Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 154


The Openeer Papers (1900)
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The Phonograph and How to Use It
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Chapter I.  
What Mr. Openeer Heard

LAST Christmas my wife and I were invited to a house party at Larchmont, New York.  The gray afternoon was deepening into dim dusk as the sleigh left the little station, and the cold was intense.  Our fifteen minutes' ride to the home of our host chilled us through and through, and as we fumbled with wraps and gloves in the silent hall of the house, our feelings were divided between personal discomfort and wonderment that no one was there to greet us.  Suddenly there piped up a thin little voice seeming to come from nowhere.  It grew louder and louder, and we heard "Merry Christmas, merry, merry Christmas.  Welcome, Mr. Openeer; we are glad to see you.  Welcome, Mrs. Openeer; how is the baby?  How did you leave Ponjo?" (Ponjo is our dog).  We looked around bewildered.  The voice continued: "Take off your wraps; lay them on the table.  James will see them safely laid away."  Astonishment gave way to curiosity, and we drew aside a curtain and found the cheery speaker to be -- a Phonograph.  Then through a half-open door we heard whisperings and merry laughter as the uncanny little machine went on to sing for us a Christmas glee.  Before it was finished the children of the house came running in laughing, followed by our hostess and the other guests; and we saw and [136] felt heartily the double welcome that had been prepared for us.  The surprise had all been planned.  Our host had talked and sung this Christmas greeting into the Phonograph the night before, making a "record" with which the jolly little machine could greet each guest as he arrived.  We saw it all when Jack Halsey and his sister came, about five minutes later.  "Here comes Jack," called one of the children from the porte cochère window; and hastily adjusting the wax cylinder ticketed "Halsey," we waited in the dining-room and den with half-open doors as they entered.  "Hello, Jack," said the Phonograph behind the curtain, "How d'ye do, Clare?  Glad to see you.  Come in and stay a while."  They stopped and stared around, bewildered, just as we had done.  "Take off your things.  Merry Christmas."  And then, without stopping, the wonderful toy began to play the banjo.  Then, we, all of us, burst in upon the astonished pair, and welcomed them amid shouts of laughter.

The thing entertained us all next day.  When we tired of hearing our own voices fired back at us, we played the piano for it.  Then we made a quartette of banjoists: then our host played the cornet; then we sang -- solos, duets and choruses; and the "bally little mocker," as Algy Dunraven called it, gave us every time as good as we gave it.  Why, it was perfectly wonderful!

Then we were entertained with boughten records.  Selections by famous bands and orchestras, operatic, military marches and dance music, all in perfect time, and loud and clear.  Songs by famous singers, speeches by famous men, funny talks and dialect records.  Why, we spent a delightful time.  Our host told us confidently that had he engaged the artists, performers and bands to appear in person, a thousand dollars would [137] have been a reasonable price for the entertainment that was provided for less than a tenth of that sum.  And, best of all, he could repeat the whole programme the very next night if he wanted to.  And we believed every word, because we heard it all ourselves.  

I have since bought a Phonograph for myself; and have been repaid a hundred times for the investment, by the fun and entertainment I've got out of it.  My advice to my friends is, "Go and do likewise."

My wife called on our next door neighbor the other day to sympathize with her over the loss of their eight-year-old boy.  They had bought a Phonograph, by the way, immediately on hearing ours.  Well, the conversation naturally was about the dear little fellow who had just crossed over the Dark River.  And she could not stop talking to my wife about his pretty eyes and curly hair hair [sic] and laughing voice.  "It's one of the greatest consolations that I have these," she said, going to her record cabinet; and carefully taking from it three of the wax cylinders, she put one on the machine.  The next moment it was as if Harry was in the room.  First came his merry laugh, then an aside.  "Dear mamma, do keep quiet while I speak my piece."  Then came a steady little voice, clear and strong:

  "A tiny little seed am I,
   In the mold,
Hidden from the great blue sky
   And the cold.
I throw my little rootlets out
   And feel around.
There!  I almost turned about
   In the ground.
Did I hear a bluebird sing?
   Can it be?
If I did it must be spring.
   I'll go and see."
 

