I’d just finished recording a narration and an interview at the New York Public Library for a podcast I was producing in conjunction with their “Lunch Hour NYC” exhibition. The podcast would be used to describe the show for anyone who might need visual assistance. Before leaving the Stephen A. Schwartzman building (that’s the one with the lions, at 5th and 42nd), I wanted to walk through the exhibition itself while recording some ambience. Since there was no master plan I wasn’t sure how it would be used but, as I always tell students, you can’t use ambience if you don’t have it.
You can read the Times review of the exhibition here. It’s a highly interactive, multimedia affair with areas devoted to lunch carts, home cooking, the automat, school lunches, power lunches, lunch rooms and lunch counters, the history of lunch and much more.
To record the sounds of Lunch Hour NYC I used my faithful Sound Devices 722 digital recorder and Neumann KMR-81 microphone — the same kit that recorded the spoken parts. Wearing my headphones and holding the mic on a boom pole I must have looked odd but, this being New York, no one gave me a second glance.
The script had mentioned the many clocks scattered throughout the exhibition. Unfortunately, none was of the ticking variety … the only clock sound I could get was a neon buzz. I wandered into an alcove where an old newsreel showed Depression-era religious leader Father Divine beginning one of his worship services with a free lunch. I recorded the soundtrack through the low-fi headphones attached to the installation.
In another room I came across what’s arguably the crown jewel of Lunch Hour NYC — a restored section of an actual Horn and Hardart Automat. I captured the sounds of its doors being opened and closed, and a woman reading the signage aloud.
A little further on, a father and son were also reading out loud from a list of diner ordering lingo: “Adam and Eve on a raft,” “cup o’ Joe,” “whiskey down,” etc. The KMR-81 picked up their lively conversation with no trouble.
A woman pointed out her childhood lunch box to a younger man as they admired a colorful display of the iconic metal containers. I engaged her in conversation; again, not knowing if any of it would be useful.
In hindsight I should have asked all these people for their names and gotten their permission to use their voices. But this was not a hard news story and I was going through the exhibition for my own benefit as much as anything.
A snippet of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee” played from a hidden speaker:
Just around the corner,
there’s a rainbow in the sky,
So let’s have another cup of coffee,
and let’s have another piece of pie.
I added it to the reel, now about fifteen minutes long. On my way out I passed a video installation showing a continuous loop of movie and television scenes shot in the Automat. Again I pressed the microphone to the earpiece and was reward by an incredibly low fidelity recording. A scene with Doris Day and Audrey Meadows from 1962′s That Touch Of Mink was wonderful but meaningless without the imagery.
Walking out of Lunch Hour NYC, I wondered, as always, if I’d recorded enough ambience, gotten enough sound. If the three or four people I was working with hadn’t been waiting patiently for me to finish I might have gone back in for another loop around. As it was I said my thanks for all their help … and exited through the gift shop.