Thursday, February 23, 2017

Studios in the Public eye

Ofttimes, it would strike us collectors to wonder what the general public perceived of the strange place that was the Phonograph studio. In the timer period, it actually isn't too hard to find sections from magazines and newspapers about this strange new industry. Much like how electricity was such a nationwide fascination in the 1880's and 1890', the recording business could be categorized in such a way as other new inventions and novelties were. These magazine and newspaper articles often tried to not impose any bias to record companies in their articles, as that would often spark some uneasiness between the competing companies. Unlike The Phonogram and Phonoscope, the unbiased nature of these sections was essential, an this is why we get infernal images like this one: 
Ones like this that haven't any labels or anything to go along with it, the damn articles leave us hanging to fight over who the pianist and singers are(to most it would be the singers, the pianist means nothing to most collectors...). The dodging of bias is all-right when considering magazines like The Phonoscope, but it's frustrating because we end up with unlabeled images. Now that section that the infamous image above came from was obviously talking about Columbia more than anything else, since it used Columbia images for the article. Keep in mind that the image on the cover page of the article is this one: 
Now we know that image can't be of the Edison studio. That pianist is obviously Fred Hylands. It doesn't help that both of the images have the same interesting wallpaper behind all the musicians and such. In fact, it's likely that these pictures were taken in EXACTLY THE SAME room, which is very odd, but if you really study the images, you can see it. 

Now what did the general public think of the studio? Let's stick with Columbia here, since most of the papers who wrote about studios were indirectly writing about Columbia rather than Edison(come on, everyone knew about Edison already...). Well, to start, the papers used to say it was much like a cross between "the rear of a theater and a machine shop", which does sum it up rather well, but that's only the appearance. They missed much of the odd social atmosphere that came along with this new community. The public generally saw these studio workers as eccentrics(which wasn't inaccurate), this is the record talent I'm referring to here. The studio laborers, such as engineers like Charles Carson and Georgie Emerson, were the more respectable of the bunch, since they worked with machinery and were often products of telegraph and telephone jobs in the 1880's. The record talent were, as we know, a weird bunch of freak musicians and performers, that were often questioned about what they thought of the business, and why they worked there in the first place. Of course, the lovely and infamous exhibition is where the freaks of the studio and the public were able to converse. 
There are countless articles and stories published in the pages of The Phonoscope about interactions between all sorts of people and the exhibitors. This seemed to be a popular subject in The Phonoscope, for the entirety of its existence. Without a doubt, these little stories about exhibitions are among the most interesting examples of writing in the magazine, most of them being in the Our Tattler column. Some of them(many of them actually) are somewhat racist, portraying Black and Asian people in stereotypical ways for the era, but are still funny by the humor that is being projected, despite the racism. The reactions of those described are really what the correspondents and writers for The Phonoscope were intending to sketch. One thing that would have been really funny to do is if they asked each of the recording stars(including engineers and pianists) what their first experience with the phonograph was like. That would prompt some interesting and exceedingly diverse points of view, certainly would make for some good reading! There are little hints of what these stars did in their earliest days in the business, but not exactly stories of how they started. From knowing Dan Quinn's first experience with the phonograph, this ought to spark curiosity of other stories. 

Of course, the only time that regular people got the chance to see Columbia in action was at exhibitions, and this gave a unique viewpoint to the public. It made Columbia seem more like a theater than a recording studio, especially since they had a specific bill for the evenings, with certain performers featured. It didn't help that the pianist(Hylands) was dressed in semi-formal clothes for many of these(he would certainly have needed one of those three electric fans in the dead of Summer...) as though he were going to Pastor's again to play in the pit. 

Of course, how could you have missed this brightly gleaming studio at 1155 Broadway, with supposedly 800 electric lights contributing to the spectacle. Certainly that bright place was hard to miss, and this was stated in the July, 1897 issue(really meant to be dated at January or so) of The Phonoscope where the still relatively new headquarters was described in detail as something that "attracts the notice and excites the admiration of every stroller on Broadway", which isn't too inaccurate, as it's likely that big celebrities dropped in on the exhibition parlor, like Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell(that would have certainly caused a stir!). 

