Call me Melville. Some weeks ago - never mind how long precisely - I was in my office smoking my favorite Italian cigar when the phone rang. I was still recovering from a very ugly divorce case, and the shrill ring felt like an attack on my life. For a moment, I thought about poor Owen Groit and the death in his face when I showed him the photos of his beautiful but unfaithful wife doing things he'd probably never even dreamed of. I almost didn't have the heart to answer the call. But in the end I always answer them.
I lifted the receiver and, with my free hand, reached for my personal psychiatrist, Dr Johnny Walker Black. "Yeah?" I said hoarsely.
"Melville," a man's voice whispered, "we have a terrible problem." The voice was desperate. "Can you handle a terrible problem?"
"Two hundred a day plus expenses is a good start," I said. Most people, I've learned, never really have terrible problems.
"This probably isn't your normal line of work," the voice went on. "We didn't know who to turn to."
How about a priest? They're free.
"Something strange is going on at the Oscar Mayer Theatre in the Civic Center," the voice said more urgently. "No one can explain it. Bass notes disappear mysteriously. What sounds good onstage to musicians sounds spotty to audiences. Some musicians claim that because the Oscar Mayer is an old movie theater it's not really a concert hall at all. Other musicians love it. No one agrees. We're not sure how good or bad the acoustics are. We're upset."
"We? Who is this we? I don't work for ghosts. Or wimps if I can help it. You sound like both."
The line went dead for a second, then the voice got cozy: "Just call me Mr. Concerned Citizen. Mr. CC to you. I represent a group of people trying to get to the bottom of the sound problems at the Civic Center. For someone who deals with killers and embezzlers this may seem like a minor thing, but believe me, the acoustics are a problem. They can make local groups sound worse than they should. And they can influence which artists come to town."
There was an effete, superior tone in Mr. CC's voice that I didn't like. Still, compared with a week of staring through a one-way mirror while Mrs. Groit reenacted the Kama Sutra, this sounded like a piece of cake. I kicked my feet up on my desk and shooed Dashiell, my calico cat, off the ink blotter.
"Keep preaching," I said, licking the Johnny Walker off my fingers. "Maybe you'll convert me."
"The musicians have valid complaints. They say the hall is too dry."
"Meaning there's not enough reverberation."
"Is that all?" I asked, wondering why people would pay me good money to worry about an echo. Of course, if I wondered too hard, I'd be out selling storm doors at the mall.
"Melville, this is serious!" Mr. CC hissed. "The acoustics in the Oscar Mayer are so bad that David Crosby, the conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, won't perform pieces like the 'Brandenburg Concertos' there. And the head of the Civic Center, Ralph Sandler, says he hasn't booked important artists like Itzhak Perlman! He hasn't booked as many classical concerts as he'd like to!"
I faked a dramatic whistle. My idea of strings was Nelson Riddle with Sinatra.
"The acoustics problem is contributing to the downfall of culture in Madison!" Mr. CC huffed. "The Civic Center's been open five years and no one has really addressed the problem. And that's why I called you."
"You want me to..."
"Investigate this phenomenon. A check for two days' work, $400, will arrive at your office in three hours."
Then the phone clicked dead.
Three hours later, somebody slipped the check under the door, then disappeared without a sound. I lit an Antico Toscano and blew the smoke out in a long white plume. It vanished in the air like those bass notes.
I'd always avoided these classical music types - they were nervous people, and nervous people make me nervous. But the registered check for four C's stared at me like an old lover, and I can't resist old lovers.
I picked up the phone and called Chilton Renard, a bookie I know who's also a classical music buff. First he read me the odds at Arlington, then he gave me the numbers of some local musicians. I figured they might know a lot about this acoustics mystery.
I picked up my old buddy, the phone. We go way back a long way, and we're still friends. The telephone is fast and safe. No face, no fists. No women with tiny silver guns trying to blow away their heartache.
I went to work. The first thing I found out was that there was no such thing as a perfect hall. For instance: Richard Blum, violist for the Pro Arte Quartet, said he'd heard complaints about Boston Symphony Hall, which is supposed to be one of the best. And the UW's Mills Hall, which was built specifically as a concert hall, wasn't so hot either, according to Blum.
Warren Downs, principal cellist for the Madison Symphony, said that when Carnegie Hall was first remodeled and all the old carpeting and wood were removed, the sound wasn't as good.
So how bad was the Oscar Mayer?
Anton Ten-Wolde, who plays with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, said that after a concert he gets contradictory reports about the balance. It all depends on where you sit, he said. And David Crosby, the Chamber Orchestra's conductor, said some people feel you can sit 10 seats away from someone else and hear an entirely different concert. What it all boiled down to was that the sound varies tremendously, even on the upper balcony, which by common agreement is the best place to hear a concert.
"Acoustics are terribly subjective," said Roland Johnson, the Madison Symphony's conductor. "Its like the story about the blind men who went to see the elephant. One grabbed the tail and described the elephant as a rope. Another touched the hide and said it's like a wall."
