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UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

The UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive is a “digital collection of over 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections at the University of California, Santa Barbara that can be downloaded for research and study.” Among their various categories is a section devoted to early recordings of audio theater.

Early commercial recording companies experimented with many different types of content, and some of their most creative and ambitious efforts fell into a category now known as “audio theater,” basically the sound-only equivalent of the fiction film. Phonographic audio theater combined techniques from a wide variety of sources, including theatrical sound effects, oral mimicry, ventriloquial acts, the conventions of the instrumental “descriptive specialty,” and 19th-century stage caricatures of distinctive speech styles (especially ethnic ones). Long neglected by students of media history, phonographic audio theater was an important precursor not only of radio drama but of the film soundtrack as well. Please be forewarned that many of the selections presented here contain racial and ethnic slurs and/or build on corresponding stereotypes.