Old Hollywood in the Heights
Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 11:27AM
Tom Stoelker in Eric Bernhoft, Peter Mintun
Originally published in the Manhattan Times on March 2, 2008
Bernhoft shows one of his many stereoscopes.

The Washington Heights townhouse, built in 1897, and shared by Peter Mintun and Eric Bernhoft retains most of its original woodwork and fixtures. The interior décor is somewhat streamlined, not having the curvaceous bulkiness usually associated with the late Victorian period. It is an appropriate environment for a collection that could have easily been left behind by the original owners. Mintun, a pianist, maintains a huge assortment of sheet music, magazines, and memorabilia from the early part of the last century. Bernhoft, a former telephone technician, has gathered together an extraordinary assortment of hand-colored photographic glass slides and their accompanying music on Edison wax cylinders that were shown in movie houses during the silent film era, usually when the projectionist was changing the film reels.

There is no questioning the merit of the combined collections of Minton and Bernhoft. The sheer variety of media covered goes beyond sheet music and glass slides. There is printed matter from antique magazines, both bound and unbound; there are player piano rolls, and player pianos; there are old record discs, and a variety of Victrolas to play them on; there is, in short, a small chunk of American history in the Washington Heights house.

Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at the Film Forum, has worked on a variety of projects with Mintun. He noted of the size of Mintun and Bernhoft’s collection, “They need nothing less than that house. It’s a museum.” He recalled his first encounter with Mintun in Palo Alto, California. “He drove up in a 1930’s car. He lives a retro life.”

A mutual friend who knew that Mintun and Bernhoft shared the same interests in music, architecture and film introduced the two. Both fostered their artistic interests from a very young age.

Mintun had an innate interest in music that his parents cultivated within a lifestyle where traditional jazz took center stage and Fats Waller figured importantly. “We didn’t have a television ––by choice. I was playing [the piano] before I took lessons, copying by ear. People hired me before I reached two digits.”

From the ages of 12 to 18 Mintun played accompaniment to dance classes. “It was a very strict tempo, you are playing for people trying to learn steps.”

Today, Mintun’s style of playing veers from jaunty to lilting and does more than transport a listener. Instead of recalling “simpler times,” his clean, sophisticated interpretations do more to reveal how the period from which he plays is much like our own. He takes a sympathetic rather than nostalgic approach.

Mintun’s interest almost immediately segued into a career, but Bernhoft was advised to take a different route. “My teacher in college encouraged me to learn a trade and then study music.”

While die-hard romantics might wince at the suggestion, Bernhoft is certain it was the right course for him. In fact, it is through the abilities he garnered as a technician that he has been able to maintain the player pianos, stereoscopes, Victrolas, magic lantern projectors and other devices that are integral to the experience of his collection. Bernhoft’s collection of photographic slides is unique not just because they include complete sets, but also because they have the accompanying music on Edison wax cylinders. The glass slides are shown through projectors known as magic lanterns, whose origins can be traced to the 18th century, and the wax cylinders are played on wind-up phonographs.

Bernhoft, like Mintun, found his passions early in life. He was 10 years old when he started buying old phonograph discs. At a nickel apiece he could collect quite a few without blowing his budget. His parents gave him an old Victrola, but stopped short of buying him the Edison cylinder phonograph he desired.

Bernhoft pointed out that the 75 cents it cost to purchase a record at the beginning of the last century led their owners to take great care of the expensive discs, which is why they are in such excellent condition today. Compared to digital music on an iPod, which is relatively cheap, the old discs have a physical durability that is worthy of renewed respect.

Mintun is not a fan of contemporary music. “I don’t pay attention to contemporary music. It’s so repellent,” he said. But where modern technology is concerned Mintun is no curmudgeon. “I am addicted to eBay,” he admitted. And while Mintun and Bernhoft may prefer the sound of live music and old recordings on discs or cylinders to digital sound, they fully appreciate the value of the Internet’s contribution to music. “It helps preserve what we like,” Mintun explained. Mintun’s music is not available on vinyl, but rather can be heard on his Web site, where, amongst other things, one can link to his MySpace page. But it is Mintun and Bernhoft’s shared love of the music that accompanied silent films,

and magic lantern shows that has drawn considerable attention from scholars, museums and repertory cinema theaters. Mintun has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music from the period.

The projects that Mintun worked on with Bruce Goldstein included concerts of music meant to accompany silent films. “We did one on Paramount. We did one on Fox,” Goldstein recalled. “Peter is an expert of all music before 1940. You can’t stump him, there’s not a song from the 1930s he can’t play.”

Bernhoft’s collection is unique in that it focuses on two technologies, recorded sound and the photographed image, preceding The Jazz Singer, the most famous synchronization of recorded sound and moving image, by almost thirty years.

“Eric is the only one researching and collecting on both. I don’t think there is anyone else doing it,” said Ron Magliozzi, assistant curator of research and collections at the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Department of Film. “It is the first time when there is a link between the music industry and film industry,” he said of the period around 1900, the heart of Bernhoft’s collection.

Greg Singer, who is the projectionist at MoMA and has been with the museum since 1982, said that there are very few people who understand the two media, though he mentioned that there is substantial interest in Germany. He traces the early history where the “lanternist,” the projectionist’s forbear, told stories as they projected hand painted slides. “Without that you wouldn’t have cinema,” he asserted. As far as the magic lantern slides being used in conjunction with coordinated music from the Edison cylinder Singer said, “In all the years I have been at MoMA they’ve never done that.”

In the end it may be up to the academics to debate whether Bernhoft’s collection of slides and cylinders from the early 1900s are the decisive moment that recorded sound met the photographically recorded image in a concerted effort. Professor Tom Gunning, chair on Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago and an expert on the subject expressed one concern, “We do know that the cylinders were for home use, although there were definitely cases where they were used publicly. It is quite possible.” Either way the professor brought in yet another element not yet considered, “They are very, very parallel to music video.”

There has been talk among neighbors who have seen the collection of a local film festival, with live music, old records, old films, and of course a magic lantern slide show.

In the meantime Mintun’s MySpace page will have to suffice.

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