For six weeks, Internet Archive book scanner, Mandy Weiler, was unable to digitize art history books inside the now shuttered Getty Research Institute. Furloughed and stuck inside her 500-square-foot apartment in Los Angeles, she spent a lot of time staring out the window. She took up bird watching and hung out with her cat. Then, the Internet Archive had an idea: bring scanners back from furlough and hire experts to teach Mandy and other book scanners new skills, including dating 78 rpm records and performing custom audio restoration on these recordings from a century ago. “Before I was doing the whole Doom Scrolling all day long,” Mandy recalls. “When we came back from furlough…I was really glad to get assigned to the 78 project. It has been such a nice distraction to get lost in these old records.”
Across the country, in Philadelphia, music metadata researcher Liz Rosenberg was also in need of work. A specialist in 78 rpm records trained by the legendary George Blood, Liz agreed to lead a new project cataloging 38,000 discs in our 78s collection for which the date of publication is unknown. Her team of a dozen former book scanners starts with the data on the record labels, but that is often just the beginning. Almost every 78 recording was originally assigned a matrix number, usually etched into the shellac itself. It is the only sure way of identifying a performance, but certain record labels such as Victor kept its matrix numbers secret. Sometimes only abbreviated versions of the matrix number are printed on the label itself.
Enter Mandy Weiler, who has a bachelor’s degree in Public History and has worked for libraries for the last decade. Turns out that digging up music metadata is right in her wheelhouse. “It’s a lot of web sleuthing. I’m one of those people who have 100 tabs open all the time on their computer,” she explained. “My partner calls me a story hoarder. I’m glad we are putting it to good use.”
Take for instance this 78 disc, Reigen (La Ronde de L’amour) by Adolf Wohlbruck, publication date unknown. “I started in all the normal places, but I wasn’t getting any hits,” Mandy recounted. “I couldn’t narrow down the dates and then I started finding out more about the performer.”
Mandy’s research uncovered a fascinating story behind this disc. The performer, Adolf Wohlbruck, was better known as Anton Walbrook, the queer, Jewish son of a circus performer who fled Nazi Germany in 1936. Walbrook went on to become a celebrated actor in Hollywood and England.
In La Ronde, the 1950 film for which he recorded this performance, Walbrook plays the master of ceremonies in a cycle of stories about love. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and was later remade in a 1964 film starring Jane Fonda.
Perhaps Walbrook’s best known films are the 49th Parallel and The Red Shoes, both of which you can still watch in the Internet Archive. All of this rich backstory is now recorded in the Internet Archive Review Section for this 78 rpm record.
“It can take you down some great rabbit holes,” Mandy said. “This is the stuff I’ve been interested in my adult life. Digging in and finding information that is not readily available and sharing it. Universal Access to to Knowledge. That’s important to me because it helps so many people.”
Oh, and the publication date of the 78 Reigen? Mandy says it is likely 1951. Can anyone help us further?