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Wanted—A Musical Traffic Squad

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Wanted—A Musical Traffic Squad

George Barrere
The New York Times
December 10, 1922

Traffic Cop"The general public would hail it with relief."
Seventeen years ago, when, filled with the intrepid curiosity of a Columbus, I discovered America from the pier at the foot of Christopher Street.  New York was already a thriving if somewhat primitive settlement.  Few of the modern developments which have made the metropolis what it is today were then in evidence.  Prohibition, for instance, was but a chimerical improbability—the disordered dream of fanatics and visionaries; a fantastic proposition classed by level-headed, practical men with perpetual motion and the philosopher's stone as something remote and unattainable and perhaps not even desireable.  In the highways and byways, already bustling with activity, such crude means of transportation as horse-drawn carriages and bicycles were still in vogue.  Automobiles were a rarity and, in some cases, propelled by steam.  And vehicles and pedestrians moved and circulated and intertwined calmly and harmoniously and, if memory serves, without the intervention of the traffic cop.  In fact, I doubt whether that now indispensable element of the metropolitan police force even existed.  I can recall the time when it was possible to cross Fifth Avenue, even at Forty-second Street, whenever one felt inclined to do so.  One did not have to await the pleasure of a blue-coated autocrat in a tower; and while crossing one had leisure to observe the dignified approach of the Fifth Avenue stage drawn by its two resigned and superannuated horses.  O quaint torpescent craft, where are you now?  Has no museum preserved a specimen of your vanished type?  Where shall one hope to see again the philosophical nod of your two horses patiently dragging their load of ten-cent passengers who were neither in a hurry nor particular about comfort?  Amiable beasts!  Should you return to earth, pale phantoms of a most pacific cavalry, to take your ghostly constitutional from Washington Square to the Plaza, what would you think of the changes that have come about since your departure?  How would you heed the signals of the policeman at the crossing, one wave of whose hand can halt more traffic than you ever hauled in all your laborious lives?

Changed, indeed, are the streets of the city.  In place of every horse which one beheld in that quaint and distant era of seventeen years ago one now sees twenty motor cars, of twice or thrice twenty horse-power; and he who once felt nobly mounted on a bike now disparages his humble flivver.  Every crossing requires the vigilance of an expert traffic officer, whose omnipotent whistle or flashing lights save lives, time and damage suits.  This remarkable system of traffic control is the admiration of all observers.  People come from all parts of the world, including Brooklyn, Yonkers and Kalamazoo, to behold it in operation, and return to their homes filled with enthusiasm for the efficacy of red, green and yellow lights.

Naturally, such a complicated and efficient system did not spring into existence over night: it was evolved gradually in response to a steadily increasing need for intelligent and effective control over the city's growing traffic.  One shudders to think of the chaos that would result were this system suddenly to cease to operate—such a calamity is unthinkable.  And yet, seventeen years ago, such a system was undreamed of and would have been considered as extravagant and futile as an attempt to discover a smile on a face of a saleslady in a five-and-ten-cent store.

At the time of which I write the musical situation was analogous to that of the traffic.  While stately equipages were proceeding with the maximum of deliberation and the minimum of confusion down the avenue occasional concerts were being given in Carnegie and Mendelssohn Halls with similar dignity and absence of fuss and flurry.  Evening symphony concerts did not trip over the heels of afternoon recitals; in fact, "dark nights" were not unknown.  In those halcyon days stage hands and electricians often had an evening off to spend in a visit to one of the more or less "legitimate" spectacles of Broadway—or otherwise, according to their tastes and inclinations.  They rarely went to the movies, for the reason that the movies were not yet an institution.

To the present-day New Yorker the period I am describing will doubtless seem antediluvian.  Think of it!  No motor buses; no movies; no restrictions on "red ink" in Italian table d'hôtes; and above all, no congestion of the musical thoroughfares!

Today we have milllions of motor buses—but their movements are regulated; we have thousands of movies—but they are censored; we have restrictions on "red ink"—but—well, I had better preserve a discreet silence on that subject ; I might betray a secret.  The point is this: why, since everything else has been systematized and regulated and controlled, has nothing been done to relieve the musical congestion of the metropolis?  With what joy would not the concertgoer hail a white-gloved cop with the power to halt a lumbering two-ton truck of Carnegie Hall concert long enough to allow some speedy little six-cylinder town hall recital to get out of its way!  And you, Mr. Critic, what would you not give to see some method of musical traffic control inaugurated which would enable you to hear every important musical event without rushing madly from concert hall to opera house and back to concert hall every afternoon and evening during the open season of débuts?

The solution of the problem is really quite simple: all that is required is the appointment of a Board of Musical Traffic Regulation in which could be invested certain powers.  Chief of these would be the authority to license concert givers, just as other public entertainers (or, if you prefer, nuisances) are licensed.  Let any one attempt to run a motor car through the smallest and apparently least policed village without a license plate: he will not have gone fifty yards before he is stopped by a deeply interested constable, otherwise invisible.  But any one, regardless of age, experience or sex, is free to drive any kind of musical vehicle whatever, of any capacity or horsepower, down the congested arteries of Musical New York.  He may go as far and as fast as he likes.  There are no stop and go signals, no speed limit, no penalties for obstructing the way.

Any youthful Sascha, Mischa or any other kind of 'Scha who has learned to play the violin approximately in tune up to and including the fourth position is a liberty to give a public demonstration of his prowess for the edification of his parents, friends, and sponsors.  Successful compatriots of his parents will readily provide the necessary financial support while the Consul of Daddy's fatherland will usually lend prestige and moral support to the venture.  An accommodating manager can always be found to disburse the moneys collected before and after the concert and to list prestige and moral support on the debit side of the ledger.  In the majority of cases this will be the last that is ever heard of the brilliant young virtuoso, whose extraordinarily foreign-sounding name would lead none to suppose that he had been born on Staten Island or in the Bronx.  Occasionally, however, some notice is taken of the affair by the press.  On the day after the momentous debut one or two papers will be found to contain a few words of criticism, which, after careful and ingenious expurgation and rearrangement, will furnish the basis for a circular, whereupon the Kid Wonder is launched on the arduous and uncertain career of a concert artist.  A few months later, most likely, having gained some valuable experience and lost the money hazarded by his oversanguine backers, the same Kid Wonder may be seen haunting the headquarters of the Musicians' Union in quest of a job as second fiddle in a motion picture theatre.  Some day, with good luck and diligence, he may hope to attain to the dignity of a similar post in a symphony orchestra.  This little picture would not be interesting if it represented an isolated case; unfortunately, such little tragedies are of only too frequent occurrence, for there are three concert halls and a number of theatres in New York where afternoon recitals are given daily throughout the Winter season.

Of course, any proposal to regulate or limit the giving of concerts will meet with opposition on the part of managers, concert hall proprietors, printers and all those who help to increase the deficit of concert givers.  But I am sure my dear friends the critics—who are doubtless already grateful to me for the infrequency of my own concerts—would support whole-heartedly any proposal which offered the slightest hope of alleviating their labors from October to June, and there is not the faintest doubt that the general public would hail with relief the establishment of a Musical Traffic Squad which would insure less obstruction of the concert stages, greater safety for the musical pedestrian, and, above all, fewer reckless drivers among the vocal and instrumental chauffeurs of the city.

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