Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? Fact-Checking the Victor Studio Locations (1901-1920)

Camden, Philadelphia, or New York: Fact-Checking the Victor Acoustic-Era Studio Locations
By Allan Sutton

.

.

.The facts:

  • There is no documentary evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company operated a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey, from September 1901 through early December 1907.
  • During that period, most Victor recording sessions were held in Philadelphia. A much smaller number, by Red Seal artists only, were held in New York at that time.
  • Very early Victor recording locations are only occasionally noted in the surviving company files.
  • Brian Rust and other early discographers, when confronted with this omission, behaved as usual — They guessed (incorrectly assuming Camden for September 1901 – November 1907 sessions that were actually held in Philadelphia), and then passed off their guesses as fact.

Now that the key points are out of the way, let’s look at the supporting evidence, from the memoirs of a man who was there at the time — Harry O. Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer. The following studio chronology is based upon Sooy’s memoirs (Sarnoff Library, Princeton, New Jersey), with corroborating circumstantial evidence from the surviving Victor files:

The Camden > Philadelphia > Camden Chronology
(1900 – 1907)

 

Late 1890s – February 1900: Collings Carriage Factory Building (Front & Market Streets), Camden, NJ

According to Sooy, this was the site of Eldridge R. Johnson’s first experimental recording studio. No documentation of the recordings made there is known to have survived

 

February 1, 1900 – c. August 1, 1901: Johnson Factory Building, Camden, NJ

In late 1899, Eldridge Johnson began construction of a four-story factory building in Camden. Sooy recalled having moved Johnson’s recording equipment from the carriage factory to the new building on or around February 1, 1900. By that time, according to Sooy, Johnson was recording masters for Berliner.

Recording of Johnson’s own masters (i.e., those issued on his various Victor predecessor labels) began on May 1, 1900. The last of Johnson’s Berliner masters for which a date is confirmed was recorded two days later.

Johnson’s studio was moved from Camden to Philadelphia in September 1901, according to Sooy (and the Victor Talking Machine Company was incorporated on October 3). The move was made to provide more space for the machine shop. Recording in Camden appears to have ended on August 1, 1901, and it would not resume there until December 9, 1907.

 

August 2 – September 4, 1901: No recording activity

 

September 5, 1901 – November 22, 1907: 424 S. 10th Street, Philadelphia

Sooy recalled that the Victor studio was moved to Philadelphia from its original Camden location during September 1901. The Victor files, which show that no recordings were made during August 2 – September 4, 1901, lend credence to  Sooy’s recollection.

Assuming this thirty-four day hiatus marks the Camden-to-Philadelphia transition, the last Camden session would have been Rogers & Pryor’s “Answer” (“pre-matrix” Victor 837, an August 1 remake of a May 31 session); and the first Philadelphia session would have been Frank Seiden’s “Rosinkes und Mandlein” (“pre-matrix” Victor 928, recorded September 5, 1901). The large numerical gap occurs because the Rogers & Pryor catalog number was allocated at the time of the original session.

Sooy recalled, “The moving of the Laboratory from Camden [to] Philadelphia was done…by Mr. MacEwan, a bob-tail horse and Mr. Nafey. Money in these days not being overly plentiful, MacEwan acted as teamster on the job, and Nafey, I guess, was boss; however, the moving was done in a very creditable manner… Upon entering our new quarters at 424 So. 10th St., or 10th and Lombard Sts., which was known as the colored belt of Philadelphia, we were furnished with considerable excitement in the neighborhood outside of making records.”

Philadelphia would host Victor’s main studio for six years. The studio was located on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Berliner Gramophone Company. A matrix-plating plant was housed in the basement, and a blank-processing department was opened on the third floor in January 1904. Stampers  were shipped to the Duranoid Company (and, for a time, to the Burt Company as well) for pressing. Victor also maintained a Philadelphia branch office in the Girard Building during this period.

As far as can be ascertained from documentary and circumstantial evidence, no Victor recording studio existed in Camden while the Philadelphia studio was in operation. Thus, the many modern citations of Camden recording sessions from September 5, 1901 through November 1907 are in error.

