Pet Sounds

Christopher Peters

THE THEREMIN: SOME say you go insane if you touch one. Or, more accurately, once you connect with this most atmospheric of experimental instruments, and electricity flows between woman and machine, the air itself seems to change until it resonates with an eerie, high-pitched whiirrr.

"Do you want to try it?" asks Steve Raymer, director of the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting, directing me to the museum's 1928 model of Leon Theremin's invention in a corner of the expansive exhibition room. It looks like a wooden music stand with a metal loop jutting out from its side. I let my left hand hover above it in order to control the volume, while my right hand manipulates the pitch by moving about an antenna along the opposite side. Good vibrations. Blues explosions. Space-age-movie noises. Anything can happen once the juice gets turned on.

"Are you musical?" he asks, perhaps hoping that he's meeting a prodigy like Clara Rockmore--the world's greatest theremin virtuoso and Theremin's longtime lover. Raymer breaks into song. "Some-day my prince will come," he intones, as I make a pathetic attempt to accompany him, waving my hands around the instrument. He shakes his head. "I don't think so."

Like so many of the pieces found in the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting, the theremin exists through strange historical twists of fate and, of course, the perseverance of fanatics like Raymer. The theremin managed to stay in currency during the '50s, when would-be inventors started building their own versions of the odd device. As it evolved, its sounds came to dominate the era's sci-fi-movie soundtracks. Raymer, 48, knows every nook and cranny of his machine's history. But just as his story starts to gain momentum, he's already leading me toward the next machine and its story.

The museum's stock is impressive to say the least. Lined up along the wall is but a small portion of Joseph Pavek's original collection--some 1,000 radios (many older than 60 years). Pavek (1908-1989) was a local nuts-and-bolts salesman with a passion for old transistors and "ham" (amateur) radio. The museum was founded back in 1988 when Earl Bakken--inventor of the battery-operated pacemaker--got wind that Pavek's radio collection was about to be broken up and auctioned off. Bakken and the Minnesota Broadcaster's Association stepped in, saved the radios, and founded the Pavek Museum.

The rest of its collection is a seemingly haphazard mixture of donations: old TVs, electrode vacuum tubes, record players, and other arcane A/V equipment. Ask Raymer about the connection between all these gadgets and you'll get answers that become long, fascinating lectures on the "history of sound broadcasting." But one longtime Pavek Museum member, Matt Hyman, thinks he knows the real theory behind Raymer's taxonomic passion: "If it's gonna stay, it's got to be older than Steve."

Walking through the museum's entryway, Raymer and I pass a woman watching vintage footage of the Twin Cities' first children's TV program, a popular '50s show called Axel and His Dog. Our host, Axel, is a sort of Swedish longshoreman with an untimely taste for ribaldry--more Krusty the Clown than Mr. Rogers. He begins the program by singing, "Hey doodly doo dee doo da, I couldn't break her heart, so I broke her leg."

Weird as this seems, the kiddie show isn't on display solely for nostalgic distraction. Such amusements serve as living history, and Raymer is quick to point out that the museum is one of the hottest field trips in Minnesota (they're booked solid until next year).

Another of the museum's gear-heads leads me through the "library," a stockroom filled with ancient schematics and catalogs. "You take care of them old manuscripts," Clark warns Raymer. Terry, another card-carrying Pavek member, covets the museum's 1927 acoustic phonograph. As a record collector, he'd heard about the Pavek while searching for old machines on which to play his antiquated wax. Lately, the needle's head has been slipping, and Hyman is hard at work nursing it back to health. "See, people's love of this stuff transcends any grief that I give them," Raymer says.

That said, I get more grief trying to leave the museum than during the tour. "What? All of a sudden you're in a hurry?" Raymer says as he maneuvers me back to something called the Magnetophon K4. "This was built in 1938. It was the original tape recorder to come over to this country. It was invented in Germany. This is the very first one, and it's the same one Bing Crosby used to put his show over the air." He cues up a reel-to-reel of an original recording of Bing singing "More I Cannot Wish You," and we all stand quietly, smiling and listening.

The Pavek Museum of Broadcasting (3515 Raleigh Ave. S. in St. Louis Park; 926-8198) is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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