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The Berliner Gramophone Company:
Personal Recollections of Oliver Berliner

I've been asked to say a few words about my grandfather (Emile) and father’s (Edgar) Berliner Gramophone Company of Canada, on the assumption ... via family ties ... that I'd know something about it. Sadly, I was born the same year that (1) Emile Berliner died, (2) RCA bought Victor, (3) my father resigned the Victor Company of Canada presidency, and (4) the stock market crashed.

Today, I find myself with many questions I never got around to asking my father. But a great deal of Company history can be found in dear Ed Moogk’s book, Roll Back The Years which I'm sure all CAPS members have. What I can do is add a few stories that didn't make the history books, things my father told me as he bounced me on his knee, as it were.

Company Location

But first, Grandpa chose Montreal over Toronto because it was most convenient for him, and not necessarily best for the business. It was comparatively easy in those days to take a train from Philadelphia to Manhattan and on upstate to Montreal. In late 1899, he established an office and show- room at 2315 St. Catherine Street and shipped presses to the Bell Canada plant, where the first Canadian pressings were to be made (starting January 2 1900). Having sold his microphone to Alexander Graham Bell, he obviously enjoyed a "connection" with the Bell people, and thus was able to do things with them that would be unheard of nowadays.

Although he resided in Washington, my grandfather had established his recording studio in Philly, because that was the town where Mr. Max Levy, the inventor of photo- engraving, resided and you'll recall that he'd dubbed the process, "etching the human voice." (He had dreamed that, some day, people would create their wills via records of their voices, but that format has yet to catch on.) The photo (on p. 4) shows the Company office. Curiously, some advertisements listed the office at 2316, which would have been across the street. Could this have been a printer's error, just like the ad that listed The Berliner Graphophone Company?

Depiction of Nipper

You'll observe the HMV lithograph displayed prominently in the window, something I'd like to comment on. Stories persist that artist Francis Barraud depicted Nipper listening to late brother Mark's voice on an Edison-Bell phonograph while both dog and machine were sitting atop Mark's coffin. (Ed. note: See Angels, Nipper and Immortality, Antique Phonograph News, March - April 1992.) Adherents to this ridiculous theory justify it by contending that coffins were often used in artwork of the period. Well, let me present a few facts: first, Mark never owned a phonograph (he was too poor), and there was no reason to put one on his coffin. Furthermore, he never recorded his voice. Second, Nipper was painted a dozen years after Mark's death and about five years after the dog's own demise.

Was Nipper ever encountered listening to his master’s (recorded) voice? Certainly not. In reality, the dog would sit, tilt his head, and cock one ear whenever something intrigued or puzzled him. Photographer Philip Barraud captured Nipper on film in this pose and it is widely believed that Francis copied one of these photos rather than painting him from memory; this accounts for the exquisite detail of Nipper on canvas. (Embarrassed by questions about this, Francis tried to destroy all photos of Nipper.) If you've ever seen the original HMV painting, which I'm certain none of the coffin theorists have, you'd recognise that the phonograph was painted using Francis and Philip's own machine as a model; the dog was based on a photograph (refer to "The Story of Nipper...") and the base was from Francis’ imagination and was painted just wide enough for the widths of the two objects depicted upon it... but not for a body supposedly beneath it.

With all these facts in mind, how could anyone sup- port the coffin theory? One further tidbit: do you think the Gramophone Company would have bought the painting if anyone thought it depicted their machine and a dog on a coffin? Finally, Francis made up the phrase, "his master’s voice" to apply to the scene he'd created — out of thin air — and not because it had ever actually occurred; just as he coined the phrase "What will master say?" in connection with his Nipper drawings for Reid's Stout advertisements.

Growth of the Company

My father was 14 years old when they started pressing records in Canada (2 million in 1900!). During his college years, he worked summers at the company but he didn't join full-time until 1909. Trained at MIT as a mechanical engineer, he never got to put those skills to work. In 1910 he married a lady name Millie; they divorced nearly two decades later and Millie went on to marry Ben Gardner, who was company treasurer but later became president (of RCA Victor) when my father left in 1930. (He'd quit in 1929 because of unhappiness with the RCA people, but stayed until 1930 at the urgent request of David Sarnoff.)

The company was a proprietorship of grandpas, who installed Emanuel Blout as general manager so that grandpa could move freely between the States and the Canadian operations. Incorporating the business in 1904, grandpa omitted himself and listed his eldest son, Herbert, along with Emanuel Blout as one of the five incorporators. The corporation acquired rights to Victor recordings which, of course, the prior entity had also done.

In 1906 the company erected its own factory and discontinued pressing records at Bell. There appears to have been a number of irregular and unexplained job changes. At the time of incorporation Mr. Blout was elected president. I don’t think my father or Herbert had a corporate title and in 1909, Mr. Blout and my father, both purportedly directors (and with my dad now listed as vice-president) were in effect, replaced. Emile Berliner at last assumed the presidency of his own company, Mr. Blout returned to the States, Herbert was appointed vice-president/general manager, and my dad, secretary-treasurer. Simultaneously, the firm changed its name to the Berliner Gramophone Company Ltd. Though grandpa now had the presiding title, he left the business in Herbert's hands, which later proved to have been a mistake.


