Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Columbia Viva-Tonal 113a

What do a 200ft swinging bridge from the 1940's, a Coon Dog Cemetery with strict admission requirements, Superman, digging for diamonds, and Helen Keller have in common? They're all things we did or visited on the roadtrip we just got back from!  Joe and I and four friends hopped in a borrowed minivan and headed south to see a whole lot of ridiculous sights we had discovered in our trip planning.  We saw Superman Square in Metropolis, IL, conquered the swinging bridge in Tishomingo State Park in Mississippi, ate at the cafe that the Whistle Stop Cafe is based on (Did I have Fried Green Tomatoes?  Yes.  They were delicious), toured two civil war homes in Franklin, Tennessee, and survived the winter freak-tornadoes in Arkansas.  We did more, but I won't bore you.  It was awesome.

Anyway, on the trip one question was asked about five things that make us happy.  One of my five things was playing a record on my record player.  Joe gave it to me last Christmas, and it's one of my favorite things.  He found it on Craigslist, and since then I have had it looked over and repaired by a man with 25+ years of experience restoring phonographs.  He did a wonderful job, and now I get to enjoy my player without worrying about hurting it.

This record player is a Columbia Viva-Tonal Grafonola 113a, manufactured in England in 1928.  It has mahogany wood on the inside, and weighs enough to throw out your back (I've heard it called a "hernia-inducing weight" on a blog somewhere).  

They're not terribly common, and it's difficult to find a lot of information about it beyond the basics because they were made a year before 1929, aka the Great Depression, and not very many of them were sold.  But I did find one really nice concise blog entry here, with some great pictures to boot.

When Joe gave it to me, he also gave me a stack of records.  CLARIFICATION:  This record player does not play vinyl records.  Vinyl records came about later.  This player plays 78rpm records, otherwise known as Shellac records, with only one song on each side.  They are harder and more fragile than vinyl records and are usually 10" wide, though some are 12".  They are not as easy to find as vinyl records, but I've found some great ones here and there and been given some, as well.

Below, if you're interested in a trip back in time, is a video of my playing one of my favorite songs.  For some reason, the video enhances the needle-noise.  It's not as scratchy sounding in person, but you'll just have to take my word on that.

Here is the record by Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly:

Without further Ado, Ladies and Gentlemen I present...

My Record Player.  


  1. Awesome! We have a record player that Dordt was throwing out and Philip rescued. It's not as beautiful as yours. But I do love hearing records on it. I think my favorites are Simon and Garfunkel.

    1. If you're playing Simon and Garfunkel on it, it's a 33/45 vinyl player, not one of these!

  2. I stumbled onto your site as I was looking for more info/photos of the Viva-Tonal 113a and found your page. That's a marvelous phonograph! I own the very same one and I play it almost daily.

    One thing you might consider is that you should only play records that date from about 1900-1935. after 1935 (especially American pressings) were not meant to be played on machines with heavier tonearms (like the 113a) as they had already developed tonearms similar to modern turntables with much lighter pickups. Yes, you can play 78s from the 1940's and 50's on the 113a, but you are doing irreparable damage to the record grooves. The steel needle acts as a lathe and carves out the softer grooves of later 78's. The damage is subtle at first, but the more you play the record, the worse it will get. The grooves will start to turn grey and then white. At that point, the record is ruined.

    In any event, you should be using a new steel needle with every record (use the needle once, then toss it in the the little container to the left of the speed control...you dispose of them later). Using old needles over and over again is a huge no-no and will do damage to even the sturdiest of records. You can buy steel needles in bulk from anywhere that deals in old records or gramophone repair shops.

    I write all of this because I LOVE old gramophones and the records you can play on them! And the 113a is a real gem. I hope you will enjoy it for many, many years to come.

  3. Daryl,
    Thank you very much for your information! I was aware of changing the needles, and have some that I bought from the gentleman who restored my phonograph. I was not aware, though, of the difference in records and when they were pressed. Thank you very much, I will be more careful. I love my record player and am happy to hear of another person with the same gramophone. And yes, the 113a IS a gem! Though I do not play it daily, it gets plenty of exercise. Again, thank you. I will keep your information in mind.

  4. Hi Becky! One way you could learn a bit more about records that are 'safe' to play, you could peek at Ted Staunton's website: http://www.tedstaunton.com/site_map/site_map.html Basically you're safe with any labels shown up until 1929. After that, it's in the 30's when it gets a little difficult. The best records suited for the 113a are the early electrics made by Columbia (called Viva-Tonals, label here: http://www.tedstaunton.com/labels/1920_1929/pages/Columbia_3/columbia_3.html) and Victrola Orthophonics (http://www.tedstaunton.com/labels/1920_1929/pages/Victrola_2/victrola_2.html). Any labels you see in the 40's and 50's galleries are too late to play on the 113a.

    You can see some photos of my 113a on my website: http://www.darylbullis.com/?page_id=170 and I have some links to two other gramophones I own. I try to upload videos of my machines onto Youtube when I have time. Youtube username: barbaricyawper14

    Happy listening!!


I love to read your comments and questions!