Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears

WHY, THAT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

The Press Democrat just helped solve a century-old mystery, and it’s all thanks to the paper’s laziness back in 1919.

This adventure begins just before Hallowe’en when a large ad began appearing in the PD promoting an appearance by a concert singer. “The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater,” announced a related news item. The Cline was the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces (it became the Roxy in 1935) and was a big, cavernous hall that also hosted vaudeville acts and traveling stage shows. What made this performance unique, however, was that tickets were free but could only be obtained from the Santa Rosa Furniture Company. Also, the ad noted cryptically, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison’s Three Million Dollar Phonograph will assist.”

A review appeared about a week after the concert: “Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.”

Flutist/Edison Company pitchman Harold Lyman came onstage and told the audience that he and Miss Gardner were going to demonstrate why Edison’s new record player was so terrific. “It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.”

A record was placed on the turntable and Ida began to sing along. “She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernible difference in tone quality.”

idagardnerThe PD reported, “It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not…This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

“It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.”

(RIGHT: Ida Gardner, c.1919)

Now, I’ll concede an Edison phonograph playing Edison records were considered state-of-the-art in the late 1910s, and the company’s sales brochure convincingly explained why it was technically superior to anything else on the market. Still, it had no electrical amplification nor speaker (aside from the wooden baffles in the cabinet); here’s a video of that exact model playing a record from that time and the only thing heard that sounds as if it could be realistic is the harmonica. We can also listen to an Ida Gardner recording made around that time played on modern equipment and even hearing past the scratches and surface noise – much of it probably due to the record being 100+ years old – it sounds as if she’s singing inside your coat closet. With the door closed. Behind the coats.

For the Press Democrat music critic to claim such a wind-up acoustic phonograph could sound exactly like a live performer is a pretty amazing testimonial. But (s)he was not alone; the Edison Company did about 4,000 of these “Tone Test” exhibitions in theaters and music stores around the country between 1915-1925 but I can’t find a single negative review in a newspaper or magazine. And before Edison, the Victor company was boasting as early as 1908 that it was impossible to tell the difference with their gear.

So what was going on? Was everybody lying, delusional, or was there some kind of trickery? To no surprise, academic types have been pondering this for decades.

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I’m reminded one of my best college professors emphasized the need to completely sensitize yourself to any particular historical era before judging how people reacted to anything in the arts. During the 5th century BC two artists had a painting contest where one displayed painted grapes which looked so realistic that birds supposedly pecked at them. He challenged his rival to draw back the curtains and display his work, not realizing that curtain itself was a masterful painting. While ancient Greek murals and panels are astonishing works of art, our eyes today would never confuse their grapes and curtain paintings for real physical objects. In the world of music, people in the mid-18th century reacted strongly to hearing the unique Mannheim effects, such as instead of just playing loud, soft, or in between, an entire orchestra would slowly build a crescendo towards a loud and exciting climax. Audiences didn’t know what to make of those unfamiliar sounds and became agitated; women fainted and men jumped to their feet, shouting as they might have cheered on a horse race. Yet to our modern ears it’s…meh. The background classical music at your dentist’s office.

While it may seem absurd to consider today, it’s possible there were those who actually did believe these primitive phonographs sounded “real.” Americans were hearing less and less live music with every passing year; theaters like the Cline were booking fewer vaudeville acts as the public preferred to watch silent movies when going out for entertainment, and home musicians were finding the new jazzy pop music harder to plunk out on the piano in the parlor. Listening to recorded music was the new norm.1 If you’ve become acclimated to hearing music on a tabletop Victrola with its big metallic horn, that Edison floor model must have truly sounded phenomenal, particularly with the theater’s acoustics boosting its limited dynamic range.

Edison also gamed the Tone Tests in a couple of outrageous ways. Although the Press Democrat review claims the audience was very skeptical, the main job of Edison’s pitchman was to put the audience in a highly receptive mood, coaching them on what they should be listening for (and implicitly, the shortcomings they should be ignoring).2

We don’t know what was exactly said in these theater presentations, but Edison gave a strict set of instructions (“The Tone Test and Its Stage Setting”) to the dealerships on how to manage a showroom demo. There should be comfortable furniture (“mahogany, upholstered”), potted plants and “the best framed picture of Mr. Edison you can produce.” When the record begins playing, the listener is to stay “in the moment” for 45 seconds with eyes open. Then eyes should be closed for about a minute, then opened for 15 seconds (“but do not gaze at your surroundings”) then closed again until the record is over. The purpose of those eye exercises was supposedly to “shake off the influence of your surroundings,” although it sounds to me more like the mumbo-jumbo associated with another invention Edison was working on at the same time – a device which would communicate with the dead.

Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears
Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with “Edison’s musical experts.” Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears

 

Edison also boasted that a roster of famous musicians were performing his Tone Tests but in practice, newspaper searches reveal his company mostly relied upon a handful of female singers of little renown. The woman who performed in Santa Rosa, Ida Gardner (real name: Ida Greson) apparently had no professional background at all aside from sometimes being a soloist in New York City churches. Their talent lay in another direction, however: A kind of reverse mimesis, where they could imitate the sound of their own unnatural voice bleating from a mechanical record player. One of the singers confessed in an interview fifty years later:3


I remember I stood right beside the machine. The audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me. The machine played and I sang with it. Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. And sometimes I would stop singing and let the machine play, and I’d come in again. Well, it seemed to make a tremendous success.

So add all this up – the singers imitating the tinny sound of their own recordings, the audiences being trained to ignore their lyin’ ears (and maybe flap their eyelids on command), the fading memory of what live musical instruments and singers really sounded like on stage – and it explains why Edison’s Tone Tests always received nothing but rave reviews. After all, the only other explanation is that everyone was lying.

