"Most university archives are focused in printed material," adds Brooks. "The preservation of film is more prominent. Phonographic collections never had that kind of cachet. There are no advocates in the industry like [Martin] Scorsese. Shame on the record industry."

Even if some established archive or library were willing to take on the Ferguson collection, Carell, Tussey and Stinchcomb would likely have to pay for shipping — and maintenance.

In 2008 the Library of Congress began assembling the National Jukebox, a collection of acoustic recordings online. "The best way to preserve old records is to make copies and put them in people's hands," reasons Brylawski, who worked on the project. The effort involved its own set of headaches, in that record companies still hold the copyrights on many old recordings and are loath to give them up.

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.

Stinchcomb has begun converting his cylinders to digital audio files and burning them as CDs. They sound better that way, instead of piped through an old phonograph horn. But he doesn't find the conversion entirely satisfying. "As a collector," he says, "I like physical objects. It's part of the collector disease."

But 78s and cylinders — not to mention LPs and 45s — weren't made to last forever. "I've looked at a needle going through a record under a microscope. You can see the shavings coming off," Lew Prince explains. "I can look at any record and tell you the number of times it's been played. It will show gradations of wear. If you play a record, it degrades its value."

Increasingly resigned to the fact that the archive is a dream that's never going to happen, Tussey has been selling some of his rare holdings in order to pay off his mortgage. "I want to have a few years to live after I pay off my house," he says. "I want to travel. I want to see Washington, D.C."

A few years ago, Tussey put his most remarkable artifact, a seventeen-inch Pathé — the largest phonograph record ever manufactured — up for auction on eBay, hoping it would attract the attention of a major investor. He got no response. "That told me what I needed to know," he says forlornly.

Clearly, something is required to lighten the mood. What better way to cheer up than with a record? Tussey has the perfect one in mind and trots off across the lawn to his house to fetch it.

"That's why we're feeling blue," Carell explains as his friend departs. "It's going to take twenty years for academia to catch on to what's here. It's a completely coherent sociological document! It's what I deliberately assembled from the time I was a teenager. And in 50 years I won't be around.

I've painted myself into a wonderful corner," he concludes. "I love it here. In some ways it's enough. But it becomes hollow. The central purpose was to do this for the world."

When Tussey returns a few minutes later, he's clutching a 78: "There's a Hole in the Iron Curtain and the USA Is Peeking Through," recorded in 1950 by Mickey Katz with sound effects by Mel Blanc, the legendary voice of cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.

The record begins with a solemn rendition of the Soviet anthem and a man with a bad Russian accent proclaiming, "Attention comrades! National emergency. Important message from Uncle Joe. Attention commissars!... Attention glorious army!... There's a hole in the old Iron Curtain! Americans peeking!"

There follows a discordant blurting of horns, cymbals and God knows what else (maybe a balalaika?), a Cossack folk dance filtered through Looney Tunes.

"There's real musicianship here — to do this this badly!" Carell marvels with obvious glee. Even the glum Tussey chuckles.

Over Blanc's Soviet-inflected farting noises, Katz explodes into fake Russian nonsense:

Everything is hotski-totski

Swing your butler head cazatzki!

Now the music's getting hotski...

Heigh-ho Silver, zykovy!

Carell and Tussey can't hold back giggles.

Immediately, Tussey puts on another record, "Essen," by Billy Hodes with Ray Carter's Catskill Cowboys. The song mocks the endless eating at Jewish Catskill resorts. It doesn't crack up the collectors like "Iron Curtain," but after a brief debate, Tussey identifies its musical origin: Though it was recorded in 1947, it follows in the Jewish vaudeville tradition that thrived in the Bronx at the turn of the 20th century but vanished as soon as Broadway got big.

"There's a whole history of performance these records have," Carell exclaims. "There's texture without end. At a time when primary source material was nonexistent!"

He can't help thinking about what will happen to "Essen" and the rest of that history when he and Tussey are no longer around to tend to it.

"It's like in Blade Runner," Carell says, "when at the end the robot says, 'I have seen things no one else has dreamt of. When I die, they will die.' I feel the same way. There's so much of the culture tucked away. When we die, we'll have no heirs. It all goes bye-bye. We won't even be using it to shoot skeet."

If you'd like to visit the Missouri 78 RPM Archive, call 314-522-8333

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

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