Saturday, December 12, 2015

Character Studies---Columbia Exhibitions(1898)

The Columbia exhibition, a joyous spectacle full of mirth and vigor.
(from left to right: Fred Hylands, George P. Watson, John Yorke At Lee, ?, Harry Spencer, and Russell Hunting)

They were truly sights to only be seen to experience, they were times where not only hustlers like the Spencer brothers could perfect their craft, but where eccentrics like Fred Hylands could warm up their hands and flick around their glossy hair. These exhibitions began every night of the week(not on Sundays of course...), at about 7 in the evening, after setting up had been done for two hour previous, and by 9, they would rotate a new group of people in and maybe leaving some of those from the previous group who wanted to stay in the madness. These performances and rotations of crowds would go on until about midnight. But of course, after that, all the staff there would spend another hour and a half cleaning up, and getting everything set back to how it was before. These were a very tiresome process, that would wear out the artists more than the usual recording days would, which was already a whole lot of work. They were fun to be at, but this was more so for the people that came to witness these great extravaganzas of recorded sound, and not so much for the poor souls behind the horns and performing for the masses. 

It would all start with Russ Hunting and Harry Spencer walking in at about 4 in the evening with the banners and boxes of records. Within the next ten minutes, many of the boys on the bill for the evening would pour in slowly. Next comes yodeler Watson, confident Len Spencer, little Charles P. Lowe with his canvas sacks of rosewood beams for the xylophone, little Roger Harding, "coon shouter" Billy Golden, New Yorker dandy Dan Quinn, and fat Fred Hylands with his black leather case of music with pages protruding from the edges. They would all find their places at the parlor(phonograph parlor that is!), setting their things in various places, with most of their things going on the racks holding the machines with the long horns attached to them. That's where all their hats would go, and their gloves, and their pocketwatches, made of gold, silver, or even rare aluminum. They would look at the bill that one of the Spencer's was hammering on the wall of the front doors, awaiting for the doors to be swung open to all. As they all got settled in, in came the food to be offered to all who came, this week the food was prepared by the Hylands'. This meant that his pleasant wife Maria would come in with the plates, bowls, forks, spoons, glasses, and everything else needed. Usually at these exhibitions, a list was made for according what family would provide the food for these for the week, so one week you could get some interesting stew made by Mrs. Watson(0r Miss Newton...),  the Gaskin's corned beef and cabbage, a feast of bits of everything from the Hylands', the elegant finery of the Spencer's, or something like sauerkraut and sausage from the Schweinfests. When came a week for the Hylands', you would know there would be quite a feast laid out on their table, so dear Maria would have to be preparing for days beforehand with Father Charles Hylands for the week. As Fred and Marie were getting all the food set up, with Fred dressed up nicely, and a cigarette in his mouth, the Spencer's were getting the horns at the exact angles needed for the singers on the bill for the evening, and occasionally yelling at each other for getting something wrong or breaking something.  Steve Porter and George Watson were standing high up on ladders getting the big banner up on the wall, trying dearly to not drop anything, or hurt themselves, with Russ Hunting spotting them, and making sure they get the thing straight.  After two hours of preparing and "herding of cats", at six-on-the-dot, Len would finally get his tails on, fix his hair, go to the front doors, and say "Let 'er rip!" as the doors were opened up. They let in hundreds of people, crowded very densely into a large room, but seemed small by the amount on people that came in. It seemed like chaos, but just as Harry Spencer stood on a stool, and waved around that wooden thing that CLICKS! very obnoxiously, everyone became quiet. He begins his announcement to the crowd about what the whole thing is, and why they were there, and the great amount of enjoyment they can have being there. He would step down from the stool, and Russ Hunting would then get up on it and begin introducing himself, and everyone else they brought, and who was on the bill for the evening. Hunting would introduce the recording process to them, holding up one of their blank brown wax cylinders, and explain the need for absolute silence from the audience during the demonstration. Then the program would begin, with the first artist listed on the bill, where the room would be completely silent as the machine was started by Harry Spencer, and all that could be heard was the machine's hum and whirr... 
Then began the piano accompaniment, Hylands would play the introduction to the song that was announced after the singer's announcement. The song was executed perfectly, with not a sound from the audience until the cylinder was slid off the mandrel and the machine was stopped of its movement. The room again bursts into conversation and cheers. This same process of recording and such would continue for another hour and a half, until an intermission arrives, and all the people disband about the room, and also go outside to get out of the warm and crowded inside. These intermissions were also good for the artists to mingle with the consumers, and the curious spectators, also for Fred Hylands to at last get up and stretch his legs. Many of the conversations with the artists were about what they were paid, how they liked working there, and things related to that. Much of the food and drink would be taken during these intermissions, and many records would be bought and sold, just as the staff members were instructed to do beforehand. At the end of the intermissions, the same process would begin again, with Harry Spencer waving that obnoxious thing around, and Russ Hunting beginning the next hour and a half of recording and explaining. The bill would go on accordingly, with the artists alternating at the front of the horns, and Hunting doing all the explaining, with the artists talking about the records, and making records themselves. There would be three hour and a half sessions, with intermissions, and finally with the final bows and thank yous done just before midnight. there were always a few people who stayed longer to talk with the Spencer's and Russ Hunting, as they were the ones running the thing, and there were always some who stayed longer, and wanted to chat with them without the rest of the crowd there to listen. As the others were cleaning up, mopping the floors, taking down the banners and posters, and getting the things off the racks. Fred would slam the piano key cover, stand from his oddly shaped chair, light up another cigarette, and observe the scene from his perch up high above the floors. Fred would always be the most worn out of the artists there, only because he had to come to every one of these exhibitions, not like the artists on the bill who would rotate in a differing order each few days of these. After a big one of these exhibitions, one of the staff members would bring a celebratory bottle of champagne for everyone, and of course, Fred and Len would be the first to have at it. Fred would gather all his music up, shove it in his case, take off his tails, grab his hat, and get the rest of the plates and bowls off the table with Marie...or he would more likely wait outside for her to get everything together. The Spencer's would gather up all the machinery, get their sacks of parts together, and head out quick, still getting a little frustrated with one another as the parts would click and hit something else as they went out the doors. As Russ Hunting would finally get the last three people out at the end of the ongoing conversation, he would get all that was his and head out quick, maybe helping out Marie Hylands a little. All the other artists were gone by then, leaving only Hunting and the Hylands' getting the rest of the plates and utensils out. Hunting would turn out the electric lights, and slam the doors at last, around 1 a.m. Even though Fred didn't really help her before, he would have to carry some of the plates on their way home. Dreading for the next week of this, thankfully without them providing the food. 

*Much of this description actually was taken from examples of these Columbia exhibitions as written about in The Phonoscope, in which many were described to have provided food, and also to have the artists bring it in themselves*

*a special thank you to Ryan Wishner for giving me the idea to do this! 

I hope you enjoyed this! 

No comments:

Post a Comment