[138] Then there sounded a clapping of hands and bits of conversation.  his mother sat there with tears in her eyes, but with a joyous look on her face.  "My precious first born," was all she said.  And one of the first things my wife did when she came home that afternoon was to take our poor little youngster and make half a dozen records of his chatter and baby-talk right away.  I fancy him listening to those "talks" twenty years from now!  But should he be taken from us in the meanwhile, I know I'd hold them as my most highly-prized possession....

[140] It has remained for Mrs. Openeer to discover the most novel use for the Phonograph as an entertainer.  She gave a "Voice Guessing party" last week, and we had all kinds of fun and [141] jollity over the funny guesses.  It's somewhat similar to a "Perfume Party."  You know how that's done.  Twelve or fifteen little vials, all alike as to appearance, are filled with different perfumes.  It adds to the perplexity of the guessers to include vinegar, alcohol, benzine, turpentine, chloroform or kerosene.  Then the contestants smell and guess, and the winner of the prize is the one who has the longest correct list.  My wife conducted her party on a similar plan.  Each guest made a three minutes' talk into a Phonograph in separate rooms (we borrowed two other machines for the evening), and after every one had talked or sung, either in natural voice or disguised, we played the records before all the assembled guests.  Each was provided with paper and pencil.  The scheme was immense.  You can imagine the hilarity that greeted the wild guesses when the results were declared.  A surprising number of the voices were guessed correctly, however, and the entertainment was voted by all to be a very happy success.  I tell you, my friends, it takes a Phonograph every time to be a fun-maker.

I represent a chemical syndicate.  It's a far cry from sulphuric acid and by-products to Phonographs, I know, but you will see the connection presently.  There's a town I strike when I'm on the road where there is a most unique collection of stories: unpublished unbound, yet indestructible, and most carefully preserved.  The genius who is making the collection does business [142] in Louisville, what street I won't say, and whenever a drummer shoots a good story at him he says, "Hold up -- come here," and then and there, on the spot, he embalms Mr. Drummer in wax; and like a fly in amber, his funny tale is preserved for all time.  I've sat by the hour listening to stories; and such stories.  Cylinder after cylinder, every one different.  Every now and then I'd recognize a fellow knight of the road; some I hadn't met for years, some dead.  I do not hesitate to say that Mr. Blank's collection of stories hasn't an equal in the whole world.  Some of the mildest of them, revised and expurgated, are often heard in vaudeville; but for the most part, the "Louisville records" are to be heard only by the favored few who are in the ring.  I have lately heard of other collections, but none to equal that of the pioneer, Mr. Blank.

I told my wife about Blank's collection the last time I made home after a three week's flier, and gave her a sketch -- very sketchy, indeed -- of some of the yarns.  She said, "Capital idea!" and before I knew what she was about she started what is now known to my friends as "Openeer's Voice Album."  As a novelty, it proves very interesting to visitors, and bids fair to be as popular as the old-fashioned autograph collections, and, in fact, supplements that and the photograph album most beautifully.  We limit our friends to a half-minute's talk, first announcing the name and [143] following with a funny short talk, or a touching sentiment, or a bit of poetry; and really, we have a delightful way of entertaining our guests, as any one who has made Phonograph records for friends well knows.

The hot and bloody work before Santiago, in Cuba, has made one of my wife's Voice Album records of inestimable value.  Young Smith, of the 71st New York, was my cousin, and was among the first to try the effect of his voice on a wax cylinder.  His name comes out loud and clear, and then these words:

  "Of all the fish in sea or lake
The bloomin' codfish takes the cake."
 

It's funny, but it's sad too; for poor Smith was shot through the lungs with a Mauser bullet and died seven days afterward.  When his father learned of the record we had of his voice, he bought the finest, most expensive Phonograph to be had; and we gave him our cylinder, taking several copies or duplicates of it for ourselves and his friends.  This is easily done, you know, by connecting the "speaker" from the Phonograph that is playing the original to the "recorder" of another machine, on which is a smooth blank.  Of course this copy is a little indistinct -- all duplicates are.  The original Edison records such as you buy are always the best.  But the copies we [144] made were plain enough for us to distinguish Bert's voice, and we are proud of it, I can tell you, not only for the satisfaction of having a hero record in our collection, but also that we were able to be of service to his father; for the old gentleman holds that cylinder as one of his choicest possession on earth.

