Victor In The West: The Oakland Pressing Plant

Victor Dog

In the 1920s the three largest record manufacturers--Victor, Columbia, Brunswick--opened pressing plants on the West Coast, a significant development in the industry.

Victor was first to announce expansion in the West. Page 78 of the April 1923 issue of the trade monthly Talking Machine World states, "It is indeed good news to the talking machine trade on the Pacific Coast that at last the Victor Talking Machine Co. has decided to locate a record pressing plant out this way. In a measure, the Pacific Coast dealers are handicapped at present by the long distance from the factories which produce the most popular merchandise, especially in the matter of records of popular song hits and dance music. The life of a new hit is usually so short that sometimes the peak is reached before the new records reach the Coast."

The same April issue states on page 154 that the company would "establish an auxiliary record manufacturing plant on the Pacific Coast...It was stated at the [Camden] factory that the proposed new plant would be a complete unit for the production of Victor records, including recording studio, matrix department and special machinery for actual manufacture of records. No details as to the location or extent of the Pacific Coast's plant are available at this time."

Brunswick, which had a pressing plant in Chicago, soon afterwards announced that it would operate a pressing plant in the West. The September 1923 issue of Talking Machine World states on page 30 that plans "are being made by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. for the establishment of a permanent record-pressing plant in this city [Los Angeles] to take care of the steadily increasing demand for Brunswick records throughout the Pacific Coast districts."

Brunswick's general sales manager, A.J. Kendrick, explained, "We have found that Los Angeles and the Pacific Coast have originated a large part of the...numbers which are being sought after for recording purposes and feel the time is rapidly approaching when it will be found more economical to make our own records here than to defray the expenses of orchestras and artists in bringing them East for recording purposes." This explains why recording studios should be on the West Coast; no doubt the chief advantage of establishing pressing plants was that money and time were saved if records sold in the West were made in that part of the country. Brunswick opened its Los Angles plant a few months before Victor opened its Oakland plant. The March 1924 issue of Talking Machine World on page 94 gives the address as 2481 Porter Street while page 171 cites Santa Fe Avenue and Ninth Street.

Columbia waited until 1926 to purchase a facility in Oakland. The September 15, 1926 issue of Talking Machine World mentions that facility: "The property, which contains approximately 73,000 square feet of ground space on Fifty- seventh avenue, off East Fourteenth street, is in the Oakland industrial district." The company had gone into receivership in 1923--it was in no position to expand to the West Coast as Victor and Brunswick did in 1923. But Columbia was a pioneer in that it shipped recording equipment to San Francisco as early as 1921. The February 1921 issue of Talking Machine World reports on page 114, "E.N. Burns, vice-president of the Columbia Graphophone Co., who is devoting practically all of his time to the recording division, left for the Pacific Coast on Sunday with...equipment for the purpose of making an additional series of Art Hickman's Orchestra records." Rust's American Dance Band Discography, 1917-1942 shows that Hickman recorded in San Francisco beginning on February 7, 1921.

Until the 1920s Victor recording activity was limited to the East Coast, but recordings were finally made in Chicago in 1921. The May 1921 issue of Talking Machine World states on page 134, "What is claimed to be the first recording ever made in Chicago by the Victor Co. was done here in April by Ed King, of the Victor laboratory. With a couple of assistants and a collapsible recording apparatus Mr. King recorded a number of selections of Benson's Orchestra...The work was done in a room in the Forster Music Publishing Building on Wabash avenue."

The June 1923 issue of Talking Machine World states on page 64 that the Oakland plant "will be the ninth on the list of Victor manufacturing plants distributed around the country." Where were these other Victor plants? Was this an error for around the world? A world map from the late 1920s duplicated in the biography His Master's Voice Was Eldridge R. Johnson, written by son E.R. Fenimore Johnson, shows where Victor factories were located, and in the United States only Camden and Oakland are represented. Outside the U.S. were Victor and Gramophone Company plants in Montreal, Yokohama, Sydney, Santiago, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and a few European cities.

