From Bing to Curly, “Sam’s Lounge” has the spirit of Christmas
If, by any chance, you have never heard the Three Stooges warble “All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” or Karen Carpenter sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and never gazed upon the accompanying record album cover artwork, this is your time to do so.
Sam Goldenberg, who owns hundreds of Christmas albums, made some very hard choices as he selected 54 of every fathomable variety, then framed the covers in nine clusters and had them hung for a holiday exhibit at the John Slade Ely House in New Haven.
Goldenberg’s whimsical creation is on display in a modest-sized second-floor room overlooking Trumbull Street. The exhibit is nicknamed “Sam’s Christmas Vinyl Lounge.”
But this is more than a mere visual experience; it’s also auditory. Goldenberg found and purchased a distinctive record-player at Merle’s Record Rack in Orange that glows in blue and red bursts. Goldenberg set it up in front of the fireplace and visitors are encouraged to pull out an album from the stacks on a nearby table, then put one on the turntable.
You can sing along or even dance, as Goldenberg saw some kids do on a recent Sunday at the historic museum.
I have known Goldenberg, a West Haven resident, for the past decade because he was the guy who for 41/2 years posted monthly album displays with a theme at the Olde School Saloon and Bistro in New Haven (now departed). And so when he told me about his holiday exhibit, I went over there on a Thursday night two weeks ago to check it out.
I was the only one there at the time on that evening expressing an interest in going upstairs to see Goldenberg’s work. A polite young woman at the front desk led me up, switched on the lights and tried to figure out how to get the phonograph started. (It’s a generational thing.) I assisted her and she invited me to put on a record.
Goldenberg has included several Chipmunks albums in his exhibit, so just for a laugh I put one on the turntable. Never before had I heard the Chipmunks sing “Silver Bells.”
Meanwhile, I surveyed the walls. The framed gems include Christmas albums by Liberace, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Gene Autry, Kurtis Blow, the Clancy Brothers and Herb Alpert. There are novelty items such as “Bonanza: Christmas on the Ponderosa,” “Calypso Christmas,” “Swedish Christmas Sing-A-Long,” songs by the Choir of Men and Boys from New Haven’s Trinity Church on the Green, “Polish Christmas Carols” and “Christmas in Hawaii.”
I was having a great time up in that little room until I dared put on the Stooges. After a while they launched into “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas.” I have my limits; I had to cut them off.
Itching for a tour by the curator, I arranged to meet Goldenberg there last Thursday night. (The exhibit is open to the public — free admission, donations encouraged — on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., through Jan. 7, except for Dec. 24 and Dec. 31. You can also arrange for an appointed visit by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org )
This time when I came upstairs Goldenberg was alone, listening to Frank Sinatra’s version of “White Christmas.”
“He still sounds great!” Goldenberg marveled. “It’s so fresh and new.”
But he noted Bing Crosby’s version is “the biggest Christmas song of all time. It was No. 1on the charts in three different years.”
I asked Goldenberg how he came up with those 54 choices from his vast collection. “I’m still thinking about some of those that didn’t make it. I wanted to cover a lot of bases; country stuff like Merle Haggard, to NRBQ, because they’re from Connecticut. Plus it’s a great cover.” It shows the members of NRBQ posing in their pajamas, surrounded by their gifts of musical instruments.
When I asked Goldenberg if he actually listens to that Three Stooges album, he replied, “No, no! But how do I not pick that up and buy it? It’s rare — but there’s a reason why!”
He pointed out “Odetta: Christmas Spirituals” on the wall. “I’ve only seen this once.” He said the same is true for “Yard Style Christmas,” a collection out of Jamaica.
We walked over to a cluster that includes “The Beatles Christmas Album.” He told me, “This is really rare. From 1963-1969 they did greetings for their fan club members.”
Many of his albums through the years were purchased at Cutler’s, Rhymes Records and Replay Records. Only the latter remains, on Whitney Avenue in Hamden.
As for Merle’s, Goldenberg was ecstatic about finding the phonograph there. “I asked (store owner) Mike Papa if he had another one I could buy. He said there is no other one.”
Eventually last Thursday several of Goldenberg’s friends came in to hang out and enjoy his exhibit. Joe Tamagni, who hung the frames, said of the display, “It’s just perfect for the season.”
Tamagni noted that every December Goldenberg creates a customized Christmas CD of a distinctive genre and mails it to many of his friends. “One year it was Christmas music of Trinidad!”
Tamagni asked Goldenberg what he has at home for Hanukkah music. “I have quite a bit,” he replied, “but more on CD than albums.”
And then I asked Goldenberg to name his all-time favorite Christmas song. He thought for only a moment, then said: “It’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by the Carpenters. The 1984 re-mix by Richard (Carpenter). It’s fantastic, powerful.”
He found the album and cued up that song. We were experiencing a holy New Haven moment: sipping the wine Goldenberg had thoughtfully provided, hearing the angelic voice that came out of the Elm City all those years ago.
“This is a great, great song!” Goldenberg said. “Listen to her voice. Richard slowed it down and orchestrated it, expanded it. It’s perfect.”