Keeping Track of the Scores
When most people drive on the Golden State Freeway, just north of Los Angeles, they worry about traffic. Michael Feinstein worries about George Gershwin, Cole Porter and a priceless musical legacy buried near the onrushing cars.
He knows that MGM officials, in a 1970 housecleaning, dumped film scores, musical manuscripts and recordings by some of America’s greatest songwriters into a landfill by the freeway near Valencia. The studio wanted to cut storage costs and believed these items -- from some of Hollywood’s most beloved films -- had no value.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Dec. 22, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Music preservation -- An article in Thursday’s Section A about an expert on the golden era of American song who seeks to preserve artifacts of that period referred to the score for Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.” The name of the song is “Over the Rainbow.”
Lost in the rubble were gems like Gene Kelly’s outtake of “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” which was cut from “An American in Paris,” and the original orchestral score for Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz,” according to film historians, musical preservationists and performers familiar with the incident.
“They destroyed unique and irreplaceable works of famous composers, arrangers and lyricists,” said Feinstein, 48, an internationally known recording artist. He is also an expert on the golden era of American song, from the 1920s through the 1950s.
“The MGM story is just one example of music that’s vanishing all the time,” he added. “We’re talking about a unique piece of our cultural history, and for me it’s like a death in the family every time we learn that something else has disappeared.”
Feinstein has built his career around America’s classic pop songs. He has recorded more than 20 albums featuring the works of composers such as Gershwin, Porter and Irving Berlin, and he plays more than 140 dates a year, from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. He opened a New York cabaret, Feinstein’s at the Regency, in 1999, and until recently had a similar nightclub in Los Angeles.
But Feinstein is more than an entertainer. He is also a musical detective -- a man on the prowl for original scores, recordings and sheet music at garage sales and auctions, in secondhand stores and the libraries of film and record studios.
His mission isn’t simply to collect, but to preserve. And it sometimes feels like a race against time. He and like-minded preservationists on both coasts worry that hundreds of songs by some of America’s most famous composers have disappeared.
Sheet music has been lost or stolen from archives across the nation. When original scores vanish, as in the MGM dump, conductors who wish to perform these classic soundtracks must re-create them, note for note, from original recordings.
Feinstein has uncovered a treasure trove during 30 years of collecting, including more than 30,000 recordings, plus posters, photos, sheet music and 16-inch lacquer radio discs from the 1930s. Stacks of boxes hold composer Henry Mancini’s record collection and orchestrations by entertainer Peter Allen. He has hours of rare, taped radio performances by Bing Crosby.
These items fill the walls, halls, bookshelves, basement and garage of his three-story gated home in the Los Feliz hills. Feinstein delights in showing off the collection: “Look at this -- this is genius,” he tells a visitor with barely concealed excitement, thumbing through a faded, autographed copy of the score for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
A slightly built man with wavy black hair and pale blue eyes, Feinstein initially comes across as a scholar, reciting a flurry of obscure names, songs and recording dates to buttress his point about music that is disappearing. The minutiae can be mind-boggling.
But he doesn’t put on airs. Feinstein, a vegetarian, recently schlepped a shopping bag filled with fruit into the Library of Congress in Washington for a daylong meeting. Guards mistook him for a caterer and tried to direct him to a side entrance, prompting a sheepish grin and explanation as to why he was there.
What sets Feinstein apart from many collectors is his belief that musical rarities, once discovered, should not be hidden away. He says they are cultural artifacts and that every effort must to be made to carefully preserve them in public libraries or archives, so researchers and the public can enjoy them.
In this spirit, Feinstein has sent rare materials from his collection -- including sheet music for Gershwin songs, orchestral arrangements of Jule Styne compositions and recordings by Rosemary Clooney -- to the Library of Congress and, in some cases, to the artists themselves. He has hired a staff to digitally transfer older recordings from deteriorating 78 rpms and ship them to various archives.
“There are a handful of people doing this kind of work today, and Michael is the poster boy for the movement,” said Timothy Kittleson, who runs the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “More than most, he put the issue of preservation on the map.”
Still, experts say, not enough national attention has been focused on the issue. Other studios have discarded musical items in a manner similar to MGM. Descendants of songwriters or performers often unknowingly toss out priceless material when cleaning their garages .
The irony is that the golden era of American song is enjoying a comeback, at the precise moment so many original artifacts are vanishing.
New recordings of old standards by Rod Stewart and other artists have sold millions of copies, and record companies are forever reissuing classic albums. Songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday provide nostalgic soundtracks for films, sitcoms and television commercials.
“I’m glad that people have begun to rediscover this classic music,” said Ray Evans, who along with his partner, Jay Livingston, wrote songs including “Mona Lisa,” “Que Sera, Sera” and “Silver Bells.” “But the American songbook is an endangered species now. And that’s because we don’t always treat its history with respect.”
Although college libraries and other archives house the personal papers of many well-known composers, preservationists are still on the hunt for missing pieces of musical history. And they find them in the most unlikely places.
Tony Bennett’s new album, for example, features “Time to Smile,” a tune missing lyrics until recently, when the words by Johnny Mercer were found scrawled on the back of an envelope in his Georgia archives. Ken Bloom, a music historian, found an unknown Cole Porter song in the back of a filing cabinet at Paramount Studios.