The Oakland Chamber of Commerce, which regularly issued news about city manufacturers in its one-page publication titled "Bolts and Nuts," on June 22, 1923 formally announced Victor's arrival in the city, stating that Victor "has purchased ten acres...On the 77th Ave. side it extends along the entire western frontage of the [Durant] Aviation Field, thus enabling this property to be approached from 77th, 78th and 79th Avenues. Spur track, which will be joint Western Pacific and Southern Pacific, will be installed on the property. The real estate transaction was handled by the E.B. Field Company." Victor executive Edward E. Schumaker, along with production manager J.C. Weeks, traveled to Oakland in June to close the deal. Schumaker would later, in the mid-1920s, conduct the negotiations with Western Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories that led to electric recording and the Orthophonic Victrola line. He became the company's vice president in January 1926 and then president on January 6, 1927, soon after Eldridge R. Johnson's retirement.

If an address with "78" may be viewed as a good omen, Schumaker must have been delighted with the plant's address, 1100 78th Ave, with the entrance on 78th Avenue. That entrance is today blocked, the property approachable only from 79th Avenue.

To indicate what Victor could bring to the local community as an employer, the Chamber of Commerce writer (one C.W. Foy) stressed the size of the Victor operation on the East coast, the implication being that Victor's Oakland operation might grow to become one of Oakland's largest manufacturers: "The home plant and executive offices of the Victor Talking Machine Co. are located in Camden, N.J., where, under normal conditions, they employ 8,500 persons, this number at times being increased to 10,000. The company has a splendid sick benefit plan by which sick or disable employees are paid $14.00 a week during the time they are incapacitated. The total current assets of this Company as of December 31st, 1921, were $29,037,457....The officers of the Company are as follows: Eldridge R. Johnson, Pres.; C.K. Haddon, Vice Pres. and Gen. Supt.; E.K. Mac Ewan, Secty.; W.J. Staats, Treas.; E.E. Schumaker, Gen. Purchasing Agt.; R.L. Freeman, Director of Distribution."

Construction began in October 1923 on the record manufacturing plant, the first of a proposed two units. The October 7, 1923 issue of the Oakland Tribune reports in an article titled "Victor Co. Start on New Plant," "Construction has commenced on the first unit of the plant of the Victor Talking Machine company in Oakland, it is announced by E.B. Field and company, who handled the deal whereby the company acquired twenty acres of land, valued at $85,000..." The figure of 20 acres is twice what the Chamber of Commerce had reported.

The article states, "The first unit is to be devoted to the manufacture of records. The unit will cost $150,000 without equipment, and will cover one acre of the site...The first unit will employ 350 persons. The second floor of the unit on which construction has started, will be occupied by the Recording department, or studio. Here singers, musicians and orchestras will assemble to produce those records that are entirely 'Oakland made.' Records by eastern talent will also be made at the Oakland plant...from metal plates sent here from the east. The records are to be cut from a record-mixture fabricated at the Camden, New Jersey, plant of the company, and shipped here in bulk." An item on page 177 of the November 1923 issue of Talking Machine World gives different figures, claiming the plant, made "entirely of brick construction," would cost $130,000 to erect and that it would employ "about 200 people." It names Oakland's William Knowles as the building's architect.

The Oakland Tribune article discusses equipment and supplies: "The first unit is to include a steam plant, and accommodation for 24 record stamping presses. 150,000 gallons of water are to be used daily to cool the records. The even and cool temperatures of the Oakland water was an important factor in securing the location of the factory in this city. Los Angeles also attempted to secure the plant, but the extreme warmth of the water there in summer is said to have constituted a negative factor." Columbia followed Victor by establishing a pressing plant in Oakland at East 14th St. Presumably Brunswick also used water to cool records during the manufacturing process, but it is unknown how engineers in the company's new Los Angeles plant handled the problem of water in that area not remaining cold year-round.

The article suggests that a large industrial complex was planned: "Two other units are to follow for the construction of cabinets, and manufacture of motors." Additional units for phonograph manufacturing never materialized. Disappointing sales in 1924--not just for Victor but for the talking machine industry--probably made further expansion in Oakland unfeasible. Possibly the expense in 1925 of converting the Camden site to produce Orthophonic products froze plans to expand the Oakland site.