Hearing the maestro compare acoustics to an elephant gave me a rise, but I let it pass. I looked at the clock. It was already 3 p.m. and I hadn't eaten anything. Scotch can carry you a long way, but if you don't watch yourself it will carry you farther than you want to go.
I headed out for some coffee. As I stared at the whorls of cream, I thought about bass response. Some people think about who they're in love with, but today I was being paid to think about bass response. Everyone I'd talked to agreed that the Oscar Mayer's wasn't very good, meaning it was hard to hear the cellos and basses. And both Johnson and Richard Lottridge, the symphony's bassoonist, complained about the lack of reverb.
"It's a cold, dry, unforgiving sound," Lottridge said. "To sound great in a hall like that you have to be the Chicago Symphony, a group that plays all the time."
Singers had beefs too. Ann Stanke, a violist in the symphony and an assistant coach for the Civic Chorus, said the balcony juts out too far. "It's so close to the orchestra pit that the orchestra sound runs right into the balcony," she said. "Audiences complain that all they can hear is the symphony, not the singers."
Ralph Sandler, the Civic Center's manager (a guy I'd normally figure to keep mum about the whole thing to sell more tickets), was burned about a problem he called "intelligibility."
"In certain areas you can hear, but you can't understand what's being said," Sandler said. That was a problem, he said, because the theater also books touring Broadway shows and other plays.
I was deep into my third cup of coffee, and the Oscar Mayer was in deep trouble. Not enough bass response. Not enough reverberation. Not to mention how hard it was to hear singers and actors. But I'd gotten some good news, too. Every musician I talked to went on about how they could hear each other very clearly onstage. In fact, Lottridge said that some longhairs in the San Francisco Symphony like playing in the hall because they could hear themselves so well. The clarinet players weren't stepping on the violinists' feet and everybody was coming in together, which I guess is something that you have to do in a monkey suit.
Johnson mentioned another good thing about the hall. "You can play a true pianissimo and hear it right in the back of the hall," he said. "You can do a Strauss tone poem. The hall can accept it."
I decided to go back to the office and add up the hall's pros and cons. When I walked in a radiator pipe was playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever." I banged the pipe to shut it up, then got down to work, spreading out notes from my phone interviews on the desk. There was something funny going on here, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It seemed to go like this: The Oscar Mayer was a swell hall if you stayed in Madison, but if you ever left town it started to sound bad.
For starters, no one disputed that it was the city's best concert hall. "It's a vast improvement over what we had at MATC," said Warren Downs, the cellist. "As far as playing in town, it's better than anything else."
Richard Blum agreed. The only problem was that the grass was greener on the other side. "Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee all have better-sounding concert halls," said Blum, who has played all over with the Pro Arte. "Even Viterbo Hall in LaCrosse is better."
The Oscar Mayer is no great shakes compared with Carnegie Hall or Boston Symphony Hall either, according to Downs, who played with the Cleveland Symphony from 1956 to 1971 before coming to Madison.
It was beginning to sound like every hall in the country was better. "Madison has more halls per capita than any other city its size," Lottridge stated flatly. "But you could go to a place like Fairbanks, Alaska, and find something better."
You could also, according to Johnson, find something worse. He said that Madison's hall beat the one at which he'd conducted in Spokane, Wash. And he said that when the famous violinist Elmar Oliveira was guest artist with the Madison Symphony, he was relieved to play at the Oscar Mayer.
What it all came down to, then, was that the Oscar Mayer could be worse, but that it wasn't setting the world on fire, either. By now I was hooked. I had to know: How could it be improved?
But I called it a day. The next morning I'd make the Civic Center my first stop.
Nine forty-five the next morning found me standing on Henry Street outside the Civic Center. I paused for a guy in an army jacket who stumbled by, brown-bagging his breakfast from a bottle of Boone's Farm. Billy Graham keeps telling me the world is a beautiful place, but the wine junkie made me wonder.
Once inside the building, I walked on the soft carpet up the big stairs to the Oscar Mayer's entrance, then down the darkened aisle into the heart of the theater. For a moment, I could almost make out the ghosts of dog acts and tap-dancers and sweat-stained comics left over from vaudeville's last gasp.
It looked as if the theater's managers had tried with paint and drapes and new seats to make you forget those days. They'd given the place a facelift, all right, but they hadn't done anything about the bulbous nose of a balcony or the sidewalls that stuck out like plaster ears. And then there was the high ceiling above the stage. There were dozens of places for the basses, cellos and vocals to get lost.
As I looked at the stage, I remembered another problem Lottridge mentioned: The hall needed a solid orchestra shell. Without one, he said, the sound could go in too many directions. "The drapes in the hall may look nice, but they're bad for sound," he said. "Actually, I don't think you can have an all-purpose hall that has good acoustics."
What Lottridge meant was that the Oscar Mayer is used for some 90 events a year, and only a dozen or so are orchestra concerts. Meaning that it was impossible to turn the place into a pure concert hall, and that there might always be a problem with the sound.
I doubted if Mr. CC was going to like to hear that. Fortunately, I'd already banked his check at a night deposit. He'd just have to take the news like a man - or whatever he really was.
I sat down in one of the main-floor seats and lit my first cigar of the day.
