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A fountain of youth for 78 rpm

Vintage 'kiddie records' are finding new life through websites devoted to the 'little lost treasures.'

October 13, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

IN this digital-music era, it's getting difficult to find people who own regular turntables, let alone those that play 78s. Even more difficult is finding people who crank up their 78 players for a purpose as specific as "kiddie records" -- vintage children's albums from the early to mid-1900s.

Yet two website proprietors are doing exactly that -- transferring decades-old vinyl into MP3s that can be streamed, downloaded or, for a fee, burned to a customized CD.

"I view these old records as little lost treasures that are sort of falling off the radar," said Ford Shacklett, founder of Kiddierecords.com, a site that posts a different album's stories, music and cover art each week as part of a project called Kiddie Records Weekly. "The production that went into these is first-rate. They have beautiful covers.... It would sadden me to think nobody would be interested in something like that."

In an age dominated by Hollywood spawn such as Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder and all things Disney, it's refreshing to turn back time and find so many options. So far this year, Kiddie Records Weekly has posted everything from classic stories such as "The Carrot Seed" and "Gossamer Wump" to more obscure titles such as "Creepy the Crawly Caterpillar" and "Little Gnawman: The Mouse Who Lost His Tail."

Each shows the cover art and includes a description of the album, as well as detailed information on the year it was recorded, the label on which it was released and who wrote, narrated or otherwise performed on the album. Some titles, including "Bozo Under the Sea," include a picture book. While listening to the record online, loggers-on can also read the book, clicking forward through the pages each time they hear the bubbles from Bozo's diving suit.

Shacklett estimates that he has 150 kiddie records in his collection, enough to propel his project through 2006. But Shacklett's collection pales in comparison with that of Peter Muldavin, who, with 12,000 different kiddie records in his collection, is acknowledged as the world's foremost owner and expert on the genre.

The Kiddie Rekord King, as Muldavin is known, has been running the website www.kiddierekordking.com from his New York City home since 1997. His site goes into much more detail on this vast genre than Shacklett's: It offers an overview of the subject; various galleries of cover art, picture discs and children's phonographs; guidance on trading, buying and selling; links to related sites; and information on how to order custom CDs and photocopies (copyright permitting) of anything in his collection.

There are just 50 audio samples on Muldavin's site, but they are cherry-picked. He too offers "The Carrot Seed" and even more obscure gems -- oddities such as "Manners Can Be Fun," "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" and his most popular title, "The Churkendoose," narrated and sung by "The Wizard of Oz" scarecrow, Ray Bolger.

Before television arrived and replaced audio as a major form of children's entertainment, kiddie records were big business, especially during the "Golden Age of Kiddie Records," from 1946 to 1956. Johnny Mercer, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Orson Welles, Dinah Shore and countless other big-name celebrities of the day either narrated or sang on many records, performing to music by major Hollywood composers, including Bernard Herrmann and Victor Young.

RADIO stations in many major cities devoted entire programs to the genre. Muldavin estimates that more than 300 record labels made kiddie records, from majors such as Capitol, Decca and Mercury to whimsically named outfits such as Toono, Twinkle, Merry-Go-Sound and Playola; 99% of those labels no longer exist, Muldavin said. But while they were around, they produced 16,000 kiddie records that Muldavin knows of, and possibly even more.

Muldavin, who characterizes himself as "sixtysomething going on 6," has been researching the subject since 1991, when, recognizing them from his youth, he bought "The Underground Train" and "Said the Piano to the Harpsichord" from a used-record store. After trying to find a price guide and list of other kiddie records, he discovered nothing had been published. A potential deterrent became inspiration for Muldavin, who has scoured record company archives, teaching libraries and various other sources for information. Next year, Collector Books will publish the first guide to kiddie records -- penned, of course, by Muldavin.

What started as simple nostalgia has changed.

"At this point, it's the joy of contributing to the body of knowledge in society about a particular aspect that was important to a generation of people and kids growing up after World War II before television took over," said Muldavin, who's made CDs for fans of all ages -- from baby boomers to Generation Xers and their respective children.

"It was a very important source of entertainment. More than books, it was sound and words."

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Susan Carpenter can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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