Without playing or singing a single note, Sandy Marrone takes me on a marvelous musical journey.
“Why Don’t You Look Me Up Down in Chi-Chi-Hotcha Watchee.”
“I’d Rather Go Out With Mickey Mouse Than Go Out With a Rat Like You.”
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble,” my gracious tour guide says with a smile, adding, “I collect sheet music.”
That’s a bit like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg saying he owns a website. Marrone has amassed an eclectic array of more than 600,000 “sheets,” most of them American popular tunes of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“That’s waaaaaaaaay too much sheet music,” she writes in one of her exuberant emails.
Among the largest private collections of its kind anywhere, her archive spans the decades prior to the advent of recorded sound through the digital era.
Marrone has a grand piano in her living room (“I’m a better collector than player”) and a deep love for music. She also loves the often evocative design of the sheet covers and adores the glimpses of the past this once ubiquitous product — now more of a niche item — can provide.
“Treaty With My Sweetie.”
You read that right: Sheet music has been published for many selections from Madonna’s epic catalogue. It even is available for songs by those benighted rockers Nickleback, whose “Animals” features a depiction of two rather, shall we say, amorous rhinos.
“I love the fun of collecting,” says Marrone, who lives in Cinnaminson with her husband, Dennis, an HR professional. “A lot of people don’t get it. But I don’t bother with them.”
The mother of a grown son, Marrone has collected music for songs by crooners, cowboys, and blues belters, for soul shouters, folkies, and even for a song promoting the 50th anniversary of a certain Cumberland County city (“Come Back, Ye Sons of Vineland”).
There are sheets of waltzes, rags, and marches, for songs derived from the great mother lode of African American music, for tunes made famous on Broadway, composed on Tin Pan Alley, or enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
She’s got George Gershwin and Bon Walker and his Bon Bons, Michael Jackson, Barry Manilow, and the Beatles, movie stars, TV stars, and forgotten stars.
All these and much more are filed meticulously, if somewhat idiosyncratically, on shelves and in cabinets, binders, folders, drawers … and in the encyclopedic brain of the collector and curator herself.
“There is a system,” says Marrone, who only sells duplicate items of sheets already in her collection.
“You can’t really see the system. But it’s here. It’s also in my head, and fortunately, my mind is still sharp.”
A retired photographer, Marrone traces the beginning of her collection to 1975. Browsing in an antiques shop in her native Riverton, she picked up a piece of sheet music for “A Perfect Day,” by Carrie Jacobs Bond. It was her mother’s favorite song.
“It was beautiful, like so many of them are,” she says, pointing to the exquisite lithography and lush typography on vintage sheets spread across an enormous worktable in the basement.
It’s where Marrone can be found most days, admiring, organizing, and filing her latest finds. “It’s what I love to do,” she says.
That Carrie Jacobs Bond tune cost 50 cents; some subsequent acquisitions have cost “a lot” more, she says, noting that collectors sometimes pay from a few dollars to a few thousand.
“The original sheet music for `The Star-Spangled Banner,’ which I don’t have, would go for $1 million,” notes Marrone.
She organizes the material by composer, singer, subject matter, geography, and ethnicity, among other categories. There are files marked ocean, Persia, Fats Waller, and Jewish; tunes about shoes, the rosary (“there are quite a few of those”), and even a Victorian-era ditty called “Only a Newsboy,” published by a company in Germantown and “dedicated” to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I’ve got 700 Sinatra sheets,” says Marrone, opening a drawer marked “Sinatra.”
“I’ve got 400 Elvis sheets,” she adds. “More than they have at Graceland.”
Marrone prides herself on knowing where to find rarities; she and her husband spend lots of time crisscrossing the country, searching for acquisitions.
“Her collection is amazing,” says Rowan University music-theory professor Robert Rawlins, whose self-published 2015 book, Tunes of the Twenties and All That Jazz, includes images of Marrone’s material.
“I didn’t think there could be that much music in one place,” adds Rawlins, a clarinetist who lives in Clayton. “There were things I thought I would never find, and she had them.”
Fortunately for anyone interested in the history of popular music, Marrone has no plans to stop collecting.
But people, including me, do ask what she sees as the future of her life’s work.
“It’s a dilemma,” she says, noting that libraries and other institutions she’s spoken to aren’t interested.
So Marrone chooses to savor the present and what she calls “the joy” that sheet music brings.
“It’s the joy of collecting, and what it has done for me,” she says, “and what it has done for our lives.”