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The Victor Record Pages

Camden, Philadelphia, or New York?
The Victor Studio Conundrum (1900–20)

By Allan Sutton


When I first received the manuscript for John Bolig's Victor Green, Blue and Purple Label Series in 2006, I was concerned that the studio locations he cited were often at odds with those published in Rust & Debus' Complete [sic] Entertainment Discography. Queries to both authors concerning their sources brought no response from Mr. Rust, but a quick and definitive one from Dr. Bolig, who cited clear evidence from the original Victor files at the Sony-BMG archives (New York). In those many cases in which Mr. Rust's and Dr. Bolig's city listings are in conflict, the latter's citations are clearly correct based on the documentary evidence.

Further investigation has led to the discovery that Rust and Rust's many plagiarizers, in other published works, have cited many other Victor recording locations that either are not listed in, or are plainly contradicted by, the Victor files. However, the problem has turned out not to be limited to Rust and Rust-derived works. Recently, another well-known discographer has admitted to having guessed on the Victor recording locations in his published works. He reasoned — logically but erroneously, as inspection of the files reveals — that ethnic artists living in New York would have chosen to record there, rather than making the trip to Camden. The flaw in his reasoning stemmed from apparently not realizing that decisions concerning which studio was to be used for a given session were made by the Victor managers, not by their artists. This can be seen in surviving Victor artist contracts, which clearly state that recordings were to be made "at such time and place" as determined by the company.

Until 1914, Victor file details on recording locations are sparse. No doubt that is the reason for the absence of recording locations in Fagan & Moran's otherwise highly detailed Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings — like Dr. Bolig, Ted Fagan and Bill Moran refused to pass off guesswork as fact. The inheritors of the Fagan and Moran project at UC-Santa Barbara do cite speculative (and often apparently incorrect) recording locations on their website. To their credit, however, they clearly identify them as guesses and have recently cited this article in relation to their ongoing attempts to determine the correct recording locations.

The New York sessions, which constituted a small minority during Victor's early years, generally are indicated as such in the files. However, locations of the far larger number of "home laboratory" sessions usually are not noted with any consistency in the files until the mid-'teens. Here, however, we are fortunate to have the memoirs of the Sooy brothers as a guide. Recently published online by the Sarnoff Library, the memoirs of Raymond and Harry O. Sooy — Victor's leading recording engineers from the earliest days of the company — clearly state the opening and closing dates of Victor's many studios.

The following list of Victor studios in operation from 1900 to 1920 is taken from the Sooys' memoirs, correlated with what can be gleaned from the Victor recording files. After 1913, the files become increasingly explicit on studio locations, and by the mid-'teens there is rarely any doubt as to where a Victor recording session took place.

Related Articles: A Camden Chronology  |  Evolution of the Victor Label
The Victor Monthly Catalog Supplements


CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY — MAIN STUDIOS:

Late 1890s: Collings Carriage Factory Building
This was the site of Eldridge R. Johnson's first experimental recording studio, according to Harry Sooy. As far as can be determined, all recording made there were experimental and unissued.

c. February 1900–September 1901: Johnson Factory Building
During late 1899–early 1900, Johnson constructed a four-story factory building in Camden. Harry Sooy recalled having moved Johnson's recording equipment into this building on or around February 1, 1900. Recording work at this location initially was experimental, although Sooy asserts that some recordings made there were issued as Berliner discs. The earliest issued Eldridge Johnson recordings (the immediate predecessors of Victor records) probably were made at this location as well, but the recording files of this period do not cite recording locations. Johnson's studio was moved to Philadelphia in September 1901, according to Sooy, apparently just prior to the formal incorporation of the Victor Talking Machine Company on October 3 of that year.

Note: From September 1901 until November 6, 1907, most Victor recordings were made in Philadelphia. A relatively small number (virtually all of them by Red Seal artists) are documented in the files as having been made in New York during this period. There is no documentary evidence of any commercially issued Victor recordings having been made in Camden during this period.

November 6, 1907 – 1930s: Front & Cooper Streets (Southwest corner)
A new studio on the fourth floor of what would later come to be known as Building #15 replaced the Philadelphia studio as Victor's primary recording location on November 6, 1907. While many Red Seal sessions continued to be held in New York, the Camden studio was also used for Red Seal sessions beginning on December 11, 1907. "From this time on," Harry Sooy stated, "recording dates of a Red Seal nature were alternated between the Camden and New York laboratories to suit the convenience of the artists."