Victor heavily invested in infrastructure in 1923 and 1924, obviously anticipating increased sales. Company executives must have regretted such heavy investments when the Christmas season of 1924 proved dismal! The Oakland plant was planned and constructed at the same time the Camden site expanded dramatically. Buildings 8 (for metal manufacturing) and 10 (for record pressing) were added at this time, and Building 13 (next to 10) was transformed from a four-story unit to a seven-story plant. The February 1923 issue of Talking Machine World states on page 64, "The Victor Talking Machine Co. is making additions and enlargements to its present plant costing approximately $1,000,000. The work will consist of two structures, one an eight-story record manufacturing plant 436 feet long." The same issue announces on page 122 that Victor "has announced the starting of work on additions to the Victor plant in Camden that, when completed, will make possible the doubling of the record output of the company. The details of the construction plan were authorized recently by B.G. Royal, vice-president of the Victor Co."

Construction evidently went smoothly since the Oakland plant was operational by May 1924. The October 1924 issue of Talking Machine World states on page 206b that the plant has been "in operation since last May," with "the first record being pressed on the afternoon of May 6." Curiously, the June issue of the trade journal says about the plant. The July 15 1924 issue of Talking Machine World includes an article on page 43 titled "New Victor Record Pressing Plan In Oakland, Cal., Now Producing Records." Two subtitles for the article spell out the two main reasons for building the plant: "Plant Constructed to Facilitate Handling of Record Demand of Western Trade" and "Laboratories Makes [sic] Easier Recording of Artists of Far West."

A third subtitle states, "'Oriental Love Dreams' First Record Made." No artist is mentioned but this must be the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra version, recorded in Chicago one month earlier, on April 6, 1924 and issued as Victor 19325 on May 30, according to the June 1924 issue of Talking Machine World. It was pressed at both plants, Camden and Oakland. Some copies of "Oriental Love Dreams" are stamped as Oakland pressings (it seems the Oakland identification mark was used from the beginning), others are not.

Why this disc was chosen for Oakland's first pressing is not known but "Oriental Love Dreams" was co-written by Earl Burtnett, a West Coast bandleader and composer. Burtnett at the time led Art Hickman's Orchestra and if it often played the song to audiences, that would help account for the song's popularity in the West. Within the year many masters or stampers of musical numbers that had been recorded on the East Coast were sent to Oakland so copies could be pressed and distributed in the West. Of discs having an Oakland identification mark ("o" above Nipper), the lowest catalog number I know about is Victor 17001, which features 1911 performances--of course, the Oakland pressing of 17001 has a late "wing" label, with the inclusion of "For best results use Victrola Tungs-tone Needles," which was added to wing labels in early 1924.

John S. Macdonald, who made records years earlier as Harry Macdonough, became in 1923 manager of the Victor's artists and repertoire department, taking over administrative duties formerly falling on Calvin G. Child. He traveled to the West Coast months after Victor's Oakland plant became operational. The January 1925 issue of Talking Machine World reports on page 156, "J.S. Macdonald, head of the recording department of the Victor Talking Machine Co., left Camden on January 8 for a visit to the Pacific Coast where he will inspect the new recording and pressing plant in Oakland, Cal...E. [Eddie] J. King, of the New York Recording Laboratories of the Victor, will also make a trip through the West shortly."

Only a little is known of George Hall, the plant's superintendent. The March 15, 1924 issue of Talking Machine World states that Hall "has been connected with the recording department of the Victor Co. in Camden for many years." His photograph is included in an article titled "Victor Executive Manufacturing Personnel" in the September 1927 issue of Talking Machine World, and gives a different version of his background: "Mr. Hall, who came to the Victor Co. in 1907 as a clerk in the accounting department, is manager of the Oakland, Cal., record pressing plant. Prior to taking over this...he was in charge of the employment office, later going back to the accounting department to take charge of the payroll. When the Oakland plant was opened he became business manager of this branch."

