by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the evolution of media continuing to bring about staggering transformations in very short periods of time, we’ve become accustomed to having these changes occur virtually continuously. In some ways, our sense of wonder is blunted because of how we’ve been conditioned with revolutions in technology.
In the early 20th century, there were revolutionary developments in the presentation of media that, in a relatively short time for them (though lengthy for us), brought about radical changes in entertainment, news and other areas. Paramount among these were the development of the motion picture, the introduction of the radio, and the creation of the phonograph and its association recordings.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is connected to the latter and is a Victor Records catalog from June 1929. The creation of sound recordings dates back to the late 1870s and Thomas Edison’s introduction of the phonograph, a hand-cranked machine that recorded and and played sound, first on cylinders made of paper coated with wax and then on tin foil.
Edison, who considered the device to be useful for business in recording telephone calls, made his first crude recording at the end of 1877, just a year and a half after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Bell also jumped into sound recordings and used wax cylinders. For recording, large horns were used to have enough amplification to make decent impressions on the cylinders.
In 1887, Emile Berliner developed the gramophone, first on a cylindrical recording surface, but, later that year, he advanced the technology significantly by introducing a flat disc. His Gramophone Company, based in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, used lateral cuts in the circular grooves of the discs, a vast improvement on the previous work of Edison and Bell. The grooves, moreover, were of the same depth and the bottoms were soft, though the walls were not uniform. A needle would move from side to side in the grooves allowing for the reproduction of the sound.
While Berliner developed the recording disc, it was Eldridge Johnson, a Camden machine shop proprietor, who, by the end of the century developed a playing machine with a spring motor and a regulator of the speed. Berliner and Johnson combined forces and founded the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901.
In short order, Victor, with Johnson as the presiding figure, dominated the industry, though it took some time to convince those in the music industry, who were concerned about threats to their livelihood through concerts, to participate in the process of recording artists and then manufacturing and distributing the records to a mass audience, used to only hearing music performed live.
A key early development was the contracting, in 1904, of famed opera singer Enrico Caruso to record pieces for the company. His royalties amounted to several million dollars over the years and a 1909 copyright law mandated that songwriters and publishers be paid royalties from sales of recordings of their work.
Victor, which had recording facilities and plants in several countries throughout the world was known for its logo of a dog with its head cocked to the side listening to a recording of “His Master’s Voice” on a company gramophone. Its Victrola, which like Kleenex and Google in other realms, became a byword for the phonograph, and the firm enjoyed enormous success in its first two decades. Overall, record sales jumped from about 4 million when the century began, to more seven times that within a decade and to some 100 million per year by the 1920s.
The invention of radio by 1920 was another revolutionary achievement and, though early radio broadcasts of music were lacking in sound quality, improvements were such that there was concern that phonograph records might go extinct in favor of radio broadcasting. This turned out, of course, to be untrue, and the booming economy of the Roaring Twenties, as long as it lasted, meant many people still bought records.
Another transformation was that Victor, Edison’s National Phonograph Company, and Columbia dominated the market up until the early 1920s, but a patent lawsuit in 1921 opened the field to many more firms, called independents (or “indies”) producing and selling recordings. Given production costs, royalties and the like, it generally took about 5,000 copies sold to recoup those expenses and generate pure profit.
The onset of jazz, or popular forms emulating some elements, and dance music associated with it contributed to another boom in record sales, as did the popularity in some markets of the blues. A “race record” category existed for black consumers with labels and imprints, like OKeh, which had the first million seller in 1921 via Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” There were also genres with folk, country and a large following in classical music, even if these longer pieces had to be broken down into small units because of the under 4 minute limit for a side of a recording.
David Sarnoff, the dominant figure behind the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which was created by General Electric (GE) and others, to develop radio, presided over the increasing success of the radio. Prices of units dropped dramatically just in a few years during the Twenties, so that ownership of a radio (which was included as a question in the 1930 census) ballooned from just several thousand by 1924 to some 10 million in 1927.
The concern about the future of records with the onset of radio and live music broadcasts was justified by declining sales through the mid-1920s, but a new advancement by Victor was the electrical recording process and electric players that did not require hand-cranking. The convenience of the latter and the improved fidelity of the former revived the record industry and sales climbed to some 200 million on the world market by the end of the decade. Creative products, including recordings of songs used in films, often by the movie’s stars, also helped sell more records.
Johnson sold his stake in Victor for a staggering $22 million in 1927 and RCA took over the firm, known thereafter as RCA-Victor. When the Great Depression erupted not long after, there was, as in most areas of business, a dramatic decline in record sales, which slumped, by some accounts, from over 100 million in the U.S. in 1929 to only 6 million three years later, when waves of bank failures brought the worst of the economic disaster to bear.
As for the catalog, it was, as a pencil inscription on the inside front cover reveals, originally at the Fitzgerald Music Company on Hill Street south of 7th Street in Los Angeles and there is a date of “Monday June 24 1929” as well. The item lists many new releases by Victor, including classical recordings conducted by Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski. For that latter, there was a “special de-luxe” box set of two discs of 250 units of a Rimsky-Korsakov overture that was autographed by the conductor and available for $12 (the normal set sold for $2.)
There were offerings of tunes from movies, including the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, an early sound musical; “fox trots that are full of pep!”; “red hot dance tunes;” “Tasty Dancing Recipes” of equal measures of waltzes and fox trots; Broadway show tunes; and much more. There were both 10-inch and 12-inch records, with the lowest prices being 75 cents for a single disc and ranging up to $2.
