In the late 1990s, knowing my brother and I both greatly enjoyed listening to old time radio programs on cassette, my Zayde gave me a working vintage “Symphony” phonograph as a gift.
The phonograph itself is a remarkable piece of furniture and a real mystery – despite exhaustive research I have been unable to find much about the “Symphony” phonograph company. The piece, apparently a knock-off of the more popular Victrola XVII floor model phonograph, is four feet tall and 20″x20″. It has a RPM control dial and handcrack; the horn – like with the Victrola models – is inside the unit, beneath the turntable and tonearm. Volume control is effected by opening and closing two small cabinet doors at the mouth of the horn, directly beneath the turntable. Beneath the volume cabinet are two larger cabinet doors concealing four storage shelves.
I have no conception of the monetary value of the unit; no other Symphony phonographs are for sale currently that I could discover, and even with more common units – such as the Victrola models – value fluctuates between $100 and $1000 depending on the quality and appearance of the phonograph.
The “Symphony” phonograph company is a mystery to me. Their slogan, “The Phonograph of the Heart,” is unrevealing and the piece itself has no other model numbers, serial numbers, or markings that might offer a clue to its provenance and history. The only other bit of information is the city of manufacture: Canton, Pennsylvania. Joyce Tice’s exhaustive history of that city does mention an unnamed “phonograph manufacturing plant” once housed in the Independent Building on Clinton Street. Absent any other evidence, that seems the best candidate for my phonograph’s birthplace.
Over the next few years after receiving the phonograph I accumulated a collection of a few hundred 78-RPM records – some unplanned and others carefully researched. (For a short while I even tried to collect one of every label ever pressed in the United States; I ended up with about 60 unique labels, out of a total population estimated around 550-600 labels — oh well).
After college my collection languished. Life moved on and I quickly discovered that transporting a few hundred weighty 78 records was no simple task. The collection and phonograph recently re-entered my life, however, and so I resolved to delve back into that vintage vinyl, dust off the machine, and fire it up.
I discovered more interesting and foot-tapping albums in my collection than I had ever remembered gathering in the first place. My revived interested inspired new research and reading, in which I also discovered an admonition from a “professional” collector against using an actual vintage phonograph to play these antique treasures (whoops). Apparently dragging a steel nail across the discs’ grooves can damage the record and lessen its quality over time – imagine that.
Despite this warning, though, I must admit that the sound from the vintage phonograph is far superior, richer, and punchier than what I can get when I play a 78 on a modern turntable. Another small gripe is that many “78-RPM” records, especially the earliest ones, are actually intended to be played at 80-RPM. Indeed, my phonograph’s own speed adjustment dial sets “80” as the midpoint on its scale.
Nevertheless I began researching contemporary record players and decided to use the opportunity to also begin digitizing my collection. With a Crosley CR6001A archiver USB turntable and a fresh copy of Audacity on my MacBook I was ready to go.
It was then I was hit by a little inspiration.
The result is Zayde’s Turntable.
Here I hope to occasionally document the “biography” of a somewhat random album pulled from my collection in the course of my digitization work. Not every record I’ll profile is “valuable” to serious collectors. “Collectors” prize scarcity, even often at the expense of musical quality. On the other hand, not every record I own is good music (far, far from it, in fact); some are scarce and therefore valuable, while others are only of interest because of their connection to a notable historical event or individual. No matter why they end up on Zayde’s turntable, however, every record offers a little bit of history, a little bit of art, and, in its own way, a little bit of life – all in a ten-inch diameter disc of 100-year old plastic.