On the Air

What one man can do with two coconut halves, an empty plastic soda bottle, and a pair of athletic socks stuffed with cornstarch

IF you listened to the radio at all in the years 1937 to 1950 (and if you were alive to be doing much of anything back then, you probably listened to the radio quite a lot), then you must have heard Ray Erlenborn. Not heard of, mind you -- just heard.

He wasn't one of those sonorous voices announcing grim news from Europe, or an intergalactic gangster purring threats at Buck Rogers, or a hapless family man yelping above the din of comedic mayhem. He was, instead, the thrummmmm of tanks chugging into battle, the woo-wooooosh of a spaceship accelerating toward Altair 7, and the wheeeeeeee-crash! of a comic hero barreling out the front door, late for work, and running headlong into the mailman. Erlenborn was a master of sound effects in the heyday of radio.

I am far too young to have heard Ray Erlenborn in his radio days, but I met him recently one afternoon in Seattle, where he was preparing the sound effects for an episode of The Life of Riley. This was not, of course, a broadcast of the famous situation comedy, which went off the air in 1951, but, rather, a live re-enactment of one of the show's original scripts, during a convention of old-time-radio veterans and their fans. There are several such conventions around the country each year, and Erlenborn rarely misses one. Back in the days of Jack Webb, Bing Crosby, and Burns and Allen he was a bit player in the world of classic radio. Now they are all dead, and Erlenborn, at eighty-five, is one of its stars, though his audiences number hundreds of people instead of millions.

On this particular day Erlenborn was standing in a big conference room at the Seattle Center, looking over a tabletop cluttered with the tools of his trade. These included two coconut halves with leather straps stapled onto them, a tiny brass whistle, a set of handcuffs, an empty plastic Safeway Select Grapefruit Soda bottle, and a pair of athletic socks stuffed with cornstarch. Erlenborn picked up each of these things and inspected it carefully -- although "inspected" is probably the wrong word, because he was not looking at the objects so much as listening to them, giving each one a shake or a squeeze or a breath of air or whatever it took to dislodge its particular sound. The coconuts produced the cl-cl-clop of a cantering horse; the whistle made the twee-twee of a bird; and the socks, when squeezed together ever so gently beside the microphone, emitted the faint and untranscribable sound of footsteps in the snow.

In the sound-effects man's toolbox such props are the precision implements -- seldom used though often admired, like a carpenter's spokeshaves and rabbet planes. The hammers and screwdrivers of Erlenborn's trade sat on the floor beside the prop table: two wooden steps with roofing shingles nailed to the treads; a brass-knobbed door and its doorframe, about three feet high; and a "splash tank" -- in this case a bucket of water with a toilet plunger in it.

There were also four shallow wooden boxes: one full of gravel, one full of hardened cement, one with marble paving on the bottom, and one with plywood nailed across the top. Erlenborn stepped on each in turn, testing the gravel with the toe of a black wingtip ("my best footstep shoes," he told me), and trod the surface with the careful grace of a dancer limbering up. He listened to the rhythmic scuffing with satisfaction and then stepped back out onto the carpet. "Footsteps are surprisingly important," he said. "They really paint a picture for people. If they're right, they're right."

When, an hour or so later, the time came for the Life of Riley performance, the footsteps were right, and the door openings were right, and the splashes were right. The actors were surprisingly right as well; if you closed your eyes, you'd never guess that the coy, playful voice of Babs Riley, the hero's teenage daughter, belonged to an elderly lady with permed white hair -- the same actress who played Babs in the 1940s. The biggest laugh of the evening was for Erlenborn and his toilet plunger. It came when Chester A. Riley, the show's maladroit protagonist, and his next-door neighbor, the chickenhearted Waldo Binny, found themselves accidental stowaways on a sailboat.

RILEY: Listen, Waldo, do you know what we've walked into? We're all alone on a boat with two gorgeous girls who are boy-crazy!

WALDO: That's never happened to me before.

RILEY: Me either. But under the circumstances, there's only one thing to do.

WALDO: You mean...?

RILEY: Yeah.

WALDO: Isn't that a little risky?

RILEY: We're real men, ain't we? We gotta take the chance. It's now or never.

WALDO: All right -- I'm with you...

(Two enormous splashes, as Erlenborn dunked his plunger into the water, pulled it out, and dunked it in again.) "I'M just getting over a heck of a cold," Erlenborn told me apologetically. "I don't know if I can do this or not ..." He cupped his hands over his mouth, wiggled them back and forth a little, and suddenly, startlingly, began to cry like a baby -- not a full-throated wail but the fretful mewling of a gassy infant working itself up toward a tantrum. It was uncanny to see this sound emerging from the face of an octogenarian -- though in some respects Erlenborn does resemble a newborn, with his big round bald head, pinkish complexion, and small, watery eyes. His only distinctly un-infantile features are enormous white side-whiskers bridged in the middle by a moustache, which have qualified him to be cast as Cap'n Andy in Show Boat and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz on the southern-California light-opera circuit. Erlenborn's is an unusual face, but it's not at all the sort that some people, unkindly, might call "a face made for radio." If anything, it is a face made for vaudeville, which happens to be where Erlenborn got his start in show business.

Erlenborn is probably one of few people alive whose performance careers have lasted without interruption since the 1910s. By the time he was six months old, his mother had already moved the family to Hollywood and begun planning her only child's ascent to stardom. Los Angeles's entertainment culture was enjoying its first, Klondike-style boom; even the downtown cafeterias had string orchestras playing, and not long after he was old enough to talk, Erlenborn's mother would lift him onto a tabletop to sing "Pretty Baby" for the lunchtime crowd. Before long he was making the rounds of western vaudeville stages, from the Golden Gate Theatre, in San Francisco, to the Princess, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There was plenty of work to be had at the movie studios, too. Erlenborn started out as an extra, getting three dollars a day plus a box lunch; then he graduated to a regular role in a series of silent two-reel comedies, where he played the kind of Jackie Coogan-esque ragamuffin who was always knocking baseballs through windowpanes and leaving banana peels on the sidewalk.

Vaudeville died, followed shortly by the silent cinema, and Erlenborn, as he entered young adulthood, found himself looking for work in a newer medium: radio. "There were a half dozen stations in Los Angeles," he says, "and in the early days they were trying to come up with anything they could think of to keep some kind of noise going out over the air." He'd go around with a ukulele and some sheet music, filling in as needed. One day in the mid-1930s a producer asked Erlenborn to lend a hand with the effects for the Pennzoil News Review; his first assignment, he remembers, was to simulate a squadron of planes passing overhead, which he did on the studio's pipe organ. (Current-events programs often included dramatic re-creations of the news, complete with sound effects.) By 1937 Erlenborn had a full-time job as a sound man at KNX, the CBS affiliate in Hollywood, which produced a number of national shows.

"There were just three sound guys there when I was hired," Erlenborn told me. "I'd start the day by playing a recording of a rooster crow for the Hancock Oil News Review. That was at six A.M. From then until midnight, when I did a show called Nightcap Yarns with Frankie Graham, I'd be doing sound effects for sometimes fifteen or twenty different shows. Sometimes you'd do the same program twice: once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast."

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