Chapter II
How We Gave a Phonograph Party

[145] IT was Charlotte's plan.  The idea struck her suddenly (they always do come to her that way) during an evening we were spending over at the Openeer's.  Young Mrs. Openeer had asked us to dine with them and play whist; but after dinner Mr. Openeer started one of his Phonographs so that we could hear an opera we had been talking about, and cards were entirely forgotten.  It was delightful.  They had lots of wax records -- almost a complete score of the opera in question.  The talk naturally turned on how it was all done, for it seemed perfectly wonderful.  So he showed us all about it, and that's how Charlotte's inspiration came.

"I have it, I have it" she whispered excitedly the moment we left the house, and she almost pushed me down the steps in her eagerness.  "We will give a Phonograph Party, and it will be the newest and most delightful thing out," and she straightaway unfolded the whole scheme as we crossed the street to our house.  By the time we had climbed up to our room the schedule was complete.  I must say that Charlotte is a quick and ready thinker.  Her plan was fine.  You see she teaches mathematics in the high school, while I have only a kindergarten class.  She thought the idea and I completed the practical arrangements; and between us [146] we planned an entertainment which I am sure will be long remembered by our friends as a very happy evening.

We sent out our invitations the very next day, for Wednesday evening of the following week.  To Beverly Dunlap's we added a line "Bring your cornet."  To Alice Blank's "Please bring your banjo.["]  Will Hamilton's also had a "banjo" postscript, and Nat Browton's a "clarinet" item.  Charlotte had a violin and I a guitar, which, with the piano (fortunately an upright), would give a variety of instrumental music for the occasion.  In each of the other notes, we wrote the mystifying words "Please bring your voice."

To Mr. and Mrs. Openeer's invitation Charlotte insisted on adding (as a matter of form only she explained to me), "Please bring your Phonographs;" for we had already enlisted their co-operation, and Mr. Openeer had entered into our plan with enthusiasm.  He loaned us not one, but two Phonographs "for convenience sake," said he, "one for recording and one for reproducing.  Saves the bother of changing speakers and horns."  He also insisted on furnishing us with a plentiful supply of smooth wax cylinders or blanks as they are called; at the same time offering us his services as an expert should we need him.

The next few days saw us busy at every spare moment.  First we tried and experimented in every possible way with the Phonograph, making record after record, until we found out just how to do it.  It's wonderfully simple if you only know how [147] (like everything else in this world for that matter).  Mr. Openeer offered to teach us, but we wanted to find out all by ourselves; and we did very nicely by following the printed instructions which he furnished us.  Then we had refreshments to prepare.  Charlotte gave way to my ideas in this matter, and my kindergarten training suggested that we get some jelly glasses that were just the right size, two and a half inches across and four inches deep.  Into these, we packed our ice cream after we had made it, so that each guest should have a "frozen record" just like that great fib of Baron Munchausen's.  We also made ginger snaps in the shape of a horn, by fashioning a cake cutter out of a strip of tin.  All our plans matured beautifully, except that Charlotte scorched two whole pans of ginger snaps, and let some salt get into the ice cream tins; Charlotte was never good at those things.

Every one of our guests came on Wednesday evening; every one of them as curious as an original Eve (or Adam) and every one of them delighted on learning what was in prospect.  We commenced right away with the cornet.  It makes a fine loud record, and we wanted to start off auspiciously.  We had placed our Recording Phonograph high up on a small table, so that the horn was about on a level with Mr. Dunlap's head, as he stood ready to play.  The shape of the horn, too, makes some little difference.  [148] Mr. Openeer loaned us his recording horn for our party.  It was fully two feet long and shaped like a cone.  It had no flare or bell on the end, which was about 6 or 7 inches across.  Our equipment was really quite perfect.  The second Phonograph stood on one end of the large table and was fitted with a reproducing diaphragm or speaker as they call it.  It also had a small fourteen-inch bell shaped horn, which shape seems to spread the sound better than the other.  I attended to the machine, put on a new blank and started it, while Charlotte started each performer.  At the close of each record taking, I stopped the machine, took off the record and put it on the reproducing Phonograph, and we all heard what had just been played into the other machine, reproduced with startling and marvelous exactness.

