Murray Gershenz knows he’s setting something of a record by giving a new spin to his career this late in life.
After all, Gershenz has spent most of his 87 years collecting music -- old operas preserved on tube-like Edison cylinders, Big Band-era crooners on brittle 78 rpm discs, emerging rock stars on small 45s and established pop artists on larger LP albums. He owns as many as 400,000 records.
But now, “Music Man Murray” plans to unload his collection so he can become a full-time actor.
“I’m in demand. They like old character actors,” he said as he turns down the volume to an operatic piece he’s playing at his Exposition Boulevard record shop.
“That’s a tenor nobody’s heard of,” Gershenz explains. “Mario Filippeschi. He recorded this in the ‘50s. It’s Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma,’ which means ‘nobody’s sleeping.’ ”
Gershenz knows his opera. He also knows his rock, his R&B;, his symphonies, his jazz and countless other genres of music crammed onto the shelves of his two-story shop and of a pair of nearby warehouse spaces.
“I started collecting when I was 16 and never stopped,” he said of his carefully categorized records. “I never threw anything away. It’s very difficult to part with them.”
But part with them he must. Gershenz says he can no longer juggle his audition and filming schedule with the day-to-day requirements of running his record store and Internet record sales business.
“I thought my son would take over, but he’s got other things to do. My daughter is ill and she can’t. But this is a wonderful treasure. This collection shouldn’t be busted up.”
Gershenz has started shopping around for a museum or a college willing to acquire the collection and keep it intact. His last choice would be to split it up and sell records piecemeal to individual music enthusiasts. It should be accessible to the public -- “people should be able to enjoy it,” he said.
The collection boasts multiple copies of some recordings that sell for as little as $8. Others are rare, one-of-a-kind discs. His most valuable is a multicolored record titled “Barbie” by Kenny and the Cadets, predecessors of the Beach Boys. It’s worth $5,000, according to Gershenz. He estimates that the whole collection is worth about $3 million.
That ought to be music to the ears of a man for whom music has always been so important. Gershenz sang briefly with the St. Louis Opera and later was a cantor in local synagogues. He went into the used record business in 1962 with a small shop in Hollywood. He moved it to the West Adams district in 1986.
The acting bug has taken a huge bite out of him, however.
He was offered his first role in “Will & Grace” 12 years ago after a talent agent spotted him in a Sunday night improvisational comedy class. His work since then has included television shows, films and commercials.
“I’m in three movies playing right now, ‘I Love You, Man,’ ‘Hangover’ and ‘Street Dreams,’ ” he said. “I have a Wal-Mart commercial that’s been running almost two years. I shot a movie two weeks ago where I play the husband of a woman who wants to buy a teapot and can’t afford it.”
Gershenz’s son Irv is a professional drummer and artist who runs the shop when his father is auditioning or on a film shoot. Irv Gershenz worked at the store through junior high school and college and has helped out occasionally since then. He doesn’t want to operate it permanently, however.
“It kills me to think it’s going to be gone. I grew up here on everything from Lionel Hampton to the Beatles. This place has a lot of memories,” said Irv Gershenz, 52.
Over the years, dozens of performers have visited the shop to buy copies of their own albums -- B.B. King, Rock Hudson, Louis Armstrong, Nancy Sinatra, Jason Alexander, Duke Ellington and Dick Van Dyke. “A lot of famous people don’t keep their own records,” Murray Gershenz said.
Herb Alpert turned to Music Man Murray when he was re-issuing Tijuana Brass recordings as CDs and needed a pristine album cover to copy for the CD jewel case, Gershenz said.
More recently, young record producers have prowled the shop, walking past the antique 1946 Rock-Ola jukebox that’s loaded with vintage 78s to search the shelves for obscure record riffs to use in new music. Such computerized “sampling” can often be done with recordings from the 1940s and ‘50s that are in the public domain and do not require royalty payments, he said.
Even as he takes steps to wind down, Music Man Murray sometimes has second thoughts. “If I was 40 years younger I wouldn’t even be thinking of this. Record collecting is like a disease. It never goes away,” he said.
“I’m still buying people’s old collections of vinyl. Isn’t that crazy?”