Flexi-disc finally heads to high-tech heaven

Pop Culture

March 18, 2001|By David Daley | David Daley,HARTFORD COURANT

This is the way a once-proud technology ends: not with a snap and crackle of low-fidelity static, not with the incessant clicking of a needle stuck in a groove, but with absolute radio silence.

Once upon a time the flexi-disc -- those novelty records stapled into magazines, tucked under cereal-box tops and mass-mailed to millions by presidential candidates -- was a kitschy yet honored way of distributing sound recordings.

The lids of special Chun King frozen-Chinese-food entrees could be spun on a record player. Remington offered flexi-discs of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney for "music to shave by." Noxzema asked teen-agers to write their own lyrics for "The Noxzema Rag." Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt put speeches on flexi-discs and sent them to registered voters.

Some of the most collectible pop-music items are rare songs by the Beatles, Beach Boys and R.E.M. on flexi-discs included with music magazines. And even 15 years into the CD era, the flexi-disc survived, thanks to a Library of Congress program that provided books and magazines to the blind on long-playing flexible records.

Just a few weeks ago, the era came to a final end when Eva-Tone, the last American producer of the flexi-disc -- or as they preferred to call it, the Soundsheet -- retired the plastic-phonograph-record-making technology for good. The 78 rpm record, the eight-track tape, the Beta-player: Meet the flexi-disc.

"The demand dried up. Turntables went away. But the product line had a nice run," says Eva-Tone Vice President Mark Evans.

"They were a genuine novelty, and that was the fun of it," says Michael Camella, who curates The Internet Museum of Flexi / Cardboard / Oddity Records (www.wfmu.org / MACrec). "The heyday was really the 1950s and '60s. But they were very widespread for 100 years, starting with playable postcards that people could play on crank-up phonographs.

"They were cheap to make. Anyone who wanted to put a record in something could do so easily."

Not everyone looks back on the flexi-disc with such nostalgia, however. While the Library of Congress contract kept Eva-Tone alive, those who benefited from the once-cutting-edge technology are happy to see easier and more convenient media flourish.

"I don't miss it," says Betty Woodward, the Connecticut president of the National Federation of the Blind. "The discs collected lint like crazy. They'd skip sometimes. ... Now there's even machines that will speak to you in a computer-generated voice. To look back on it now is amazing. No, I'm happy for its passing."

And as for Eva-Tone?

They're just fine. These days the Clearwater, Fla., company helps other businesses create CD-ROMs, Web sites and multimedia presentations to advertise.

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