. It was awful and it's hard on the ears to bare the language that Hunting used on his "smut" cylinders. It's all the cuss words we know, and he used them as a joke, and to get his points across. He made his records even more terrifying with the tones of voice and drama that he had mastered so well as a Shakespearean actor. His humor was very clever, even if the premise of many of these smut cylinders seemed wrong, the humor is genuinely funny, and very sophisticated. Hunting was truly the most forward-thinking of any of the early recording stars. His "Casey" sketches are a good example of his sense of humor, but his half a dozen surviving smut cylinders are really where his sense of humor lies. 

Hunting found the antics of his conservative friends foolish. He was always going in that direction that he was going in, and it seemed always as though it was a tangent from the others around him. Hunting went out and did many of the things that he described in his crass cylinders, so many of the scenes he set in these cylinders were actually things that he experienced. All the tales of wild men he told on these now lost cylinders, were just descriptions of his friends in the studios, and in the management of the few studios he worked for. He would never name them, "Len", "George", "Steve", or "Freddy", but he knew exactly who he was speaking of, even if his friends with these names hadn't a clue. All the friends of his found the "smut" cylinder idea a great thing as a joke for a little while, but that sense of esoteric records didn't last, as Hunting knew some phonograph parlor owners who were willing to buy dozens of his records. He was actually getting very good profits from these records that were only intended for him and his friends. It was a great idea, and all the parlor owners wanted more of them, and he was willing to do them favors. Hunting became a sort of Satan to the law by 1895, with all the Christian law authorities searching for him everywhere. They went to many parlors and destroyed the boxes filled with the brown cylinders Hunting made all his smut recordings on. He knew the law was after him, and he found it amusing that they were. He laughed at their strong beliefs in ridding of his "Radical cylinders", and his friends did for a short time. He continued to make more of these records, and gain even more profits from this. This all ended in early 1896, when he began to go out on the streets of Manhattan all bundled up and hidden, and he saw what Anthony Comstock's men were doing to his records, and to the parlor and saloon owners. He began to see how much the Christian authorities hated his records. In March of 1896, one of Comstock's men slyly came in disguise to Hunting's staying place at the time posing as a record buyer with kind intentions, but not long after he saw Hunting actually make one of these smut cylinders, he handcuffed him and grabbed hold of him, smashing the brown wax cylinder once he got Hunting on the ground. Hunting was a lost cause in the courts, and he lost the case inevitably, even if he claimed he was giving what the public really wanted, what the record companies wouldn't sell themselves. He thought he was doing them a favor. He stayed in prison for three months, thinking up some new ideas of what he could do to improve his reputation after he was let out. He was let out at the end of the summer of 1896, and he returned first to Steve Porter to start a film company. Hunting's intent was to make films illustrating the scenes in his "Casey" sketches, which was a great idea to start with, but it never came through and seemed to work. The film idea didn't work, but Hunting and Porter still kept interest in the film business, so this dual interest came together as one when Hunting began The Phonoscope. After that began in November of 1896, it was an instant success, and it got more people interested in the recording business, and into the exhibitions. Since Hunting ran hundreds of Columbia exhibitions, he saw the dramatic changes in attendance of these exhibitions. He remained in the United States for a few more years, earning great success all over the world, seemingly more than before the whole bust of 1896. In later-1898, he set off for England to start another career at the Edison-Bell phonograph company. He remained there for almost 20 years, making Pathe the best record company in all of Europe, and building up the Edison lines out in England. He came back to the US in 1915 to establish the Pathe Company in New York. That was a monumental success, and Pathe records were a hit in many ways. They were not only an interesting innovation in recording style, but also in sound quality. Hunting had somehow found out how ti make reverb on his records, which in that time was considered an alien type of thing, since the studios were so small. Hunting's Pathe studio was small, but he did something that made it sound just like a concert hall. This is really where he showed his genius side, was when he worked at Pathe, as he was also the man who decided to record the "Hell Fighters Band" after their return from the French Trenches. Hunting must have loved the idea of "Jass" that was emerging, so he was up on every trend that came around, even if he was thinking a few steps ahead usually. His love for drama and humor stayed with him for the entirety of his life, as he could be seen in the 1920's and 30's still doing some of his old "Casey" sketches, and also performing some Shakespeare here and there. He was a very fun and amiable man, short, slim, dark-haired, and had some comical-looking pointy ears that were a crowning feature about him. He never dressed frivolously, and wasn't one to over-compensate for anything by what he wore or what he said. He was a very honest man, who was willing to state the actual truth about anyone to their face, whether it be good or bad. He would use all sorts of slang and dirty words and phrases, which made his informal speech always interesting to listen to. He truly left a legacy that mustn't be forgotten. 

I hope you enjoyed this! 


  1. Well, that was just splendid, Ramona! I always had hankered to know something more of Hunting and his past-marvelous Phonoscope endeavor. From what you have here allowed, it is more than apparent that he was an authentic American Original and should have a bronze statue of him made as fit tribute.

    The seeming fact that his "smut" cylinders have all gone missing, should constitute a sort of miniature national tragedy, so I believe. Obviously, in this way, he was a good century ahead of his time. Perhaps, with some luck, one will turn up on eBay, and we'll finally get a load of this unique and fine talent that he had for so-enraging the prig good-doers of that time.

    (Bad news is that they're still at it although now weakening in their resolve generally after this century plus . . . and slowly but surely giving into the inevitability of the reality and necessity of universal bi-sexualism becoming standard operating procedure. I am positive that Russel would have tipped his hat to this quite emancipating-for-all news.)

    Your blog is without any doubt one of the best extant, Ramona. Please, do keep up your really great work.

    1. wow! I really appreciate that comment! He is certainly someone in American history who needs to be acknowledged for his amazing achievements in the progression to the modern era. His humor was a very rare kind of his day, and it's fantastic that he was able to share it with us all, as in fact, at the back of his mind, he knew that at least some of these records would survive for future generations to hear. In fact, he was one of the first who knew that this was going to happen, and look! Only about a dozen are left.

      Once again, thank you so much for that comment!

  2. It was my pleasure to add a little something to the mix, Ramona.

    At the end of what you just wrote you said "Only about a dozen are left."

    Question s propos this: Might you have intended for this to mean that some few of his more specially-refined type work do exist still? If this be so actually, then where might one be able to audition same for their clinical study (of course! what else?)

    Your work on the Bantas' story I found really interesting and useful. It had not occurred to me that Frank Sr. had died so very young. What a crying shame it is, that his pianistic abilities were not recorded a solo, excepting for the one very distant sounding sample on cylinder.

    Of course, young Frank's items found on Victor I believe splendid in all ways. He was very creative, entertaining and energetic in his clever arrangements, their flow and unexpected rhythmic jogs perfectly typical of the time and place when and where made. (Roaring Twenties.)

    Also, in closing I have to add that, you have done very much fine work here in the area of researching, considered writing and knowledgeable as well as heartfelt commentary, obviously. In view of this you deserve, in my view, to receive more positive attention for it that you are receiving presently, as I view it.

    As regards this and myself, I'll try to do my little bit.

    I now must rummage some more around your pages for new treasures.