When you walk into the home that Cheryl and Brett Hurt share with their two rescued cats, you can’t help but notice that no sofa or chairs or dining table furnish the rooms to the left and right of the entry hall. Instead, these spaces are filled with antique phonographs and a display case of related objects. Besides each other, collecting antique phonographs is their passion. The retired couple, who moved to the Upstate seven years ago from Pasadena, California, spends hours kibitzing with other collectors, scanning the Internet, and traveling for miles in search of phonographs dating from 1895 through the 1920s.
Their story began on a blind date 45 years ago. Both were 21 and living in California at the time. After Cheryl’s older sister arranged their introduction, Brett asked Cheryl if she wanted to go motorcycle riding. “I said, ‘Sure,’ so we hopped on the back of his Yamaha dirt bike and rode along the hills of San Diego,” Cheryl recalls. “After about an hour, he pulled into this house that was being built overlooking the ocean, and said, ‘This is the maid’s room, this is the living room, this will be our room . . . Will you marry me?’ And I turned to him and said, ‘Yes, I will.’”
Shortly after the couple tied the knot—just seven weeks after Brett proposed—they began haunting the local swap meet near their home in Pasadena on the second Sunday of every month, in hopes of finding inexpensive furniture. “It was a great way to explore and find things and not have to spend a lot of money when you’re 21 and right out of college,” explains Cheryl.
As both newlyweds had grown up surrounded by antiques in their respective homes, it wasn’t surprising that in 1980, a Philco Tube radio from 1941 caught their eye. “It was a beautiful machine, but it played modern music,” laments Cheryl, a fan of early twentieth-century crooners. Later that year, they found a 1910 Victor XI phonograph—made by the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey, in an antique store in Los Angeles. They purchased it on the spot, along with their first 78-rpm records.
Despite the fact that the antique-shop owner claimed the machine ran perfectly, they soon discovered the motor was held together with baling wire. “So I figured, well, I have a hacksaw and a file in the garage—I bet I can fix this thing,” Brett remembers. He proceeded to take the machine apart, down to every last nut and bolt, and within a year—with help from some experienced collectors—Brett had rebuilt the Vic XI. “After that, I thought, ‘Man, that was fun, let’s go buy another junker,’” he says, laughing.
MUSIC TO THEIR EARS
By the time Brett had repaired his first phonograph, the Hurts had collected dozens of 78-rpm records, smitten with the music of a bygone era. That’s when their collection—which at its height comprised 100 machines—started to take shape. Today the Hurts own 19 working phonographs, the sound of which is so good it can be heard on the other side of the house. Roughly half are consoles with the motor inside; the other half include outside horns (typical of all phonographs made before 1906). Seven of their older machines, the oldest of which is an Edison Home Clockwork phonograph built in 1895, play cylinders instead of records.
Among the four phonographs proudly displayed on marble-top antique tables in their family room are a lovely 1918 Edison Fireside with hand-painted flowers inside its black horn, and a 1915 Edison Red Gem. The latter sits next to the sofa the Hurts had custom-made to match the color of the machine’s maroon horn.
Displayed in several glass cases around their home is Cheryl’s collection of needle tins, record dusters, and other related memorabilia. It’s the artwork that attracts her to the tiny needle tins, which date as far back as 1900. “They’re made by hand with lithograph painting, and the artwork is exquisite,” she crows. “There’s so much history behind them—and they’re all so different and very, very hard to find. They’re wonderful little pieces of perfect art.”
They also own in the neighborhood of 5,000 78-rpm records, most dating before 1927 and including some Edison discs from the inventor of the first machine (1877) that could capture sound and play it back. On the wall in the den hangs Cheryl’s collection of small-format children’s picture records from the 1940s—her favorite thing to collect. “I didn’t have any [of these records] as a child, but I find them so beautifully printed and whimsical,” she says. Not all of them are round, however; her rarest find is an early vintage picture record shaped like a lion.
The couple sold the Vic XI in 1983 after they obtained their favorite piece, the Victor 1927 Art Credenza (one of only 300 made), which boasts an electric motor and front panels adorned with hand-tooled leather and polychrome paint. By a happy stroke of luck, on Brett’s 40th birthday they walked into an antique store in Santa Barbara and spied the phonograph in the back of the shop. They bought it, loaded the 150-pound machine into the back of their pickup truck in the rain, covered it with a tarp, and drove home. Though the phonograph had not worked in the shop, once he got it into their garage, Brett had it humming along like new within minutes. Then, like he does with all the machines they purchase, Brett stripped it down in order to clean everything and put it back together. “It’s been running like a champ ever since,” Cheryl reports. The Art Credenza is the only electric machine in their collection; the rest are acoustic phonographs, which run by manually cranking the handle.
Brett and Cheryl still seek out rare phonographs that need fixing. For Brett, a self-taught cabinet-maker and machinist, that involves taking the machine completely apart and rebuilding it, making his own parts and refinishing the cabinetry along the way. Half of the couple’s garage is devoted to his shop, which contains, among other tools, a metal lathe and a wall of bins filled with nuts, bolts, and washers. He became so skilled at fixing phonographs over the years that he started doing it for others. One of his most famous clients in California was the late singer Michael Jackson.
Occasionally, when he takes a machine apart, he’ll find a signature inside. “Once we took the grill off the front of a phonograph and found a pair of silk stockings,” Cheryl reveals. People would put things inside the machines to muffle the sound, sometimes using rolled-up stockings or socks as a volume control—giving rise to the expression “put a sock in it.”
Avid travelers, the couple was in Malta this past May when they happened across a display of British and French phonographs in a small museum. Through sign language, Brett asked the man at the museum if they could play some of the machines, but the man replied “no go,” meaning that they did not work. Brett mimed a screwdriver and flashlight with his hands, and the man brought out some decrepit tools that Brett used to repair several of the phonographs. “They dug up a record and put it on and the people were so excited,” says Cheryl. “It was wonderful!”
A SONG IN THEIR HEARTS
The Hurts collect purely for the pleasure it brings them. “It’s just fun to hunt down records and learn the history,” Brett notes. “I appreciate the music and the cabinets.” For Cheryl, the phonographs are items of beauty. “You’re talking hand-craftsmanship,” she adds. “The finest pieces are still as beautiful today as the day they were on the showroom floor. And then we have this marvelous music. And there’s no electricity needed to play it.” What could be more romantic than sipping wine and listening to music by candlelight during a power outage?
Theirs is a love story, set to the melodies of a simpler era. Brett refers to his wife as “my sweet angel,” and they often take a turn or two around the kitchen island in each other’s arms as the music moves them.
“I sit here listening to a 100-year-old record, and think ‘This is really cool,’” says Brett. “This music makes sense,” Cheryl chimes in, “and it’s about love and family and support. There’s nothing vile, nothing vulgar. We just relax and enjoy it. It’s from a softer, kinder period of time.”
Their favorite record to play is a 1910 Victor recording of “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” by Henry Burr. “It always makes us smile because we met on a blind date and married seven weeks later, and we hope we last as long as the lovers on the record do,” declares Cheryl. “For us, it’s been one joyous ride.”