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Memories for Posterity

By Jorge Casuso

Sept. 23 -- You could safely say that actress June Lockhart wouldn't have been around to record her memories on a turn-of-the century phonograph Monday afternoon if it wasn't for the old contraption and its inventor, Thomas Edison.

In fact, if it wasn't for Edison, the star of the hit '60s shows "Lassie" and "Lost in Space," as well as countless movies and TV shows, Lockart might never have been born. It was the great inventor who introduced Lockhart's parents, who were actors, during one of his touring dealer conventions to promote his revolutionary devices.

"Do you suppose by genealogy once removed I could prove to be one of Edison's great inventions," joked Lockhart, who as a girl was sent home with an admonishing note from school for claiming the legendary inventor had introduced her parents.

On Monday, amidst the old memorabilia displayed at the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum, Lockhart relived her past and its links to the prolific inventor for the Thomas Alva Edison Recording Project. Started four years ago, the project aims to record the voices of the famous and their reminiscences of the device that helped to change the world.

Lockhart, a Santa Monica resident born in 1925, was a logical choice. Not only did Edison introduce her parents, her father Gene Lockhart was a famous character actor who played the role of Mr. Taggart in the movie "Edison, the Man," starring Spencer Tracy as the inventor. And Lockhart herself acted in a 1993 remake of six Edison films.

"I played in one of Edison's films and it completes the connection," said Lockhart. "I will never again have to bring a note home from school to prove I am telling the truth when I say my parents were introduced by Thomas Edison."

The recordings of Lockhart's voice were made on original Edison equipment, circa 1910, on original wax cylinders brought by the Thomas Edison Memorial Tower & Menlo Park Museum from New Jersey. Unhappy with the quality of replicated cylinders, Museum director Jack Stanley had the original wax cylinders shipped from France, where a contact hunted them down

"They're getting harder to find," said Stanley. "We found a cache of them in France."

While the cylinders will be transcribed onto the Internet so they can be shared with the world, the old indented wax has proven to be the most lasting form of recording, retaining its integrity better than records, tapes or cds, Stanley said.

As Lockhart speaks into the phonograph's cone-shaped device, her words were etched in the turning wax cylinder by a needle attached to a small mouthpiece that vibrates with the sounds of her voice.

Edison had developed the mouthpiece for the telephone he was working on in 1877 when he realized its vibrating characteristics could be harnessed for the recording device he was developing, which would be his greatest invention.

"This was his love," said Stanley. "If you want to talk about a love story, a romance, it was the phonograph."

The serial number on the phonograph that recorded Lockhart's voice indicates that there were at least 342,000 sold. Owners bought wax cylinders, which were individually produced, making a hit recording a time consuming replicating process that taxed any performer. Even with 10 phonographs lined up, it was a daunting task to record the 10,000 cylinders that constituted a blockbuster.

The phonographs were also used to record the owner's voices. And many an immigrant family was surprised to find the new-fangled machine spoke the language of the old country. "People would try to baffle the machine," Stanley said.

For those who have been asked to record their voices for the project, the old device brings back long-buried memories.

Gerald Ford became animated recalling the phonograph in the home where he grew up, and Walter Cronkite recalled how he had to crank the machines up for his family as a kid. He even ended up dancing to the strains of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" that emerged from the device's large horn.

More than 125 years after Edison recorded the words "who, who, who" on a summers day in 1877, the machine he invented still has a magic touch.
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