Interview with Rick Smith – Owner of the lost “A Star Is Born” Playback Disc – and more!
Rick Smith is a long-time record collector. He has stated about his “Lose That Long Face” lacquer featuring Judy Garland and Monette Moore that “These acetates are the kind made of an aluminum core with a durable black lacquer coating, not the ones made of soft wax or brittle shellac. I’m a longtime collector of 78 rpm records, and I know how to care for them… As far as I know, these Warner Bros. acetates are the only pre-recordings from “Star” to have survived. So it’s very fortunate that this different version of that number happened to be one of the survivors… I still find it hard to believe what I’ve found and that I get to play a part in its rediscovery. Thanks again for helping to get this music to people who will appreciate and enjoy it… The release of the Decca tests on CD was big news for anyone who loves classic musicals, and especially for Judy Garland’s many fans. The fascinating story of how those recordings were found is amazingly similar to how I acquired these acetates from “A Star Is Born.” When I read the liner notes in the set I bought, I would never have imagined history could repeat itself like this — much less with me playing a role in their rediscovery.”
The Judy Room: When did you acquire the “Lose That Long Face” lacquer? Could you describe the circumstances how you acquired it?
Rick Smith: In early 2014 I made contact with a lady in California whose grandmother had bought Judy’s house on Rockingham Drive in the 1960’s. Judy had left what the granddaughter called “a lot of junk” in the attic, where it sat for decades. The family didn’t get around to clearing out the attic until about 10 years ago. They sold what they could, kept a few souvenirs for themselves, and threw away the rest. Then about 3 years ago they found a few other items, including this group of records. The lady said they were big, black records of Judy singing, but she didn’t know anything about them because they had no labels. She thought they might have been privately recorded, but she wasn’t sure. I hesitated to buy them, but I decided that even if the music was nothing special, this was something that had belonged to Judy. She held it in her hands and thought it was important enough to keep in her home. It would be a tangible connection to my favorite entertainer, and that alone would be enough to make it worth the amount the owner was asking. So I took a deep breath and placed a large bid, which narrowly won the auction.
JR: When you listened to the record for the first time, did you immediately realize you had a collector’s item?
RS: When the records arrived, I immediately recognized that they were film studio acetates, like the practice record Judy plays at the beginning of the “Someone At Last” number. I expected they would be the same songs I’d been listening to for years on the Columbia Records soundtrack album. The first record I played had Judy’s soliloquy at the beginning of “Born In A Trunk,” and the other side was the first portion of that same sequence. Again, this music was already quite familiar to me. The next record I played was “Lose That Long Face,” and sounded the same as the soundtrack. Then, about halfway through the song, I heard Judy singing lyrics I’d never heard before! I like to think I’m something of an expert about her studio recordings, and this was brand new to me. I turned and stared at my turntable as a chill went down my spine and my heart started pounding. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I played it again and again while listening closely. There was absolutely no doubt I’d stumbled onto something very special.
JR: How did you learn about the historic importance of the lacquer?
RS: I wanted to educate myself by getting as much information about this song as possible. I checked the indexes of all my books about Judy, then I did an online search for anything I could learn. The first thing I found was Scott Brogan’s excellent review of the Blu-ray issue of “A Star Is Born,” and that gave me exactly the information I was looking for. I scrolled down to read what he’d written about the disc of extra material, and that explained everything. He wrote, among a number of other things, about some silent footage of an early version of “Lose That Long Face” on this disc: “We get a peek at the early version, for which the audio doesn’t survive…” When I saw this, I shouted at my computer, “Yes it does, and I’ve got it!”
JR: Did you ever consider contacting Warner Bros. about your discovery?
