“Do you worry that you have a obsessive-compulsive streak?”
Jeff Weissman laughs. Oh no,” he says. “I can’t worry about it, because I know it’s there.”
Weissman, 54, wears many hats. He is an actor, producer and director. He has coached actors and taught acting, film and theater courses at high school and college levels.
But it was primarily acting that led him to collect. Weissman collects early sound recordings, including wax cylinders; sheet music and theatrical ephemera; and the jokers from decks of playing cards.
Let’s start with the recordings. In the late 1980s, Weissman and fellow actor Bevis Faversham were hired by Universal Studios to portray the comedy duo of Stan Laurel (Weissman) and Oliver Hardy (Faversham).
“When we were sent on events to promote Universal Studios in Europe and Canada, Bevis would go record hunting.” At first, Weissman just helped Faversham add to his collection. “But after a year or two, I realized this is fascinating stuff. I fell in love with the early recordings and the influences they had on Stan Laurel.”
He mentions British musical hall performer Dan Leno, “where Laurel got his look” – and here Weissman’s mobile face and body become, for an instant, Stan Laurel.
His collections have given Weissman a deep knowledge and love of theatrical history. Much is obscure or forgotten, but “it’s filled with amazing characters, wonderful performers.” One he mentions is Le Petomane, a French flatulist or, as Weissman explains with a grin, “he sang out of his butt.” Others are Lupino Lane – “watching him is like watching a human cartoon” — and Little Tisch, a dwarf performer who was probably England’s best-paid music hall performer.
Weissman began collecting the early sound recordings partly with an eye for investment but also for the enjoyment he got from the songs and sketches and their value in helping him develop characters.
Collect what you love is the advice often given, and Weissman clearly loves the records and ephemera. “They’re very dear.”
He shows off sheet music written or sung by a particular favorite, entertainer Marie Dressler before she became a film actress, songs and records with quirky titles like “He’s My Soft-Shelled Crab on Toast.”
Because of the eras from which his collections originate, he has come up against what these days offends many – minstrelsy, white and black performers in blackface, portraying blacks in what today seems a derogatory, racist manner.
But what you need to understand, he points out, is this is history.
“Minstrelsy came in around 1828,” he explains, “and lasted almost up to 1960.” He understands and accepts it as the theater of the time and loves many performers of the genre, pointing out that often it was a way for black people to earn a living.
He pulls out a disc from 1896 made by performer Billy Golden, a white man mimicking the accepted black style.
“It’s called ‘Rabbit Hash,’ kind of a Turkey-in-the-Straw syncopation,” he says. “But then, in the break, he goes into a rap about Democrats taking over the White House. So this one record is a history lesson and, possibly, the first rap song, in 1896.”
Thomas Edison, Weissman explains, experimented with hundreds of materials to see what would hold sound the best.
“Tin foil seemed to work, but then he found wax was the best. That came in in 1879. The first ones, white wax, were only good for a few plays. The later brown wax cylinders were meant for about two dozen plays. You didn’t listen through the big horns then, but through ear tubes. You’d go down to a nickelodeon, pick out a song and listen through the tubes.”
He shows a photo of a group of men wearing stethoscope-looking tubes listening to some of that early music. Around 1890, Weissman says, they figured out how to record louder.
“You’ll find the better early cylinders were of loud instruments, banjo, brass or loud singers. They’d sing or play into a horn, the opposite of a reproducer.”
Other tidbits he throws out are that some early discs were hard rubber, the first commercial recorded was for root beer, and some recordings start from the center and go out.
Weissman brings out one of his record players, a 1928 English picnic machine that he and his wife Kimbell still take on picnics. Needles are still made, he says, or often he can find unused old stock.
Collectors can become obsessed by an artist and have to have every recording he or she made.
“When I started becoming obsessed, I started collecting laughing songs. I’d look for ‘laughing’ in the title.” He cites “Laughing Water Ha Ha Ha” and then begins singing from “Popular Jocular Doctor Brown of Camden Town.” They were popular, he explains, similar to “I Love to Laugh,” the song Ed Wynn sings in “Mary Poppins.”
Many recordings are comic sketches, including Uncle Josh, who is considered the first stand-up comedian in American recordings. There are hundreds of titles: Uncle Josh taking the census, in a department store, on a jitney bus, in a Chinese laundry, on a trip to New York, Uncle Josh and the Insect Powder Man.
“People become obsessive in collecting these, but to me he’s rarely funny. Whereas a lot of minstrel shows will have funny jokes.”
For example: “Why is a cat’s tail like a long journey?
“Because it’s fur all the way to the end.”
Another is a recording of the transformation scene from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It was made shortly after the story’s release in 1886 and, Weissman says, includes the proper pronunciation – JEE-kill, not JECK-ill.
Six years ago, he says, NPR contacted him for the anniversary of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake to do a story on one of his records, a theatrical “re-creation” of the event.
Weissman also owns 10 cases of old 78s, including obscure blues singers and Louis Armstrong when he was with the King Oliver band.
He gestures around his living room, which is lined with shelves of CDs. A number of them are recordings of rare titles put together by other collectors.
He has a handful of what were called “party records,” from the 1940s and ‘50s, “blue material, sexually oriented puns for the most part,” and a CD of a famous attic discovery of 1890s wax cylinder pornography. The others were destroyed as being indecent and obscene.
“Of course,” Weissman says, “they’re not really pornography by today’s standards.”
Because his wife was recently seriously ill, Weissman has been selling parts of his collections.
“When I started collecting the brown wax cylinders, I could pick them up for $15 to $25 if they were in nice shape. Now, depending on the artist and manufacturer, they could go from $100 to $1,000. They’ve helped pay the rent during the lean times. That’s a mixed blessing. Even though they were an investment, it’s hard to sell things I love, that have brought hours of joy.”
The joker collection started 30 years ago, through fellow Renaissance Faire actors. Out of this group of men and women grew The Fools’ Guild.
“Every year we crown a new king, and a Mother Folly. A number of guild members were collecting jokers,” Weissman says, so as he had with Faversham, he looked for jokers and gave them to his friends.
Again, “I realized I liked them, so I started collecting.” He has more than 2,000 different jokers, housed in two large binders.
“They have little value. A lot of times people will just give them to you.”
He explains jokers weren’t originally part of decks. “It was in the 1860s when the joker really started coming into fashion. Many have incredible backs as well,” he says, flipping through the pages. “I spent hours putting them in groupings.”
He shows pages dedicated to Hank Williams, magicians, art deco, clowns, seafaring, Elvis, politics, Fidel Castro, pinups, commedia dell’arte, advertising, butterflies. Some are signed by comedians such as Whoopi Goldberg and Buddy Hackett; another page is jokers “who look like people I know.”
And then there is his first collecting interest: penguins. In 1979, he received “a fantastic, windup penguin, German and just exquisite. I started liking them.” As a result, he got more and more as gifts until it became “too much.”
About 10 years ago, he started giving them away at Christmas. “I fill my pockets and, at parties, tell people to pick a pocket. Whatever pocket you pick, you get that penguin.”
Before that, however, he contemplated several “diabolical schemes” involving the thefts of the sign of a defunct restaurant in Santa Monica named The Penguin and the Admiral Byrd stuffed penguin, Emperor, at Wyoming’s Little America.
“I wanted to liberate him,” he says of the Byrd bird. “But then I said, ‘What am I doing? I’m becoming obsessive.’”