How would you like to go dancing? You know, put on your boogie shoes and dance the night away. Unfortunately, you would have to get into your time machine to go to this dance. That’s because it was being held on August 5, 1942, in the Urban Room nightclub – named after its designer Joseph Urban – on the 17th floor of the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At least 2 orchestras were scheduled to play, guaranteeing a night of fun and entertainment for everyone, including people like me with two left feet and can barely dance.
Sponsored by the American Legion and called the War Records Ball, there was something very unusual about this dance. Instead of paying for admission with hard cold cash, each entrant was required to donate five old and worn-out phonograph records.
Those that attended the dance could bring in phonograph records in any condition. It didn’t matter if they were cracked or broken. And, if you could make the dance, one could take their records to the nearest Legion post, police station, or fire station.
Keep in mind that this was during World War II and phonograph records were made of shellac. Well, not shellac entirely. The shellac was used as a binder or resin to hold together the inexpensive powdered filler (i.e. carbon black) that made up the bulk of the record. The problem was that shellac is a natural product – it’s actually secretions from the female lac bug – with the bulk of the raw material sourcing from India and Southeast Asia. With the war going on, imports of shellac came to a grinding halt. Yet shellac was needed for the war effort. Among its uses were in the manufacture of signal flares, explosives, and artillery shell coatings. So, the War Production Board ordered a 70% cut in the production of new phonograph records.
Since older records were thought to have no intrinsic value at the time – few believed that they would ever have any value – the idea was to salvage the old records and sell them back to the record companies. They could then melt them down and make new records from them. Proceeds from the sale of these old records were then used to buy new recordings and phonographs for those fighting in the war.
The drive to collect old phonograph records began in June 1942 with the establishment of a non-profit patriotic organization named Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc. Kay Kyser, Kate Smith, and Gene Autry were appointed to be president and vice-presidents of the operation. In addition, many other big-name celebrities offered their star power to help promote the cause. It was left to the American Legion to come up with ways to collect the discs, hence the dance held in the Urban Room.
While deemed successful, these scrap record drives were unable to produce enough old shellac to meet demand so a new synthetic material was introduced into the manufacturing process. It was PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) plastic, the new material was marketed as “Vinylite,” which we simply refer to as vinyl today.