Phone directories of the 1930s show that George Hall resided in Piedmont, a city next to Oakland. This is clearly not the George Hall who made Victor records with the Hotel Taft Orchestra beginning in 1933. However, Rust notes in The Victor Master Book that for a session in Oakland on February 2, 1928, one George Hall, Jr. supplied vocals for Victor 21506, featuring Eddie Harkness and His Orchestra. Was this Hall the son of the plant's superintendent?

The same September 1927 article indicates that Raymond R. Sooy was nominally in charge of the Oakland recording labs: "While his headquarters are in Camden, the recording rooms in New York, Chicago and Oakland, as well as those at the Camden plant, are under his supervision, as are also the recording expeditions in the field." Raymond Sooy succeeded his brother Harry O. Sooy, who died in 1927 (another brother, Charles Sooy, also worked in Victor's recording laboratories in Camden). Page 106 of the July 1924 issue of Talking Machine World identifies Fred Elsasser as "manager of the recording laboratory, Oakland."

Victor's musical director in Oakland from 1926 to 1929, and its Artists and Repertoire man of the Western half of the U.S., was Leroy Shield (1893-1962), who is best known today for composing from 1929 to 1931 the familiar music in Hal Roach film comedies. Rust's Victor Master Book shows that in 1925, before moving to California, Shield provided piano accompaniment on recordings made in Victor's New York studio. The Victor Master Book shows Shield from May 1926 onwards providing accompaniment on many Oakland recordings. A chart of executives duplicated in Fred Barnum's "His Master's Voice" In America shows that in 1930 Shield's title was Musical Director in Charge of Hollywood, Calif., Activities. His name is not on many labels though Victor 22548 features Leroy Shield and the Victor Hollywood Orchestra performing "Sing-Song Girl" and "Song of the Big Trail." Shield would later compose radio cues in New York and, under Arturo Toscanini's supervision, direct many rehearsals of the NBC Orchestra

As indicated earlier, the first records pressed in Oakland were not actually recorded there. In fact, performances recorded in Los Angeles were pressed before any Oakland recordings were pressed. The earliest performances both recorded and then processed on the West Coast appear to be by Vincent Rose and his Montmartre Orchestra as well as by Art Hickman's Orchestra, with one selection by each on Victor 19379. The Hickman ensemble performs "Mandalay" on Side A and Rose's group performs "String Beans" on Side B.

Rust in the American Dance Band Discography cites Oakland as the recording location, perhaps citing Oakland because logs do not clearly establish a location. However, page 106 of the July 1924 issue of Talking Machine World discusses recording apparatus being set up in Los Angeles in June 1924, with Eddie King selecting artists and songs, Raymond Sooy running equipment: "A number of Victor recordings of local organizations and individuals were secured last month when a special recording apparatus was installed here. E.T. King, manager [of the] New York artist and repertoire department, succeeded in arranging with Art Hickman's Biltmore Hotel Orchestra, which is under the leadership of Earl Burtnett, Vincent Rose's Montmartre Cafe, Hollywood, Orchestra, and with a number of locally famous Hawaiian and Mexican instrumentalists and orchestras, so that many very successful recordings were made which will appear in the Victor catalog in the near future and will be pressed in the new Pacific Coast factory in Oakland." The wording here is clumsy but without a doubt recording was done in Los Angeles in June 1924. The Hawaiian artist alluded to is Keaumoku and His String Trio. For Victor's Mexican market, the Rodriguez Orchestra recorded several numbers issued in the 77000 series.

Not mentioned in the article is Glen Oswald's Serenaders, an ensemble that recorded three titles on June 16 in Los Angeles. These June takes were rejected but the ensemble recorded again in September, and the release of Victor 19410 soon followed, with three more records issued in 1925. The orchestra had been formed in Portland, Oregon and played for years in that city's Winter Garden. Page 210 of the November 1924 issue of Talking Machine World states that months earlier in 1924 it was "called South to fill an engagement at the Cinderella Roof Garden at Los Angeles and the next thing Portland knew another one of its favorite orchestras was announced Victor artists. Their recording was done at the Oakland Victor branch and 'Oh, Peter,' and "You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine' is their initial recording released in October [Victor 19410]." Orchestra members evidently traveled from Los Angeles to Oakland for the September 5 recording session.

