He's got Gotham on tape
By BILL BELL
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
[SIDEBAR: His Top Five Favorites]
ony Schwartz started this thing as a hobby when he was 22 years old carrying a primitive makeshift portable recorder around the streets of New York and capturing the sounds of life.
He turned on his machine when he heard kids playing street games, when he heard storefront choirs, when he heard the sounds of men building things -- when, in short, he heard New York at play, work, rest or whatever.
The result, a half-century later, is an astounding audio archive, maybe the largest anywhere in private hands.
He waves one hand around his office, which is in his home in midtown, on the West Side, and rattles off some of the sounds preserved on mile after mile of tape on shelf after shelf.
"There's a guy at the Central Park Zoo telling people how he feeds lions," he says. "There's hundreds of talks with taxi drivers; a cement mixer, an auction in a pawn shop, a shoemaker tapping away and folk singers in my living room, people like Harry Belafonte and Burl Ives and Josh White. I've got about 50 hours of Yma Sumac."
He recorded 19 albums of sounds for Folkways and Columbia records, two of them New York taxi stories. "A Dog's Life" recounted the first year in the life of a dog. "One, Two, Three and -a Zing Zing Zing" captured street songs and games by children.
And that's just scratching the surface.
Once, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, he recorded the sounds between the East and Hudson rivers along 85th St., as an exercise in the role sound plays in everyday living.
The most ambitious project was recording life in his old postal zone, then called Zone 19, which covered the area from W. 49th St. to W. 59th St. between the Hudson River and Fifth Ave.
"I did it, too," he says, "and it became an album."
Perhaps what is most remarkable is that Schwartz, now 76, did all this while battling agoraphobia, the fear of crowds and public places.
"I've had it since I was 13," he says. "I don't travel by myself more than a few blocks. With my wife, I go anywhere in Manhattan."
This is why Jimmy Carter, then a candidate for President, went to his home in 1978 to record some TV spots. Carter was so at home he flopped down on a sofa and stayed to watch a World Series game.
This is why when he lectures, as he does at Columbia, New York University, Harvard and elsewhere, he does it over an amplified telephone. And why Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and so many others sang into his living room mikes.
This is only one of several Schwartz careers. He's been a commercial artist, political consultant , advertising exec and Broadway sound designer. He produced a weekly show on radio station WNYC for 30 years. He is an author and media philosopher. He has addressed groups on six continents.
"I'm still waiting to hear from Antarctica," he says.
He reckons he has produced more than 20,000 radio and TV spots for products, politicians and causes he supports -- and all of them are on tape somewhere in his home.
Among them are the voices of 200 or so politicians, including Bill Clinton, as candidate for governor of Arkansas.
He produced the first anti-smoking radio ad and, more famously, the controversial "daisy" ad for Lyndon Johnson -- the one with the little girl pulling the petals from a daisy while a voice counts down for a nuclear test in the background.
"That was one for the books, all right," he says.
Schwartz never set out to do what he's done.
"I wanted to be an engineer, like my dad," he says.
The family was living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, when he was born, but when he was 4, his parents moved to the upstate village of Crompond, near Peekskill. His mother, Esther, who quit school in the seventh grade, became a well-known writer.
In high school, he got interested in art and entered every poster contest in the country -- "I won a lot, too" -- and in amateur radio. He even built a tiny studio in a backyard chicken coop.
After high school, he returned to New York to study art at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn. He also began taping folk singers on radio and trading tapes with overseas pen pals.
"I've got 50,000 folk songs on tape from 46 countries," he says.
He met his wife, Reenah, through folk music. She was the roommate of a folk. singer he met at a concert and when he first saw her, she was strummirig a guitar on a sofa. They have been married for 40 years, and have two adult children, jazz saxophonist Anton Schwartz and ballet teacher Michaela Burridge.
What'll he do with his tapes?
Several years ago, the Library of Congress described his audio library as a national treasure, but said it couldn't afford to buy it for its own collection.
Schwartz now is looking for a buyer who would donate the collection to the library or another suitable institution.
In the meantime, he is still collecting sounds. He just taped a homeless man's stories about street life.
"My philosophy is the same as always," he says. "Work is serious fun, and I'm still having fun."
Five only-in-New York sounds that Tony Schwartz especially likes:
1. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the funny papers on the radio during a newspaper strike in 1945.
2. The sounds of a stickball game.
3. The spiel by a guide atop the Empire State Building.
4. The sounds, screeches and all, of the Ninth Ave. el, which was abandoned in 1940.
5. A Mays department store elevator operator calling out the floors and merchandise.
"And I've got them all on tape," Schwartz says.