11 1/2 Minutes of Fame

Filed under: AV Club, Machines of Loving Grace, typewriters — olivander May 1, 2011 @ 10:01 am

This past week, I was featured in the local PBS series “Off 90“, which showcases various human-interest stories from along southern Minnesota’s I-90 corridor. The segment was filmed last summer but due to uninteresting reasons the airing was delayed until now. The episode has now been posted to YouTube, so anyone who is masochistic enough to do so may watch me awkwardly babble on about typewriters.

My segment begins at about the 10:35 mark, following the Frozen River Film Festival (which is worth a watch itself).

Stereo Meta Stereo Meta

Filed under: AV Club, Finds, photography — olivander February 6, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

The above picture is a stereogram of a 1948 Stereo Realist camera, found in a local knick-knack store. So see it in simulated 3D, gently cross your eyes until the left and right images merge. Click the picture for a larger, more crosseye-friendly version.

A survey equipment company, the David White Company introduced the Stereo Realist to the market in 1947. It quickly became the company’s most popular product, despite a price of well over $1,000 in today’s dollars. Probably its most prolific and famous user was former silent-film star Harold Lloyd, who shot around a quarter million stereo images with one.

The David White Company is still around and still selling surveying equipment, but in 1971 they sold all of their Stereo Realist assets to former company design engineer Ron Zakowski.

The Stereo Realist shown above is a fairly early example, having a serial number in the low 7000s. It’s in nearly perfect condition, except the shutter is a bit sticky on very low speeds. With a little luck, I’ll be turning out real (not imitation) stereo photographs soon!

Sounds of the Past: The Remington Typewriter Co. Band

Filed under: AV Club, Diversions, Finds — olivander January 18, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

Remington Typewriter Band c.1912

Here we have the two sides from Columbia A1433, the first record of a handful released by the Remington Typewriter Co. Band.  Both were recorded Aug 27, 1913.  It used to be common for large companies to have their own employee-comprised concert bands and sports teams that played primarily for the enjoyment of the employees.  Of course, these company bands also acted as a form of advertising.  At the time these recordings were made, the band would have been under the leadership of Harry Putnam, former director of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus Band.

Formed in 1905, the Remington Band quickly became well-known outside the sphere of the factory grounds, performing regularly at events all around Herkimer County, NY.  In 1910, they embarked on a month-long tour of New York state and just inside the Canadian  border.  Possibly their highest-profile gig was playing at the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1939.

Beginning in 1926, the band could be heard at 8:30 every Wednesday evening on WGY, broadcasting from a studio built in the Remington employee cafeteria.

Reflecting the new corporate structure, the band changed its name to the Remington Rand Band in 1936.  After WWII, the band changed names again to the Ilion Fireman’s Band, a band which eventually became today’s Ilion Civic Band.

Click to download/listen:

Side A: Salute to the Sultan

Side B: Fraternal Spirit March

Making Remingtons in Czechoslovakia in 1935

Filed under: AV Club, Diversions, typewriters — olivander September 22, 2010 @ 7:41 am

This absolutely terrific short film from 1935 showed up on YouTube. It shows the manufacturing process of a Remington No.16 typewriter from milling to final assembly. There’s a stop-motion animation sequence toward the end that would have made Ray Harryhausen proud.

Regional records

Filed under: AV Club, Diversions, Finds — olivander June 23, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

Here is another of this blog’s infrequent forays into the world of early music reocordings. While visiting Sioux Falls this past weekend, I made a detour into a new (to me) thrift store calls Y’s Buys (it’s run by the YMCA). The place was huge. A bit overpriced, but ten times better than the measly Saver’s that’s further down 41st.

They had a small selection of 78rpm records, which at $1.99 apiece were ridiculously overpriced. I managed to find two interesting ones that weren’t broken (I mourn the death-by-neglect of “The Hipster’s Boogie”). I would never have paid their price if they hadn’t been a pair of labels that I’ve never seen before, and will unlikely come across again soon.

Herschel Gold Seal

Herschel Gold Seal immediately intrigued me with its obviously Jewish moniker and local Northwestern Phonograph Supply Co name. Usually, these indicate a very small record company with a limited catalog and primarily long-forgotten regional artists. The hard part about researching such labels is that today there is almost no surviving information about them. To my surprise, my initial research lasted only five minutes before I hit pay dirt.

A few years ago, science journalist and musical history buff Kurt Gegenhuber began a quest to discover the musicians who played “The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part 1″, featured in the legendary Anthology of American Folk Music. That record was also a Herschel Gold Seal release, and it led Gegenhuber on a sprawling historical journey through the Twin Cities’ early 20th-Century Jewish culture, a journey he recounts in his terrific article Music, Moonshine, and Mahjong. It turns out that Herschel Gold Seal was a house label maintained by Gennett Records for Harry Bernstein’s chain of Minneapolis/St Paul record stores in the late ’20s and early ’30s. The relationship probably originated with the fact that Harry Bernstein’s was a former Starr Piano distributor, and Starr Piano was Gennett’s parent company (the recording division changed its name from Starr to Gennett in 1917).

