An Alberta snowbird has restored two antique phonographs for the Osoyoos Museum and they are now making music.
Allan Gaudreault, 70, a “more-or-less” retired construction manager, picked up his passion for old phonographs 11 years ago and since then has restored about 50 of them.
“I always like to keep occupied,” says Gaudreault, who embraced the hobby after a family friend from Grande Prairie introduced him to it.
His first phonograph, a Victor VV-IX, coincidentally was the same model as one of the two he restored for the Osoyoos Museum.
The other is an Edison A-100 diamond disc player that plays 80-rpm records made from wood fibres compressed with resin and coated with shellac.
The Victor, a tabletop model, was popular between 1914 and 1920 and the older Edison was popular between 1903 and 1910, Gaudreault said.
“They were in pretty rough shape,” said Kara Burton, museum manager. “They are beautiful now. It’s great that they are going to be part of our main exhibit for this year. It will be a then-and-now comparison. This will be music 100 years ago.”
Burton admits that restoration of antiques is a “touchy subject” among museum purists.
“In the museum world sometimes it’s not always smiled upon to change or alter it,” she said.
Nonetheless, she took the idea for the restoration to the museum’s board and they supported it.
“We chose these two to get redone because we didn’t have the history on them and so it wasn’t like it was an original piece from a long-time family,” she said.
Having the phonographs in working order was a big plus, she said, because being able to hear them allows for a more interactive experience.
“That’s a lot of what we’re going for moving forward with the museum,” said Burton. “We want it to be a memorable experience. We don’t want people to come in the door and just look at everything on a shelf. We want it to be interactive.”
As well as donating his time to restore the phonographs, Gaudreault also donated three boxes of old 78-rpm records that can be played on the Victor.
Gaudreault showed off the Victor, which when it was first released more than a century ago used needles that had to be replaced each time a record was played.
The museum now has a supply of aftermarket needles introduced around the 1930s that only have to be changed after about 50 record plays.
The Victor’s “volume control” consists of two wooden doors on the front that can be opened or partially closed to regulate the volume.
Gaudreault said the Victor had once been submerged in water and so the wooden lamination was ruined and the wind-up motor was completely rusted.
He had to take the motor apart and completely rebuild it and he covered the old phonograph with new ribbon mahogany.
The Edison also needed its motor rebuilt.
There was a further complication.
Unlike the 78-rpm phonographs like the Victor, in which the needle floats across the record in the grooves, the Edison’s diamond disc is too heavy to move by itself in the shallow record grooves.
In order to move it, a threaded rod is required that moves the reproducer across the record in exact synchronization with the record.
And this floor model also required a new mahogany finish.
In their time, these old record players were expensive items that only the wealthy could afford. There was no giving a second one to the teenagers or carrying it around for music on the go.
The tabletop Victor might have cost between $25 and $50, Gaudreault said, but in those days that represented about a month’s salary.
A bigger cabinet model might cost $200 to $300, nearly a typical year’s salary.
“They were very expensive, so you didn’t see these with working families unless they acquired it from someone else,” he said.
Aside from being used in more well off homes, they may also have been used in dancehalls.
A big change came later, around the 1930s, when electric-powered 78-rpm jukeboxes became popular – when RCA bought out Victor to become RCA Victor.
Among the 50-odd phonographs that Gaudreault has restored, and keeps in a 1,600 square-foot, porcelain-tiled garage, he also has a jukebox he restored.
Gaudreault was born in the Chicoutimi area of Quebec, but moved to Alberta’s Peace Country at the age of three. He speaks English with a touch of a francophone accent because he was raised in Falher, Alberta, a French-speaking community.
In more recent years he has lived in Spruce Grove, west of Edmonton, and has a cottage at Lac la Biche where he spends winters ice fishing.
He comes to Osoyoos between the beginning of March and the middle of April.
It was a chance encounter Burton had at the museum a year ago that led him to take home and restore the two phonographs.
Gaudreault loves to play his vast collection of around 4,000 to 5,000 78-rpm records on an electric record player to preserve them.
He’s particularly fond of classic country and western, with such singers as Jimmie Rodgers, a yodeler and father of country music, and Vernon Dalhart, who was also a major country influence.
“The new music nowadays, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t even like it,” he said, adding that music went “all wild” after the Beatles in the 1960s, which he likes.
For information about the Osoyoos and District Museum and Archives, visit www.osoyoosmuseum.ca.
By Richard McGuire