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Obit Sleuthing

Matt Schudel

I wrote a Local Life feature for last Sunday's paper on Dorothy Bialek, who with her husband, Robert, was the co-owner of the old Discount Records and Books in Washington. Founded in 1952, the store was D.C.'s first record discounter (the books came later). It was also, according to the family, the first local store to introduce autograph sessions with major artists. The store began out of an abiding passion -- Bob Bialek, who died in 2006, loved classical music and was a capable pianist in his own right.

I began working on the piece on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, after another story had fallen through and had only a day and a half to complete it. By Friday afternoon, I had spoken to all three of Dorothy Bialek's chlidren, one of whom sent me several photographs, including a wonderful shot -- which we used in the paper and online -- from a signing session at the Bialek's Dupont Circle shop. The only problem was that no one knew anything about the photo.

I noticed that the dapper man with the fountain pen was signing a stack of record albums. Since we had received the picture in an electronic file (we almost never use printed photographs anymore, alas), I was able to look at different sections of the image in great detail. Fortunately, the photo was so clear that I could read the catalogue numbers on the edge of the albums sitting on the table. They were multiple copies of a Capitol release, with the number PAO 8414. Thanks to Google, I learned that this was a recording of the Goldmark violin concerto by violinist Nathan Milstein.

With the identity of the man signing the records cleared up, I then focused on the fountain pen and could read his signature: "N. Milstein." Below it, he inscrbed the date, 1958. So, with a little sleuthing, an anonymous photo had come back to life.

It may not be as dramatic as Bob Woodward lurking in parking garages to get the scoop on Watergate from Deep Throat, but it felt like a small investigative triumph here on the Obits desk. And Dorothy Bialek's children were happy to know whom their mother was directing that flirting glance toward.

The Bialek Local Life reminded me of another I had done in 2006 of one of her chief competitors, Littman "Dan" Danziger, who owned and operated the Disc Shop on the opposite side of Dupont Circle. As it happens, Danziger's son, Arnold, continues to correspond with me and wrote to me after reading about Dorothy Bialek. He evoked a shopping -- and musical -- world vastly different from our own. Besides dozens of variant recordings of classical works, his family's shop used to stock 500 different kinds of needles for turntable tone arms -- all of them now extinct, since record players have become outmoded.

Those of us who write obituaries are by nature deeply interested in history, and quite often this immersion in the past makes you wonder about the good things that have been lost to "progress." With iPods and other downloading capabilities, young people today don't know what a record album is, let alone the turntable and other equipment that records were played on.

But what struck me even more was that classical music once had a mass audience, and new records from the New York Philharmonic, Nathan Milstein or Vladimir Horowitiz made at least a small stir in the popular consciousness. Washington had four or five locally owned record shops that competed for a classical buying public that included people of all ages, classes and races. Now, it seems, a lack of cultural education and a relentless emphasis on the passing fads of the moment have made the rich tradition of classical music little more than a quaint academic interest.

There are a lot of bittersweet moments on the Obits desk when you brush up against the values, both good and bad, of an earlier time. The days when people would to Discount Records or the Disc Shop and casually flip through multiple recordings of Beethoven and Mozart, guided by clerks with an encyclopedic knowledge of the music, have vanished. Yes, we have the Internet, which has given us and even outlets like this blog, but you can't help lamenting what has been lost.

By Matt Schudel  |  December 1, 2007; 12:34 PM ET
Categories:  Local Lives , Matt Schudel , Washington DC-area people  
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