Since the first West Coast record, Victor 19379, features Vincent Rose and his Montmartre Orchestra as well as Art Hickman's Orchestra, more should be said about them here. Rose was successful not only as a band leader but as a songwriter. In 1920 he helped compose "Whispering" and "Avalon." His orchestra, popular in Hollywood, cut four titles on June 9, 1924. "Moonlight Memories" was one of those four, and it was issued on Victor 19416 backed by "Tell Me You'll Forgive Me" performed by the International Novelty Orchestra. It is a rare instance of a Victor disc that couples a West Coast recording with an East Coast one (another is Victor 19809, which features Glen Oswald's Serenaders on one side--a Los Angeles recording cut on September 4, 1925--with the International Novelty Orchestra on the reverse side). A day later, on June 10, Art Hickman's Orchestra recorded three titles, returning three days later to record additional titles. The orchestra was no longer directed by Art Hickman but was under Earl Burtnett's direction and was engaged at the time by the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

Victor's supplement dated October 1, 1924, announced the release of Victor 19379 and states this is the first Victor record by "two famous California organizations." The time that passed from recording date to release date was two to four months for most Victor records in this period. The Rose selection and Hickman selection--recorded in mid-June, issued in October--were typical Victor products in this regard.

Victor began a special series of matrix numbers for the West Coast, including performances recorded in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. They were prefixed by PB for ten-inch discs and PC for twelve-inch discs. "P" meant "Pacific Coast," "B" meant 10-inch, and "C" meant 12-inch. Victor 19379 featuring "String Beans" and "Mandalay" was the first record issued under the special system. Its matrix is PB-2. PB-1 was assigned to a performance issued later on Victor 19512. Materials provided by William R. Moran indicate that the "P" preceding the normal prefix was begun on June 9, 1924. The series ran from PB-1 on that date to PBVE-336 on June 2, 1927. Rust states in The Victor Master Book that "the series was discontinued after a session in Butte, Montana, on June 3, 1927," after which "a block of normal matrix serials was allocated to such recordings as required."

A paragraph dated August 2 was submitted by the Buescher company for inclusion in the August 1924 issue of Talking Machine World. Page 143 of that issue states, "The first record made at the new Victor plant here was recorded by Art Landry and His Orchestra, equipped with Buescher instruments." Rust's American Dance Band Discography shows Landry first making Victor records on June 18, 1924. These records were the earliest ones ever made by Landry, who later made records in Camden, and they were the first made in Oakland. Landry had his first session nine days after Vincent Rose made records in Los Angeles. In other words, Vincent Rose was first to record for Victor on the West Coast, and Landry was first to record in Oakland. Landry's "Rip Saw Blues," on Victor 19398, was issued in October 1924, the same time as Victor 19379, featuring Rose. Landry's orchestra at the time was featured at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre.

In 1924 and 1925, other orchestras that recorded in Oakland--presumably in the plant--include those led by Henry Halstead (his orchestra played in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel), Max Dolin (this violinist, whose orchestra was engaged at this time in San Francisco's California Theatre, had recorded in the East years earlier, including for Pathe), Ben Black (this banjoist was a successful songwriter as well as a bandleader), and Rudy Seiger and His Fairmont Hotel Orchestra (its one record, Victor 19629, sold poorly--nothing is known of Seiger except that Rudy Seiger's Shell Symphonists made two records in 1928). Of bandleaders who began their musical careers in the Bay Area and made their first records there, Horace Heidt would become most successful. The pianist had been born in Alameda, which is adjacent to Oakland, and played professionally in Oakland for a few years before his recording debut. His first Victor record, featuring "Mine" and "Hello Cutie!" (20608), was recorded on April 22, 1927. He remained active in the music business into the 1950s, reaching his peak of popularity in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Rust's Victor Master Book often cites "Oakland" as a recording location, but we must not assume recording was always done at the plant. Pianist Edna Fischer, who lives today in San Francisco, had three recording dates in Oakland in the spring of 1928, with "Rag Doll" and "The Varsity Drag" being issued on Victor 21384. In recent years she has recalled for interviewers that her sessions were at the Shriners Temple Auditorium near Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, several miles from the industrial section of Oakland where the plant is located.