RS: Yes, that was one possibility I considered. I thought about that disc of extra material with a brief clip of that early version. I thought about how wonderful it would be if my track could be matched to that silent film. Then we’d have a new Technicolor production number from Judy’s greatest film. Perhaps that could’ve been included in updated Blu-ray reissue, and how wonderful that could be! But my daydream came to a screeching halt when I remembered reading about how some studios have confiscated rare material from collectors in the past, usually prints of film that the studios no longer have. If something like that happened, this amazing music might disappear into the studio’s archives, and never see the light of day again. I wanted this music to be shared with the people who would appreciate it, and not to be lost all over again. There was no way I was going to let that happen, so I decided to look for another way to share my discovery. Sixty years in hibernation were long enough, and I wanted to make this music public.
RS: After I had a fuller understanding of what I had and how important this music was, the next step was to find the best way to share it with the people who would enjoy it as much as I did. I feel it’s wrong for people who own rare material to keep it to themselves, or use it to impress their friends without considering how much it would be appreciated if they shared it with the public. My first thought was to contact Ron Haver, but I knew he was no longer living, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Then I remembered Scott Brogan’s wonderful website, “The Judy Room,” which I’ve enjoyed for years. I knew the site had a Facebook page, so I contacted him in his capacity as its webmaster. I sent him a private message, telling him about my discovery and gave him my email address. We began corresponding last summer, and he put me in touch with Larry Schulman, who had produced the CD set with the Decca tests. I already had this set in my own collection, so I knew I was in good hands. When he told me about his plans to issue a set of Judy’s performances of Harold Arlen songs, I felt this was the perfect vehicle for my discovery to be shared.
JR: Do you have other Garland items that might be rare?
RS: I have a few other rare Garland recordings, including a radio program of Judy performing with Danny Kaye and Lauritz Melchior which I believe has not been heard since it was recorded during WW2. It’s a funny skit with songs about wartime inconveniences, and I hope it can eventually, be made available to the public. Last year I acquired an interesting item that had been in the personal collection of Hugh Martin. It was a recording of “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” that was recorded at MGM in December 1943 for Judy’s film “Meet Me In St. Louis,” but cut from the final release print. It’s somewhat different from the Decca recording, and as far as I know it’s never been available to the public. I also have a couple of other studio acetates from “A Star Is Born” from the group of records my discovery came from. They’re different parts of “Born In A Trunk,” and basically the same as what’s in the Columbia Records soundtrack album. But they begin with Ray Heindorf shouting “One, two!” before the orchestra begins playing, which is fun to hear. They also include a series of clicks that serve as a cue for Judy, signaling a change in the music’s tempo.
JR: You are surely aware of Cynthia Meader, who owns Garland’s 1935 Decca tests, and how her name has now become part of the history of them. With the release of the “Lose That Long Face” lacquer, your name too becomes part of its history. How do you feel about that?
RS: Me, a part of history? That’s hard for me to imagine, but then I still can’t believe I was the one who made this amazing discovery. I’m honored to play a part in getting it released, and I like to think of it as a present from Judy to a very dedicated fan. I’m glad this wonderful music is being heard at last by her other fans, and by everyone who appreciates classic musicals from Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” By my standards, this is one of the biggest things that ever happened to me, and I couldn’t be happier to have participated in the release of this set.
JR: You are clearly passionate about Judy Garland. What do you like about her? Did you ever see her in concert?
RS: I was only 10 years old when Judy’s spirit moved on, so I never got to see her in concert. My first exposure to Judy came when “The Wizard of Oz” was shown every year on television in the 1960’s. My first-grade class play was “Oz,” and I played the part of the talking apple tree, so that was an early connection. I wanted the part of the Wicked Witch of the East but lost interest when I learned I wouldn’t get to wear red and white striped stockings! I gained a greater appreciation of her artistry as an adult. As a gay man, I can identify with Dorothy Gale’s dissatisfaction with her drab surroundings, and wishing for a safe, happy place “where there isn’t any trouble.” I especially admire Judy’s strength and resilience because she never stopped trying to be happy, and at the same time she allowed us to see her vulnerability. She was down many times in her life, but never out.
