I recently returned from my grandfather’s funeral in Massachusetts and despite the sadness associated with that, I found some pretty cool heirlooms at his house. One such item was an envelope that my father found in my grandfather’s bedroom dresser entitled, “Souvenir from Empire State Observatory” which contained a 45mm record.
Dad was curious and did a quick search online to see what was up. And naturally, I wanted to know more.
The Empire State Building has always been a New York City attraction. With its towering 102-floors and easily recognizable silhouette, tourists have flocked this architectural wonder since its construction in 1929. Visitors have included the Beach Boys, Mel Brooks, New England Patriot tight end Jake Ballard, and even the prime minister of Fiji.
Among many other notables were the lesser known Spellman family, my dad’s parents. After further inquiry, my mother found out that the recording was done during my grandparent’s honeymoon.
Popularized in the 1940s – 1970s, recording booths were often located in arcades and tourist destinations. According to a company ad, users would step into the booth, pick-up the microphone which looked like a telephone, insert the money (twenty-five cents), wait for an indicator light, and make a one-minute long recording onto a cardboard disk. The recording was automatically played back and then vended.
In 1946, the International Mutoscope Reel Company installed a “Voice-O-Graph” booth on the Empire State Building’s eighty-sixth floor. It stood some 1,055 feet above the Manhattan streets and was hailed by Billboard magazine as the “World’s Highest Coin Machine”. Featured in several front page stories, Leo Weisskopf and Murray Handler of Murlee Enterprises operated this particular machine, strategically locating it next to lines of tourists waiting to ascend the elevators. Weisskopf recalled counting eighty-seven people waiting in line to make recordings on one occasion. Building officials stated that the observatories drew over 6 million patrons that year.
Click on the link below to hear them happily documenting their trip to New York City in 1949 (see transcription):
I would like to think that Papa kept it in his dresser drawer for some fifty years as a souvenir of happier days.
Special thanks to Steve Ashby for transferring this recording and editing its contents.
- “World’s Highest Coin Machine Big N. Y. Attraction.” The Billboard, August 10, 1946, 130.
- “Intl. Mutoscope Now in Full Production on Voice-O-Graph.” The Billboard, February 23, 1957, 123.