On March 13, 1911, the studios were moved to the newly added seventh floor of this building. New studios were added at this location over the years, the last major addition being a large room for orchestral sessions in late 1924. After RCA's acquisition of Victor in 1929, the Camden studios were slowly phased out during the 1930s in favor of New York.


CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY — SUPPLEMENTAL STUDIOS:

July 23, 1917 – 1918: Executive Building Auditorium

The eighth-floor auditorium was occasionally pressed into service for the recording of large ensembles prior to Victor's purchase of the Camden Trinity Church building. The first recordings of the Boston and Philadelphia symphony orchestras were made here.

February 1918 – 1930s: Church Studio (114 N. 5th Street)
In February 1918, Victor purchased the Camden Trinity Church building and converted it to a studio for recording large vocal and instrumental ensembles. The original organ eventually was replaced with a more robust model. During 1928, the main floor of the church did double duty as a supplemental Vitaphone sound-stage.


PHILADELPHIA STUDIO:

September 1901 – November 1907: 424 S. 10th Street
Philadelphia would host Victor's main studio for six years. Harry Sooy recalled, "The moving of the Laboratory from Camden [to] Philadelphia was done...by Mr. MacEwan, a bob-tail horse and Mr. Nafey. Money in these days not being overly plentiful, MacEwan acted as teamster on the job, and Nafey, I guess, was boss; however, the moving was done in a very creditable manner."

Victor's Philadelphia studio was located on the second floor of an office building at the corner of Tenth and Lombard streets, formerly the site of the Berliner Gramophone Company offices. A matrix-plating plant was located in the basement, and a blank-processing department was opened on the third floor in January 1904.

During its stay in Philadelphia, Victor also operated supplementary studios in New York for the convenience of their Red Seal artists. The first Philadelphia Red Seal session did not take place until July 22, 1907. Harry Sooy stated, "Red Seal engagements in [Philadelphia] were few, as we moved in November to our new Laboratory in Camden."

As far as can be ascertained from documentary and circumstantial evidence, no commercially issued recordings were made in Camden while the Philadelphia studio was in operation. Thus, the many published citations of Camden recording dates from September 1901 to November 5 or 6, 1907, are in error. The Philadelphia studio was vacated in early November 1907, after Victor opened its new main studio in Camden.



NEW YORK STUDIOS

Initially, Victor maintained New York studios primarily for the convenience of its Red Seal artists. Other artists were required to travel to Philadelphia, or later Camden, with allowances made for travel and lodging expenses. Harry Sooy stated that all Red Seal sessions prior to July 22, 1907, were held in New York, and file evidence seems to support his assertion.

March 26, 1903 – October 8, 1904: Carnegie Hall Annex (Room 826)
Victor leased space for a studio in the theater annex, not in the theater itself. Enrico Caruso made his first Victor recordings here and, as far as can be ascertained, all Carnegie Hall sessions were by Red Seal artists. Harry Sooy stated, "It was a great relief to get out of Carnegie Hall, and away from the Vocal Studios where vocal teachers were constantly trying voices, good, bad and otherwise." (The room number is shown in error as 326 in the Sarnoff Library posting of Raymond Sooy's memoirs, but is correct in their posting of Harry Sooy's memoirs.)

October 8, 1904 – June 1, 1909: 234 Fifth Avenue
As with the Carnegie Hall studio, this location was reserved primarily for Red Seal sessions.


After June 1, 1909
By the later 'teens, the following New York studios were being used for popular as well as classical sessions, and cities usually are listed in the files. For details, see the various volumes in the Victor Discography Series.

June 2, 1909 – (?): 37–39 E. 29th Street

(?) – January 18, 1917: 22 W. 37th Street

January 19, 1917 – January 5, 1921: 46 West 38th Street (12th floor)


After January 5, 1921
On January 6, 1921, Victor's New York studio was moved once again, this time to the National Association Building (28 W. 44th Street, 22nd floor). Throughout the 1920s, Victor opened and closed numerous studios in New York, and by the late 1920s the company was operating at least three New York studios simultaneously, including leased space in Liederkranz Hall. These studios will be the subject of a future article.


Note: This article also appears in the Autumn 2009 edition of Vintage Jazz Mart (UK).



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