A Recorded History: The Berliner gramophone legacyby Jean-Pierre Sévigny
/ March 1, 2012
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From Caruso to Elvis to Lady Gaga, we can trace our collective audio DNA back to gramophone inventor Emile Berliner. In October 2011, Oliver Berliner, grandson of the famous inventor, returned to Montreal to the spot where his grandfather launched his first record company in 1900. This homecoming has inspired hope and apprehension in the milieu.
Oliver Berliner was born in Montreal at the start of the 20th century. He worked as a record producer and music publisher. He has “very fond memories” of his time spent in Montreal. He visited the RCA building, which houses the small Berliner Museum, the historic Studio Victor, and the Table Tournante café, where he was happy to find artefacts (gramophones, photos, etc.) related to the history of the Berliner/RCA factory, objects that the Museum lent to the restaurant owner. He also visited the Bell Museum, the new recording studio at McGill University as well as his childhood home, on the corner of Argyle and Westmount. This return to his roots was emotionally charged. Talkative and well-informed, Mr. Berliner also participated in a documentary.
In an interview, he summarized Emile Berliner’s contributions. “Grandfather created the gramophone, (today known as the phonograph), the flat phonograph disc, and the first microphone for the Bell company, and he founded no less than three of the world’s largest record companies: Germany’s Deutsche Grammophon, which celebrated its 111th anniversary in 2009, England’s EMI and Victor Talking Machine (today Sony) in the States. This industry giant also kicked off Canada’s record industry in 1900 by founding the Berliner Gram-0-Phone Company.” It’s a pretty impressive record for someone virtually unknown by the public.
The site today is called the RCA building and is located in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, on the corner of Saint-Antoine and Lacasse. It’s “the site” of recording history in Canada and one of the only ones in the world that is still intact. For example, the heritage site Pathé-Marconi, located in the Commune de Chatou (Île-de-France) was knocked down in 2004. It’s hard to imagine that the historical heart of French and European audiovisual heritage was destroyed. The members of the Musée des ondes Emile Berliner (MOEB) point out that the RCA building is also at risk if no action is taken. Danger looms. They don’t want another Chatou. This is what motivated Oliver Berliner’s pilgrimage. He came to reaffirm his unwavering support of the Berliner Museum’s purchase and renovation project.
“I am thrilled to have finally visited the museum and met the directors who have dedicated so much time and energy to it. I learned a lot about the museum and the operations of my grandfather’s record company, Berliner Gramophone. I will help in any way possible to develop what will be an important asset for the City of Montreal and a major tourist attraction for millions of fans, researchers and students.”
In view of the heritage site’s potential permanence, the “Berliner—cité des ondes” was launched in 2009 and MOEB administrators are currently negotiating with the different levels of government to ensure their support. The City of Montreal must also proceed with a complete heritage status evaluation of the RCA site over the next few months.
Legendary Recording Studio
The site is also home to the historical Studio Victor. In 1943, RCA built what became Canada’s oldest recording studio still in operation on the site next to the Berliner Factory. Big names in Canadian music flock here to record. The studio has a great reputation here and abroad, especially for recordings that require optimal acoustic quality. Someone quite famous even stopped by unannounced to visit the studio: none other than the Beatles’ producer, Sir George Martin.
In the universe of international recording heritage, historians consider the RCA site as top rank. Jean-Luc Rigaud, industrial heritage specialist, recently published Pathé Marconi, de la musique à l’effacement des traces with Éditions Garnier. He came to Montreal in 2010 to focus on what he called “the Québec experience.” He notes that the RCA building holds significant architectural, technological and cultural historical value. From a moderately positivist point of view, he specifies that the future of the Berliner Museum now depends on negotiations with the new owner, real-estate promoter Georges Coulomb, and the eventual support from all three levels of government. He unreservedly supports the complete renovation project. “This museum space, representing centuries of history, would become a privileged spot, unique in the world, protecting Québécois, Canadian, American and even international cultural and industrial memory1.”
However, prophets count for nothing in their own country. Here, few people understand the value of the RCA building. “It’s an important historical site in the city, and the sound studio is unique,” says Phyllis Lambert from the Canadian Centre for Architecture. For Dinu Bumbaru from Heritage Montreal, an organization that works to promote and protect the architectural, historical, natural and cultural heritage of Greater Montreal, “the heritage value of buildings is often hidden inside… in the case of the RCA building, the Victor Studio has an extraordinary history.” He points out that the new Québec law on heritage, adopted in 2011, will give municipalities power to recognize buildings based on their interiors, adding that “the RCA building would be a good start.” Concerned about the RCA site’s permanence, Oliver Berliner confirmed, before his departure, that he will bequeath to the museum many objects related to his family’s experience as pioneers of the Canadian record industry.
Let’s hope that local, provincial and federal politicians recognize the historical value of this unique site and contribute to its rehabilitation and promotion. It is a place for learning and for remembering, and the site has the potential to become an important tourist attraction for the metropolitan area. The cultural tourism sector is very competitive. Each city has its own strategy. To attract visitors, Toronto didn’t hesitate to build new cultural attractions. Montreal, however, already has many important heritage sites, such as the RCA-Victor Complex, which need to be spotlighted.
Translation: Lindsay Gallimore
1. Jean-Luc Rigaud. Pathé Marconi, de la musique à l’effacement des traces. Paris, Garnier, 2011.