Feature
Ears Wide Open
Turning his home into an audio time capsule, archivist Tony Schwartz has collected the sounds of our lives

Tony Schwartz "He's got a very good ear for subtlety," a friend says of Schwartz (at home in New York City among some of his 10,000 tapes).
October 4,1999 -- Tony Schwartz slips a cassette into a tape recorder, presses the play button -- and turns the clock back half a century. Rich sounds from the past fill his Manhattan townhouse. Trains clatter once again on the long-demolished Ninth Avenue el. Ocean liners' horns bellow through a blanketing fog. And an elevator operator at Macy's calls out the floors. "Five!" comes his raspy cry. "Furniture, bedding, interior decorating, mirrors, pictures, picture frames, model rooms and bridge sets. Five!" The old-fashioned accordion-style door slides shut with a satisfying thud.

Over the past 55 years, sounds of every sort -- the tapping of a shoemaker, the gabbing of a child, the trilling of a bird -- have been Schwartz's passion, leading him to seek out and record the sounds of our world, including some that might otherwise have been lost forever. His extraordinary collection of 10,000 tapes, valued by the Library of Congress at nearly $2.5 million, includes the banter of taxi drivers, the singing of folk artists (50,000 songs sent to him from 46 countries) and such once-familiar sounds as the ka-ching! of a cash register. Schwartz even recorded the highlights of the first year in the life of a puppy named Tina. Says his friend Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication: "Painters walk through a world in which there are more colors and shades than for the rest of us. Tony walks through a world in which there are more sounds."

Old 9th Avenue Elevated Train (Sun.au 473K), (RealAudio)

Street Football Game (Sun.au 347K), (RealAudio)

Barber Shop Quartet (Sun.au 315K), (RealAudio)

Con Edison Street Drill (Sun.au 378K), (RealAudio)

Street Musician on Foggy Night (Sun.au 662K), (RealAudio)

Jump Rope Rhyme (Sun.au 315K), (RealAudio)

Over the years, Schwartz, also a successful ad executive and political consultant, has caught America's ear through TV and radio, producing some 20,000 commercials, including groundbreaking antismoking spots. He succeeded too as a Broadway sound designer, once presenting a convincing cacophony of jungle birds that was actually nothing but a squeaky clothesline reel. Luminaries including Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter have come to his home studio to make recordings. A tiny fraction of his work has been released by the Smithsonian Institution's Folkways label on 19 LPs.

"I didn't necessarily think it was going to be important," says Schwartz of his decision to start his archive. "I just thought it was something that should be done." But first he had to learn the art of sound recording. The younger of two sons of Samuel Schwartz, a civil engineer who helped build New York City's subway tunnels, and his wife, Esther, an author of books and magazine articles, Schwartz first got involved with radio in the late 1930s at his Peekskill, N.Y., high school, which had its own station. Fascinated by its possibilities, he built his own receiver and housed it in a shack behind the family home. "I slept there, at times, and put a potbelly stove in the middle of the room," he recalls. "I built a phone line too, so my mother could call me up for dinner."

Tony Schwartz Schwartz (recording caterer Shan Willson) lectures on media, via phone, around the U.S.
At about age 16, Schwartz was struck temporarily blind by what he describes as "an emotional type" episode. For six months he depended on his ears to guide him. Years later, after serving in World War II as a Navy artist, he bought a $139 Webster wire recorder, a precursor to the modern tape recorder, when he spotted it in a shop window. Realizing its potential for capturing his favorite music, American folk songs, he asked the manufacturer for the names and addresses of other purchasers and asked them to record music from the places they lived. "I got thousands of replies," he says. After Schwartz presented some of the songs on a radio broadcast, he got a call from Robert Rosenwald, an heir to the Sears, Roebuck fortune, who offered to bankroll him.

Schwartz took to the streets, recording merchants, subway sounds and the rich ethnic music that spilled from kitchen windows. In the late '50s he launched a public radio show, Around New York, that stayed on the air for 30 years. The broadcasts, often coscripted by his wife, Reenah, now 66, a former bookstore clerk Schwartz met in 1955, were wildly varied. One show that coincided with Lincoln's Birthday featured average New Yorkers talking about Lincoln. For another, Schwartz recorded the funeral a boy arranged for his departed pet turtle. Always, Schwartz showed respect for everyday people. "He values people who perform," says Reenah, "who speak their mind."


Schwartz's favorite sound? "My wife," he says, "telling me she loves me."


Schwartz engendered a small revolution in advertising in the 1950s. In those days ads featuring very young children were usually dubbed with the voices of professional actresses, since it was assumed that kids couldn't follow a script. Schwartz knew they could and became expert at recording children speaking lines in ads for products including Ivory Soap and Post cereals. But it was his powerful political ads -- including the landmark 1964 spot targeting Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy, which featured a little girl plucking the petals from a daisy until the screen filled with footage of a nuclear explosion -- that earned Schwartz a national reputation. "He was just light years ahead of anyone in the business," says American Association of Political Consultants founder Joe Napolitan.

Through it all, Schwartz, who suffers from acute agoraphobia -- fear of open spaces -- has rarely ventured far from the home where he and Reenah raised their two children, Michaela, 36, a part-time dance teacher and actor, and jazz musician Anton, 32. Most of Schwartz's work has been done within a few blocks of his house. And home, says Schwartz, happens to be where he encounters his favorite sound of all. "My wife," he says, "telling me she loves me."

-- Patrick Rogers
-- Nancy Matsumoto in New York City


Copyright © 1999 Time Inc. New Media.

 

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