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.