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Exhibition tells story of gramophone inventor

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President Jean-Pierre Sévigny stands besides a portrait of Emile Berliner at the Musée des ondes Emile Berliner.

MONTREAL — On the second floor of an old industrial building in St. Henri, at the end of a street in the shadow of the Ville-Marie Expressway, a shrine exists to the man who brought recorded music to the masses.

Le Musée des ondes Emile Berliner opened in 1996, but for the first time, the museum is putting on an exhibition specifically about its namesake – the Jewish inventor of the gramophone, the flat, grooved record and the stylus to play it.

His company, a major employer in Montreal in the early 20th century, was the forerunner of RCA Victor.

The Berliners in Montreal includes never before seen family archives donated by Emile Berliner’s grandsons, Oliver Berliner of Maryland and Robert Berliner of California, as well as their cousin, Adelaide Seymour, of Adelaide, Australia.

Museum president Jean-Pierre Sévigny said the exhibit, which opened May 19, is an overdue tribute to a family who were pioneers in sound technology, visionaries who established Canada’s recording industry.

Oliver and Robert are the sons of Edgar Berliner, Emile’s younger son who ran the company’s Montreal operations and was a philanthropist in the Jewish community and beyond, before returning to the United States.

His innovative contribution to the audio industry, as well as that of his older brother, Herbert, who lived in Montreal until his death in 1966, are also highlighted in the display, which continues until March 2, 2014.

After a falling out with his father and brother, Herbert founded his own recording company, Compo, and is remembered for his promotion of local talent, both English and French singers, rather than relying solely on American content.

Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1851, Emile Berliner immigrated to the United States in 1870, settling in Washington, D.C. Before turning to music, he invented the transmitter – essentially a microphone – for Alexander Graham Bell’s new telephone.

Berliner patented the gramophone in 1887, along with horizontal records and a system for pressing them. The Berliner Gramophone Company was set up in 1895 in Philadelphia.

As a result of a dispute with his business collaborators, Berliner moved his company in 1900 to Canada – to Montreal, which had a good railway link to Philadelphia. At that time, he registered what became RCA Victor’s famous trademark, the dog Nipper.

The company initially had both a factory on what is now Lucien L’Allier Street and a retail outlet on St. Catherine Street.

Berliner produced and sold over 2,000 records in his first year of operations here, which jumped to two million by the second year.

In about 1906, the factory moved to St. Henri, then farmland.

The building housing the museum on Lacasse Street was The Home of the Victrola – as the sign atop the factory proclaimed – and a major employer in the working-class district.

By 1921, the factory had been modernized and expanded to 50,000 square feet.

Emile Berliner never lived in Montreal, but spent much time in the city, staying at the Hotel Victoria that was on Guy Street.

In 1924, the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, N.J., bought Berliner Gram-o-Phone (as it came to be spelled) and the Berliner name disappeared from record labels.

In 1929 – the year Berliner died – Victor merged with the Radio Corporation of America to become RCA Victor.

Oliver, who was born in Montreal and is now in his 80s, visited the museum for the first time last October. He carried on the family tradition, working as record producer and music publisher.

Impressed with the dedication of the museum’s guardians, he decided to donate his artifacts related to the Berliner story.

What is on view now is just a fraction, said Sévigny. The younger Berliner has a room about 12-feet by 12-feet full of objects and documents that will all be coming to Montreal this summer.

As the museum does not have the space, the material will be housed for the time being at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.

This is a major coup for Montreal, Sévigny, a music historian, thinks because such valuable archives could have remained in the United States.

“I look forward to assisting in every way possible the creation of what will be a credit to the city of Montreal and an attraction to millions of enthusiasts and scholars for years to come,” Berliner wrote to the museum’s board.

The museum, a non-profit organization, is dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of any object related to the history, creation, recording or broadcasting of sound, including gramophones and other vintage turntables.

From 100 objects, the museum’s collection has grown to more than 30,000.

The RCA building, as it is still called, also houses the historic Victor studio, within whose wooden baffled walls some of Canada’s most famous artists have recorded since the 1940s.

Le Musée des ondes Emile Berliner is located at 1050 Lacasse St., Room C-220. The website is www.berliner.montreal.museum.

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