Murray Gershenz has gone around and around trying to solve his problem, and probably at 33 rpm’s.
There he is, sitting on 500,000 rare record albums — the inventory of his Los Angeles store — all of which he needs to unload before time catches up with him. At age 89, he knows that could happen sooner rather than later.
Gershenz’s quest to sell off his vast vinyl legacy is the subject of “Music Man Murray,” an affectionate and affecting 22-minute documentary from Oakland filmmaker Richard Parks.
Created as Parks’ thesis at U.C. Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, the film screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January and the recent East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.
It makes its broadcast debut April 21 on the Documentary Channel as part of the annual Record Store Day, which honors America’s retail music shops.
That’s the perfect day to honor Gershenz, who has been peddling vinyl at his store since the days of sock hops and poodle skirts.
Parks, the 30-year-old son of noted musician-producer Van Dyke Parks, shopped at Murray’s as a youth. He remembers being struck by the musty, cathedral-like warehouse of a store, presided over by the aged gadfly who handpicked every disc.
“You go into the place and it’s so visually stunning,” says Parks. “Sitting Murray down in the middle of the stacks with the records crumbling in on him, it feels like you’re in the Frick Museum in New York. It feels like a sacred place.”
Gershenz grew up in New York at a time when anti-Semitism was a more pernicious force in America. On screen, he recounts how his father once beat up a trolley conductor for uttering an anti-Jewish slur.
Though he loved opera and cantorial music — he served as a cantor for a time at Shir Shalom, a Santa Monica synagogue — Gershenz had broad musical taste, which he put to good use acquiring his collection.
“He considers it his life’s work,” Parks says of the Gershenz stacks. “It grew out of his personal collection. He feels to me like an archetypal intellectual Jewish person from a certain era in America. There are fewer of them around now.”
With advancing age, Gershenz felt he could no longer properly run his business, especially with brick-and-mortar record stores dying out in the iTunes era. So he decided to sell, but only to the right buyer.
Enter Irv Gershenz, Murray’s adoring son, who can’t bear the idea of losing either his father or the store. Parks captures their complex father-son dynamic and turns it into his film’s subplot.
“It was a blessing as a filmmaker because I knew I had this other story to work with,” Parks adds. “They are such great foils to each other, like all fathers and sons.”
Parks is not Jewish, but he knew Gershenz’s Jewish background had to loom large in the documentary. He filmed his subject dining at L.A.’s famed Fairfax district delicatessen, Canter’s, and sitting in the sanctuary of the shul for which he once served.
Gershenz, however, says on screen that he has lost his faith, though he won’t say why.
Gershenz has yet to find a buyer for the collection. To make up the financial shortfall, he has found bit parts in film and television — no surprise, since Music Man Murray is quite the ham on screen.
Meanwhile, Parks continues to land broadcast and festival outlets for his movie, which was scored by his musical father.
“My dad took me to Music Man Murray’s for the first time when I was a teenager,” Parks says. “There was a lot that resonated with my own dynamic. When I found a musical story to film, I was so glad, I put my father to work at no charge.”
“Music Man Murray” airs 8:30 p.m. April 21, on the Documentary Channel, and April 21-27 on NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” at www.npr.org.