A centerfold color ad promoted the new Victor radio that offered improved sound through the company’s “Micro-Synchronous” concept for “super-automatic, full-vision tuning” through better circuitry and more power. The combination “Radio-Electrola,” including the phonograph, went for $275 and the radio-only set sold for $155. The firm, naturally, guaranteed “the finest radio receiver the world has ever heard” developed from Victor’s “unmatched experience, its vast resources, and its genius for unmistakable superiority.” For those with fewer dollars available, there was the new portable Victrola, offered at $35, but also ideal for outdoor uses with all-steel construction.
The wrappers on the catalog is a striking orange and black with a silhouette image of a large bank on the front and guests at a club with palm trees galore. This is because this cover advertisement was for the famed Cocoanut Grove club at the Ambassador Hotel, which opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1921. The hostelry, designed by well-known architect Myron Hunt, closed in 1989 and is now the site of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, named after the former U.S. Attorney General under his brother, John F. Kennedy, and presidential candidate who was murdered at the hotel in 1968.
As for the Cocoanut Grove, it was a popular hangout for celebrities in the Roaring Twenties, including Friday night Charleston contests. The back cover blared out “The Life of Los Angeles Centers at the Incomparable Cocoanut Grove,” where “stars of the motion picture world and Southern California’s smart set enjoy their happiest moments.” There was an “All-Star Night” on Tuesdays, “College Night” and a dancing contest on Fridays, and a tea dance and dance contest on Saturday afternoons.
For a brief time in summer 1929, the featured orchestra was that of Herman “Heinie” Kenin, and Kenin and the Ambassador Hotel Orchestra were recently signed to Victor as exclusive recording artists. The orchestra performed nightly at the Cocoanut Grove, but there was another reason to promote the band on this catalog.
The inside of the back cover noted that there were three prior releases on the label, including two fox trots, “Persian Rug” and “There’s Somebody Now” as well as a waltz in “Sweeheart Lane.” Kenin and company’s newest recording was promoted in the pamphlet as a “Special Release” comprised of the A-side, “I’m Walkin’ Around in a Dream” and the B-side, “After Thinking It Over.” The ad also noted that there would be future releases for the ensemble soon.
Kenin, a totally forgotten name now, was born in New Jersey in 1902 and lived in Nebraska before his cigar-maker father and his mother, both Jewish immigrants from Russia, relocated to Portland, Oregon. There Kenin and a brother became musicians, with Herman specializing in the violin. By his early twenties, he was the conductor of a prominent hotel band in Portland and, with the growing popularity of radio, he and his group were featured on many broadcasts.
For a period, Kenin led the “Golden Gate Gypsies” in San Francisco, which also was frequently heard on radio performances. His first appearance in Los Angeles appears to have been in September 1925 when he and his orchestra performed on a bill at the Hillstreet Theater. It appears that Kenin’s booking at the Cocoanut Grove was a direct result of his signing a recording contract with Victor and he moved his group down from the City by the Bay.
The engagement at the Ambassador was short, however, and, Kenin and company joined the popular comedic bandleader Ted Lewis (known for his enthusiastic query of “Is Everybody Happy?” which was also the name of a feature film just completed) and His Musical Klowns at a summer 1929 run at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
After that, Kenin and his orchestra, under the moniker of Herman Kenin and His Californians. headed east for an extended series of concerts in Pittsburgh, including the opening of the Nixon Cafe. While there was some publicity for the Pennsylvania performances, noting that Kenin and ensemble were widely known on the west coast for radio broadcasts and were to be heard on local Pittsburgh stations, he soon returned to Portland.
The popular dance orchestra world was a highly competitive one, with such luminaries as Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, Nat Shilkret (who led his own Victor ensemble) and others being most popular. It looks as if Kenin’s efforts to reach those exalted ranks fell short in terms of record sales and his Victor career was cut short. Moreover, with the Great Depression almost certainly a factor, Kenin no longer had his own big band.
However, bandleaders generally had to have some significant administrative capabilities to run a large ensemble like an orchestra, so it is not surprising that Kenin turned to a career as a managerial figure. For years he was, while in Portland, the district manager for the American Society of Composers. He then was an official with the American Federation of Musicians, a labor union for professionals founded in 1896 and which is the larges such organization in the world.
The AFM was best-known for a strike during World War II, orchestrated (!) by its president Robert Petrillo. The goal was to pressure record companies to develop a system of royalties more beneficial to musicians. This recording ban had a huge impact on wartime entertainment and shifted more attention to live performance. When Petrillo retired in 1958, his appointed successor, Kenin, took over as president and remained in that position until his death in 1970.
One notable element of Kenin’s tenure as head of the AFM was a diatribe he launched in early 1964, after a quartet of mop-topped Brits invaded the United States with a record-setting appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and a string of Number One singles. Railing against this, Kenin wrote in April to the British Musicians Union:
The Beatles are not immortal to us [professional American musicians.] We don’t consider them unique. They are musicians and only sing incidentally. We can go to Yonkers or Tennessee and pick up four kids who can do this kind of stuff . . . this is not culture. They are no Rubinsteins [pianist Arthur] or Heifetzes [violinist Jascha]. Artists are welcome. But as for the Beatles, if they do get back into the country, they’re going to have to leave their instruments at home, because there are enough musicians in the United States and too many of them are unemployed. They were here before we realized what happened, but it won’t happen again.
So much for Kenin’s gifts of prophecy! Still, he appears to have had a successful tenure at the head of the AFM during some interesting times, including the decline in classical and older forms of popular music in the wake of rock and roll, Motown, and other genres.
The Victor catalog is an interesting and informative artifact of music in the late 1920s, both because of the variety of recordings available from this largest of major record labels and because of the promotion of Herman Kenin and His Ambassador Hotel Orchestra as newly signed artists to the label—a distinction that, however, did not survive long in the highly competitive world of dance band music on the cusp of grave difficulties in the coming Great Depression.