Among the most successful numbers recorded in Oakland was Victor 19579, issued in May 1925. The "A" side, "On The Way To Monterey," appealed to record buyers, but the "B" side, "Moonlight and Roses," was even more popular. Some labels for Victor 19579 state that "Moonlight and Roses" was "adapted from [Edwin H.] Lemare's celebrated 'Andantino'"--Victor's May 1925 supplement states "every organist" knows Lemare's composition--and others omit this information. Labels for Red Seal 1092, featuring John McCormack's version of the song, also say "adapted from Lemare's celebrated 'Andantino.'"

The song on each side of Victor 19579 is by Ben Black and Neil Moret. It is surprising that Henry Halstead and His Orchestra recorded the popular songs since Black himself was a bandleader who cut Victor records in Oakland. Black and Moret were important to San Francisco's music establishment. Moret, whose real name was Charles N. Daniels (1878-1943), enjoyed success in the business long before he moved to San Francisco in 1912--in fact, he is credited as "arranger" on Scott Joplin's first published rag, "Original Rags." Black, once a banjoist in Art Hickman's Orchestra, had collaborated with Hickman on the popular "Dry Your Tears" in 1918 and on other numbers. Daniels, Black and Paul Corbell ran the Villa Moret Publishing Company from the Kress Building in downtown San Francisco.

Another popular disc to originate from Oakland was Victor 20051, which featured Maurice J. Gunsky singing "Lay My Head Beneath a Rose" and "Why Do I Always Remember?" This was from his first recording session, held on May 1, 1926. He had a few sessions in the Bay Area, then from 1926 to 1928 made Victor recordings in the company's New York studio, and finally returned to Oakland in 1928 to make his last Victor records (he then recorded for Columbia). Gunsky was a composer as well as a fine tenor. He recorded several of his own compositions (he often wrote with Merton H. Bories, sometimes with Nat Goldstein), and other artists recorded his numbers. For example, the New Orleans Black Birds recorded "Honolulu Blues," composed by Gunsky and Goldstein, for Victor V-38026.

Little "hot" jazz, authentic blues, or opera was recorded in Oakland. The only jazz artist to record in Oakland who was "hot" enough to be in Rust's Jazz Records: 1897-1942 was Horace Heidt. No African-American artists are known to have recorded in Oakland or San Francisco. No Oakland recordings were issued in Victor's V-38000 series (this is in contrast to many performances in the V-38000 series recorded elsewhere and pressed in Oakland). The only artist to record in the Bay Area and then be issued on a Victor hillbilly series--both the V-23000 and V-40000--was Harry McClintock, sometimes called "Radio Mac," other times just "Mac."

At least three artists made "personal" records in Oakland: tenor Harry Robertson recorded two titles in 1925, soprano Mabel Riegelman recorded three titles in 1926, and Leana Schwayder recorded a title in 1926. The label of a Riegelman record in William R. Moran's collection states "Victor Special Record (For Private Use Only)." Though it was undoubtedly pressed in Oakland, the label refers only to "Camden, N.J."

Recording in Oakland continued into the late 1920s. According to Rust's Victor Master Book, artists who recorded there in 1928 include pianist Edna Fischer, Lee Lykins (he recorded as a solo artist and was a Horace Heidt vocalist), Sam Ku West, the Stanford Glee Club, the team of Bill Hawley and Puss Donahoo, Mickey Gillette and the Romanciers, tenor Robert Olsen, Eddie Harkness, a male quartet called the Rounders, "Mac" (Harry McClintock), and Herman Kenin's Multnomah Hotel Orchestra. The block of matrix numbers allocated to these 1928 recordings runs from 42000 to 42139.

By 1927 many artists recorded across the bay since San Francisco was more convenient for artists, who performed in the city's many radio stations and theatres. According to Rust's Victor Master Book, recording locations in San Francisco include Room 4333 of the Clift Hotel (Columbia also recorded in this hotel) and the NBC radio studio. Materials provided by William R. Moran indicate that some Victor recordings were made in the city's Columbia Theater--in spite of the name Columbia.