JR: You are a longtime collector of 78 rpm records. How did this passion begin? And what kind of records do you collect? How large is the collection?
RS: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love records! I started collecting them before I was old enough to go to school, and I always had a record player. I would estimate I have about 4,000 records in my collection, including lots of 45’s and LP albums. But my chief interest is collecting 78 rpm records, with about 2,000 of them at present. I have several areas I particularly enjoy collecting, such as the Spoken Word category, including speeches by famous people, comedy routines, and advertising records. I have a special passion for records with speeches by royalty, with about 70 of these rare discs in my collection. I also have a number of Edison cylinders, but I don’t have a machine to play them on. These players are especially temperamental and have many parts; working machines are very expensive. A special area I have a passion for is “Personality” 78s; recordings by famous people who didn’t usually make a lot of recordings. I have records by famous songwriters like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, George M. Cohan, and George Gershwin, performing their own compositions. These records are very few in number, and incredibly scarce. I have 78s by actors like Walter Pidgeon, Pola Negri, Rudolph Valentino, Sophie Tucker, Mae West, and a few Broadway stars. Fred Astaire is another favorite subject, along with Fanny Brice and even Marlon Brando. And then there are my Judy Garland records, which are among my proudest possessions.
JR: How long have you been collecting Judy Garland records? Please describe your Garland collection.
RS: My first Garland records were LPs like “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” the double albums of her Decca recordings from the 1930’s and 40’s, and reissues of songs from her MGM films. I enjoyed them so much I started buying every Garland record I could find, with the goal of collecting everything she ever recorded. And then there are my Judy Garland 78’s. Earlier this year I completed a project I’ve been working on for about 35 years, which was to acquire at least one copy of each of Judy’s 78 rpm records. There were over 100 of them, including albums with 3 to 5 records in them, plus foreign pressings of her American recordings. One by one, I started buying them whenever I could find them and quickly acquired the more common Decca 78s. Then I worked on the rarer items like “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which was never released in the US; only in England. I found a usable copy of her only V-Disc, “I May Be Wrong,” and the pair of singles she recorded for Columbia Records in 1953. Her Decca recording of “I Wish I Were In Love Again” was especially difficult to locate, but I managed to track down a nice copy about 6 months ago. It was a happy day when I finally found the last 78 that had been hiding from me; the UK pressing of a Capitol Records disc, “Just Imagine,” which I bought from a gentleman in Wales. I was relieved when it survived the transatlantic trip intact and had withstood the tender care of the USPS. Like all 78 rpm collectors, I’ve received my share of broken records due to mishandling and poor packing. It’s always a disappointment when that happens, but it goes with the territory. But fortunately, not this time.
JR: Besides your interest in Garland and collecting, tell us about yourself.
RS: There’s really not much to tell. My family moved around a lot while I was growing up; I was born in California and lived in several towns in Ohio, mostly in Newark. I’ve lived all my adult life in Atlanta, which is a wonderful place and I love it here. During my working years I was a pharmacy technician and foreign language interpreter, but now I’m enjoying retirement. In addition to record collecting, I enjoy surfing the internet and I have fun collecting paper money from around the world, and films on home video. I’m single for now, and I live in a tall apartment building with my feline companion, “Cleocatra.” I was privileged to serve two terms as Secretary of my building’s Resident Association, and when our President became incapacitated, I was appointed Acting President for the remainder of her term. I feel it’s important that we give something of ourselves for the benefit of others, and I enjoyed serving my community. I’ll continue to enjoy listening to Judy’s recordings, watching her films and television performances, and reading books about her as they’re written. And why? There’s something about her that I can’t put into words, so I’ll leave that to people who are more eloquent and better informed than me. In the meantime, I’m putting another Garland record on my turntable, and I’ll dream of a place “where there isn’t any trouble.” Thanks for reading, and best wishes.
© 2015 Scott Brogan, The Judy Room & Judy Garland News & Events