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Camden has a rich history worth a second listen


There's the screech of the River Line, the rumble of underground PATCO trains, occasional cheers from the Riversharks crowd and Rutgers soccer games, children laughing in playgrounds, revelers at concert tailgate parties, shore birds squawking at the Cooper and Delaware rivers.

Even without the sounds of danger — the wail of police sirens or the hi-lo signal of ambulances and fire horns — Camden is and always has been a source of sound, both discordant and melodious.

For decades, it was a nucleus of technology and home to first The Victor Talking Machine Company, and later, RCA Victor.

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Exhibition space showing Sounds of Camden exhibit at The Stedman Gallery at Rutgers-Camden on Wednesday, October 15, 2014. The exhibit runs from October 6 to December 18, 2014.(Photo: Denise Henhoeffer/Courier-Post )

Expanding on the sense of hearing, Rutgers-Camden has pulled together an exhibit, "Sounds of Camden.'' It opens microphones, sound stages and listening booths to the history of the city and its high-stepping role in technology. The exhibit encourages and invites participation and appreciation for the city's history.

The free exhibit runs through Dec. 18, Monday through Saturday at the Stedman Gallery in the university's Fine Arts building near Third Street.

Planning the exhibit brought enthusiastic response from university high-rankers with interests spiraling around the technology of communications.

The early stages of planning led to searches for music recordings of such greats as Enrico Caruso and Louis Armstrong, and work of poets Walt Whitman and Nick Virgilio.

Together, the planners and curators of the exhibit researched recording studios in churches and multilevel factories now gone. They dug up the history of the nation's first drive-in movie theater and construction of gramophones and cabinet televisions as large as a chest freezer with a screen the size of an iPad.

The gallery is so packed with historic tidbits it needs more than a single visit.

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Students from Camden public and charter schools will get the opportunity to record their memories of growing up in the city. ‘Some have never seen a record album cover, or a record,’ says Nancy Maguire, associate director for exhibitions at The Stedman Gallery at Rutgers-Camden. (Photo: Denise Henhoeffer/Courier-Post )

 

Dr. Cyril Reade, director of Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts and an associate professor of art, developed the exhibit after posing the question: "What can you hear in Camden?''

In January 2013, Reade pulled together "Visions of Camden,'' showcasing work of artists. He hopes to draw on the sense of touch for an exhibit next year.

"There is both a historic basis to this and an expansion on the present. We'll be inviting people to perform with poetry readings and oral histories. We even have a very short recording of Walt Whitman himself," said Reade.

One faculty member has asked classes to record bird sounds which are broadcast across the campus.

"We've borrowed things from Rowan (University), the Camden County Historical Society, and the Dover (Delaware) Museum. The Historical Society has lent us one of the first televisions made by RCA," said Reade.

The gallery is brightened by RCA posters and advertisements.

The exhibit is more than just stuff to look at while you walk around. Live productions are ongoing throughout its run.

One portion showcases Camden's history as the site of the first drive-in movie theater, near today's Airport Circle in Pennsauken. A loop of movies from when that open-air theater was in business, some of the early "talkies" from 1933 to 1935, are projected onto a screen.

Even that open-air entertainment idea of Richard Hollingshead involved Camden industry because he hired RCA to develop directional sound, blasting the sound of the movie to the parked cars. No car speaker system was functional until the 1940s.

"Neighbors weren't very happy," said Dr. Tyler Hoffman, a professor of English at Rutgers.

Recordings at listening spots include not only the famous musicians but elocutionists and actors from the 20th century, including Orson Welles.

Hoffman reached out to students in the English department to sign up for a marathon reading of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass.''

Hoffman has put together a binder of manuscripts of poetry by the late Nick Virgilio, a Camden resident with an international reputation. Virgilio also had worked as a disc jockey for Jerry Blavat and a radio sports announcer.

"Sound recordings are just as important a part of American history as the development of automobiles," said Stefan Arnarson, whose draw to the recording industry cane from his father, whom he described as "a hi-fi fanatic."

"There was unbelievable creativity on the artistic side as well as the technical that happened here," said Arnarson, who joined the Rutgers faculty in 2005. "I've been doing research on this for years. There are catalogs listing the artists, but not the studios they used. One of the mainstay studios was at the corner of Cooper and Front. It's no longer there.

"Camden was Caruso's preferred place to record," he said.

Arnarson said Thomas Edison "didn't see the opportunity for what the technology became. He saw it as a dictation device for offices."

When RCA started as a separate company in 1919, "it was just for military to develop communications systems. Work was done here with radios. I've often referred to Camden as the Silicone Valley of America at the time." he said.

"This is what the 20th century was all about. It was just as busy as the development of the car industry.

"When RCA was bought in in the 1980s and splintered into many companies, there was a tremendous lack of respect for the history of the company and the technology. Things were just left in dumpsters," said Arnarson.

Nancy Maguire, associate director for exhibits at Rutgers Camden said the exhibit is the result of collaborative efforts.

"We're all coming at it from different perspectives."

Camden city students, from public and charter schools, are involved in a music education program that includes a gallery talk and a hands-on project of making wind chimes.

"They'll have an opportunity to record their memories of growing up in Camden. Some have never seen a record album cover, or a record," said Maguire.

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Exhibition space showing Sounds of Camden exhibit at The Stedman Gallery at Rutgers-Camden on Wednesday, October 15, 2014. The exhibit runs from October 6 to December 18, 2014.(Photo: Denise Henhoeffer/Courier-Post )

If you go

The Stedman Gallery is in the Rutgers Camden Center for the Arts at Third and Pearl Streets, Camden. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extended hours on Thursdays until 8 p.m. The exhibit is free.

Updated information about specific events during the exhibit "Sounds of Camden'' is posted on rcca.camden.rutgers.edu. The phone for the gallery is (856)225-6306.

The exhibit continues until Dec. 18.

Live performances

"The Sounds of Camden'' is accompanied by a series of live performances highlighting a Camden connection throughout the run. (A theater event, "Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet: A Red-Hot New Musical," took place earlier this month.)

A contemporary reading of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"' will be held at 4 p.m. Nov. 13.

The annual Mallery Concert Series, offering free lunchtime performances on campus, will also pay homage to Camden's musical heritage.

"Almost all of the performances in the series this fall will feature works that were recorded in Camden by the Victor Talking Machine Company," says Joe Schiavo, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and artistic director of the Mallery Concert Series.

Recitals will be held in the Mallery Room, Fine Arts Building 224 at 12:15 pm on the following Wednesdays: October 29, Nov. 5, 12, 19 and Dec. 3.

Symphony in C, one of America's leading professional training orchestras, has programmed Brahms' "Hungarian Dances No. 5 & 6," originally recorded by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra in RCA Studios, for its November concert in the Gordon Theater.

The public is invited to attend a free rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29, in the theater. Music director Rossen Milanov will speak briefly with guests, sharing his thoughts on the importance of recorded music in the City of Camden.

Read more here!

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