This week a surprise gift arrived from myself. This may be one of the great things about forgetfulness—sometimes I order things online and when they show up, I’m pleasantly surprised. Oh, look, vitamins! What’s in that soft bag? Oh, a new Peanuts robe! And what’s in that big box? I didn’t know, was too busy to look, so it sat for days in my dining room on a chair often occupied by a cat.
I finally moved it to the dining room table, took up scissors and opened the packing box. I was honestly surprised to see on another box the words “Peanuts Crosley.” When I opened it, encased in a big plastic bag was another vinyl yellow suitcase-like item with a black zigzag across the top. I squealed like an excited kid at Christmas.
“My record player!” I enthused.
Here’s the thing about online shopping. Not only do you order the new blue flannel robe with little Snoopys dancing all over it, you also, on the same site, search for “Peanuts” because you are a big fan. Have been since you first could read those comics that showed up every day in the newspaper. Became a bigger fan after you got to interview those comics’ creator, Charles (“call me Sparky; everyone does”) Schulz, at his Santa Rosa ice rink in the early 1980s.
Fell into deeper adoration when Sparky offered you a ride on the Zamboni. He drove. You froze as the big machine slowly swept the ice on the rink during a break. If he’d asked you to run away to… well, anywhere with him, you would have in that moment, despite the fact that he was very happily married and old enough to be your father. As well as the father of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and all the Peanuts gang.
Anyway, when you’re online and a Peanuts record player made by Crosley (one of the original manufacturers of radios in the 1920s) pops up for what seems to you a reasonable price, you go for it. And so here it was.
This was not an impulsive buy. Every semester when I teach mass media at Sacramento City College, I spend a week or so on each of the seven forms of traditional mass media. (Can you name them? I’ll wait.) When I get to recordings, I have for some years brought in an old record player that belonged to Heide, one of our late writing group members. I have no idea how she came to have it, since it’s a 1980s kids’ record player with Michael Jackson’s 20-something face on the lid. But she did, and after she died, when I was helping her friend and executor clean out Heide’s house, I came away with a number of unusual items—the huge dictionary, circa 1900, that rests on Concepcion Tadeo’s book stand in the loft, for example—and the record player.
As kids, my best friend next door Sue Lester and I used to sit in her parents’ spare bedroom and play mostly LPs for hours (she who introduced me to Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles, among others). I had a collection of 45s at home that I shared with my sister. We’d inherited many of them from our older cousins and our aunt, each one held upright in a rectangular metal contraption with upright narrow wire slots. In each slot sat some of Dede and Pat’s 45s (their prize Ricky Nelson records, for example) as well as some that had belonged to their mother, our Auntie Lo, the church pianist/organist (“How Great Thou Art” and other hymns), and some that Donna and I added—the Carpenters, Herman’s Hermits, Barry Manilow.
Each semester I set up the record player in my classroom with the collection of 45s next to it and put one on—usually “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wolley because my students have never heard it, and it was a big hit with my sister and me as little kids (“the one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater”). My students look at me with expressions I can never quite read—surprise, amusement, who is this wacky teacher?—and I invite them over the course of the class session to play a record whenever it strikes their fancy.
The problem earlier this semester was that Heide’s record player went on the fritz. Its little speakers fuzzed in and out, and we couldn’t hear the Purple People Eater. I was so disappointed. I apologized to the class and resolved then to get a new record player, though I hope to retire in a year. Then I forgot about it.
But in my fuzzy, still-working-too-much-from-home state, the record player issue had migrated to the back of my brain until I ordered the Snoopy robe and checked out other Peanuts offerings. Sparky Schulz came swimming into my consciousness, and I smiled. He was a genius about marketing his characters, starting in the 1960s. It’s really what made him rich and built the ice rink, more than the comics. And all these years after his death, I’m still a sucker for Peanuts merch.
So I unwrapped the record player, set it up on the kitchen counter and plugged in the cord. I went for the 45s and pulled a new-to-me album off the top—the original Broadway cast recording of “The Music Man” from 1959. I’d bought it on ebay and, after learning the condition of Heide’s record player, had decided not to play the nearly pristine records until I got a new machine.
After I found the little round insert that plays the 45s (because this machine will handle 33s and 78s, too), and realizing that the reason it wasn’t playing was because I had to remove the plastic protector from the needle, I put on the first record in the set. Then Meredith Willson’s great overture came up from the little speakers—much better quality than Heide’s old record player—those 76 trombones booming out at me.
I know that music well. My mother had the LP of the cast album that we played on my parents’ stereo for years. She had all the Broadway musicals, ones we never saw until we were older and made occasional trips to Sacramento to the Music Circus where we finally watched real people singin’ and dancin’ to songs we’d heard only floating up from records.
“The Music Man” was the first musical I played in a ragtag high school orchestra (with some local grownup musicians brought in to up our game), assembled by our band director, Tom Blackburn. I was thrilled to be a percussionist reading that music for the first time, though our little orchestra was nowhere what I’d heard on the record. That was OK. I stood in back, counting measures of rest, humming, resisting the urge to burst into song, tickled when I got to play.
Now I wiped away happy tears and sang along as the little discs spun on the Peanuts record player. I sang as the original Music Man himself, Robert Preston, serenaded Marion the Librarian, and I harmonized with the barbershop quartet my parents so admired, the Buffalo Bills, as they sang “It’s You.” And later in the musical they Lida Rose’d behind Helen Cook, the Broadway Marion, singing in counterpoint, “Dream of now, dream of then, dream of a love song that might have been.” Such a duet… or would it be a quintet?
The old songs on the new record player made me so happy in this fuzzy state of in-between where we find ourselves these days. I stood in the kitchen and played 45 after 45, singing and forgetting for a while how stressed I’ve been—working like crazy, doing a mediocre job at “teaching” (more like crisis management), trying to help students even more stressed than I. But now I had a different reason to plop myself back at the computer: I needed more old records of musicals!
Now I’m looking forward to the surprise of packages in the coming weeks that will deliver the songs of “South Pacific” and “The Pajama Game” and “Wonderful Town” and “Singing in the Rain.” And yes, some Herman’s Hermits singles. Just wait’ll I let loose with “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World).” The cats will likely go hide.
My childhood BFF Sue, now a veterinarian in Nevada City, is gonna want to come over. Or maybe I’ll pack up the record player and the singles and, when we can travel freely again, take them to her house. She might even tolerate “Purple People Eater.” We’ll put on a few early Beatles singles, we vintage boomers over 60 reliving a bit of the ’60s.
Most of all, I can’t wait to share the new record player and some classic Broadway musicals with my future mass media students. With luck, I’ll see them in a classroom next semester. I won’t mind if they chuckle and look at me funny. I just want to see their faces sitting in desks in rows and try to remember all their names. I’m gonna sing and make ’em laugh… oo! Because I’ll soon have that song (from “Singin’ in the Rain”) on a vintage record, too.
(*The seven forms of traditional mass media, in chronological order of their creation: books, newspapers, magazines, recordings, radio, movies, television. As I tell the students, I don’t consider the internet its own medium but a channel for all media… though there are scholars who disagree on that point.)