The Way We Were (and the Prices We Paid)
Filichia reads your e-mails about tough cast recording finds and recollects what he paid for LPs back in the day.
Steve Gurey remembered the days before the cast albums of the R&H flops Allegro, Me and Juliet, and Pipe Dream were reissued and how hard he strove to find them. Operetta fan El Glazier told of his quest to find The Chocolate Soldier, The Red Mill, and Rose-Marie: After 20 fruitless years, he discovered them all in the same San Francisco store. But John W. Griffin says he's still looking for Seventeen -- the disc, you may recall, that someone gives Buzz as a present in Love! Valour! Compassion! although he already has it.
Many, like me, not only recalled where they found their treasures but also how much they paid for them. Paul Jeromack wrote about shelling out $30 for Whoop-Up. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert Witherwax still cherishes the glorious day when he located the LPs of A Family Affair, Maggie Flynn, and several others for $1 each. G. Douglas Wagner told of the day when he not only found the elusive Flahooley but also the equally elusive Top Banana for 50 cents each, albeit as a boxed set of 45s. (If that doesn't sound antique enough, Christopher Connelly had to settle for Flahooley on 78s!) Meanwhile, in West Virginia, George Wilson paid nothing at all for his Flahooley because the store owner was just glad to get it off his shelf, where it was collecting dust.
But the e-mail that intrigued me the most was the one from Jere Williams, a nice young actor who lives up the street from me. "Great column today," he wrote, "but I have one question for you. How much did it normally cost to buy a record? It would be interesting to know for comparison purposes." Wow! It had never occurred to me that young people today might not know the cost of those 12-inch vinyl LPs that we used to buy before cassettes and CDs came into existence. But I should have anticipated that, for there are plenty of twentysomethings who've never bought an LP in their lives. I mean, I have no idea how much a buggy whip cost -- "No more than I know the price of a butter churn," as my buddy Josh Ellis put it.
Here's what I remember about prices from when I started buying records in the mid-'50s. Since I was then a child who depended on the kindness of parents, I could only buy 45s, seven-inch vinyl discs that offered one song on one side and one on the other. They were called 45s because that number represented how many times the disc revolved on the turntable in a minute's time; if you ever see the term "RPM" following these numbers, that means "revolutions per minute." The cost of a 45 at the stores that I frequented was 89 cents -- the same as 78s. By 1960, the price had escalated to 98 cents for 45s and 78s were no longer being made. But also available during this era was a 45-RPM EP -- short for "extended play" record -- that offered two songs per side. It came in a jacket that, like LP jackets, was made of cardboard. Indeed, many EPs were actually mini-albums with the exact same artwork as the LPs though, of course, reduced in size.
There were also package sets of EPs. For pop albums, three different EPs (totaling 12 songs) were either singly issued or placed in a box. Sometimes, though, there were two-disc abridgments. My Gwen Verdon album The Girl I Left Home For and my cast album of the 1954 Eartha Kitt musical Mrs. Patterson belong in this category. Each record in these two-disc sets was contained in a cardboard sleeve that was joined at the center spine to form a foldout album, just as so many cast albums of the late '50s and most of the '60s were. Cost per EP: $1.29.
Now onto 33-1/3 LPs. By and large, pop LPs -- made by such artists as The Kingston Trio, Johnny Mathis, or Sammy Davis, Jr. -- had a list price of $3.98. But, in the late '50s, stereo was unleashed and pop albums in that format cost $4.98. By the late '60s, non-stereo recordings (the term for them was "monaural") were phased out and $4.98 was the going price for pop albums. Original cast albums cost a dollar more than pop albums, partly because there was more music on them -- and partly because the music was superior! Some went for a dollar more than that because their packaging was so elaborate.
This is where we return to those albums that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back, sometimes called "fold-out" or "gatefold" albums but, more often than not, simply and chummily referred to as "double-cover" albums. The first one (I believe) was RCA Victor's Silk Stockings, issued in March 1955. Capitol joined the double-fold trend with The Music Man in March 1958. And while Columbia was the last of the three major cast album companies to embrace the double-cover mode -- exactly a year later, with the London cast album of My Fair Lady -- it would turn out to be the most reliable of the three labels in offering ornate, double-cover albums for $5.98 in monaural and $6.98 in stereo.
For a while, virtually every Columbia cast album got this royal treatment: The Sound of Music, Camelot, and even also-rans like Bravo, Giovanni. But by the spring of 1965, when Do I Hear a Waltz? opened, the company was charging $5.98 (monaural) and $6.98 (stereo) for single-cover cast albums. You'll notice that we're now in the Beatles era, when baby-boomers were old enough to work and spend money on albums -- not just singles -- and thereby changed the marketplace now and forever.
Now just because the list price of ornate albums was $5.98 or $6.98 doesn't mean that we had to pay that much. Where I shopped -- mostly at Jordan Marsh in Boston and Lechmere Sales in nearby Cambridge -- a two-dollar discount was offered. But here's what's really interesting: In 1964, the list price of a cast album was commensurate with the top ticket price of a Broadway show: $6.90. Today, a new original cast album is less than three times that price (The Boy from Oz lists for $18.98) while most tickets to a new Broadway show are nearly 12 times that price. (Match is charging $81.25.)
Are the Broadway attractions of today that much better than the ones of yore? Are they better at all? Ah, that's another column for another day!