Believe it or not: Everyone was lying.

The review that appeared in the Press Democrat also can be found, word for word – except for the name of the theater – in other historic newspapers online. Even more papers share a paragraph or three with the PD’s review and still others beyond that are littered with the same keywords and phrases (“clever flutist,” “the audience confessed,” repeated use of “Miss Gardner’s lips” for ex) which betray they all drew waters from the same well. Clearly, the Edison company was providing advertising copy which the local newspaper editors could reprint in toto or use to cobble together a rewrite, depending on how industrious the copy editor felt. The fingerprints of still other boilerplates can also be found; when Harold Lyman was touring 1915-6 with a different singer, he was then mentioned in Tone Test reviews as a “clever young flutist.”

This simple explanation has eluded scholars because not many are familiar with newspapering practices at that time. The first clue of something funky was that concert reviews even existed; it was very rare then for papers to recap a one-night-only musical or theater performance. That the PD review didn’t appear until almost a week later added a further red flag.

Yes, other types of ads disguised as news articles sometimes can be found but it wasn’t common, and that Edison’s appeared in many newspapers nationwide over many years makes me think that the placement of these “newsverts” was actually the key objective of Edison’s promotional campaign – a kind of early influencer marketing. (That the fake reviews were unsigned only made them appear more legit, as news articles rarely had bylines.)

The scheme also relied upon the Edison dealers having a good relationship with the local papers. Here the Santa Rosa Furniture Company was a regular advertiser in the Press Democrat anyway; buying an additional two weeks of big, expensive ads promoting this phonograph and the Tone Test only gave the editors more incentive to go along with the request to also print all/part of the glowing “review” as a favor for this important ad client.

(As a side note, newspapers also conversely did favors for their advertisers by not printing news; in 1911 a local scandal involving double suicides was suppressed by both Santa Rosa papers as long as possible, even while the San Francisco dailies were covering it on the front page. At risk was the reputation of a downtown store that was a major PD advertiser, and probably fears that drawing attention to the story could launch boycotts against both the store and the newspaper itself.)

Surely there were some publishers (hopefully, many) who balked at printing such “fake news,” but even if the phony reviews appeared in a fraction of the places where there were Tone Test demonstrations, this was still likely the most brazen example of covert advertising in early 20th century America (I’ve certainly never encountered anything like it).

And more than his hundred competitors, Edison needed to generate lots of good publicity; his music system wasn’t going to sell itself. His phonograph players were ridiculously expensive – up to two-thirds the cost of a new Ford car – and the only records you could play on them were the ones Edison made. Worse, he always selected the recording artists himself and besides being a half-deaf old man, his taste in music was mostly abysmal.

The Edison catalog leaned toward military marches, religious and sentimental pap, hillbilly and comic songs (including many in racist dialect), operatic warhorses, classical chestnuts and dance tunes for dance steps nobody did anymore. He liked recording novelty ensembles (the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, the Alessios Mandolin Quartet) and novelty songs (“Farmyard medley“). Edison disliked most trained singers (“many of the most famous of opera singers sing badly,” he said) but praised Donald Chalmers, an amateur who sang without any emotion but hit every note as perfectly as a machine.4

In the end, Edison’s work on the phonograph during those years yielded only small improvements in the evolution of sound recording – but along the way it appears he invented a marketing scheme which was quite good at hoodwinking our ancestors. You might even say he was a kind of wizard at doing that.


1 Emily Thompson: Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877–1925; The Musical Quarterly Spring 1995, pg. 159
2 Alexandra Hui; The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies; Ethnomusicology Review, February 2016
3 Jan McKee; Is It Live or Is It Edison? Library of Congress Now See Hear blog, May 2015
4 David W. Samuels; Edison’s Ghost; Music & Politics, Summer 2016 2015
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919

 

Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919
Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919

 

 

sources

Miss Ida Gardner to Give Concert Thursday

The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater.

Miss Gardner comes to Santa Rosa from a long and most successful concert tour. Her voice is said to be more charming than ever, and she has increased her repertoire to include some delightful new songs.

Miss Gardner says she hasn’t any specialties in songs, as some artists have. She sings a wide range of things and is not at all averse to giving one or two numbers by request.

During the war, Miss Gardner devoted practically all her time to entertaining soldiers in camps. She was very popular among the boys, and among the officers as one colonel can testify.

– Press Democrat, November 2 1919

 

 

MANY AMAZED BY GARDNER CONCERT

Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.

They hardly were reassured when Mr. Lyman appeared on the stage and commenced to talk about “reproduction,” “re-creation,” and other like matter. It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.

Mr. Lyman explained that the purpose of the recital was to show that Thomas A. Edison, after years of work, had achieved his ideal to perfect a musical instrument which actually re-creates music so perfectly that the re-creation would be indistinguishable from the original.

This was a broad claim but it was established before the evening was over for Miss Gardner actually stood beside the new Edison Phonograph and sang in unison with Mr. Edison’s re-creation – so called – of her own voice. This would have proved little as her voice might easily have overbalance the tone of the instrument — swallowed it up – so to speak; but Miss Gardner did more, or to accurate, less. She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernable difference in tone quality.

There must have been a slight difference in volume when Miss Gardner stopped singing, but it was not noticeable, for the voice which came from the cabinet was round and luscious with all the vibrant, pulsating quality of that which came directly from Miss Gardner’s throat. It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not.

Mr. Lyman offered similar comparisons with his instrument playing in direct comparison with the re-creation of his own performance. This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.

– Press Democrat, November 12 1919

One thought on “WHY, THAT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

  1. Jeff, this is your best article yet! You really should try to get this one into a national release. Keep up your interesting articles.
    David Griffiths Sox

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