A Message of Vital Importance

Item #4:  Mysteriously-labelled record from 1959

Acquired:  2010

This next item came into my possession in a completely random way.  As a music buff, I still buy the occasional vinyl record from a local indie record shop (thankfully, there’s still one in my neighbourhood).  A couple of years ago I got home and found this 45-sized record tucked alongside the one I’d just bought.  It had a bright red label which read “Westbrook Van Voorhis narrates a message of vital importance (copyright 1959.)”

Creepy.  I don’t know about you, but this had all the markings of a classic Twilight Zone set-up to me.  I can almost picture it…everyman Steve D., a sunny afternoon, somewhere in rural America, comes into the possession of a mysteriously-labelled record.  Naive to the ANCIENT CURSE locked within its dusty grooves, he plays the record and hears the ominous voice of COUNT VAN VOORHIS delivering his message of VITAL IMPORTANCE…warning the unfortunate listener that he is in IMMINENT DANGER! and should not under any circumstances leave the house for the rest of the day.  Ignoring his advice (naturally…) with an unconvincing, half-confident laugh, our hero would then step outside to be promptly struck by a passing car.  The camera pans back to a final shot of the ACCURSED RECORD, still spinning on the platter…cue Rod Serling voiceover and roll credits…

But then again, it might be nothing.  I was curious.  What was on that record that would make someone keep it for the past 51 years?  What sort of vital message did it contain?  Tips on how to survive an alien attack?  A recruitment pitch from the Jehovah’s Witnesses?  A sale on clothes dryers at Sears?

As it turns out, it’s closer to option #3, but in a funny, dated way.  It’s actually a sales pitch dressed up like a public service announcement, selling a new brand of home fire alarms by trying to scare the wits out of 1950’s American housewives, and softening them up for the door-to-door salesman who would shortly follow.  Funny how times have changed – the borderline-unethical sales tactic they used would seem laughably transparent to us now, but it was probably fairly effective in its time, when people were already used to living in a constant state of low-level fear (think Soviet nuclear attack.)

Thanks to our good friends at Google, I managed to find out even more useless trivia about it. Apparently, Westbrook Van Voorhis was an actor and voiceover artist best known as the authoritative voice of a popular 1930’s newsreel series called The March of Time.  The company who made the record was called Dictograph, they sold headphones and fire alarm equipment since the early 1900’s but are long ago out of business.

So then, who cares?  Quite possibly, nobody anymore.  I’m pretty sure the W. Van Voorhis fanclub (if there ever was one) is long gone, as is pretty much anyone who ever worked for Dictograph.  But somehow this misplaced curio from another era managed to find me, so the least I could do was try to figure out why.


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