In the compact disc era, people who talk about spinning some old records usually mean breaking out the big vinyl LPs.
But when Michael Khanchalian, a 34-year-old dentist, hankers to listen to a bygone tune, he gingerly slips a wax, cylinder-shaped record from a cardboard box. Next, he cranks up one of his many turn-of-the-century phonographs, attaches an oversize, goose-neck brass or wooden horn to the machine and gently sets down the stylus.
"This is beyond nostalgia," said Khanchalian, sitting in the den of his Monrovia home, listening to some of the first records ever produced. "I don't collect them because I remember Teddy Roosevelt or Sarah Bernhardt. I do it to resurrect the sounds of the past--to make history come alive."
Wax records, invented by Thomas Alva Edison, were first produced commercially in 1890 and manufactured as late as 1929. Two of the most famous songs recorded on wax were "A Bicycle Built for Two" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
Fellow fanciers of the records, known as cylinders, say Khanchalian has one of the best collections anywhere. They praise him for using his dentistry skills to repair the delicate cylinders for collectors around the country, thus helping to preserve a dying medium.
The wax records are about the same size and shape as the cardboard tube inside a roll of toilet paper. To play them, the hollow cylinder is placed on a mandrel, a metal spindle. The wax record revolves at a high speed while a needle moves up and down on hundreds of grooves. Sound quality varies from muddled static to surprising clarity depending on the condition of the cylinder.
Among Khanchalian's roughly 1,000 wax cylinders is a recording of Theodore Roosevelt giving a speech about labor laws when he was running for President under the aegis of the Bull Moose Party. Other political recordings--used by candidates to reach a mass audience before radio broadcasts began in 1920--include cylinder-preserved debates between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States.
Khanchalian's copious collection--stored in cabinets and drawers in his guest room, living room, dining room, garage and just about anywhere else he can find space--includes an 1898 cylinder of George W. Johnson, an early black recording artist.
He also has a selection of vaudeville recordings made by, among others, comedienne Sophie Tucker in 1910. And there is a 1908 recording by early Oscar-winning actress Marie Dressler, who tells her audience that she is a "self-supporting suffragette," before launching into a raucous rendition of "I'm a Respectable Working Girl."
Khanchalian, vice president of the California Antique Phonograph Society, which has about 300 members, loves to wax on about the hobby he began as a 10-year-old boy after an aunt gave him his first cylinder. He started collecting seriously in 1981 and now counts two records in particular as his most prized possessions. One is his oldest record, an 1891 recording of Patrick Gilmore's military band playing "The College Song." (Gilmore was John Philip Sousa's mentor.) The other is one of only two recordings in existence of a once-popular evangelist team, Ira Sankey and Dwight L. Moody.
"Mike has one of the best vintage record collections that exists today," said Rick Wilkins, curator of the Olden Year Musical Museum in Duncanville, Tex. "He has some of the oldest records in the world."
But perhaps as important as his collection is Khanchalian's ability to repair the fragile wax records, worth anywhere from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars each. As a dentist, he has been able to transfer some of his skills, painstakingly filling cracks and breaks in a damaged cylinder much the same way he would craft a crown or fill a cavity. He even uses dental wax and the small silver tools of his trade to repair the records.
"In dental school you learn to be accurate within a tenth of a millimeter," said Khanchalian, who practices in Pasadena. "If you are off in dentistry, the patient can really feel it. The same is true of the cylinders. You have to match up the grooves exactly right or it won't work."
Indeed, collectors across the country credit Khanchalian with saving some of the rarest and most valuable vintage recordings.
"He's amazing," said Allen Koenigsberg, editor and publisher of the Antique Phonograph Monthly, a New York magazine with a circulation of about 2,000. "Before Mike started fixing these things, most people gave up on them. When they break, they're like a jigsaw puzzle."
Wilkins has sent some of the more important cylinders from his museum collection to Khanchalian for restoration. "He's the only one in the world that does it," Wilkins said. "He's saving historic recordings that were made in the 1800s that otherwise would be lost."
Restoring the old cylinders is tedious, so Khanchalian takes on projects only for a handful of collectors. "I try to just work on the really rare ones," he said. "For me, it's a labor of love."
In return for saving cherished cylinders for his peers, Khanchalian often is paid in the currency he loves best: another cylinder for his collection. "I just love early recorded sound," he said. "It's as if you were right there."
Hoder is a free-lance writer in the San Gabriel Valley.