Christopher Andrew Maier

Lecture Review – Christopher Andrew Maier: “Just for the Record: The Life of Eldridge Reeves Johnson”

What better way to commemorate the anniversary of someone’s death than through a celebration of that person’s life? As part of the “History Speaks” series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown, Mr. Maier did just that. He delivered a first person lecture on one of the town’s most famous residents, Eldridge Reeves Johnson. The event occurred at the Moorestown Library on November 14th: the 73rd anniversary of the entertainment industry pioneer’s passing.

Perhaps inspired by Mr. Johnson’s life, the Historical Society of Moorestown pioneered a trend of its own. Several months ago I attended a lecture they sponsored that included an “opening act.” This came about due to the lateness of the featured speaker. At this event the speaker fulfilled these dual roles himself. Mr. Maier began the evening by displaying some stellar musicianship on the grand piano.

Then the speaker transitioned from tickling the ivories to massaging the audience’s intellectual curiosity. Mr. Maier segued into his lecture on the life of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s founder, Eldridge Reeves Johnson.

The speaker’s passion for his subject came through in his remarks. He chose to deliver them in the first person; in essence, becoming his subject. Mr. Maier described the development of the gramophone, “as important as the Guttenberg Press.” This innovation led to the company employing such cultural luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It even hired an unknown artist named Andy Warhol to design their artwork.

It seems odd that someone who founded such a remarkable organization had such inauspicious beginnings. A high school instructor told Johnson to “learn a trade” as he wasn’t “college material.” That’s the polite description of the conversation. Mr. Maier even said this person referred to Mr. Johnson as “dumb.” Mr. Johnson opted to become a machinist. Circumstances showed he made a good choice. The skills he developed served him well upon meeting his future business partners Emile Berliner and Alfred Clark.

Johnson’s career proved the business adage about the importance of surrounding one’s self with “good people.” While working with Alexander Graham Bell, Mr. Berliner developed a microphone used on the first telephone. Mr. Johnson’s future rival, Thomas Edison, employed Mr. Clark. The latter invented a governor that regulated a gramophone’s speed. The one he produced served a key function in Victor’s record player.

When the Victor Talking Machine Company opened for business in 1901, it earned $500 in sales. When adjusted for inflation that equates to approximately $15K in 2017 currency. Just when that instructor who called Johnson “dumb” may have felt vindicated, both the company’s popularity and its revenue grew exponentially. Just five years after starting up, the organization generated $12 million in sales. In 2017 figures, that would come to over $332 million. (Source: westegg.com inflation calculator.)

Mr. Maier described the gramophone’s technical details. He even provided an authentic one as a visual aide. The device lacked a volume control. Shoving something into the horn served as the only means of deadening the sound. The lecturer demonstrated by literally “putting a sock in it.”

In 1906, the company developed a more practical way to address the issue. During that year, the Victor Talking Machine Company produced the Victrola. The speaker’s position beneath the turntable helped to lower the volume.

A Victrola could best be described as a multi-purpose cabinet. The lower portion contained a section where consumers could store their records. It also included a pull-out shelf where consumers could place the records they wanted to play.

Unlike many business barons, such as Mr. Edison, Eldridge Johnson possessed a humble disposition. Decades before management guru Jim Collins advocated this trait, Mr. Johnson recognized that it made good business sense. He understood that Victor’s performers were the company’s real stars. As Mr. Maier speculated that he said: “All is vanity. That’s why no one knows my name.”

In addition to his revolutionary contributions to the entertainment industry, Mr. Johnson contributed his substantial means to philanthropic causes. As Moorestown residents know, he generously provided funds for the Community House. Mr. Maier added that Johnson tore down one of his own mansions to provide a site for the Merion Tribute House (formerly the Merion War Tribute House) located in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. He intended the building as a memorial for local residents who served in the armed forces during the First World War.

After covering the serious side of Mr. Johnson’s life, Mr. Maier added wit to his presentation. He shared a few YouTube videos he produced. One showed his discovery of where Mr. Johnson’s original machine shop stood. (https://youtu.be/cfR9QlL1oUg) In the most amusing segment, the speaker swapped his piano for a beat box. He kicked it old school with his tribute to Victor’s mascot in the form of “Nipper’s Yap Rap.” (https://youtu.be/IFUK4TULQYU)

It seemed fitting that Mr. Johnson’s company rivaled Mr. Edison’s. As Mr. Maier explained, “Edison was an inventor. Johnson was an artist.” With the speaker’s proficiency at music, performance art and knowledge of the gramophone it’s understandable why he developed such an interest in the latter. After attending his lecture, one can also understand why his audiences experience that same enthusiasm.

 

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