"Is that you, Melville?" a voice shouted from the back of the hall.
"Who wants to know?" I yelled back, not bothering to turn around.
"There's no smoking in here, Melville!"
"There aren't any acoustics, either," I muttered.
The sound of scuffling feet got close, and there, suddenly, was a bearded man glaring down at me. He had the handsome, exaggerated features of an aging character actor. He'd make a good Uncle Ben in Death Of A Salesman, I thought, or, with a pillow around his middle, a good Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
"I'm Sandler. Ralph Sandler," the man said. "We talked on the phone."
"You mean you talked," I said, trying to size him up.
"Listen," he snarled, "this is my joint. I got an excuse to be here. But you..."
I clapped my hands. Sandler blinked his eyes but didn't answer. He eyed me with a cold stare of incomprehension.
"There should be an echo when I do this," I said. I clapped again, harder. "See? Hardly any. And I'm trying to figure out why. Any ideas?"
"Ideas?" Sandler snorted. "You're talking to me about ideas?"
"No, I'm talking about acoustics. Of course, if you want to discuss Hegel or Rosa Luxemburg...."
"What is this?" Sandler's voice was shaking with fury. I tried to see if he was packing iron. "Imagine!" he almost shouted. "Imagine a lousy peeper with a tin ear judging our hall. The mind boggles! Well, let me tell you a story, peeper. When they remodeled this place five years ago - before I came to work here - an acoustician named Jaffe tried to deal with the problems electronically. He designed an orchestra shell that wasn't really a shell. It was a series of panels with microphones inside. And he put up floating clouds from the ceiling. But still the sound escaped. Then he put speakers under the balcony and on the sides of the hall, but the speakers weren't very good, and the system didn't work well. About a year ago Jaffe's acoustics firm sent someone out to retune the system. But that didn't help either."
Sandler gasped for breath, then slumped down in a chair. He looked like someone who'd been punched in the gut. As we sat side by side in silence, I thought about the cheap solutions that had been tried to make the place sound better. The symphony had put the basses on risers. They'd arranged the cellos. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra had moved out to the front of the stage. Fred Schrank, the symphony's bassist, had even suggested that maybe the orchestra needed more basses than the seven or eight they already had.
These were inexpensive remedies for an expensive problem, and something more than a short-term cure was needed. As Warren Downs said: "It's a bit of a myth to think musicians can overcome the drawbacks of a hall."
I sat and waited for Sandler to continue, as I knew he would. Actors love the sound of their own voices.
"Melville," he said tentatively. "Can you keep your mouth shut?"
"Depends what's in it," I said.
"I don't know why you're here and I don't want to know," he growled. "But I'll let you in on a little secret. We got money allocated in the Civic Center budget this year to make this place sound good. We've got proposals from several acoustics experts, and we're in the ballpark, financially. We'll probably have to install 60 or 70 new, small, high-quality speakers that will help the full frequency of the hall. We'll replace some poor amplifiers and some of the old speakers, too. When the acoustics are good enough, which I think they will be after the renovation, then we'll be ready for the Itzhak Perlmans."
I wasn't sure his idea would work. But I was sure he had hope, and that made me feel good. People with hope in this world are rare creatures.
I got up, put on my hat and relit my cigar.
"I think you've got something there, bucko," I said.
There weren't any guarantees, but I didn't say that. No, I just walked up the aisle of the dark theater, then out onto the bright street, where a man who looked like Moses was bumming quarters and the snow was falling on everyone.
The phone was ringing in my office as I fished in my pocket for the door key. The phone always stops just as you get to it, so I didn't hurry. It kept on ringing as I hung up my overcoat and hat. It rang on as I built myself a good-sized scotch. Then I picked up the receiver.
I was expecting Mr. CC, and I was ready with my report. The good news was that the acoustics were finally going to be worked on with electronic reinforcement and new equipment. The bad news was that, as Downs had put it, "They may ultimately need a foundation grant to cover the enormous expense of remaking the hall, or at least for buying a full orchestra shell."
The shell alone would run upwards of a hundred grand, and that wasn't chicken feed. It was beyond me why Oscar Mayer himself, or someone running around town with his last name, hadn't kicked in a few million for the cause. I know if they ever named something after Henry Melville I'd want it to be better than mediocre.
Anyway, I figured Mr. CC had gotten his four C's worth. But it wasn't Mr. CC on the phone. It was my old client Mr. Owen Groit, who by now probably had an uncontested divorce from the adventurous Mrs. Owen Groit.
"Melville," Groit gasped, "my 16-year-old daughter, Cindy, ran off with a punk-rock band called the Dry Heaves! I want her back."
"Are they an offshoot of the famed Porcelain Thrones?" I asked innocently.
"This isn't a joke, Melville! I'm serious!"
Like Oscar Wilde, I've always believed life is too important to take seriously. But I didn't tell Owen Groit that. I poured two more fingers of scotch while he launched into a long story about his Lucinda. Then I fired a new cigar. Perhaps intrigued by the sweet Tuscan odor, a fly landed on my desk and immersed itself in a cloud of smoke.
Owen kept talking. The fly and I had a stare-down. It was a draw.