Charles Sokol of Wayne, a retired chemist originally from Brooklyn, has carried forward his research skills into new territory. He’s collected enough audio and video footage to produce, at last count, 87 two-hour monthly programs for Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
A member of the synagogue’s executive board and board of trustees, Mr. Sokol — who is 80 and has a son in Georgia and a daughter in New Zealand — has been offering what he calls “eclectic” programs since 2011. “Some people call it” — that is, Sundays with Sokol — “the best kept secret in northern New Jersey,” he said.
His first presentation, on early Jewish comedy recordings, engendered a passion that is still burning. Last Sunday, he offered his 87th program, part one of a series on Jewish radio in New York from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Sunday’s session provided both history and an overview. It was “a combination of English and Yiddish, gathered from the Yiddish Radio Project, produced by National Public Radio in 2002,” Mr. Sokol said. “They did a good job.” Parts 2 and 3, set for July 14 and August 18, will look at several programs (and their original commercials) in more depth.
“We will be, in effect, going into a time machine to hear excerpts and whole segments from Jewish radio programs in New York City from the 1930s to the 1950s,” Mr. Sokol wrote in a flyer advertising the program. “Most of what you will be hearing are from one-of-a-kind broadcast transcription records that were made by the radio stations at the time of broadcast. Very few of these original transcription records survive. So the few gems that survive give us the opportunity to hear segments and excerpts of actual Jewish radio programs from around 1937 to around 1955.”
The July 14 session will feature songs broadcast on “Yiddish Melodies in Swing,” starring the Barry Sisters, Alan Chester, or Jan Bart. Between songs, listeners will hear an actual commercial that aired on various Jewish radio programs between 1937 and 1955. The August 18 session will include complete segments from the Yiddish programs “The Jewish Philosopher” and “Rabbi Rubin’s Court of the Air.” Light refreshments will be served and the programs are free and open to the public (although voluntary donations are appreciated).
Mr. Sokol said his interest was piqued in 2006, when a music CD called “Jewface” was released. It was, he said, “a bunch of early comedic, mostly parody, recordings, very rare for the most part. I found it fascinating.” So he began to study. “I found a 1983 rare book on the topic and, being a scientist, did some investigating.” He found “so-called resources” for the recording “and built up perhaps the world’s largest collection of the genre.”
In addition to collecting, he is now creating his own DVD. He recently worked on a silent film restored by the National Center for Jewish Film, “coming up with the original Russian version of the film with Russian intertitles.”
Russia, he said, released a version with a musical soundtrack synchronized to the video. “I was able to get a digital copy of that. But the European system is different from the U.S. system. The timing is different, so the sound didn’t match.” Nevertheless, using his newly acquired skills, he got hold of new software allowing him to match the music to the video.
Some of Mr. Sokol’s Sunday programs are audio only. Still, wherever possible, “you see on a screen a description of the artist, the time period, and other information.” While he is open to suggestions, he seldom receives them, so he pursues topics — generally concerning either music or Jewish comedic recordings — that catch his interest.
“I try a variety of things, but two-thirds are specifically of Jewish interest,” he said. Among topics covered in the other one-third was a three-part series on colored silent films from the 1939 World’s Fair. He is particularly interested in early klezmer pioneers, including the famed Harry Kandel. While putting together programs is gratifying, though, “the most interesting part is the hunt for information and recordings.”
Recently, Mr. Sokol “got some really good information concerning one of the first major Jewish monologues recorded, ‘Cohen on the Telephone,’” he said. Performed by Joe Hayman in 1911 with “a thick Eastern European accent,” it centers on “a whole bunch of misunderstandings.” Originally released in England, it later came to the United States “and is believed to be the first million-selling Jewish record ever made. It sparked a whole series of Cohen monologues. Some are easy to find and some are rare.”
Regarding Joe Hayman’s claim that he created the first Cohen on the Telephone monologue, “I have proof that he based his monologue, in part, on a 1905 comic routine,” Mr. Sokol said.
Asked if he had listened to these programs himself — Mr. Sokol is 80 — Mr. Sokol said he listened to Art Raymond’s Simcha on WEVD. “I need to dig out an extremely rare and extensive broadcast,” he said. “I got it many years ago, about an hour of Art Raymond that someone tape-recorded, with the commercials.
“I have a lot of favorite programs,” he added, noting that sometimes he does a program just because it interests him, like the one he did on forgotten elevated railroads in New York. Right now he is working on several things, including “some interesting stuff from Broadway musicals.” He already has shown Part 1 of the film “Broadway’s Lost Treasures, commercially available but not well known.” That film includes the winning songs from Tony award-winning shows. Parts 2 and 3 are upcoming, he said.
“I try to do things not readily available or else totally original,” he said, usually without commentary but sometimes with notes added. One program featured “Miracle at Midnight,” a dramatization of “a Holocaust event that was pretty much forgotten. When Denmark was getting ready to send Jews to camps, the underground found out and, in days, organized a flotilla of small boats” to rescue them.
“When I showed that film,” I added an epilogue of scrolling text explaining more about what happened,” Mr. Sokol said.
Who: Charles Sokol
What: Will offer parts 2 and 3 of Jewish Radio in New York from the 1930s to the 1950s
When: Sundays, July 14 and August 18 at 2 p.m.
Where: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes
For more information: Call the synagogue office, (201) 560-0200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or email Mr. Sokol at email@example.com.