Phil Gries' recordings of vintage sounds never grow old.
Newsday Feature Story - Neil Best - June 26, 2016
There it was, the unmistakable voice of Vin Scully, as clear as if he were talking to us today rather than on Sept. 29, 1957, after the Dodgers had concluded their final game representing Brooklyn with a 2-1 loss in Philadelphia.
"The end of our eighth year with the ballclub," he said, sounding mighty nostalgic for a 29-year-old. "Boy, those years have certainly gone fast. Eight years!"
Young Vincent surely would have been surprised to know that 59 years later, he still would be at it. But 2016 was not the point as his voice wafted through the air in a basement in Sea Cliff.
At Phil Gries' house, the middle of the 20th century forever is alive and vibrant, thanks to a teenage hobby recording audio from television that has become a 73-year-old's ongoing passion.
"I never did it with the idea I'm going to have a website, I'm going to be selling this stuff," he said, sitting amid stacks of ancient equipment and even more ancient tapes. "I did it out of pure love."
The result is a collection of recorded TV programs that Gries believes is the largest in existence, covering about 20,000 hours from 15,000 broadcasts, roughly half of which are available on his website, atvaudio.com.
John Miley of Evansville, Indiana, one of Gries' many friends in the collecting world, compiled a larger sports-specific archive, including radio and television audio; the Library of Congress acquired the pre-1972 material in 2011. But it was sports that got Gries started as a Dodgers fan growing up in Brooklyn - and that remains one of his favorite subjects.
"Jackie Robinson was my hero," he said, recalling standing outside Ebbets Field for the players to emerge. "You had a self-addressed postcard, and he would mail it back to me, "Best wishes. Jackie Robinson.' Where the heck can you do that today?"
One of his many prized possessions is a letter from Robinson's widow, Rachel, thanking him for an aircheck of Jackie reading the Gettysburg Address to his family, recorded on May 1, 1960, and donated to the Jackie Robinson Museum.
"I listened to the tape with absolute amazement and delight," Rachel wrote.
That sort of thing is Gries' primary motivation. He estimates he has spent about $150,000 on his archive over the decades, offers snippets free on his site and doesn't sweat it when audio he sells filters into the Internet ether.
"I'll fight it when I'm in Heaven and have more time," he said.
Gries' sports fandom began with his father driving him and his brother Len to Ebbets Field in his 1937 Dodge, going home to Sheepshead Bay, then returning to pick them up.
When he was at Madison High School - at the same time as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders - he decided to start experimenting with recording TV shows to "hold on to the memories" in an era before VCRs and DVRs.
"Most people did not record their television," he said. "I can remember being looked at as odd. Think about it: Why are you recording a TV? There's no picture coming out. But people were missing the boat."
His first significant recording, using a quarter-inch stereophonic Webcor reel-to-reel recorder, was an appearance by Ingemar Johansson on Steve Allen's show before Johansson's 1959 bout against Floyd Patterson. The boxer and host sparred as a comedy bit.
Soon after that, Gries had a key insight: Simply dangling a microphone in front of a TV would not cut it for someone who calls himself "anal in regards to quality."
"Airplanes go by, [someone yells], 'Phil, lunch is ready!' You're getting all this interruption," he said. "How do you avoid that? A direct line."
Gries would take the back off the TV set, hook two alligator clips onto the speaker leads and insert a phone plug directly into the input of the recorder. "Pristine sound," he said.
Indeed, the quality of many of his half-century-old recordings is remarkable.
As the years rolled by, Gries began adding to his archive by acquiring others' collections by various means, to the point that he estimates he personally recorded only about 10 percent of his collection.
"I have met a handful of other recordists who were even more prolific than me," he said. "The one big difference is that many died with their collections, never really sharing it with anyone other than maybe their friends and family."
Now the world can experience many recordings through the website, founded in 2002.
Gries played a gem from the winning Giants' clubhouse after Bobby Thomson's home run beat the Dodgers to win the 1951 National League pennant.
Immediately before an ecstatic Thomson is heard being interviewed, there is Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley himself standing beside him, in a thick, old-school New York accent, congratulating his arch rivals and wishing them well.
"It's really theirs," he says. "They've earned it and I sincerely hope they win the World Series, I really do. I know our fans are disappointed, but I mean that." (The Yankees won the Series in six games.)
There is more. Much, much, much more, from Willie Mays' last at-bat as a New York Giant to the Chicago Bears' locker- room celebration after beating the football Giants in the 1963 NFL Championship Game, singing to owner/coach George Halas.
In the early years, Gries said he was "blessed" to have parents who supported his hobby, from storing the tapes to his mother slipping him a $5 bill to buy a box of fresh tapes that could record four hours of material.
Now he lives in Sea Cliff with his wife, Jane, in a home he moved into in 2004 and cannot imagine leaving, given the logistical undertaking required.
"At my age, there's no way," Gries said. "I don't want to deal with it. It's too much. I feel like I'm smothered here, but in a way it's kind of nurturing."
Gries' son Ethan, 25, is supportive but has no plans to pick up where his dad left off. So even though he is in good physical shape - he pitches in a fast-pitch softball league - Gries has begun to think about a future for his archive. Options include the Library of Congress and Paley Center for Media.
The non-sports material includes all manner of entertainment and news, including what Gries called "the pearl of my archive." It is the only known recording of NBC's Don Pardo announcing the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, captured by Gries himself. (It is available on YouTube.)
"That represents the gist of why to this day I continue to be excited about the audio air checks that represent lost television," said Gries, who has an extensive collection of decades-old TV Guides that he uses to cross-reference his airchecks, "because it allows a little more information than the written record."
Pardo wrote to Gries thanking him for sending the audio clip. Gries also has thank-you letters from, among others, Milton Berle, Woody Allen, Don Rickles, Julie Andrews, Joey Bishop, Bob Sheppard, Ruby Dee, Bob Murphy, Hugh Downs, Joe Garagiola and Scully.
Other recordings have been acquired from elsewhere, including a trove in the 1990s that featured a collection of carefully curated variety shows, from a very organized fan. "I loved the little cryptic notes," Gries said. "Like, 'Got stuck in the subway, missed first 10 minutes of the Jim Nabors Show.' It was unbelievable."
Someone in Australia for some peculiar reason ordered a complete set of "Saturday Night Live" audio. Not the SNL you are thinking of, but the one from 1975-76 hosted by Howard Cosell. Muhammad Ali was among his go-to guests.
Gries left Brooklyn for college at Farmingdale, where he studied agronomy because his parents believed it would be a stable profession. Instead, he became a documentary cinematographer, now mostly retired, including 20 years working for the BBC.
The bulk of the archive is from the 1950s and '60s, an era when home viewers did not have the equipment to record shows and TV companies simply erased everything. By the mid-1970s, anyone could record - with video - at home.
The audio clips run from $75 to many hundreds, depending on the material and buyer. But Gries knows that nostalgia for one's younger years is priceless. For him, too.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "It's the personal memories."
That never changes. At the start of what turned into a 2 1/2 - hour visit from Newsday, Gries clipped a microphone onto his shirt and recorded the entire interview for posterity.
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