Gennett Records is a sprawling story in itself. They seemed to specialize in leasing their vast library of recordings to many smaller record labels. Adding to the confusion, they changed their name to Champion in 1930 but continued releasing some of the same recordings previously released on Gennett. I have found side A of this record, “Meadow-Lark” by the Royal Troubadors, on three different labels under as many band names, all apparently the same recording. This particular record, BTW, is a relabel of Gennett 3388, issued around 1927.

Side A: Meadow-Lark, by the Royal Troubadors. Recorded 10/04/1926. This side has heavy surface damage. I did the best I could to minimize the noise. It’s listenable, but not great.

Side B: Sunday, by Harry Pollack and His Club Maurice Diamonds. Recorded 10/01/1926. Again, listenable, but the quality was pretty bad to begin with, and you can do only so much with a disk that’s had its dynamic range ground down to nothing by multiple passes with a steel needle.


As a rule, I hate polka, but I was delighted to find this disk. WNAX is well-known to anyone who grew up in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, or western Minnesota or Iowa. An unusually powerful station for a relatively small community–in the ’40s it claimed to have the country’s tallest transmitting tower–WNAX was one of the most popular stations in the predominantly rural upper midwest. The rest of the country better recognizes its most famous musical prodigy, Lawrence Welk, whose decade-long stint as leader of the WNAX house band took him from struggling road musician to household name.

After the Welk era, WNAX housed many acts, mostly specializing in the polka-style music the heaviliy-Germanic upper-plains population enjoyed. One of the longest-lived of these groups was the WNAX Bohemian Band. The Bohemian Band could be heard every weeknight at 6:15, and played under the sponsorship of Minneapolis-based Grain Belt Beer. (The “Grainbelt Polka” song featured on this record is surely a thinly-veiled advertisement for their sponsor.)

The WNAX Bohemian Band. L-R: Billy Dean, Homer Schmidt (a veteran of Lawrence Welk’s ensemble), Bill Tonyan (still alive and performing!), Keith Eide, Rex Hays, Lynn Edwards, Eddie Texel, and Fred Burgi.

I left the noise level higher in these two recordings, because the dynamic range was so unusually well-preserved in these little-played sides that I didn’t want to sacrifice it. They’re still pretty good quality. The A side and B side are a guess, as the record has no catalog number. I went by the sequence of their recording matrix numbers.

Side A: Marenka Polka

Side B: Grainbelt Polka

Desperate Man Blues

Filed under: AV Club, Diversions — olivander February 3, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

Here is an absolutely terrific documentary about music collector Joe Bussard. Over 50 years of trekking back roads and knocking on doors in search of records, Joe has amassed an amazing collection of over 25,000 78rpm recordings of early American music. Even more infectious than the great musical rarities in his collection is Joe’s own enthusiasm for the music he so obviously loves.

This is Part One. The 55-min documentary is available in its entirety for one week only at pitchfork.tv. You can also purchase the DVD at Dust-to-Digital.

Update: Oops. It looks like the video is already gone!

Eartha Kitt: 1927-2008

Filed under: AV Club, Nuages — olivander December 26, 2008 @ 11:25 am

Everyone’s favorite Catwoman, Eartha Kitt, died yesterday. (Did you know she only appeared as Catwoman three times?) She was 81. Her life’s story sounds like a work of fiction. She was born in South Carolina to a part-black, part-Cherokee woman who had been raped by a white plantation owner. Her mother gave her up at age eight to relatives in Harlem. Eartha ran away from them at 15 and spent some time living in the subways. Then she joined a dance troup and, like many other black entertainers of the era, found freedom of expression in Paris. She began cutting records with Henri Rene’s orchestra and cultivated the sultry, kittenish persona for which she would become famous. (Many of those early records were in French and English; ultimately, she would sing in 10 languages.)

Echoes of her teasing style, like “Santa Baby” and “C’est Si Bon”, can be found in all sorts of places, such as the semi-naughty Christmas songs of Kay Martin, and in Blazing Saddles‘ Lili Von Shtupp.

I was going to post a few MP3 songs made from her old 78s, but all but one are easily found elsewhere. Instead, I decided to post this YouTube video of a 1962 television performance of one of my favorite Eartha songs, “I Want to be Evil”. One of the reasons I chose this particular video is that you can tell she’s just having a carefree ball with it, and that’s how I want to remember her.

The Swanketeria presents: Cool Yule

Filed under: AV Club, Diversions, Typecast — olivander December 24, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

Typecast 12/24/2008

Typewriter: 1963 Remington Holiday

For the Love of Shellac

Filed under: AV Club, Finds, Typecast — olivander April 10, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

Notes from delirium

Filed under: AV Club, Musings — Oliver February 28, 2005 @ 7:42 pm

I’ve been sick. Not to brag, but I have a very strong immune system and I rarely get sick. That means, though, that when I do get sick, I’m on my deathbed–knocked flat, laid low. And that his how I spent my weekend. To add insult to injury, I woke up early Sunday morning with a migraine that confined me to bed until 10pm (with the exception of those moments when I was leaning off the bed and throwing up into the bathroom trash can D had so foresightedly placed next to my side of the bed). Today has been better, but I stayed home nonetheless, still feeling as though I had shared an intimate encounter with the chromed grill of a Mack truck.

