The Ballad of Music Man Murray

Ampex tape and circus discs, boxes and boxes of surface hiss, from Ray Noble to Raymond Scott, sing a song of an unsung bigshot
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Photograph by Marla Rutherford

“I was doing regular gigs as a cantor,” he says with a wheezing laugh. “I did Isaiah on Pico—I did University Temple when they had overflow services. I did all the reform temples. By the ’60s, I was working Downey and the Valley and you could hire me for bar mitzvahs. Not bad for someone who was raised to think that being Jewish just meant that if anybody calls you a dirty Jew, you punch them in the nose.”

After becoming, as he puts it, “disillusioned with the cantor industry,” Gershenz and his late wife, Bobette (she, too, was an aspiring inventor; he brought a book on patent law to their first date), went searching for a business venture. They passed on a doughnut shop and a Laundromat before Gershenz looked around their apartment full of old records and sheet music and decided the business was right in front of them. The inventory quickly grew from the Gershenzes’ private collection (including a short-lived book section that Bobette ran) to encompass jazz, blues, rock, and pop. Before long, Gershenz was making his living off 69-cent weekend sales and bustling foot traffic.

Along came the ’80s, the decade Gershenz can’t talk about without shaking his head. First the record industry invented the CD, and then his landlord drove him out. By the time he moved the store south to Exposition and La Brea in 1986, he had already accepted his fate: The walk-in customer would be a thing of the past. Now it’s rare if more than a few people drop by the store during any given week. Nobody just happens upon Music Man Murray.

Which is why Gershenz worries so much about the future (he recently left me a message reminding me to be sure to mention the store’s phone number in this article: 323-734-9146). He knows that for the place to exist long after he’s gone, his daughter and son must get his entire inventory online to attract more customers from around the world. Yet even with that, Music Man Murray would just be a digital catalog, not an actual digital store—some people still want to touch the music they buy.

“My customers come in two grades,” says Gershenz, who does most of his sales by phone and e-mail. “There’s the collector who I put stuff away for because I know they will like this or that. But the collectors don’t keep you going. It’s the person who wants this one rare particular piece of music and they want someone to find it for them. I get calls like ‘My uncle Charlie passed away and this was his favorite song and it goes like this and we want to play it at his funeral.’ Or ‘It’s our 20th anniversary and we used to go crazy for Fats Domino.’ They want a certain song, and they don’t know where to find it. And that’s where the new technology of the Internet is hurting people like me. These young kids don’t want a record or even a CD. They want to play it on the iPod or whatever. They just want to hear the song. They don’t want the thing itself.”

*****

He’s barely through the front door of Caffe Roma, the casually posh Beverly Hills eatery, before the requests start coming in. “Murray, you have that Jolson record I asked you about?” “Murray, what about Connie at the Copa?” These guys—a table full of entertainment veterans who are Gershenz’s occasional lunch dates—want the thing itself.

He passes out burned CD recordings (“Here, Morris, I think you’ll like this one”), and the group begins to sing his praises. “This guy is a real treasure,” says Lenny Gaines, a comedian and actor who had bit parts in New York, New York and Scent of a Woman. After a visit to Music Man Murray seven years ago (“He still talks about the record I charged him $50 for,” says Gershenz), Gaines invited him to join the elite lunch group, which has included comedy icons like Norm Crosby, Milton Berle, and Shecky Greene. They’ve been eating at Caffe Roma every day for the past 22 years.

“Back in New York, we had record stores like Dayton’s, Colony, and Footlight,” says Gaines. “Out here we have Murray. He’s the only one left.” Soon everybody at the table is swept up in reminiscence, dishing stories about Eddie Fisher, Jerry Vale, and Steve Lawrence.

“The only problem with Murray’s place is the dust,” says Bruce Charet, Al Sharpton’s entertainment manager and a Friars Club regular. “I got allergies, and it’s bad for allergies. There’s so much stuff, I can’t go in there.”

Charet is the youngest at the table, and his complaint gets a round of eye rolls from the Hollywood old-timers.

“I’m in the group only when there’s an extra chair,” says Gershenz. “You can’t tell a joke around these guys. They know them all. One time I tried a joke and one of them said to me, ‘You know, you’re probably a good dancer.’ ”

This feature was originally published in the July 2007 issue of Los Angeles magazine.