By Richard Magat
Mar. 25, 2009: On the wall, the hands of three large clocks sweep around, one on New York time, another on Los Angeles time, and the third on London time. "We do business with people around the world, artists on tour, different publishers, and record companies. Nowadays people in our field work everywhere," said Al Hemberger, president of The Loft Recording Studios.
There's no sign on the door at 84 Kraft Avenue signifying what lies up one long flight of stairs, and The Loft is not listed in the Bronxville telephone directory. But business is booming. The facility, consisting of three studios that stretch from the Bronxville movie theater to the Häagen-Dazs ice cream parlor at the corner of Kraft and Park Place, is equipped with state-of-the-art digital recording equipment.
Framed covers of dozens of compact discs decorate the walls. Hemberger and his staff have recorded some of the country's most famous pop artists--the Jonas Brothers, the ur-celebrities Rihanna and Christina Aguilera, and four American Idol celebrities, Paula Abdul, Kelly Clarkson, Kara DioGuardi, and Ruben Studdard. In years past, the vaunted folk singers Pete Seeger and Richard Shindell appeared, as did Britney Spears, age 16, before her first album.
Many artists are brought in by Carl Sturkin and Evan Rogers, an internationally known team of writer-producers. They run their business, called Syndicated Rhythm, from The Loft. A Hemberger brother, Ted, works at the studio, along with five freelance engineers and interns from Sarah Lawrence, SUNY Purchase, and high schools. Recordings may cost thousands of dollars, though the organization will do CDs for considerably less for walk-in singer-songwriters and for birthday parties and karaoke groups.
Recording stars sometimes arrive at The Loft in limousines and Hemberger tries to shield them from stakeouts. But with the windows open, he sometimes hears applause from waiting moviegoers, "which is pretty encouraging."
The space now occupied by The Loft has a theatrical heritage. It was once the East Coast headquarters of the sprawling Skouras chain of movie theaters, and later an art gallery. The founder was a Sarah Lawrence graduate student Susan Ingalls. She had been exposed to Broadway and Off-Broadway by her instructors, but they advised that as a woman she could not get a job as assistant to a Broadway producer. Raised in a conservative Republican family, she could not imagine herself working in Off-Off Broadway. "Who would I connect with in a basement on Avenue D?" she recalls. But walking down Kraft Avenue one day, she spotted a sign near the movie house, "Loft for Rent." "If I hadn't seen that sign, I don't know what my career would have been," she reminisced. "My political consciousness came after I had signed the lease on that place."
Ingalls had run a children's theater workshop in the Bronxville home of Brendan Gill, theater critic of The New Yorker, who maintained it for the amusement of his children and their friends. Ingalls enlisted the help of one of the mothers who was a community leader, Louise Ransom, and opened The Loft Film and Theatre Center in 1967.
Along the way, Ingalls fell in love with one of the Ransom sons, Mike. He had dropped out of college and, fearing that he would be drafted, he volunteered for officer training school. He was graduated as a second lieutenant and sent to Vietnam. Six weeks later, he was dead. Ingalls had been mildly opposed to the war and now was devastated: "What a waste. I felt that it must not happen to anyone else, not American, not Vietnamese."
She undertook antiwar activities, as did Louise Ransom. At an induction center, Ransom was handcuffed to a draft resister, and her picture appeared in The New York Times. Many in Bronxville reacted vehemently against her act of civil disobedience. Garbage was thrown on her lawn and many shunned her. The Loft was a product of this division. It became an antiwar center, and dozens more students joined it. Progressives who had led Sarah Lawrence's stand against McCarthyism in the 1950s became the backbone of The Loft.
In time, it won the approval of wider elements in the community, becoming an art center for youth. "We had a dark room, a film room, and taught filmmaking, photography, and recording." The Loft began giving plays at Christ Church, The Reformed Church, and the Hudson River Museum. It received grants from the New York State Council of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Council for the Arts in Westchester. The space was converted into a theater, with 70 seats. The group also reached out to Tuckahoe, working with local students.
"The Loft was part of an after-school movement," Hemberger observed, "a place where children could learn the arts when they were out of school and not yet at home, a sort of magical time. It was powerful to be on your own."
As financing began to dwindle in the Reagan era, the group turned full-time to recording. Hemberger, who is 56 years old, has been with The Loft since he was 16. His father was a teacher at Bronxville High School. He and a younger brother began working on lighting and building sets. The group staged 60 plays and musicals through the early 1980s. Many were adaptations of Shakespeare and others were adaptations of work with children's themes, like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.
Hemberger is a versatile musician in his own right. His own band, the Renovators, plays rock, country, and jazz. He plays bass with a band called Tiki Daddy, which features Hawaiian music from the 1920s and 1930s--"the original music of jazz before jazz became jazz," he commented.
Hemberger is concerned about the future of musical recording. "With all the changing formats, how are they going to keep track?" he said. "Piracy is a worry, as it is in all media--video, music, even books. How are people going to make money? It may take five or ten years to sort out. Some people think the model will be similar to water. You open the tap and out comes water, for which you've paid a little something and don't think about it. Or in time you'll be able to use your computer as the center of your entertainment."
But right now, Hemberger has another preoccupation. He has two children, ages seven and three and a half. "They're getting to the point when they are old enough for children's theater and there's one in Garrison, the town next to where we live," he said.
Photo by N. Bower