The Night People


by Jean Shepherd

The Village Voice - September 26, 1956

dropping off his copy at the Village Voice

OLD MURPH squinted down into the darkness. He was trying to set the volume-level of his transistor applause-generator. "Damn it," he muttered under his breath, "Why the hell do they have to make these knobs so small?"
The theatre seemed even darker than they usually do during the first act. The audience wasn't settled yet, but already people all around Murph were setting up the applause-generators they all carried. He guessed that most of them were moving the pointer to"ENTHUSIASTIC," just as he was, since the majority must have read the same review he had seen in the Times the day before. Perhaps a few might even move the dial all the way over to "TUMULTUOUS" or even "WILD," but not many, because this was a mid-week crowd and did not include more than a sprinkle of out-of-towners, who go overboard for everything and rarely read the Times. He figured there would be the usual quota of finks who were in every audience and who would set the dials on their Applaudo's to "POLITE," and maybe a few would go as far as "SCATTERED," but that wasn't likely. Not with this crowd anyway.

Better Organized Now

With his Applaudo finally adjusted, Old Murph settled back in his seat to enjoy the evening. He so often these past few years had lacked that wonderful feeling of anticipation and excitement that used to be part of the world of the theatre. But on the other hand, things were better organized now, and it wasn't nearly as hit-or-miss as it used to be. That is, during the old days, when they were just beginning to perfect the play-writing machines over at the IBM labs and the composing-calculators were still primitive as all hell. There was no question about it, when you really thought about things: progress in music and art and theatre were completely tied-in these days with the good-old electronic game. And that was Old Murph's meat. As the play droned on smoothly and neatly, Old Murph's mind wandered.
He was about the last of the old Hi-Fi gang, and could remember all the way back to the days when they used live artists to record in the old LP-disc system. "God, LP's!" he thought: "It must be 20 years since I've even heard the name mentioned." For a moment his mind snapped back to the play, but not for long. He had had a hard day and he was tired, and anyway his eyes were bothering him again. It was pleasant to just sit and dream away in the darkness. He was seated near an outlet for the Orchestron, and the mood-music it created added to the sleepy mood he was in. His mind focused on the Orchestron itself.
Of course he was far too young to remember much about hearing actual live orchestra, but his father used to tell him stories about musicians he had known. Real live ones. As far as old Murph was concerned, he preferred the Orchestron. His earliest recollections of music were connected with LP's and tapes and some of the later film-methods of recording live musicians in studios, but he had never actually seen or heard one in the flesh. Still, everyone knew that music always sounded better when it was recorded, so it wasn't a great loss. And since the RCA people had come up with the first Orchestrons that did away with the musicians themselves, the whole business of music had taken a turn for the better.

An Old Codger

Murph knew a man who had booked concert artists way back in the mid-50's, and the old codger used to tell a lot of strange things about that crowd. Of course, he was a very old man when he died, and it was hard to tell whether he was senile or not, but the stories were wonderful. For example, he told how the concert-bookers of that day used to rate live artists by how they compared with the recordings they made. If a man was as good as his recordings, they rated him a 100-per-cent performer; if he was half as good as his discs, he rated 50 per cent, and so on. The hooker was that no one ever came up with 100 per cent, because they could always edit and splice and doctor a tape endlessly before it was issued. A concert wasn't like that. The guy told Murph that the best concert man he ever heard only came up to less than 75 per cent of his records, and that was considered a miracle. No wonder concerts finally went out of style. The artists themselves wouldn't go near a stage when they wised up. There was more dough in making records, anyway. When the Orchestrons took over, that ended that for good. It was just as well.

SUDDENLY, the lights went up and Murph jerked back to the theatre. Instinctively he pressed the button on his Applaudo to signify his approval of the first act. He stretched in his seat, rose, and wandered up the aisle, fishing in his coat pocket for his cigarettes. It felt great to be alive.

© 1956, The Village Voice, Inc.

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