Nicholas Mcgegan

Goldberg Variations: Ralph

Laurette doing her thing

Shortly after arriving at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1975 as a piano major, I fell under the spell of Laurette Goldberg, SFCM’s walking encyclopaedia of all things Baroque and founder-to-be of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Laurette held forth in a tiny airless room on the first floor of the old Ortega Street building; eventually she moved to an airy, well-lit studio on the second floor after the new wing opened in 1976. Downstairs or up, Laurette’s room was always “The Den of Antiquity” and it was there that many of us discovered that there was nothing stuffy about historically-informed performance or the early music movement. At least not around Laurette Goldberg. Her gung-ho brio, her dash, and her unquenchable enthusiasm, made every session with her an event.

We all have some Laurette stories. Here’s one of mine.

Laurette’s networking skills were legendary. She was a champion schmoozer and communicator, quick to bring promising newcomers into the fold, equally quick to spot an opportunity to make something cool happen. Her address book was crammed with names and numbers — and her phone number with its 1685 suffix was a piece of cake for anybody with Baroque chops to remember. So it should not be surprising to hear that she was one of the first people I knew to get an answering machine. That was within a year or so of my first meeting her—1976-77 or thereabouts.

The outgoing message remains a yet-unexplored corner of pop history from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fashion dictated something clever or unusual or shocking, never anything simple or blah. To record: “Hi, this is Scott. I’m sorry I can’t answer the phone right now, but if you’ll leave your name, number, and a short message I’ll call you back as soon as I can” marked you as the dullest of dullards. You made it witty, wacky, or wicked, or you endured withering comments about your lack of imagination.

So Laurette put on her thinking cap and came up with ‘Ralph’ for the name of her new answering machine. For her outgoing message, she engaged the services of an Oakland neighbor, an older Viennese gentleman with an gorgeous and dignified Austrian accent.

“Halloh,” purred her message, “Dis ees Raaaaallllllph. Pleeeeease leave me your message, and I will give it to Laurette as zoooooooon as she returnnnnnnnnnnnz.”

Ralph quickly began collecting admirers. People would call just to hear him, leaving Laurette with a fair number of “empty” messages.

And some of those folks wanted to get to know Ralph a lot better. It became a running gag in the Den of Antiquity: So, Laurette — how many times did Ralph get propositioned this week?

I wonder if Ralph is still out there somewhere, his outgoing cassette tape intact. What a sweet little morsel of Bay Area Early Music history that would be…

— Scott Foglesong, Scholar in Residence