Electrical recording began in Oakland on August 24, 1925, which was a half year after Camden had begun experimenting with electrical recording, such as on February 26 when the Eight Famous Victor Artists performed before a microphone in Camden (this was released as Victor 35753 on May 29). Electrical recording began in earnest in Camden in mid-March, the first to be issued being Victor 19630, released on May 1. On the other side of the country, Henry Halstead recorded in Oakland two titles during the August 24 session but nothing was issued. The first issued electrically recorded disc from Oakland featured Ben Black and His Orchestra performing "I Love You, California" on one side and tenor Charles Bulotti singing the same song on the other side (Victor 19766). Black's session was on August 25, 1925, Bulotti's session taking place a day later.

In the early 1930s RCA Victor gradually shifted from the original Western Electric electrical recording system, which relied on condenser microphones, to an improved one using the RCA 44 ribbon microphone, a different amplification system, and new cutting head. If the new cutting head was used to cut grooves during a recording process, discs indicate it a diamond--not an oval--surrounding the familiar "VE" in the shellac near the label. An early example is Victor 22672, featuring Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees. The performances were recorded in New York on April 8, 1931.

It seems the superior cutting head--presumably expensive--was not installed in Oakland or San Francisco. Tom Coakley and his Palace Hotel Orchestra recorded numbers in San Francisco as late as March 1934, and these discs have the "VE" in the old-style oval.

By the early 1930s more recordings were done in the Los Angeles area, especially Hollywood-Culver City, than in the San Francisco-Oakland area. It appears the new cutting head was not installed right away in the southern part of the state. Discs featuring Hal Kemp and His Orchestra performances cut there as late as July 22, 1937 have the oval, such as Victor 25633.

The Oakland plant did not press many discs in the ten-inch 45000 blue label series. No performances issued on blue label discs were recorded on the West Coast. Blue label Victors pressed in Oakland (as well as in Camden) during the late acoustic era include 45491, featuring the De Reszke Singers (labels say "Recorded in Europe"), and 45456, featuring Olive Kline on one side, Lambert Murphy on the other. Blue label records of the early Orthophonic era that were pressed in Oakland include Victor 45489, featuring Olive Kline and Elsie Baker, and 45519, featuring Lucy Isabelle Marsh and the Trinity Choir. This latter record, 45519, was issued on December 11, 1925 and was among the last in the series, which appears to have ended (aside from a few odd items issued years later) with Victor 45527, a Shura Cherkassky disc issued in June, 1926. The twelve-inch 55000 series had ended a few months earlier.

Some recordings made in Oakland were accorded Red Seal status. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra led by Alfred Hertz made its Victor debut with the Prelude and Good Friday Spell from Wagner's Parsifal, issued on three 12-inch discs (6498-6500) on May 1, 1925. Hertz graced the cover of Victor's May supplement. The Wagner selections, recorded in late January sessions, were not the orchestra's first recordings. It cut Auber's Fra Diavolo overture on January 19, 1925, which was issued on Red Seal 6506 on July 31. Hertz and the SFSO would make many more records.

Victor's youngest Red Seal artist, Yehudi Mehuhin, recorded in Oakland. Born in 1916, he made his concert debut in 1924 and his recording debut in Oakland in 1928. Ten-inch Victor 1329 was issued in July 1928, followed by twelve-inch Victor 6841 in October. Mehuhin's 1976 autobiography Unfinished Journey states that an Oakland church was hired for a recording locale but he may have the Shriners Temple Auditorium in mind.

Discs featuring the earliest performances recorded in Oakland have a typeface on the label notably different from the typeface on records pressed in Camden as well as on records pressed in Oakland that were made from East Coast masters or stampers. "Oriental Love Dreams," the first record pressed in Oakland, has a regular typeface, but "String Beans," recorded on the West Coast as well as pressed there, has the unusual typeface.