Oddly enough, describing what people would have thought of all this reminds me of the hilarious descriptive selection the Columbia Orchestra did called "On the Midway", because it kind of sums up 1890's Columbia in a nutshell, even for someone who wasn't a regular Columbia customer or enthusiast could have understood their atmosphere when listening to this record alone: 
The fact that they spend almost a minute on the "hoochie coochie" dance part is really funny, because the Issler original from 1894 didn't even do that. The vibe of the 1898 recording is certainly looser, and much more playful. By 1898, people got a very different view of Columbia than if they had gone to an exhibition of the U.S. Phonograph Company(remember that they essentially fell and became Columbia in 1897) in 1895, or even as late as 1896. Just because I'm listening to it as I'm writing this section, here's the original 1894 Issler's orchestra recording of "On the Midway": 
Also, I didn't notice this until listening to is now, but there's some audible humming of the tune at the dance part at the end, and it sounds like it's probably Issler! Wow, something about that image is very strange. What's funny is that if Issler and his orchestra ever performed this sketch and all dressed up for it, Issler would have genuinely looked Arab. 
Yep, he could have fooled the audience as an Arab just as well as Spencer did as a dandy black man. 
Imagining the rest of the orchestra dressed up for this is just as funny. Just go back and look at that picture from the record catalogs showing images of all the Issler members around 1894. 
Include Len Spencer in this as well, since he did all the sound effects! 
Anyway, with all of this, it's safe to assume that the general public was fascinated with the early recording studio, as well as those who worked there, from the earliest days. Though in the earliest days(1888-1895), the public wasn't really able to fully immerse themselves in the world that was recording, since in that time only large scale demonstrations were done, rather than just exhibitions at the studios themselves. Of course, Edison never did such a thing(invite regular people in the studio to observe the recording process), even when doing this was fully in style. The fact that Columbia did this in their studio is another reason why they really were the company of the people, and were more inviting than Edison. Despite an incompetent recording manager(Vic Emerson), Columbia was the place where musicians were better treated, and had more freedom, thanks to Emerson being musically ignorant and tone-deaf, we get all sorts of strange takes with mistakes all over the place, of which we continue to find 120 years later. We must keep in mind that we are much more aware of the inner workings of the business than the general public was in the era itself, so we are not nearly as nearsighted they the listeners when the records were new. When you get right down to it, we know more about what we're hearing than most did who heard the records when they were new. 

Now to move to something a little different. Last evening, while listening to some records with Charlie Judkins, we listened to a bunch of Zon-O-Phone's with Hager on piano, since those are always fit when talking about early recorded Rag-Time. But other than that, we also came across a FANTASTIC 1905 Columbia with Lew Dokstader singing! 
(Geo.Primrose is seated and Dockstader is standing, image dated 1898)
Most of us have stumbled across sheet music with Dockstader on the cover, since he was on countless coon song covers, and have read often of his famous minstrel troupe. Many famous early rag pianists held the place of Dockstader's pianist, such as Mike Bernard and Les Copeland, but often us studio pianist scholars would wonder if any of the studio pianists held this place, well, we're in luck! 
This 1905 Columbia(also issued on Standard as I've heard) by Dockstader of "Everybody Works but Father" is a prime example of not just Dockstader, bu also of Hylands when he accompanied stage stars(solely stage stars, not minor ones like Quinn or Ossman, ones who were so famous not to be regulars in the studio). Dockstader was one of these huge celebrities in performing at this time, and luckily, he left a few recordings along the way like May Irwin and Clarice Vance. Before I get into detail, here's the 1905 Columbia: 
You can easily tell that Dockstader was really loud, hence the reason he's standing rather far away from the horn. 
This is one of those records where Hylands must have gotten all warm and fuzzy to accompany such a celebrity on a recording. He had likely already worked with Dockstader, so it must have been like when Hylands and Harlan were reunited in the studio in 1901, though of course meeting Dockstader again was a little less than the more casual atmosphere of seeing Harlan once more.

 The recording above is certainly one of the best examples of true minstrel show performance, since Dockstader had been in minstrel shows since the 1870's(according to The Monarchs of Minstrelsy), and he had spend many a  year perfecting the style of the classic minstrel performers in the years prior to the civil war. Despite the modern material, Dockstader sets the old-fashioned mood with his vocal style, and of course Hylands tops it off with his already archaic and folksy playing style. Though the record is pairing the old guard with the "young'un" so to speak, the duo ends up surprisingly well composed, despite Dockstader being nearly 20 years older than Hylands. Just goes to show that even Hylands wasn't the most progressive of the early studio pianists, and could replicate the Appalachian folk style of the mid to late 19th century better than even Edward Issler, who was just as forward thinking musically as Fred Hager and Banta were, despite the significant age gap. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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