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U of M rejects massive donation of recordings

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/4/2010 (2534 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IT all seemed so simple to Dr. Peter Charlebois -- he'd donate his family's collection of 56,500 recordings dating back to 1913 to the University of Manitoba's faculty of music.

All the 82-year-old retired Toronto doctor asked in return was a tax receipt, the cost of shipping and a memorial plaque honouring his parents.

Dr. Peter Charlebois plays a record on a Victrola phonograph at his home in Toronto.

ADRIEN VECZAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Dr. Peter Charlebois plays a record on a Victrola phonograph at his home in Toronto.

And at first, the faculty accepted, enthusiastically, this past Oct. 17 when its business manager -- who left U of M in early February -- accepted the collection and laid out requests for an inventory, two external valuations of the collection and the number of boxes necessary for shipping.

The collection would go in the sound archive being planned for the new music building, she wrote to Charlebois. "These items would be kept in secure and temperature-controlled storage until the archive facilities are complete," Wendy Seversen wrote.

But Charlebois says when he phoned music dean Edmund Dawe in late March to say he had 420 large boxes ready to ship, Dawe "had a hemorrhage."

Dawe told Charlebois in a March 30 letter U of M had no idea just how large the collection was, and has no way to store it. Dawe turned down the gift, with thanks.

"I don't know how the hell they can refuse this. This is an opportunity for them to be renowned, to do research," Charlebois said from Toronto. "This is an opportunity for them to become a big wheel in recorded music.

"I'm not out to cause trouble. If they're so goddamned stupid that they won't take the opportunity to put the faculty of music on the map, they're stupid. There's no goddamned way they'll ever be offered this again," he said.

The collection includes music of all kinds from 1913 to 1990, most of it music hall, big bands, vaudeville, First World War music, most of it long-playing (LP) records with multiple tracks, the vast majority of the recordings made prior to 1950.

Charlebois said the collection has been stored two hours north of Toronto in a family owned music hall that's been closed for 50 years. The family wants to develop the property and when Charlebois read a story about Marcel Desautels giving U of M $20 million for a new music building, "I thought, this is it, this is their opportunity."

Dawe said in an interview he was flabbergasted when he got the call from Charlebois a couple of weeks ago. He knew a donation was coming -- small donations of records and sheet music aren't unusual -- but had no idea how vast the collection is.

"We're talking tons of boxes, literally," Dawe said. "If I had known the magnitude and the scope of the collection -- that's something that's beyond the magnitude of what we can handle."

U of M archivists say playing old records degrades them, so if they're to be available for research, they must be digitized, which means establishing copyright and paying royalties for each of those 56,500 recordings, said public affairs director John Danakas.

Even Charlebois doesn't know what's in the collection and that's a huge issue, Dawe said.

"We don't have a list of what's actually in the collection. Someone has to catalogue 56,000 LPs," said Dawe. Not only does U of M not know the academic value of the pieces in the collection, it also doesn't know what shape the records are in: "We don't know how it's been stored.

"It would be irresponsible to accept it," Dawe said, especially given Charlebois wants to keep it intact and doesn't want to sell it off piece by piece.

"We're very concerned about being responsible stewards."

Dawe would not discuss whether the former business manager knew the size of the collection when she accepted it.

Seversen could not be reached for comment.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Nick Martin.

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