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Archivist Stays in Tune With Times Long Gone By

July 14, 1988|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

A musician had been in a coma for several months when his desperate family reasoned that, as music had been his life, music might recall him from that barren land in which he was journeying. The problem was finding some of the out-of-print Big Band records on which he had played.

When the family finally found its way to Les Szarvas' stuffy brick warehouse in Burbank, Szarvas disappeared into his mountainous stack of vinyl and returned with a record featuring the comatose performer.

"When they played the album, a smile came over his face," Szarvas said.

Szarvas doesn't lay claim to the miraculous. Just the improbable. His DISContinued Records, a mammoth record archive and musical attic, is often the last resort for people around the world who are pursuing a fleeting musical memory.

Many Requests

When Dick Clark needed an original copy of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" for a televised musical retrospective, he turned immediately to Szarvas. And when Showtime came to him after searching "high and low" for an obscure Mahalia Jackson tune for a gospel special, Szarvas had it.

4 "I turned cartwheels," recalled Tom Stepanchek, who worked on the special.

Szarvas, a balding, 58-year-old man whose diffident, scholarly air is nicely spoiled by a green Elton John T-shirt, occupies a special niche in the music industry between Tower Records and the Library of Congress. A one-time songwriter who worked in children's entertainment, he operates what may be the largest research library and rarities record shop in the world.

Vast Collection

The collection, which he estimates at 2.5 million records, nearly a million more than the Library of Congress collection, contains many rare and valuable items. But its hallmark is its reach, its vastness, stretching row upon row, from floor to ceiling in a nondescript warehouse. "The most bizarre, off-the-wall recording that you think nobody in a million years will have, you call them up and they've got it," said Stepanchek, who is now the director of publicity for Dick Clark Productions.

"I don't say we have everything, just more than anybody else," Szarvas said.

His record collecting began 25 years ago with a personal library in his Toluca Lake home. Eventually, he moved another house into his back yard and filled that with records. He operated his business out of his garage and used a walkie-talkie to communicate with assistants patrolling the mounting stacks in the rear house. "I was like a vinyl junkie" in those days, he recalled.

Packed Building

But that was nothing compared to the monster of musical miscellany that now threatens to burst the seams of a 6,000-square-foot storage area. It took one employee an entire year simply to weed extra copies out of the collection.

Though he sells records, Szarvas doesn't want to be regarded as the proprietor of a mere record store. "We're not a store; we're a reference library," he says imperiously to a hapless caller from New York looking for a Tim Buckley record. Despite the caller's gaffe, Szarvas consents to help, searching through his stacks to find that, yes, he has a copy he can sell, for $65.

Because he is an archivist, he sells only records that he has second copies of, so that the main collection is untouched and keeps growing. His important work is research for the public, compiling a complete discography of Perry Como for a customer, for instance. Then there is his extensive work for movie studios and television shows. Dolly Parton was a regular customer until her show went off the air.

'Vacuum Cleaner'

Though he has cut back on his acquisitions recently, when he was traveling the world in search of new items, he was something to behold. "The guy is like a vacuum cleaner," said Sanders Chase, a collector of classical music who watched appreciatively as Szarvas sucked up record libraries at estate auctions.

Prices at DISContinued Records start at $30 for an album--whether it's Sheb Wooley or Alice Cooper--and $12.50 for a 45 r.p.m. record. He understands why people would hesitate to hand over that much money but offers no apologies. "We are one of a kind," he said. "You don't drive down Rodeo Drive and look for bargains."

But if this is Rodeo Drive, the neighborhood could use some renovation. It appears Szarvas walks the razor's edge between being a historian--several of the rarer records in his collection are not found in the nation's official archives at the Library of Congress in Washington--and your eccentric Uncle Eddie, who still treasures his beer can collection.

In the tiny, littered front office, one wall is dominated by a Beatles mirror, another by a large Donnie and Marie record carrying case showing the buoyant siblings at the peak of their well-scrubbed, spangled, bell-bottomed success. Cast aside on a desk is a rare 45 r.p.m. recording of James Dean playing the bongos and philosophizing on something called "Dean's Lament."

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