50-cent purchase began lifelong love affair with music machines 'Lot of me in them,' collector says NORTHWEST--Taneytown * Union Bridge * New Windsor * Uniontown

NEIGHBORS

July 15, 1993|By MICHELLE HOFFMAN

In 1941, Walter Myers came across a great bargain at a public sale. For only 50 cents, he purchased a dismantled phonograph, an Edison cylinder machine.

"I had never seen a little cylinder machine before," he said, recalling that both of his grandmothers had disk-playing Victrolas.

The little Edison machine, he said, "had a custom-built case that went with the machine. It was full of records, plus another basketful. I'd say it had about 50 to 75 records with it for only 50 cents; that's all it cost me."

He took it home and put it together, fitting the pieces together gently as he went.

"It was just trial and error," Mr. Myers said. "I just kept putting parts together. Of course, if it didn't fit I wouldn't force it because I knew I had something in the wrong place.

"A different bearing was supposed to be here instead of over here. It took me I guess, oh, I don't know, six months to get it to play."

He brought the broken mainspring to a "tinker man" he knew in Westminster, who fixed the part, but the machine still would not play. "It wasn't audible. It was all gurgly-garbly. You couldn't understand a thing."

When he wrote to the Edison Co., he was referred to a man in Wisconsin, who asked Mr. Myers to ship the reproducer, the part with the needle, to him.

Annoyed because a screw was loose upon its return, Mr. Myers tightened it.

"I was disgusted," he said. A couple of days later, he received a letter from Wisconsin saying the problem was a too tight screw.

So, Mr. Myers loosened the screw again and had a good laugh. His cylinder machine played perfectly.

Today, 52 years and more than 300 phonograph machines later, Mr. Myers still enjoys collecting old-time music machines. What began as a 50-cent purchase has become a priceless antique collection.

"It is quite a conversation piece," he said, "especially for anybody who has never seen one or who is not familiar with one. You know, the younger generation.

"A lot of kids could care less. They like to hear this be-bop stuff. You know, this funk stuff. I don't call that music.

"This was the birth of [recorded] music," Mr. Myers said of the waltzes, foxtrots, marches and ragtime and the other funny little ditties that play on machines powered by hand cranks and playing at various speeds.

The music is clear, the voices audible. The machines -- housed in baby doll bodies, lamp shades, faux baby grand or upright pianos -- play like new. Small machines sit atop bigger ones, and side by side, on displays, on shelves, in storage closets and bookshelves.

Each has a purpose, a particular sound, and a history.

"They all have a lot of me in them," said Mr. Myers.

A model of the first Edison hand-cranked phonograph stays covered by plastic to keep it clean. It was the forerunner of today's tape recorder.

When Edison talked into the mouthpiece and turned the crank, vertical lines would be indented in a strip of tin foil to make the recording.

Mr. Myers explained, "Edison invented the sound [machine] in 1877, and he had strictly the cylinder machines. The next year, he patented an idea that had a disk machine.

"His theory was that the phonograph was to be an educational medium for stenographers, to be used in schools for teaching. It wasn't for public entertainment.

"So, he went off onto other inventions, pursuing light bulbs, telegraphs and different other inventions at that time.

"In the meantime, his patent rights ran out. Emile Berliner picked up the patent and came up with the disk machine."

Berliner started the Victor line of machines trademarked with the little white dog, a terrier named "Nipper," who listened to the horn.

About 250 phonograph companies produced machines between 1895 and 1929.

Edisons, Victors, Victrolas, Zonophones, Columbias, Amberols, Gramophones, Wizards, Trumpetone, Little Wonder are all popular names in his collection.

One has the slogan, "The Master Product of Master Minds."

Mr. Myers has restored many of the machines along the way. He is especially proud of one that survived a flood in Detour in 1972.

"It was under water for 43 hours," he said. He went to Detour to help a friend put her house together and found it.

He offered to fix the machine, even though its case was severely damaged and split at every seam. The woman said she would let him know. When he checked back the next week, she sold it to him for the $50 he would have charged to repair it. Today the Victor machine looks and runs like new.

"This one's got a lot of me in it, too," he said. He played the 1914 advertising song "They Start The Victrola (And We Go Dancing Around The Floor.)" He has the original sheet music.

For each machine, Mr. Myers has tried to save some sort of advertising. He has collected advertisements, catalogs, felt-bottomed record dusters with ads on the canister top, pins, shipping crate covers, top record lists, newspaper ads, watch fobs, watches, matchboxes and, of course, many little Victor dogs.

"I try to keep things related," he said. "You have to have the advertising to go with the machines" because a machine with the accompanying advertising commands more value for the collector.

Mr. Myers found most of his memorabilia, as well as the machines and records, at public sales and antique shops. He has collected his pieces at bargain prices, when owners wanted to get rid of them.

Because of the size of his collection, and for security reasons, Mr. Myers keeps it at an undisclosed location outside Westminster.

He used to tour with the machines, displaying them at antique shows. But for the past 10 years or so, however, he has allowed only a select few to see them.

"He doesn't show them to just anybody," said his wife, Carol.

I feel fortunate to have shared his lifelong pride and joy. Through his hard work and love for the period, a piece of music history has been preserved.

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