Archivist Stays in Tune With Times Long Gone By

Times Staff Writer

A musician had been in a coma for several months when his desperate family reasoned that, as music had been his life, music might recall him from that barren land in which he was journeying. The problem was finding some of the out-of-print Big Band records on which he had played.

When the family finally found its way to Les Szarvas' stuffy brick warehouse in Burbank, Szarvas disappeared into his mountainous stack of vinyl and returned with a record featuring the comatose performer.

"When they played the album, a smile came over his face," Szarvas said.

Szarvas doesn't lay claim to the miraculous. Just the improbable. His DISContinued Records, a mammoth record archive and musical attic, is often the last resort for people around the world who are pursuing a fleeting musical memory.

Many Requests

When Dick Clark needed an original copy of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" for a televised musical retrospective, he turned immediately to Szarvas. And when Showtime came to him after searching "high and low" for an obscure Mahalia Jackson tune for a gospel special, Szarvas had it.

4 "I turned cartwheels," recalled Tom Stepanchek, who worked on the special.

Szarvas, a balding, 58-year-old man whose diffident, scholarly air is nicely spoiled by a green Elton John T-shirt, occupies a special niche in the music industry between Tower Records and the Library of Congress. A one-time songwriter who worked in children's entertainment, he operates what may be the largest research library and rarities record shop in the world.

Vast Collection

The collection, which he estimates at 2.5 million records, nearly a million more than the Library of Congress collection, contains many rare and valuable items. But its hallmark is its reach, its vastness, stretching row upon row, from floor to ceiling in a nondescript warehouse. "The most bizarre, off-the-wall recording that you think nobody in a million years will have, you call them up and they've got it," said Stepanchek, who is now the director of publicity for Dick Clark Productions.

"I don't say we have everything, just more than anybody else," Szarvas said.

His record collecting began 25 years ago with a personal library in his Toluca Lake home. Eventually, he moved another house into his back yard and filled that with records. He operated his business out of his garage and used a walkie-talkie to communicate with assistants patrolling the mounting stacks in the rear house. "I was like a vinyl junkie" in those days, he recalled.

Packed Building

But that was nothing compared to the monster of musical miscellany that now threatens to burst the seams of a 6,000-square-foot storage area. It took one employee an entire year simply to weed extra copies out of the collection.

Though he sells records, Szarvas doesn't want to be regarded as the proprietor of a mere record store. "We're not a store; we're a reference library," he says imperiously to a hapless caller from New York looking for a Tim Buckley record. Despite the caller's gaffe, Szarvas consents to help, searching through his stacks to find that, yes, he has a copy he can sell, for $65.

Because he is an archivist, he sells only records that he has second copies of, so that the main collection is untouched and keeps growing. His important work is research for the public, compiling a complete discography of Perry Como for a customer, for instance. Then there is his extensive work for movie studios and television shows. Dolly Parton was a regular customer until her show went off the air.

'Vacuum Cleaner'

Though he has cut back on his acquisitions recently, when he was traveling the world in search of new items, he was something to behold. "The guy is like a vacuum cleaner," said Sanders Chase, a collector of classical music who watched appreciatively as Szarvas sucked up record libraries at estate auctions.

Prices at DISContinued Records start at $30 for an album--whether it's Sheb Wooley or Alice Cooper--and $12.50 for a 45 r.p.m. record. He understands why people would hesitate to hand over that much money but offers no apologies. "We are one of a kind," he said. "You don't drive down Rodeo Drive and look for bargains."

But if this is Rodeo Drive, the neighborhood could use some renovation. It appears Szarvas walks the razor's edge between being a historian--several of the rarer records in his collection are not found in the nation's official archives at the Library of Congress in Washington--and your eccentric Uncle Eddie, who still treasures his beer can collection.

In the tiny, littered front office, one wall is dominated by a Beatles mirror, another by a large Donnie and Marie record carrying case showing the buoyant siblings at the peak of their well-scrubbed, spangled, bell-bottomed success. Cast aside on a desk is a rare 45 r.p.m. recording of James Dean playing the bongos and philosophizing on something called "Dean's Lament."

All creatures are equal in his eyes. A much sought-after copy of the Five Keys' album "On The Town," on the obscure Score label, is filed without an inner sleeve. There is no temperature or humidity control in the building, and some of his colleagues in the business are critical of his willingness to accept records of less than pristine quality.

"If I started getting fanatic, I could really do a trip on myself," he said in response.

Minor Concern

But these things are of minor concern to people who have nearly given up hope of finding that special tune they need for a wedding service or for a loved one who is dying and would like to hear a song from their youth. The store has fielded calls from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut as well as countries as far away as Germany.

Unfortunately, some of the callers can remember neither the artist nor the name of the tune they are seeking, just a chorus or two, which they send tunelessly over the long distance telephone lines. Since 159 low-tech, library-style file drawers are all that is used for reference, Szarvas and his employees must be walking encyclopedias of trivia.

A radio station approached Szarvas once with a request for a picture of the pavilion at Catalina. "I said, 'I know that's on the front of an album.' " He saw the name "Catron" in his mind, went to his collection and, "There it was, Johnny Catron. I don't even know Johnny Catron!"

By 1981, half of his estimated annual income came from making and selling tapes of his one-of-a-kind recordings. The problem was, he didn't have the consent of the artists and was convicted of pirating music. He defended himself by arguing that he was not mass-producing and charged customers for the costs of material and labor only. A Superior Court jury did not buy that argument, and Szarvas was put on probation and fined $7,500.

After that, Szarvas cut back his work force and "started over again from scratch. Now we're back up to five" employees, he said. "We're doing fine."

Some years ago, Szarvas estimated the value of the collection at $10 million. But the problem is knowing just how many records he has. Some other record collectors doubt that he has as many records as he claims, and the police, who say they confiscated half of the collection in 1981, when he was charged with pirating, took away 228,000 records.

That would have put the collection at more like 600,000 records then, still massive. But Szarvas said the police failed to count his thousands of 45 r.p.m. records.

Academic Question

All this is a bit academic. "We talked to a number of people" in the business at the time of the case, said Burbank Police Sgt. Bob Brode. "They indicated he was one of the largest, if not the largest" stores in the country.

"I had no idea this would be a big business," Szarvas said. "I thought this would be a corner of my house and that's it."

Szarvas is not sure what he will do when the space runs out in the warehouse. His dream would be to find a home for the library with some institution or investors who could brighten it up, computerize it, and turn it into a foundation.

"The Japanese would appreciate this library," he said.

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