Monday, December 29, 2008

Look At My Stuff, Part 1

Merry Christmas! Since we're celebrating the Most Material Time of the Year here at Passport to Dreams, I thought I'd offer a special year-end "light break" from our usual through discourse here and start a limited run of articles where you, the appreciative consumer, .... .... Look At My Stuff! My stuff and you looking... a match made on the internet! .... It will be Disney related "stuff", I assure you.

As readers of this blog may have guessed a few months back, I am a collector of records. You know -- those vinyl things you drag a stylus across to play music. They're not only fun and exciting, but sound better than your MP3s! So there.

I am especially fixated on early records, back before the variable microgroove was invented and the groove on the record's playable surface had to be uniformly as wide as the loudest portions of the music track, whether this width was used throughout the entire track or not. Early records ran fast - very fast, 78 rotations per minute, roughly the same speed as that very earliest of recorded sound devices - the wax or embrol cylinder - and pretty speedy compared to the 33 rotations per minute called for by the later LPs. And unlike those flexible LPs, made of elastic vinyl, many 78 records were made of the thick and heavy shellac.

These were different days, and not only did it take some time for 78 records to start coming with a song on each side (after all, cylinders could only contain a single song of a certain length), but these records were purchased singly, in little brown paper sleeves at the local department or music store. Pictured below are two mid-40's ten inch 78s in representative paper sleeves. This is what 90 cents would have gotten you in 1945 (45 cents each, about the same as $5 today):

This, of course, began to present a problem for anyone planning on collecting music, since stacking such items has never been desireable and uncontained, these could quickly get out of hand. The solution was to start offering bound books into which 10 or 12 10-inch 78s could be filed. Each page was numbered and in the front of each book was a ledger in which the titles of the 78s could be entered for easy access. These beautiful books began to be called "albums", since flipping through the records was equivalent to looking through a picture album. This is, by the way, why we continue to call music releases "albums" today. Below are three such albums: on top, two World War I era Victor record albums, each with a pull ring on the spine so that the music could be easily extracted from a bookshelf. Below it is a mid-40's album issued by Decca. There are other, more common albums, possibly issued by Columbia or Decca, where the spine can be unscrewed and more pages can be inserted to house more records.

I've gone on about this at great length to demonstrate how deluxe the items I'm about to show you was in 1946 when it was new, and also why the things looks the way they do. Of course, with record albums already a way of life in many homes, eventually many major companies began to offer an array of related records in an attractive and relevant album rather than having to choose just two songs from, say, a feature film or Broadway musical or record a medley of songs from a property. I've seen these albums from as early as the late 1930's but rarely before, and it was this format which eventually paved the way for LPs which featured two, three, or four discs of music.

When I was first becoming devoted to the Three Caballeros I began to scour eBay looking for the best item to have for the film, I knew that when I saw these beautiful Decca albums from the 1940's that there would never be a better piece of merchadise to represent the beauty and fun of those films. Whereas many 78 albums from this era are plain with only art on the front cover and plain brown paper inside, both of these lush 78 albums are full of beautiful art. Each even comes with a booklet of liner notes relating to the film, the music and the Disney studio, which was a pretty unusual extravagence for the time. The original price of each album, notated in pencil in the corner of my Caballeros record, was $2.75... which translates to over $30 today.

It's fairly common to find these thematic 78 albums, but often either unrelated records will be housed inside or the records will be broken. Barring either of those possibilities, the front or back panel will be torn off or the binding destroyed. Find both of these albums in good shape with their boojklets is a major find. The Saludos Amigos had been fairly mistreated, while the Three Caballeros one was in greaqt shape but the binding was slightly damaged. The music on these, by the way, is beautiful - a fresh and mellow breeze from another time and place.

I especially like this interior illustration... and its' named characters closely correspond to the "movements" of the film I have identified!

You can find these from most of the Disney films of the "golden" and "war" eras, but none of them match the beauty and lush presentation of these two sets, in my mind. The music, art and booklets are presented in digital versions online at the invaluable Kiddie Records: Saludos Amigos & The Three Caballeros. These albums aren't just great Disney, they're great history and if you find them complete in your travels you may want to pick the whole thing up.

So what happened to 78s as a format? As the 40's waned and the 1950's picked up, 78s began to fall out of favor to the similar but smaller and lighter 45s, and eventually to the 33 rpm long-playing records. While a shellac 78 could hold at most perhaps 3 and a half minutes of music, each side of a LP could hold around 20 and even more with creative pressing. 78s became associated with children's products and educational use, and the heyday of complex and beautiful album-books was replaced with more restrained boxes and sleeves.

This is a 1951 version of the very popular, long in print Merry Christmas Bing Crosby. It is housed in a simple box with a sticker on the front for cover art and minor, generic album notes on the back of the box top, like a board game. Some of the final 78s I've seen were printed on cardboard, used to promote Disneyland, and aimed squarely at children.

I don't have an overly huge collection of Disney stuff or records at my disposal, but I went to great lengths to obtain these two items, and I think they're still probably two of the nicest things I own.