Russell Hunting stories #1 1894: Mephistopheles in red tights haunts Fred Gaisberg

This week we are planning to run a five day series of blog entries about a maverick who was involved at the start of the very start of the record business when its pioneers were searching to find the best business model to capitalise on the new sound-recording and playback technology.

Patrick Feaster, a music historian, explained. “We have long thought of the phonograph as something that simply reproduced music but early uses of the phonograph were incredibly experimental. People were trying pretty much everything, trying to figure out what they could put on these recordings to make a buck, everything from hymns and prayers at one extreme to obscenity on the other end.”

Russell Hunting was a right man in the right place as the record business came into being. An intriguing mixture, he was part entrepreneur, part rogue, funny, unconventional, sometimes the artist and occasionally a business executive. Things appear to never have been dull when he was around. This is day #1 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting, a big extrovert so retrospectively elusive that we can only find this one very small photo of him.

Hunting was born in 1865 and would have been 12 years old when Edison invented the phonograph and 29 and working as a thespian by the time that he (perhaps inevitably) entered the orbit of Fred Gaisberg.

When Gaisberg threw in his lot with Emile Berliner’s new gramophone business, his primary role was to make recordings that Berliner could use to demonstrate the quality of his new invention. After he had completed the first batch in 1894 Hunting burst into his life, “The much advertised Burlesque show entitled Faust Up-to-Date visited the Albaugh Theatre next door to our lab which was at 1410 Pennslyvania Avenue, Washington. The stage manager was Russell Hunting. He also played the part of Mephistopheles, and, dressed in red tights was shot up from the bowels of the theatre into the midst of a bevy of dancers.

I knew him as the originator of the “Michael Casey” series of Phonograph records. They consisted of rapid-fire cross-talk between two Irish characters, with Hunting taking both parts. His fine voice had an infinite capacity for mimicry. In his spare time he made these cylinder records in his hotel room and they had become famous among exhibitors.

I argued with Berliner that by an investment of $25 ($2,200 in today’s money) for five titles, we would have a dazzling attraction in our campaign for capital. It was, for us, a huge investment, but we took the plunge…”

The Michael Casey records were comedy records. They were very popular and did brisk business with the patrons of the nickel in the slot phonograph listening machines. Hunting recorded the early ones before being replaced by a series of other actors who then played Michael Casey in much the same way that we’ve seen a number of different actors play James Bond. You can hear on of Hunting’s efforts “Casey at the Telephone” here

A wider catalogue of Hunting’s recordings are available on the Charm website, here
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Setting up a record company #3: Raising finance

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #3. Its 1894. Berliner has developed the gramophone to a degree that it’s ready for market. Fred is on board to make demo recordings to show investors the potential of the new medium.

Money...it's a drag.

Berliner was not finding it easy to raise the money he needed to grow his gramophone business. Fred Gaisberg recalled that “a stream of punters and speculators, rich and poor, visited Berliner’s small laboratory. They were all amused and interested but sceptical. They would not part with their money and Berliner’s funds and courage were getting lower and lower…He often confided to me that something would have to be done or he would be forced to close down. I had been weeks without my modest salary, but as I was earning money with my piano playing in the evenings this was no great hardship for me.”

Fred decided to try to help and persuaded an establishment figure friend of his, one B.F. Karns, to help him try to raise money for Berliner. Karns proved less substantial than he appeared and in the first instance Fred ended up lending him money….

Karns did however get them in front of some movers and shakers including the Directors of newly established and prospering Bell Telephone Company “oozing opulence and exhaling fragrant Havana cigars” but despite being tickled by the gramophone they showed no interest in backing the fledgeling record business.

Alexander Graham Bell of the Bell Telephone Company and some of his directors but with no cigars

Karns also got them to meet “Mr (FAO) Schwarz, the greatest toy maker in America, who ….asked for a talking doll.”

FAO Schwarz. He wanted talking dolls.

Gaisberg and Karns spent much of the winter of 1894 and 1895 on the road trying to raise money. Karns talked money, Fred demo’d the gramophone. But by March all the money was gone. They found themselves stranded in New York by a blizzard “snowed up in a dollar a day hotel for one whole week and without funds and with all communications cut off. For food, we patronised the free-lunch counters when the bartender’s face was turned away. Altogether we spent a week of great discomfort.”

On the return to Washington they stopped off in the City of Brotherly Love and made one last pitch to a couple of Philadelphians. They were non-committal and Gaisberg and Karns proceeded back to Washington fed up and fundless.

As 1895 turned from spring to summer, the future of the Berliner gramophone looked bleak. Fred continued making what recordings he could and Berliner concentrated upon perfecting the technology. But as far as money was concerned, the cupboard was decidedly bare.

This last diversion to Philadelphia proved ulimately to have been worthwhile. By the end of the summer the Philadelphians had formed a syndicate of 5 (two steel jobbers, a clothing manufacturer and two building contractors) to pump $25,000 into a new company which was named The United States Gramophone Company.

Gaisberg and Berliner were out of the starting blocks.