After a month or two of releases, typeface on most Oakland records matched typeface on Camden records. It is interesting to compare Oakland pressings with Camden pressings. Some records were pressed in both locations. Labels of some Oakland pressings have information not on the same record that had been pressed in Camden. Victor 21335 features Horace Heidt and His Orchestra. The record was issued in mid-1928 and was pressed in Oakland and also Camden. The Camden label uses all capital letters for song titles on sides A and B, includes a Spanish translation of song titles in parenthesis, and gives full names of composers. The Oakland label is far less cluttered since no Spanish words are included (why no Spanish for records marketed in California, so close to Mexico?) and composers are given simply as "Hauerbach-Hoschna" on side A and "C.J. Bond" on side B. Side B of the Camden pressing states, "Vocal refrain by Lee Lykins" whereas Oakland's side B states, "Vocal refrain by Members of Orchestra."

What was built as a Victor plant in the mid-1920s was an RCA Victor plant for much of the 1930s. It was last listed in the city directory in 1937 and I assume records were pressed there until around 1937. I know of discs pressed there as late as mid-1935. Victor 25006 has an "o" on the B side's label, the A side missing an "o." A later disc, Victor 25042, has an "o" on the A side only. There are other cases of late Oakland pressings having the "o" on one side only. I find no "o" on records made later than 1935. RCA Victor possibly stopped adding an "o" by this time (Brunswick and Columbia discs pressed in the West were never clearly marked as being manufactured in California). I do not know if Bluebird records, first issued in 1932, were pressed in Oakland. I have seen no Bluebird discs with an "o." I doubt that any "picture records" of 1933 were pressed there.

I have visited both Victor sites, in Camden and in my hometown of Oakland. Both are in a sorry state. In fact, in Camden this year two huge buildings were demolished, which delighted city developers who viewed the abandoned and vandalized buildings as not only eyesores but impediments to development along Camden's waterfront area. The June 16, 1997 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer describes the previous day's demolition of the buildings on the waterfront between the Ben Franklin Bridge and the New Jersey State Aquarium. These were Buildings 10 and 13, one eight stories tall, the other seven. Construction began on Building 10 in early 1923, at which time three stories were added to the existing four stories of Building 13. The February 1924 issue of The Voice of the Victor shows how the buildings looked upon completion.

Engineered Demolition Inc. workers spent days inserting commercial dynamite into concrete columns. They wrapped charges around steel columns because they were unable to get inside those columns. At 8:00 a.m. the charges--68 sticks--exploded, sections of buildings caved in, and within ten seconds rubble lay where two buildings had stood, a solitary smokestack standing tall. Four structures, including one with the Nipper Tower (Building 17), remain of the more than 20 buildings that once composed the RCA Victor complex.

Demolition will probably be the fate of the Oakland plant, a two-story concrete building with brick facade. The doorway was of a neo-Classical design, with two columns supporting a pediment which once featured a relief of Nipper, which is clear in a photograph in the October 1924 issue of Talking Machine World. Otherwise the plant had no distinctive architectural features. It had nothing like the tower built in 1916 in Camden containing four Nipper windows (the windows in the Camden tower today date from 1979, being replacements for the four originals sent to institutions for care-taking--the Smithsonian, the Camden Historical Society, Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and Penn State University). At some point RCA Victor items were removed from the Oakland building, such as the bas relief of Nipper over the main entrance, but nothing is known of what happened to them.

Other businesses used the building after RCA Victor left it in the late 1930s. Last used by the Safeway supermarket chain as a soap manufacturing plant, the building today is gutted. Some windows are missing, others broken. Homeless people have camped there. The property is for sale but it is unlikely to attract investors, partly because the neighborhood no longer attracts heavy investment but also because the building itself would require expensive repairs and upgrading. It probably does not meet current earthquake codes.

On the grounds is the foundation for a large water tower. A photograph in the October 1924 issue of Talking Machine World shows that the word "Victor" had been prominently painted on the tower. Today nothing at the site indicates that here was a plant that had manufactured millions of Victor and RCA Victor discs, products that brightened the lives of West Coast record buyers in the 1920s and through the worst years of the Great Depression.