RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

San Francisco burned for days after a massive earthquake hit 100 years ago this week. At the time, much of the rest of the nation followed the disaster through newspapers. It wasn't long, though, before a group of actors and musicians gathered in a New York City studio to record this:

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) It's an earthquake! Run for your lives! To the park! To the park!

(Soundbite of screaming)

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Laura Sydell reports that before radio, reenactments allowed people to hear the news.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Jeffrey Weissman is looking through large boxes that contain hundreds of his prized possessions--wax cylinders from the late 1800s and early 20th century.

SYDELL: How many boxes do you have of these things?

Mr. JEFFREY WEISSMAN (Actor and Collector): Oh, about nine.

SYDELL: Wow!

Weissman is searching for one of the most prized and rare of these cylinders--a dramatization of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He finds it and queues up the cylinder on his antique spring phonograph, a wood box with a big horn--the turn-of-the-century equivalent of a speaker. The cylinder itself is shaped like a long tin can with grooves.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WEISSMAN: It takes it from the earthquake and the panic of the people and moving to the parks, the fires, there being no water-so, the dynamiting of the buildings.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) Turn on the water! No water? (Unintelligible) Then, dynamite the buildings, men!

(Soundbite of blasts)

(Soundbite of Calvary bugle)

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) The soldiers are coming.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WEISSMAN: Then, the militia coming out and shooting any man that seems to be plundering...

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) Halt!

Mr. WEISMAN: And then, the burying of the dead.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: All of this happens in just two minutes. Weisman, an actor by trade who recreates historical characters, uses old wax cylinders of comedy and drama as part of his research. These dramatizations of real events were once very popular. In 1906, it was possible to get a phonograph for seven and a half dollars, and wax cylinders sold for 35 cents, so many people owned a phonograph.

While the public could read the news, these reenactments of current events gave people something more, says Patrick Feaster, an assistant instructor at Indiana University in the department of folklore and ethnomusicology.

Mr. PATRICK FEASTER (Assistant Instructor, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University): It gave people a chance to experience listening to the sounds of the earthquake without actually having to live through it. I think that that's really what most intrigued people about this medium, was the chance to experience things in the auditory world that you couldn't really get in any other way, or might not really want to in this case.

SYDELL: Dramatic recreations were also used to help the public learn about political campaigns.

Mr. FEASTER: During the elections of 1896, 1900, all of the major recording companies recorded imitators doing the speeches of the presidential candidates, who were William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan both years.

SYDELL: Here's part of a cylinder simply called Major McKinley's Speech. The candidate takes on the value of American currency, an issue at the time because the country was coming out of a depression.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Speaker: (In recorded enactment) Our trouble is not with the character of the money that we have. What we (unintelligible). We have the same currency that we had in 1892. Good the world over, and unquestioned by any people.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. FEASTER: They wouldn't just have the candidate, either. They'd have the noise of enthusiastic audiences applauding and cheering. So, these were really trying to give people the sense that they were eavesdropping on the real thing.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SYDELL: Actors and musicians performed into a large horn with a needle that recorded the sound onto the wax.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: The performers often had to contort their bodies in strange positions so that they could be picked up by the horn.

Mr. FEASTER: People who actually got to see these scenes being reenacted in studios would comment that if you just showed up and didn't know what was going on, you'd think you were in a room full of lunatics. You just have people rushing around, smashing things against each other.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) It's an earthquake! Run for your lives! To the park! To the park!

(Soundbite of screaming)

SYDELL: The vast majority of cylinder recordings were made at either Edison's National Phonograph Company or Columbia Phonograph Company, both in the New York metropolitan area. Many of the reenactments reflected the attitudes and prejudices of the time.

Mr. FEASTER: If you don't believe that the American culture of a hundred years ago was as racist as they say it is, listen to the sound recordings. It was.

(Soundbite of Recording)

Unidentified Man #1: (In recorded clip) Say, Tim, what's the matter with the orchestra? Sounds loose.

Unidentified Man #2: (In recorded clip) The orchestra's alright. You gonna work, nigger?

Unidentified Man #1: (In recorded clip) No, I'm gonna play.

Unidentified Man #2: (In recorded clip) What can you play?

Unidentified Man #1: (In recorded clip) Nothin', but I'm willin' to try.

Unidentified Man #2: (In recorded clip) Well, try this saxophone.

Unidentified Man #1: (In recorded clip) Which end do you talk in?

Unidentified Man #2: (In recorded clip) You don't talk in it, Sam, you blow.

SYDELL: One of the actors in that skit was Len Spencer(ph), the same man who was the voice in the re-creation of the 1906 earthquake. Spencer made a living doing regional accents. As of 1912, both Edison and Columbia stopped making the wax cylinders and began using other materials.

By the early teens, flat discs made of shellac became the dominant recording medium. But, even before that, interest in dramatic recreations of real events, like the 1906 earthquake, began to wane. Feaster believes it's because phonograph-makers began to market themselves as recorders of reality.

Mr. FEASTER: Well, if you're really thinking about the phonograph as something that just reproduces things, this older idea of illusion, of using it to make you hear things you're really not, starts to sound less like an art form and little bit more like fraud.

SYDELL: Among the first dramatizations that went were the speeches of political candidates. After the turn of the century, the candidates distributed their own cylinders with actual recordings of their speeches. Actor and collector Jeffrey Weissman thinks those early cylinders were the forerunner of today's docudramas.

Mr. WEISSMAN: Well, there's a movie being made about the hijackers on the 9/11 planes. People want to see them in the movies. They want to, I don't want to say, relive these horrific events, but probably, learn from them or not forget.

SYDELL: Certainly, the 1906 earthquake is not an event that San Franciscans want to relive, but it is certainly one they will never forget.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) (Singing) After the roses have faded away...

MONTAGNE: There are more remembrances of the 1906 earthquake, eyewitness accounts, photos, and a silent film of the disaster's aftermath at our Web site, NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Unidentified Man: (In recorded clip) (Singing) ...filled with mocking joy...

Unidentified Man and Woman: (In recorded clip) (Singing) ...after the silent storm.

Unidentified Woman: (In recorded clip) (Singing) After the birds fly away to the sun with a song of a...

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