Complaints by Secretary of Commerce H. Malcolm Baldrige, who said the noise disrupted high-level meetings in his office, have led to the virtual discontinuation of the free musical performances on the Ellipse that have entertained up to 10,000 White House visitors a day since 1976.
Baldrige's repeated protests about the National Park Service's 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. concertss--staged for tourists sitting in bleachers awaiting their White House visit--led the Park Service to pull out the amplifiers last Friday.
That left the audiences unable to hear the music performed on the flag-bedecked bandstand facing Baldrige's 15th Street suite, according to the Park Service. As a result, 79 of the 85 remaining concerts scheduled for this summer have been canceled by the various groups from across the United States that had volunteered to perform for free, Park Service public affairs director George Berkacy said yesterday.
The Park Service started the concerts during the Bicentennial "to relieve the tedium of long waits" for White House tours, Berklacy said, "It was an added treat from the Park Service."
A cross section of Americana--hundreds of high school bands, church choirs, military bands, barbershop quartets, and toe-tapping dancing groups--arranged to perform on the Ellipse during their Washington visits, either by applying through their congressmen or contacting the Park Service directly.
"Our people are definnitely disappointed" by the cancellation of most of the concerts, said Sandra Alley, spokesman for the national capital parks division of the Park Service. "At the moment," she said, the Park Service has no other solution to the problem. "We are trying to keep it going in some fashion," she said, "Certainly this is not the solution we are looking for."
Baldrige's press secretary, B. Jay Cooper, stressed yesterday that "we didn't want to get the musical program stopped. We just wanted to bring down the volume." He said itwas solely a park service decision to pull the loudspeakers.
During meetings with ambassadors, businessmen and trade delegations, Baldrige was often angered because he "could hear every word the singers were singing, but the visiting trade ministers could not hear him. And he couldn't hear them," Cooper said.
"At a meeting with Japanese trade ministers in 1981, discussing U.S.-Japanese trade, he had to keep repeating himself," Cooper said.
Complaints about music filtering through the 15th Street windows at Commerce ddate back several years, Cooper said. He said 1,000 of the 4,800 workers in the Commerce headquarters work in offices facing the Ellipse, and many have complained.
Mindful of the controversy that arose when Interior Secretary James Watt banned the Beach Boys at the July 4 concert on the Mall, Baldrige's staff stressed yesterday that the problem this time is the volume, not the musical selection. Industrialist Baldrige, 60, enjoys music, particularly country-western because he also is a rodeo cowboy, Cooper said.
An acoutical engineer hired by the Park Service after Baldrige initially complained in 1981 concluded in a report that the strains of music reaching his suite were "not significantly louder or perhaps somewhat less than street noise, but has more identification and, for example, may attract the listener's attention."
But even after the Park Service turned down the volume this spring, Baldrige's complaints persisted.
The Park Service considered several solutions, including the installation of sound-insulating storm windows on the 280 windows facing the Ellipse at the mammoth Commerce headquarters. Total cost, at $1,500 per window, would have been more than $400,000, according to the Park Service.
Another plan was to reverse the positions of bandstand and bleachers so the amplifiers would face away from Commerce. Cost estimate: $400,000, plus the added complication that the bleachers might infringe on the ball fields and the space on the Ellipse often used for public demonstrations, according to Berklacy.
The acoustical engineer who assessed tthe problem in 1981, Jack Swain of Wyle Laboratories in Arlington, said yesterday that noise complaints are often highly subjective. "You have a broad range of how humans react . . . . You have some where nothing seems to bother them, others are very sensitive," he said.
Swain said he was told by Commerce that "pretty sensitive issues were being discussed (in Baldrige's office) and an intrusion could ruin the whole flavor of what was going on . . . even a minor distraction could destroy the whole flow."
The chairman of D.C. government committee to beautify city neighborhoods, Mary Healy, said yesterday that ending the music is "an illogical, stupid decision" that will make a tourist's stay here less pleasant. "People with kids are sitting there for hours, and they enjoy those shows," she said. She said the decision runs counter to one of her committee's goals of "trying to be nice to visitors . . . to get them to come here again."
At the bandstand yesterday, with no music, most visitors didn't know what they were missing, according to PPark Service officers there. "A couple of people wondered what the bandstand is for," one officer said.