Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thornton Burgess the recording artist

Early in 1918 Columbia released five records featuring Thornton Burgess reading ten of his stories. These were heavily advertised in newspapers and used as a means of selling Columbia Grafonolas (a direct competitor of the more popular Victrola).

The records were:

1. Johnny Chuck Finds the Best Thing in the World [A7524-$1.25]
(On the back, "The Joy of the Beautiful Pine.")

Note: these two are probably the most widely read Burgess stories.

2. Peter Rabbit Plays a Joke [A7525-$1.25]
(On the back, “Little Joe Otter’s Slippery Slide.”)

3. How Old Mr. Toad Happened to Dine with Buster Bear [A7526-$1.25]
(On the back, “How Old Mr. Toad Won a Race.”)

4. Buster Bear Gets a Good Breakfast [A7527-$1.25]
(On the back, "When Old Mr. Toad was Puffed Up.")

5. The Teaching of Reddy Fox [A7528-$1.25]
(On the back, "Little Joe Otter Tries to Get Even.")
Note: the copywriter here doesn't appear to know the stories very well--"Old Bounder the Hound" indeed...

The novelty of hearing the stories read in Burgess's own voice was a chief selling point, but there are other interesting aspects of the advertising. The ad above, for example, offers a personal letter from Burgess (modeled after the weekly "personal letters" Burgess wrote for various newspaper "Bedtime Clubs" around the country).

Here the child's imagined relationship with Burgess is leveraged. It is Burgess himself who has been "wanting to really talk to the children." I also find it interesting that Burgess doesn't make a direct sell. Rather, he encourages children to visit the local Columbia Grafonola dealer for a trial listen. The ad provides the mechanism--a coupon that includes instructions to the dealer (see Buster Bear image above).

I'm particularly fond of the copy on this ad

At the twilight hour, cuddled safe in Mother’s arms, they can hear the Little Folk of the Green Forest laughing and talking behind the shadowy tone-leaves of the Grafonola. Give the kiddies their own Bedtime Records—they love them so and quite unconsciously learn so many lessons of quaint woodland lore, wisdom, and gentle kindliness.
The Grafonola becomes a kind of labor saving device--the parent need not actually read the stories--but the bedtime story parent-child context is maintained. And the copy perfectly encapsulates the main Burgess story benefits--unconscious learning of nature, wisdom, and kindness.

These recordings appear to have been re-released in the 1950s, though I don't have much information aside from a single ad from 1950 that offers: "Peter Rabbit narrated by Thornton Burgess."

I own six of the ten sides and have embedded recordings of them below. I'll admit being a bit surprised when I first heard them. Burgess seems a bit stilted and impersonal and doesn't come across as a particularly fluid reader. This may have something to do with Burgess's pronounced New England accent or with pre-microphone studio conditions. Indeed, the 1960 Life profile describes him "shouting sturdily into a great horn while an orchestra played softly in the background." Accounts of his personal appearances, nevertheless, indicate that children loved his public storytelling. It is also worth noting that the stories told on the records are significantly shorter than their sources in print, edited for their use in the new medium.

1) Johnny Chuck Finds the Best Thing in the World

2) The Joy of the Beautiful Pine

3) Peter Rabbit Plays a Joke

4) Little Joe Otter's Slippery Slide

5) The Teaching of Reddy Fox

6) Little Joe Otter Tries to Get Even

Next: Thornton Burgess, traveling performer

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