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Facing the music

Early last month, behind the facades of Gower Gulch, that Old West town of Baskin-Robbins, Rite Aid and a Denny’s restaurant facing Sunset Boulevard, some 46 vocalists and one showgirl poured into Hollywood Studio Bar and Grill, banding together for a cause the only way they know how -- by unleashing, for more than four hours, tunes about ducks that samba and personalizing the lyrics of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

The brainchild of Effie Joy, this sold-out October fundraiser had no charismatic politician on the receiving end, no poster children nor cocktails-by-the-pool donor list. It was just a modest attempt to stave off the bankruptcy of Hollywood Sheet Music, a fellow mom-and-pop shop in another strip mall two miles to the west.

“It might not save them, but it will help them,” Joy, a veteran of L.A.'s cabaret circuit, said on a cigarette break. “They’re a landmark, and they’re being replaced, sadly. The Internet’s just taken everything away.”

Hollywood Sheet Music has grown increasingly anachronistic in a downloadable world. The shop is a favorite among celebrities and researchers who prize its archive, which dates back in some cases to the early 1900s and includes many first editions.

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But as the sheet music business, like so many other segments of the industry, migrated online, the store has found itself at a crossroads: Sheet music might be a nearly $600-million-a-year business in the U.S., enjoying a largely steady 2% to 3% growth rate over the past decade, but sales at Hollywood Sheet Music have fallen off the charts.

Overtaken by technology

Three weeks after the fundraiser, there’s little activity to report. Store manager Rick Starr sits at the green Formica counter, answering the phone as he eats a lunch of hot dogs and KFC sides, while owner Stephanie Rinaldo explains that, over three locations and four decades, her business had always been recession-proof. In its heyday, it wasn’t unusual for her to clock in 60 hours a week researching client requests. Times have changed. Recently, she was happy to sell a stack of surplus inventory as set dressing for the prop department of the ABC television series “Eli Stone.”

David Jahnke, vice president of national sales for Hal Leonard Corp., the largest print music publisher, ranks Hollywood Sheet Music as one of the handful of such stores in the country -- his executives consider visits there to be an important part of their market research. But he said Rinaldo’s reluctance to move into the online world was the beginning of her current woes.

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“One of the biggest things impacting Steph’s sales is the Web,” he said.

Rinaldo acknowledges she dragged her feet in denial about the power of new technology. She belatedly tried her hand at a website, generating 1,500 hits a day at hollywoodsheetmusic.com, but no orders. “I think people were just using it to research,” she said. “I don’t blame them. I use the Internet for research.”

She’s not entirely out of ideas yet. Friends have suggested she put in a coffee shop, a few practice studios. “Billy Zane was in here the other day. He said we should turn it into a hangout for the theater community,” Rinaldo said. “I’m very open to a lot of things. I’m not a businessperson. I know sheet music.”

Rinaldo grew up in music publishing; both parents and two uncles made lifelong careers of it. Her mother, a West Virginia singer, met her father, a native New Yorker, when he came back from World War II to find the former had nicked his job at a publishing house. They married and moved to Florida, opening their first sheet music store in 1955.

Rinaldo’s own path perhaps wasn’t preordained -- she was enrolled at San Francisco State when a later job transferred her father to Los Angeles -- but it proved swift and free of detours. Instead of pursuing a degree, she joined her father at Hansen Publications’ L.A. branch. “I’ve never ever had to look for a job,” she said.

She began working at the store in 1985 and bought the place eight years later. For the next four years, it was prosperous. For a few more, it brought in enough money, though slowly it became apparent that an ear for hit songs and a gift for cultivating personal relationships weren’t ultimately going to keep her afloat.

Starr, the son of a stand-up comic and a pit orchestra musician, moved out from New York in the mid-'80s to try his hand at acting, signing on at Hollywood Sheet Music in 1988. Together, Rinaldo and Starr run the business in their own low-key manner. Rinaldo favors T-shirts and a short, no-nonsense style for her brown-blond hair. Starr, in a muted Hawaiian shirt and slacks, walks with a cane and a shuffle brought on by diabetic myopathy “and other things.”

But they can recognize style. When Starr or Rinaldo sense an unusual tune -- be it unusually good or just oddball -- is about to vanish from the catalogs, they’ll stick a copy on the shelves along the back wall for posterity. It’s this library, along with the long-standing professional relationships, that enables them to expedite music clearances, which has kept them relevant.

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“They’re unparalleled in the business,” said music supervisor Nancy Severinsen, who’s worked on both “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” and is the daughter of former “Tonight Show” band leader Doc Severinsen. “On our shows we have a lot of short, going-to-air-quickly notice, and we’ve got to have immediate access to the music. Weekly, we’d send them a list of songs, and they’d go to the ends of the Earth to get them back in time.”

Celebrity endorsements

Behind the counter, Starr stores a fat stack of spiral-bound notebooks, stuffed with phone numbers, wedding anniversaries and birthdays. There’s hardly a cabaret singer who opens a show in Los Angeles without a gift waiting backstage from Hollywood Sheet Music. “My mother said to me, ‘Never go to anyone’s house empty-handed,’ ” Starr explained. “A person’s show is their home. It’s a way for them to know I’m there.”

Judging from a long list of celebrity testimonials, that personal touch has won them many fervent supporters.

“They always remember my birthday every year and call me up,” said Jeff Goldblum, actor and part-time jazz pianist for the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. “They couldn’t be sweeter.”

“HSM has been the only place any of us could get sheet music fast and accurately by people who cared,” Barry Manilow, home sick with bronchitis, wrote in an e-mail. He’s been a customer for 15 years.

Actress Tyne Daly has a “crap cold” as well. Nevertheless, she’s on the phone from her home in New York hoping to have “gotten in under the wire to testify for those folks.”

“An attraction for me is certainly the atmosphere,” said Daly, who dates her days at Hollywood Sheet Music back to the store’s late-'60s beginnings. “It feels cozy. It’s different from being in Hollywood at a studio. Often people there don’t crisscross.”

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Even 73-year-old Johnny Mathis returns a call the same day to sing their praises. “We have a very unique friendship,” Mathis said. “I like the real deal.”

Still, the company is in real jeopardy. October’s benefit caught up the store’s bills, but thus far Rinaldo hasn’t been able to cover November’s expenses. Despite their dire straits, however, neither Starr nor Rinaldo has begun to plan for what could easily become their worst-case scenario.

“I know it’s not the adult thing to do,” Rinaldo said. “But I just can’t believe there’s not a way to keep this going.”

Rather than focusing on the grim financial situation, the pair would rather indulge in their gentle brand of gossip. Like the time Michael Jackson cleared the store for a quick bout of personal shopping or when Etta James’ people called saying the legendary singer was in the studio waiting to record “At Last” and had forgotten the words.

Once, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston dropped by, Starr chimed in. “I had 20 minutes alone with Brad Pitt,” he said, hands clasped at his heart.

Then there was the day Barbra Streisand called, asking for a copy of “Someday My Prince Will Come” to be faxed ASAP over to the U.K. It was such a rush job, her people stood on the other end of the line, snatching up the pages as they came through. “The next day I read in the paper that she sang the song to the Prince of Wales,” Starr said. “In a way, I was there.”

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Farabee is a former Times staff writer.

calendar@latimes.com


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