I will say right here that a single Phonograph with two speakers and a bell shaped horn would have been all that was absolutely necessary.  The only advantage of having two Phonographs was that it saved the delay (a very small matter) of changing the recording speaker for the reproducer after each record was made.

As directed by Charlotte, Mr. Dunlap stood about five feet away, and played directly into the horn.  He gave a short aria from "Maritana," playing it with considerable volume and with even, well sustained notes, with but little attempt at expression.  He used only half his record in a minute and a half, so Charlotte whispered "Do you know any bugle calls?"  (Dunlap was in camp at Jacksonville all through the war.)  His laughing answer "Do I know any bugle calls by heart? well, rather!" made us all laugh too.  It was wonderful the way he made his cornet fairly talk. [149]

  "I can't get 'em up
I can't get 'em up
I can't get 'em up
In the morning."
 

His attempt ended in a storm of applause, which was repeated a few minutes later when I changed his record to the other Phonograph and reproduced it.  First came the aria, loud and clear and distinct.  Then a pause of a few seconds.  Then a big manly voice said "Do I know any bugle calls by heart?  Well, rather."  How we all shouted!  It did sound so funny.  Then came his bugle call and a faint clapping of hands and then our real applause.  Our first record was a success!

Then Nat Browton played his clarinet; and the reproduction was so perfect that we could actually hear his breathing.  Those quick little gasps for breath that I for one had never particularly noticed, until the reproduction of the record called it to my attention.  He played directly into the horn, and as close to it as he could.

Then we had several vocal solos.  Each singer stood close to the horn, with the face almost within the opening.  Charlotte cautioned them all to sing rather loud and be particularly careful to draw back the head while taking any high notes.  Our bass and baritone artists made highly successful records.  Our tenor sang "The Holy City" most beautifully, but his voice lacked that peculiar quality necessary for Phonograph record making.  The tones of his voice were like the invisible rays of the spectrum beyond the violet; it seemed impossible to record them.  Charlotte discoursed learnedly about the number of vibrations per [150] second caused by his high C -- about a thousand I think she said.

Mr. Openeer lessened his discomfiture by remarking that a Phonograph tenor was an exceedingly rare phenomenon.  "As rare as a Phonograph soprano" he added bowing to Mrs. Openeer who was our next performer, "and although my wife has a beautiful voice I have never yet taken a really good record of it."

We made a passably fair record of Mrs. Openeer's fine soprano voice by draping the opening of the horn with mosquito netting; but it wasn't real good and we had to put it in the same class with the tenor's; and also with Charlotte's violin record, which came next on the programme.  The amateur will do well to avoid the sorrow that is almost inevitable in attempting to make a record of a high tenor, a soprano or a violin.

The most effective records we made during the entire evening were two chorus records.  All stood close together in a bunch about three feet from the horn and sang "Marching through Georgia," and it came out fine.  Our success led us to try another, "Onward Christian Soldiers," and it was every bit as good.  The piano accompaniments of all our records were very good indeed.  In every case the piano stood about three feet distant, with its open back towards the Phonograph.  A square or a grand piano is not so well adapted for this accompaniment work, although a solo may be recorded very nicely by bringing the horn close up to the raised cover of the instrument.

[151] We now removed our Recording Phonograph from its lofty perch, to accommodate our banjoists and also those of our guests who were to make talking records, and preferred to sit rather than stand.  The banjo should be played as close to the horn as is possible.  We made several capital records, so loud and natural as to tone quality that I would defy anyone listening with eyes shut or in the next room to tell the difference.

The talking records were mostly all good too.  The performers were cautioned to speak very distinctly, sounding the S's and soft C's with particular emphasis.  Some of them caused lots of merriment when they were reproduced, owing to the funny and irrelevant side remarks of the speakers; most of whom had never talked into a Phonograph, and seemed to forget that the machine would catch and repeat all that was said.

Last of all came the ginger-snap horns and the "frozen records." The tenor declared that these were the best of all.  He may have been perfectly honest (for they were real good) or it may have been gross flattery; or yet again his failure may have made him a little jealous of the others.  But, somehow, I didn't exactly like his remark.  I think on the whole, while perfectly polite and courteous to Charlotte and me, his hostesses, what he said simply proved the proverb, "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach;" for the rest of us agreed, not even counting in our "frozen records," that our Phonograph Party had been a grand success.


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