In the fall of 1969, I left my wife and children behind for a month and took a bus trip across America. One of the most memorable events of that month was my encounter with record librarian Charlemaude Curtis in New Mexico.

In those days, Greyhound was selling a 30 day bus pass, and I bought one. It was good for unlimited travel throughout the U.S. and Canada. During the course of the month, I covered approximately 10,000 miles. I later calculated that I spent about a third of my time on buses.

I first went straight across the country to visit my sister-in-law, who was then living in Los Angeles. I wound up spending most of my time visiting my former piano teacher, Joanne La Torra, who had become a close friend. (She made two LPs for the Orion label as Joanne Smith.) From there I went back east to Tucson to visit friends who had a summer house in Phoenicia, near where I lived. My next stop was Fort Worth, where by arrangement I recorded an interview with the pianist Lili Kraus (then teaching at Texas Christuan University), who took me out to lunch at Furr’s Cafeteria. Unfortunately the magazine I did the interview for ceased publication, and the interview was never printed.

From Fort Worth I traveled to Albuquerque, where my uncle Lenny Felberg had recently taken up residence as professor of violin at the University of New Mexico. After that, I went to Seattle, spending a few days with my science-fiction friends F.M. and Elinor Busby and, of course, getting wet. My last stop was in Edmonton, Alberta, where I visited my old friend Calvin Demmon and his wife India. En route home I was stranded in Watertown, NY by a bus strike. My friend Henry Fogel, who lived in Syracuse, drove up and rescued me, and I spent a couple of days with him and his wife Fran before the buses started running again.

I had many memorable experiences during that voyage, but perhaps none stands out as strongly as my encounter with Charlemaud Curtis. At that time, Charlie Curtis–as everyone called her–was an assistant music librarian at the University of New Mexico Library. Since my uncle Lenny and his wife Arlette worked during the day, they needed a place to park me while they were at work. Lenny took me to the UNM Library, where I already knew the librarian, Jim Wright, head of the Fine Arts Library, through the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

I figured I would just spend my time browsing and listening, but Jim had another idea. The UNM Library had a room full of 78s that had been donated over the years and never sorted or catalogued. Charlie, who had come to UNM after having run her own record store for years, had been agitating to have something done with the 78s. While I wasn’t particularly an expert on 78s, I was already known as a “record expert” in general. Jim and Charlie asked me if I would help Charlie sort through the 78s.

Thus began one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had. Charlie, who was old enough to be my mother, was a lively woman, and she knew a lot about records from her experience running a store that I didn’t know. For example, she explained one thing I’d always been curious about, why the Columbia 78 of “Preludio a Cristobal Colon” by the Mexican microtonal composer Julian Carillo, recorded in Cuba in 1930, was so common. I would have expected an avant-garde piece like that to be extremely rare, but Charlie told me she always sold a few copies in her store at Halloween.

Even in those days, most 78s had already become pretty worthless. We decided early on to keep for the collection only relatively important material which was not available on LP. The large majority of records we didn’t think were worth keeping went onto carts, where they were wheeled out to the open area of the library and offered for sale to faculty and students for ten cents each. I wasn’t there long enough to see how many of them sold but I learned later that quite a few of them were actually bought.

Most of the collection was classical music. However, we found some interesting early recordings of Latino music which were of great interest to the library. One record in particular excited Charlie. It was an acoustical recording which had been made and issued in Albuquerque, and she was convinced that it had been the earliest record made in New Mexico.

I worked with Charlie for three days on the records, and by the third afternoon we had them all sorted. We congratulated each other on a job well done. The records the library would keep were boxed and ready to catalog. The unwanted records were all out of the storeroom. We were left with a small pile of records we had set aside as completely useless, all either broken or obviously worn beyond playability. We smiled at each other, and without a word we started reaching for the records in the discard stack, smashing them on the concrete floor of the storeroom. Then, laughing almost uncontrollably, we went out for a beer.

I saw Charlie one more time, about 20 years ago. My wife Tara and I were in Albuquerque to visit my uncle and my parents, who had recently moved to Albuquerque. Charlie had retired by then, but we called her and got together. She drove us to visit friends at Jemez Pueblo, and Tara bought some pots from the wonderful potter Phyllis Tosa. Driving with Charlie was An Experience, though. She was a speed demon.

Today there is a Charlemaud Curtis Collection of Southwestern Music, Interviews and Programs  at the UNM library, including material that Charlie recorded herself. She obviously did a lot of great work for recordings during her career. But I’ll always remember her as Charlie the Record-Smasher.

3 Responses to “Charlie Curtis the Record-Smasher”

  1. Madeline Tosa Says:

    I know Charlie Curtis!

  2. Mindy Sampson Says:

    Is Charlie still alive? I remember her with great fondness from my years at UNM.

  3. Leslie Gerber Says:

    Alas, no. She left us some years ago.