By Michael Cumella
Welcome to a peek inside my collection of flexi discs, phonosheets, cardboard discs, and oddity records, acquired by many years of music collecting and many years of hosting WFMU’s The Antique Phonograph Music Program. These records have a long and mostly undocumented history, spanning the early 1900s through the 1990s. The products of such forgotten manufacturers as Durium, Auravion, Rainbo, Eva-Tone, and American Audiographics, they are made from metal, shellac, celluloid, or flexible materials like plastic or cardboard. The people who made these records would be astounded that we’ve saved them; far from being pop hits, these recordings were meant to have short lives, to tell, sell, or compel us to take action. Fortunately for us, these wonderful objects—and sounds—live on. Take them for a spin!
1 GREAT SPEECHES BY FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT / At the end of World War II, the country was jubilant about the role the president had played in seeing it through the conflict with such aplomb. Apparently issued after his death in 1945, these records were tributes to the man seen as a hero by many; they were also a way to relive those famous speeches delivered on the radio in the days before television. The discs are nicely colored and designed, with a collage of headlines and images and a speech on each side. It’s unusual to find the envelope they came in, but I was lucky—that happens to me sometimes. This kind of record tended to be disposable and cheap, but as with many especially fragile items from the past, some have become very collect- ible. A few people have even suggested that my own online “virtual museum” of flexi discs (wfmu.org/MACrec) has created a market for them.
2 NEW SEWING PLEASURES BY KENMORE / “Hello there. Congratulations on becoming the proud owner of one of the finest pieces of mechanical equipment ever devised by mankind, your new Kenmore Sewing Machine.” Sew begins the fellow delivering the mild-mannered voiceover for this set of audio instruc-tions included with a midcentury model of the Kenmore sewing machine. As an additional tool for troubleshooting your machine, it pretty much told you to consult the instruction book for any problems or call for a factory-certified technician. This is an exceptionally boring record to listen to unless you’re into bobbins, but the design—which makes the sewing experience look positively psychedelic—is fantastic. Some other advertising record items I’ve seen are for lawnmowers, radio and television tubes, shoes, toasters, cottage cheese, cigarettes, liquor, and panties.
3 SONGS OF THE LETTER PEOPLE / “Well, I’m so happy to be Miss A for aaaah-chooo!” goes this 1980s tune for the kiddies. Going by the record alone, it seems this was number one of a series of 26. I often have no provenance for these records, but an eBayer with a set to sell informs us that “The Letter People Childcraft Reading Program Guide,” a learning tool for grade-schoolers, was released in 1982. It includes coloring books, stickers, reference guides, and a lot more—including a plastic figurine shaped like Mr. S whose eyes light up when held over the correct answers in the skill books, a must-have for a complete set. Still, the set has only black, round re- cords, not this flexi. Was it a special promo only? Mystery partly solved: I got this from a guy who used to work at American Audiographics, and he always kept a few examples of items they’d run. One day he loaded up a box and sent them all to me; they’d been in his attic for 15 years, and I was happy to provide them with a good home.
4 HEAR: THE VOICE OF HOLLYWOOD / Rainbow Records was a premier paper-record manufacturer of the golden age of flexis, from the 1940s through the 1960s. They made audio advertisements for stores, mailable records, special releases, and products for the thriving home-record-making market. Hear, billed as the talking magazine, featured records on the front and back covers with conveniently perforated edges. This, said the magazine, gave movie lovers “a new dimension to the wondrous Hollywood story by bringing you the sounds; its stars, its studios, its great and momentous pictures.… [We] bring these sounds right into your own living room on permanent, unbreakable phonograph records which you can keep and collect and treasure forever.” Along with the records, Hear also featured gossip and reviews of Tinseltown hits and happenings. This is volume one from 1956, and I believe it only lasted a few issues. In another issue, there’s a short Q & A with James Dean. I wonder, as I often do, is this flexible paper record the only source left for this bit of audio history? In another case, an Alfred Hitchcock promo could be a revelation to his followers as an uncatalogued found recording.
5 THE “TALKIE” CIGARETTE CARD / The best-known flexis may be those, like cereal-box records (from Disney on Wheaties in the 1950s to The Archies on Super Sugar Crisp in the early 1970s—which began this whole journey for me) and cigarette-card records, that added value to a product within the packaging itself. During the Depression, Durium sold a 10-inch flexi called “The Hit of the Week,” available at newsstands for 15 cents apiece; Durium Juniors were 4 inches and a nickel. Talkie cigarette cards—featuring songs, sports news, and personalities boasting about their accomplishments—were produced in England and France by Durium’s sister companies. I don’t think there’s a Honus Wagner talkie cigarette card, but I’m keeping my eyes open.
6 EMPIRE STATE OBSERVATORY SOUVENIR / Personal disc recording technology enabled folks to make one-off records through various systems (first aluminum discs, then flexis) from the 1930s through the 1950s, until the ad- vent of reel-to-reel tape. Home recording machines for sending “talking letters” were common, and booths were also set up at amusement parks and tourist destinations like the Empire State Building. Almost like a photo booth, you paid, spoke into it, and got your own record, sometimes complete with mailing envelope. On this record, we hear a flustered participant startled by the light coming on. To prevent this, there were pads with pencils and in- structions for sketching notes and preventing deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.
7 A MESSAGE TO YOU FROM BILL BENDIX: “A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT” / Promotional records for movies were a big part of the golden age of oddity records. This is a great example of a die-cut record manufactured as a promotional item for the 1949 film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, starring Bing Crosby and Bill Bendix. It contains a lavishly edited sequence of music and dialogue from Bing and Bill about what a great movie they’re starring in. Crosby, star that he was, used his clout to set up the Bing Crosby Flexible Record Company and exploit this technology. I have many examples of his company’s recordings, which promote not only Crosby projects but other products, including, curiously, Fedders air conditioners.
8 SWISS POLKA WITH 2 LOVELY HANKIES / It was fate. I didn’t think I believed in miracles, but there I was at my local flea market, facing many giant boxes of papers and other junk. I did not have the wherewithal to look through this stuff, but something urged me on: I was compelled to step forward. There were boxes under the tables, too, and I didn’t choose an easy one. I pulled it out from under the table, reached to the bottom, and instantly mined this gem. Someone had the bright idea to create a presentation of two Swiss hankies folded into fine fans inside a round clear plastic box whose top is a yodeling record. It’s possible to put the entire box, with the hankies still inside, on your turntable to hear some damn fine yodeling. Who wouldn’t want this as a gift? God bless the person who never opened this box to remove the hankies to blow his snotty nose. I tell ya: a miracle.
Michael Cumella is a media specialist in New York City for online and television video projects, a musician, and the host of The Antique Phonograph Music Program on WFMU. He collects obsolete record types and maintains a museum of oddities at the Virtual Museum of Unusual Records.