Feeling groovy

MOAH celebrates record players throughout history

The voices echo through the years -- eerie, but surprisingly clear -- the strains of "Aloha Oe" by Toots Paka's Hawaiians, sung and played more than a century ago and captured on a cylinder, one of the oldest means of recording music.

At the Museum of American Heritage's (MOAH) current exhibition, "In the Groove: A History of Record Players," visitors can encounter a variety of models of phonographs, gramophones, jukeboxes and turntables, learn about the history of the technology, and even select songs to spin -- including, with the help of a docent, the hauntingly present "Aloha Oe" recording from so long ago.

If you're of a certain age, you may have grown up with record players. If you're a current audiophile, you might be part of the modern vinyl comeback. Or perhaps you've never before put a needle to the groove. Whatever your familiarity level, MOAH's exhibit offers a wealth of information and hands-on learning opportunities.

Last year, the museum featured an exhibition on Thomas Edison, and his presence still lingers in this new exhibition, as it was his invention of the phonograph (the ancestor of modern record players, which could both record and play back) that revolutionized recorded sound. The trademarked Berliner Gramophone, a few years later, helped bring record playing to the households of the masses.

Record players, whether they're spinning old-timey cylinders or the more familiar discs, work by means of a needle reading and amplifying vibrations from the grooves inscribed into a record. Cylinders, like the ones featured at the exhibition's entrance, had their heyday during the late 19th and early 20th century, from early tinfoil-and-wood cylinders (dating back to 1887) and wax cylinders that could only be played back a few times before their indentations were worn down, rendering them useless, to sturdy celluloid cylinders.

Eventually, by around 1910, flat discs replaced cylinders as the preferred means of record playing, going through a variety of materials, speeds and sizes. By the 1920s, "78s" (discs that spin around 78 revolutions per minute, or rpm) had gained dominance in the market, followed by the long-playing 33 1/3 rm albums and 45 rpm singles, made of vinyl.

The museum also features a variety of jukeboxes, the machines that livened up diners, bars and more by letting customers select singles to spin for a small fee (at MOAH, visitors can choose a song for free in at least one operational machine). Jukeboxes, it turns out, have a sordid history, thanks to their connection with the Mafia. Manufacturers would sell the machines to Mob operators, who would then oversee their placement in venues and reap the money. Because jukeboxes took in cash, the exhibition explains, they were handy for skimming profits, avoiding taxes and laundering money.

The exhibition has a charmingly homespun look, with images and text printed, cut and posted in the manner of an old-school presentation, and winds it way through the museum's main building (the historic home of Dr. Thomas Williams).

In addition to "In the Groove," the museum's permanent collection of household items, mechanical inventions, toys and miscellany from everyday American life across the centuries are still on display, as are its flourishing gardens, which include a replica 1940s Victory Garden growing period-and-region-accurate crops, and an outbuilding housing a recreated print shop and automobile garage. Children may especially enjoy the playroom located at the back of the museum's main building, where they can try out a variety of toys and puzzles.

Art Adams, a longtime MOAH contributor, led a recent talk at the museum on how 78 records reflect the culture of their time, from the early patriotic songs of the First World War years to the jazzy dance music from the carefree 1920s and the sentimental songs dating to the Great Depression. That music, he said in an interview with the Weekly, "Really reflected the hard times of the period."

Now 92, Adams said he grew up listening to music in the Big Band era of the 1930s and '40s and watched as 78s lost ground to 45s and LPs after World War II.

"The quality is remarkably good," he said, of the 78 records that have survived to the modern era. Asked for his opinion on the current vinyl resurgence, he noted that listeners do object to the "harshness" of digital media. "The records seem to have a warmer feel," he agreed. However, he added that his own collection features a mix of LPs and CDs and that it's more about the content than the format. "It doesn't really bother me that much. Music is music," he said.

What: "In the Groove: A History of Record Players."

Where: Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto.

When: Through Aug. 19; from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday to Sunday.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to MOAH.

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