There are some advantages to having four days of quiet convalescence. I was able to finish the Nero Wolfe mystery I’d been reading (Too Many Cooks), and to catch up on my magazine backlog (an eclectic assemblage: Fortean Times, Hot Rod, MacAddict, and The New Yorker), as well as note many movies that I need to add to my Netflix queue. (Kung-Pow: Enter the Fist is really much more clever than I had given it credit for, being sort of a kung-fu version of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. However, the ’70s kung-fu films sampled are much more obscure than Steve Martin’s noir send-up, and therefore the joke of the whole thing isn’t as funny unless you are a very dedicated kung-fu fan, which I am not.)

Another thing I did was to unbox and hook up the new record turntable we recently bought on the cheap at Office Max (yes, the paper-and-binders place). The quality is about what you would expect for the price, but it appealed to me in that it can play 78rpm records. For the first time in years, I was able to uncrate some of my old vinyl and give them a spin. Much as a subtle scent can take you suddenly back to that first, nervous prom night, or rediscovering a favorite children’s book can transport you back to the memory of hanging out in your bedroom on a low-lit snow day, those records swept me away on a magical mystery tour of my musical education.

It began with Tarkus. During a trip to Michigan for an Olympics of the Mind competition (for I was a true geek even then), I came upon a stash of Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums in a used record store. I brought home three or four because the cover art and the titles intrigued me. Tarkus smashed all my musical notions with an iron hammer, then forged the broken pieces into a mighty sword of new understanding of how music could be. In later years, I’ve come to realize that many of ELP’s albums are pretentious beyond belief, but the core body of their work–Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery, and Welcome Back My Friends…–is still a pleasure to listen to for their marriage of rock and classical, and occasionally even a hint of big-band jazz.

My friend Andy Cook noticed my ELP obsession and thought I might like this other band he’d been listening to. Andy was a musical renaissance man. There was nary a band missing from his vast collection. He loaned me a 4th-generation cassette copy of King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”. It wasn’t for everyone, he warned me, but if I liked it he had more. If ELP was the cracking voice of my musical adolescence, then King Crimson was its coming of age. Fronted by guitar genius Robert Fripp, KC fused rock and jazz in a way that once again made me completely rethink the structure of music. A heavy guitar riff might evolve into a near-cacophonic avalanche of sounds, only to slowly slide into a flute or violin solo. I sat for hours at my parents’ big console stereo, spinning King Crimson records, huge earmuff headphones clamped to my head. I memorized every note, anticipating the entrance of the next instrument, studying how they played off one another. ELP and King Crimson taught me, through careful listening, how to appreciate virtually any kind of music–though I still hate 90% of hip-hop.

King Crimson led naturally into my tracking down Mr Fripp’s many side projects, particularly his collaborations with Brian Eno. “No Pussyfooting” consists of just two songs: “The Heavenly Music Corporation” and “Swastika Girls”. Eno plays drifting, playful keyboards. Fripp helms his guitar-altering contraption, the Frippertronics box. Frippertronics loops the guitar’s notes, allowing him to ride the music like ocean waves. “No Pussyfooting” is completely improvised, and destroyed everything I knew about musical structure. There is no structure, just one instrument leading the other on a playful dance in the surf. I don’t know how many times I fell asleep to that album (and not just because it is quite lulling).

Founded in the late ’60s, King Crimson is now into its fifth decade (!), having undergone many personnel and stylistic transformations, but never once feeling creatively dried up or repetitive. In the late ’90s, they released a boxed set called ProjeKcts, in which various combinations of band members played improvised sets at jazz clubs throughout the country. “ProjeKcts” takes “No Pussyfooting” a step further in challenging how I listen to music. After a number of plays, I’m still not sure I’m at terms with what I’m hearing (this is not to say that I don’t like the recordings, just that I don’t know how to fit them into anything I know).

I could go on: Eno’s “Taking Tiger Mountain” and “Another Green World”; Todd Rudgren’s “Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect” and “Acapella”; Talking Heads; Adrian Belew; Pink Floyd; Laurie Anderson. But I fear I’ve rambled on far too much as it is, and I could write whole theses on how each group affected me and their relationships with the others. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed listening to my new turntable this weekend.

Random other observations from my convalescence:
–Why isn’t the serial killer popularly known at BTK getting the three-name treatment? Most infamous killers are forever known by their full names: Henry Lee Lucas, Mark David Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacey, etc. BTK is just Dennis Rader. Curious.

–Someday allow me to regale you with my arguments for why I believe that parts of Einstein’s theory of relativity are dead wrong, but for now I’ll just mention that while I lay awake from 2-3am this morning I may have worked out how dark matter fits perfectly into my version of things. It was the recent discovery of that starless galaxy seemingly composed entirely of dark matter that made it click for me.

The new “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” trailer: I don’t know. I just don’t know.