 

November 23 – December 8, 1907: No recording activity

 

From December 9, 1907: Front & Cooper Streets, Camden, NJ

During November 1907, the Philadelphia studio was closed, and a new studio was opened on the fourth floor of what would later come to be known as Building #15 in Camden. The transitional period is apparent in the Victor files, which show no recordings were made during November 23–December 8, 1907.

Assuming this sixteen-day hiatus marks the Philadelphia-to-Camden transition, the last Philadelphia recording would have been Alan Turner’s “The White Squall” (mx. B 4961, recorded November 22, 1907; delayed release on Victor 16006); and the first Camden recording would have been the Victor Orchestra’s “Army and Navy Medley Reel” (mx. B 4962, rejected takes 1 and 2, recorded December 9, 1907).

While many Red Seal sessions continued to be held in New York, the Camden studio was also used for Red Seal sessions beginning December 11, 1907. “From this time on,” Harry Sooy stated, “recording dates of a Red Seal nature were alternated between the Camden and New York laboratories to suit the convenience of the artists.”

On March 13, 1911, the studio was moved to the newly added seventh floor of Building #15. Additional studios were installed in the building over the years, the last major addition being a large room for orchestral sessions in late 1924. After RCA’s acquisition of Victor in 1929, the Camden studios were slowly phased out in favor of New York.

After attempts to record a large symphony orchestra in the regular studio proved unsatisfactory, the eighth-floor auditorium of the Executive Building in Camden was converted to a temporary studio in the autumn of 1917. The hundred-member Boston Symphony Orchestra under Karl Muck made its first recordings in the auditorium studio on October 2, followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on October 22.

In early 1918, Victor purchased the Trinity Church at 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, which it converted to a studio for large vocal and instrumental ensembles, as well as sessions requiring a pipe-organ regardless of ensemble size (the original church organ was eventually replaced with a more robust model). Recording commenced there on February 27, 1918. During 1928, the main floor of the church was used on occasion as a supplemental Vitaphone sound-stage, and a basement studio was used for soundtrack dubbing.

.

Victor’s New York Studios (1903 – Early 1920s)

Initially, Victor maintained a New York studio solely for the convenience of its Red Seal artists. Less-stellar  artists were required to travel to Philadelphia (or later, to Camden). Sooy stated that all Red Seal sessions prior to July 22, 1907, were held in New York, and file evidence seems to support his assertion.

 

March 26, 1903 – October 8, 1904: Carnegie Hall Annex (Room 826), New York

Victor leased studio space in the annex, not in the theater itself as has been stated in some works. Enrico Caruso made his first Victor recordings there, and as far as can be ascertained, all Carnegie Hall sessions involved Red Seal artists. Sooy recalled, “It was a great relief to get out of Carnegie Hall, and away from the Vocal Studios where vocal teachers were constantly trying voices, good, bad and otherwise.” The Carnegie Hall Annex studio was not a full-time operation.

 

October 8, 1904 – June 1, 1909: 234 Fifth Avenue, New York

As with the Carnegie Hall studio, this location was reserved primarily for Red Seal sessions and was not a full-time operation.

 

After June 1, 1909:

By the later ’teens, Victor’s New York studios were being used for popular as well as classical sessions, and cities usually are listed in the files (see DAHR’s free online Victor data for locations of each session). Victor operated its main New York studios at the following addresses during the remainder of the acoustic era:
,

June 2, 1909 – April 1912: 37–39 E. 29th Street, New York (first full-time New York studio)

April 1912 – January 18, 1917: 12–14 W. 37th Street, New York

January 19, 1917 — January 5, 1921: 46 W. 38th Street, New York

From January 6, 1921: National Association Building (28 W. 44th Street, 22nd floor), New York

.
By the later 1920s, Victor was operating at least three New York studios simultaneously, including leased space in Liederkranz Hall. These studios, as well as Victor’s Midwestern and West Coast studios and its field-recording locations, will be the subject of a future article.

________________

© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.