In 1975, I had a banner Christmas. Santa brought a Barbie Doll with a full case and clothes (even go-go boots!) and a record player. The best thing about the record player was that my parents expressly instructed my sister, Linda, and me that this toy was special and I did not have to share it; it was all mine. This meant a lot because—and you elder siblings know what I’m talking about—I’d had to make a lot of concessions since she appeared on the scene two years prior.
The record player was orange plastic with yellow trim; it had three settings: 78, 45, and 33. The 45 adapter was built in; you just had to twist it into place. It was perfect for playing Mickey Mouse Club, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and those books that came with a record to narrate them, sounding a chime when it was time to turn the page.
I took very good care of this record player. Such good care that, when Mike and I hosted our first Solstice party in our first home, in the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland, we used it to play Christmas records we’d scavenged that summer. We timed our interest in mid-century Christmas records perfectly—their original owners were dying off, and their children didn’t want anything to do with them and sold them to us at their yard and estate sales for pocket change. By December, we had gathered a fine array.
The orange record player lasted two holiday parties. By then, it was nearly thirty years old. We first noticed that it was failing because everyone who was singing sounded slightly flat. The motor was losing its torque. The records started getting flatter, and more drawn out, until everyone sounded absolutely macabre. Because the motor was encased in plastic, there was no getting at it to fix it. After decades of service, the orange record player was dead. <moment of silence>
The following year’s holiday party was saved by our friend Chris, who was a teacher in a nearby school district. She was leaving school one afternoon and happened to notice that a dumpster was filled with record players. Apparently the school district had determined them obsolete and either lacked the imagination to donate them somewhere, or (more likely) there was probably some ridiculous inventory-release protocol that made dumping them into a landfill more practical. In any case, Chris looked around for witnesses and then quietly loaded a half-dozen or so into her car.
This record player was army green, industrial strength. Built to withstand being knocked off the teacher’s desk here and there. The turntable had a bit of shock absorption, which made it more difficult to cause the needle to skip by simply walking past (a definite problem with the orange one). It also had a larger speaker, so a room full of tipsy, chatting people was less able to drown out the sound.
Eventually that record player, too, gave up the ghost. We bought an actual turntable after that. Last weekend, we had our first winter solstice party in twelve years—as I mention in this blog post we switched to summer solstice parties when we lived in the Gorge. Out came the records! There’s something special about the pop-and-gravel sound of laying a needle on a record. And there’s something special about inviting a whole mess of people to your house to celebrate the solstice. Happy Solstice, and Merry Christmas!