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Keeping Track of the Scores

Musician Michael Feinstein is on a mission to keep what remains of the golden age of American song out of the trash heap.

December 16, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

When most people drive on the Golden State Freeway, just north of Los Angeles, they worry about traffic. Michael Feinstein worries about George Gershwin, Cole Porter and a priceless musical legacy buried near the onrushing cars.

He knows that MGM officials, in a 1970 housecleaning, dumped film scores, musical manuscripts and recordings by some of America's greatest songwriters into a landfill by the freeway near Valencia. The studio wanted to cut storage costs and believed these items -- from some of Hollywood's most beloved films -- had no value.

Lost in the rubble were gems like Gene Kelly's outtake of "I've Got a Crush on You," which was cut from "An American in Paris," and the original orchestral score for Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz," according to film historians, musical preservationists and performers familiar with the incident.

"They destroyed unique and irreplaceable works of famous composers, arrangers and lyricists," said Feinstein, 48, an internationally known recording artist. He is also an expert on the golden era of American song, from the 1920s through the 1950s.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Music preservation -- An article in Thursday's Section A about an expert on the golden era of American song who seeks to preserve artifacts of that period referred to the score for Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz." The name of the song is "Over the Rainbow."

"The MGM story is just one example of music that's vanishing all the time," he added. "We're talking about a unique piece of our cultural history, and for me it's like a death in the family every time we learn that something else has disappeared."

Feinstein has built his career around America's classic pop songs. He has recorded more than 20 albums featuring the works of composers such as Gershwin, Porter and Irving Berlin, and he plays more than 140 dates a year, from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. He opened a New York cabaret, Feinstein's at the Regency, in 1999, and until recently had a similar nightclub in Los Angeles.

But Feinstein is more than an entertainer. He is also a musical detective -- a man on the prowl for original scores, recordings and sheet music at garage sales and auctions, in secondhand stores and the libraries of film and record studios.

His mission isn't simply to collect, but to preserve. And it sometimes feels like a race against time. He and like-minded preservationists on both coasts worry that hundreds of songs by some of America's most famous composers have disappeared.

Sheet music has been lost or stolen from archives across the nation. When original scores vanish, as in the MGM dump, conductors who wish to perform these classic soundtracks must re-create them, note for note, from original recordings.

Feinstein has uncovered a treasure trove during 30 years of collecting, including more than 30,000 recordings, plus posters, photos, sheet music and 16-inch lacquer radio discs from the 1930s. Stacks of boxes hold composer Henry Mancini's record collection and orchestrations by entertainer Peter Allen. He has hours of rare, taped radio performances by Bing Crosby.

These items fill the walls, halls, bookshelves, basement and garage of his three-story gated home in the Los Feliz hills. Feinstein delights in showing off the collection: "Look at this -- this is genius," he tells a visitor with barely concealed excitement, thumbing through a faded, autographed copy of the score for Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

A slightly built man with wavy black hair and pale blue eyes, Feinstein initially comes across as a scholar, reciting a flurry of obscure names, songs and recording dates to buttress his point about music that is disappearing. The minutiae can be mind-boggling.

But he doesn't put on airs. Feinstein, a vegetarian, recently schlepped a shopping bag filled with fruit into the Library of Congress in Washington for a daylong meeting. Guards mistook him for a caterer and tried to direct him to a side entrance, prompting a sheepish grin and explanation as to why he was there.

What sets Feinstein apart from many collectors is his belief that musical rarities, once discovered, should not be hidden away. He says they are cultural artifacts and that every effort must to be made to carefully preserve them in public libraries or archives, so researchers and the public can enjoy them.

In this spirit, Feinstein has sent rare materials from his collection -- including sheet music for Gershwin songs, orchestral arrangements of Jule Styne compositions and recordings by Rosemary Clooney -- to the Library of Congress and, in some cases, to the artists themselves. He has hired a staff to digitally transfer older recordings from deteriorating 78 rpms and ship them to various archives.

"There are a handful of people doing this kind of work today, and Michael is the poster boy for the movement," said Timothy Kittleson, who runs the UCLA Film and Television Archive. "More than most, he put the issue of preservation on the map."

Still, experts say, not enough national attention has been focused on the issue. Other studios have discarded musical items in a manner similar to MGM. Descendants of songwriters or performers often unknowingly toss out priceless material when cleaning their garages .

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