Earlier this year, Feinstein bought a 1928 notebook of Gershwin’s musical jottings at a Los Angeles auction. The 50-page manuscript, now stored in the Library of Congress, contains drafts of melodies and snippets of songs no one has ever heard.
“If I can get the permission of the composer’s estate, I’d weave this music into something magical,” said Feinstein, who wants to perform it in an all-Gershwin show.
As he handled the manuscript during a recent visit to the library, the collector seemed lost in another world. Feinstein hummed snatches of melodies; he talked about details only a scholar would spot, such as Gershwin’s scribbled notes for a different ending to “Embraceable You.”
Today, studios might think twice about discarding such valuable items. The emergence of DVD and compact disc technology has created a booming market for old recordings. Music lovers can’t get enough of the outtakes -- alternative versions of recorded songs and film scenes -- that show how great performances evolved in a recording studio or on a sound stage.
“There is some regret, of course, that such a large part of the studio’s musical library disappeared,” said Roger Mayer, who worked on the MGM lot for 25 years and is now president of Turner Entertainment. “But at the time, none of us could have imagined that people would be making so much noise about all of this being lost.”
In October, Feinstein was asked to sing the national anthem before a Dodgers playoff game. As he drove to the stadium through Elysian Park, there was something about the neighborhood -- its older houses and plentiful garages, or maybe its proximity to the old Hollywood studio lots -- that made him vow to return.
“I just know there’s sheet music, manuscripts and rare records buried away in those old homes,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “I can smell it.”
Call it collector’s instinct, something Feinstein learned early. Born in 1956 in Columbus, Ohio, the youngest of three, he sensed he was different from other kids.
He taught himself to play piano at 5 and began collecting vintage 78s, mainly because the labels were colorful and the idea of music from an earlier time seemed fascinating. He preferred Bing Crosby to the Beatles, scorned the Rolling Stones for Rodgers and Hammerstein. And he grew to adore the music of George Gershwin.
Feinstein moved with his parents to Los Angeles in 1976, and his life changed one day as he was flipping through the bins at a used-record store on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. He found a batch of LPs that had once belonged to Oscar Levant, a composer and Gershwin confidant. Through an acquaintance, he located Levant’s widow, June, in Beverly Hills, and returned the vintage materials to her.
She, in turn, introduced him to George Gershwin’s elderly brother. Ira Gershwin, who had written the lyrics to most of his brother’s songs, put Feinstein to work cataloging his record collection. The two forged a deep friendship before the older man’s death in 1983 at the age of 86.
The Gershwin connection paid handsome dividends: An aspiring performer, Feinstein was befriended by Liza Minnelli. She took an interest in his career and helped him get bookings at the Algonquin Hotel and other venues.
Feinstein’s friendship with Ira Gershwin also gave him entree to the libraries of record companies and film studios in Los Angeles and New York. As he prowled through warehouses, ferreting out sheet music for his boss’ archives, the kid who couldn’t get enough of the great old songs began worrying about their survival.
Once, as he drove through Hollywood on a spring afternoon in 1978, he saw what seemed to be a street sale underway at Radio Recorders. The studio was famed as a place where Sinatra, Elvis Presley and others had recorded songs for soundtracks.
Inside, employees explained the studio was going out of business and virtually everything was for sale. Dumbstruck, Feinstein asked if he could buy some tapes. No problem, he was told. But the recordings had to be erased before Feinstein could acquire them because the studio did not own what was on the tapes. Priceless music was destroyed.
The most disconcerting encounter came during a 1985 visit to Columbia Pictures in Burbank. Feinstein learned the studio was busily discarding musical materials, and he came upon a librarian separating them into two piles.
“I asked her why, and she said she was holding onto movies that got three or more stars from the Leonard Maltin movie guide,” Feinstein recalled, with a look of disbelief. “The film scores that got less than three stars were being thrown away.”
He only had time to grab an armful of scores, including songs written by Styne and Sammy Cahn for several “B” movies.
Today, studios are more respectful of their archives, and companies like Rhino Records have reissued a flood of vintage soundtracks. The Los Angeles-based Film Music Society works to preserve and restore original musical scores and recordings. And the Library of Congress runs the National Recording Preservation Board, an advisory group that identifies endangered American music collections. Feinstein sits on the board, along with 21 others.
But new problems abound.
Marilee Bradford, a historian and record producer who supervised the reissue of “The Wizard of Oz” soundtrack, says songwriters’ children sometimes fail to recognize the importance of sheet music and recordings their parents had stashed away.
“You get situations where these kids felt overshadowed by parents,” said Bradford. “They don’t want to hear about preserving memorabilia stored in a closet, and I tell them we have to get past this. They have to donate the material to a library.”
Convincing individuals, studios, record companies and other facilities to donate memorabilia is just the beginning. Transferring film and taped materials that are crumbling with age to digital recordings can be expensive, Feinstein said, and many American libraries don’t have the funds to do the job properly.
A solution may come from two national archives opening soon, in Virginia and in Valencia. They have been funded by the Packard Humanities Institute, and the goal is to offer new repositories for vintage American pop songs and moving images.
It will be a huge step forward, preservationists say. And for Feinstein, the drive on the Golden State Freeway north promises to become less stressful.
“How’s that for irony?” he said. “We’ll have a new archive built in Valencia, right near the site of the old MGM musical dump. I guess that’s progress.”