Hold the Phono: If you meet three fellows from Ferguson who happen to mention they've got tons of old 78s, they ain't kidding

Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.

A time portal is a curious thing. In the north St. Louis County town of Ferguson, it takes the form of three nondescript brick bungalows in the Patricia Park neighborhood. Walk through the front door of Alan Carell's house, or Richard Tussey's, or Bruce Stinchcomb's, and you breathe the air of the past. (The smell is a jumble of musty cardboard, shellac and dust, mixed, in Stinchcomb's case, with the living scent of dog.)

Behold row after row after row of shelves rising from floor to ceiling, packed with 78s. Tussey even has platters on the ceiling of his living room, screwed in through the holes in their centers.

"It's my Sistine Chapel," he says.

Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder device. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder device. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
A late 1800s gramophone. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
A late 1800s gramophone. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.

Try not to knock into the horns that bloom from the Victrolas, Graphinolas and Gramophones, all of them nearly a century old, all still in working condition. Let Stinchcomb rummage through the drawers of his Edison phonograph cabinet and pull out a wax cylinder: six inches long, about the size of an empty toilet-paper roll and a slightly darker shade of muddy brown. He slips it onto the spindle of the phonograph, cranks the handle and adjusts the steel needle. If you lean in close to the horn, you can hear a rhythmic crackling as the needle settles into its groove. Then, emerging beneath a veil of static, comes the sound of a man's voice, high-pitched, with the pinched diction of the early-20th-century upper crust, his words slightly sped-up and barely intelligible.

"There is no body of our people whose interests are more inextricably interwoven with the interests of all the people than is the case with the farmers...."

"That's Theodore Roosevelt," Stinchcomb interjects, sounding much like the geology professor he was before his retirement. "From 1908."

Visit Carell's or Tussey's house and the experience will be much the same. Close your eyes and it's 1906, and Ada Jones and Billy Murray are crooning a duet of "Cuddle Up a Little Closer." Carell's voice intrudes from the present, sounding like your most enthusiastic high school teacher (which he was): "Ada Jones was the first female performer on disc. Billy Murray was one of the most recorded voices ever."

A pause, another record lands on the turntable, and it's 1916 and the writer Sholem Aleichem is rambling in Yiddish. The record spins on until Aleichem asks (Carell's pretty sure), "Are we done?" (Alas, no. Records are two-sided now, and you have another two minutes to go!)

Skip ahead a year, to "Livery Stable Blues," a foxtrot in a syncopated style so new that the group who performed it was still calling itself the Dixieland Jass Band.

And now the U.S. is in the thick of World War I — Carell's album War Talk chronicles the buildup, from "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" to "We Are All Americans Now" — and Irving Berlin and Enrico Caruso do their part with "Oh, How That German Could Love" and "Over There." ("That's the only record published of Irving Berlin singing," Tussey confides. "That's because he couldn't sing.")

Moments later it's 1924 and Vernon Dalhart is twanging "The Wreck of the Old 97," and country music is born in Tussey's basement.

Follow Stinchcomb up to the attic and, with a turn of the crank of another machine, back to 1907, when the original cast of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance reunited 25 years after the premiere to record the operetta for the Pathé label.

"I'm a huge fan of Darwin," Stinchcomb confesses as the finale of Act I begins to play. "I like thinking about how Emma Darwin would take her husband to the premieres. She loved music, and he could barely carry a tune. I love hearing the same performers Charles and Emma heard." And now it's 1880 and the father of evolution is fidgeting quietly in his seat in a London opera house as his wife listens, enthralled, to the bellowing of the very model of a modern major general.

The needle reaches the record's outer edge — Pathé, alone among major record companies, etched its grooves from the inside out. Stinchcomb guides the tone arm back to its cradle and grins, solidly back in 2012. "They're like little time machines!"

Between them, Carell, Tussey and Stinchcomb estimate they own more than a quarter of a million 78 records, plus about a thousand cylinders. They're not sure exactly how many they have — they've never performed an official count. The closest they came was three years ago when Carell moved his collection here from Portland, Oregon.

It weighed 37 tons.

"We've cultivated a core sample that's been frozen in time," Tussey says. "You can go back and listen to things from a hundred years ago, the way they were. I would like to call it archeophono discology. It's a study of history. It's a study of the development of advertising. It's about the development of musical instruments. It's about the history of dancing."

It's also about the collective knowledge of the three collectors, each of whom has his own area of expertise: For Stinchcomb it's wax cylinders, dating from the 1870s until the 1920s, when record companies stopped manufacturing them; Carell occupies the so-called acoustic age, from 1900 to 1925, when electricity finally entered the recording studio; and Tussey owns the electric age, from 1926 until 1960, when 78s finally succumbed to LPs. Stinchcomb, now 73, and Carell, 67, have been amassing records since they were boys; Tussey, 61, didn't start till he was in his thirties.

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