The Berliner Gramophone Company:
Personal Recollections of Oliver Berliner

In 1918 Herbert Berliner initiated a conflict of interest by forming the Compo Company. It’s been said that he did this because he was sorry that the Berliner Company was neglecting Canadian artists in favour of importing Victor masters. But the fact remains that Compo directed most of its attention to American artists and recorded many of them where they resided, in the States. Curiously, Herbert had already established a series for Canadian artists at the Berliner Company so there seems to have been no justification for forming Compo to specialize in them...and of course, Compo actually never did. (Apparently, his real interest was in producing his own recordings rather than importing Victor's masters, and he had no real desire to emphasize Canadian artists.) By 1921, grandpa had had enough. He dismissed Herbert and Edgar was promoted to that position.

A year later my father acquired control of the company. Grandpa retired. I don't know what,if anything, my dad paid for purchase of the business but he told me that he was not included in his father’s bequests inasmuch as he'd already acquired his father’s business. Herbert too was left out of the will, but obviously for a different reason. (When Milton Rackmill founded Decca Records in 1934, Compo became their Canada licensee and increased its importation of American product.) Emile’s daughters, Louise and Alice, stayed in touch with Herbert, but no one else in the family did. Though he'd married in Canada and produced a daughter, she was not his only offspring. Cathy Berliner had been born out of wedlock in Washington during Herbert's "mis- spent youth".

Making and Shipping Gramophones in Canada

Trade-mark model Berliner gramophones had been produced in Camden, New Jersey, but were assembled in Canada With the erection of the first factory and its annex, many gramophones were now made in Canada, mainly the cabinets. My father told me that one batch of motors received from Victor, each bearing an inspector's stamp, didn't work. Examination revealed that the gears didn't mesh. Another hazard lay in the shipping process, which was by rail to the various distribution warehouses. Because there’s never been a freight classification for unheard- of devices such as gramophones, the railroads gleefully classified these products in the catchall category... explosives... which paid the highest freight rate. Eventually, my dad was able to persuade the carriers to put the products in the musical instruments category and shipping cost plummeted.

Oliver Berliner views a colour painting made from a circa 1915 photograph of his grandfather, Emile Berliner, examining a disc record, Studio Victor, Montreal, 2009

A funny occurrence took place when the Company hired as night watchman one Moses Moldowsky who'd virtually just gotten off the boat from Poland and whose English was... minimal. My father had given instructions that the watchman was to telephone him personally at home at any time of the night when there was an emergency. One night a call came. "It’s coming immense, Mr. Berliner, it's coming immense," cried Moldowsky. With visions of the St. Lawrence River overrunning its banks, my dad called the police, then rushed down to the plant only to discover that there'd been a burglary, and what the watchman was saying with heavily accented and halting English was, "Is coming in mens."

Amalgamation with Victor and RCA

As is well known, my father felt that an amalgamation with Victor was the best course for both companies. In 1924 he exchanged Berliner Gramophone shares for Victor's and became president of the "new" Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada Ltd. About this time he discovered that his secretary, who'd also been Herbert’s, had been sending copies of his correspondence to Herbert. The woman was fired and immediately went to work at Compo. Her replacement, a shy, Russian-born with a German name, Fannie Heillig, replaced her. In 1928 Fannie married the boss and went on to give birth to me. Interestingly, mother always thought she'd become a Canadian citizen but a dozen years later, she learned that she'd always been a naturalized American, though shed resided in Canada since the turn of the century, and had told everyone that shed become a Canadian.

In 1929, RCA, having been required by government to be spun off from its owners Ge and Westinghouse, needed manufacturing and distribution facilities for its line of radios. Eldridge Johnson had retired from the Victor presidency and sold his shares to Seligman and Company two years before. Prior to his departure, Mr. Johnson would hold directors meetings on his yacht, the Caroline, which sailed the Delaware River with a crew of 13. My father attended these meetings and remembered that one day after lunch in the salon the steward passed cigars. Before anyone could light up, Mr. Johnson had the men put away the cigars for later because he wanted to continue the meeting on deck where an "outdoor" cigar would be more appropriate. The cheaper outdoor havanas were Corona Coronas, selling then for a princely dollar apiece! (Mr. Johnson could afford any cigar. One year his extra dividends had been over a million dollars from the world’s greatest record company that was earning more money than it knew what to do with.) My father was required to sell his Victor shares to RCA and his cheque for a million u.s. dollars was the largest deposit made by an individual at Washington's Riggs National Bank.

And so my father progressed to his third presidency...of all three manifestations of the original Berliner Gramophone Company...that of RCA Victor Company of Canada. With the Company, RCA acquired ownership of the world’s most famous trade-mark. Eventually, World War II, RCA’s bad planning and mismanagement would see the fall of Victor from its domination of the world’s recorded music industry to the point where it’s lucky to be rated today as No. 5 spot and where Coca-Cola has overtaken "HMV" as the world’s most famous trade-mark. Had my father stayed until age 65 instead of retiring at 45, things might have turned out differently...in Canada, at least.

Oliver Berliner is the only grandchild of Emile to enter the recording or the audio products business. After spending a year in England shortly before World War 11, he and his family returned briefly to Montreal, then moved to California where Oliver's father, Edgar, died in 1955 at age 69. That same year Oliver began producing records for his own label and others, simultaneously entering the music publishing business which continues today. In 1966 he started a distributorship of broadcast studio equipment, selling the firm 18 years later. Simultaneously, for a decade he designed and manufactured his own brand of industrial audio and video products. Today he limits his gainful activities to music publishing. He's chairman of theHollywood Sapphire Group of audio engineers and is a member of the creative commission of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum and is expected to head its historical sound recording section when it opens in 1995. He's author of twenty-dozen lectures, speeches and published articles on music, audio and video, but today confines such writing to stories about his grandfather and the history of the record business. Oliver is a member of CAPS.