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."

Very few of the sounds were as easy as that recorded rooster crow. Early sound-effects artists were reluctant to use recordings except when absolutely necessary, because 78-rpm discs wore out quickly under the steel phonograph needles then in use. "Also," Erlenborn said, "you couldn't always use the recordings of things like animal sounds, because if you needed, say, a dog with personality, all you were going to get was wowp wowp wowp wowp wowp. That's why I got pretty good at doing them vocally."

One particular dog with personality became a specialty of Erlenborn's: Daisy, the Bumstead family pet on the comedy show Blondie, which was based on the comic strip. Every time Dagwood ran out the door and crashed into the mailman, Daisy followed, yapping at his heels. "I could do the whole sequence myself," Erlenborn said. "You can choreograph it so it works: start running from off-mike, then do a whiz whistle for Dagwood flying through the door, then the dog starts barking, then you do a tom-tom for the two bodies hitting together, then I would actually drop a big handful of mail right by the mike. You just have to make sure you keep all the props where you can grab 'em." There were countless variations on this theme: Daisy might start tearing at the postman's pant leg, or she might get her tail slammed in the door, or Dagwood might crash into the doorjamb. "You'd have to tell the actor, Arthur Lake, to do a big owwww!, timed just right," Erlenborn said.

In the golden age of radio comedy certain sound effects, by Erlenborn and other masters, were as instantly recognizable as any star's voice. Dagwood's late-for-work sequence was one of the most famous, along with Fibber McGee's opening his closet -- a great cascade of crashes and clangs, trailing off into the silvery tinkle of one last, unexpected object bouncing off Fibber's head -- and Jack Benny's starting up his wheezing Maxwell automobile, an effect that Erlenborn can still re-create vocally: chukka-chukka-chukka cha-hooo-cha pah pah pah chugga-chugga. THE big room in the basement of KNX where Erlenborn and the other sound men built, tested, and stored their equipment looked something like Fibber McGee's closet must have. One basic rule of the trade was never to throw away any prop, no matter how unlikely that it would ever be needed again. Also, never pass up a chance to add a new gadget to the arsenal. Sometime in the late 1930s word got around that the sound of a large troop of marching men could be imitated by attaching rows of pegs to a taut framework of rubber bands and then rocking the pegs back and forth across a piece of sandpaper: whhh-whhh-whhh-whhh. Before long it seemed that every good-sized station in the country had a version of this device. (In the late 1930s, understandably, there was a surge of demand for the sound of large troops of marching men.)

The point of such an invention wasn't to make a sound that would sound realistic in the studio. Rather, it was to make a sound that would sound realistic after it had agitated a microphone wire, been converted into an electrical signal, propagated itself as a radio wave, and issued forth from the speaker of an Atwater Kent in someone's living room ten or a thousand miles away -- a very different proposition. "A lot of times the actual sound of a thing doesn't give you what you want," Erlenborn says. "There's too much extraneous noise." A good sound man could listen to a sound he wanted to imitate, strip it to its bare essentials, and reproduce only those.

A good sound man also had an ear for nuance. For instance, not all fires sound alike. A bundle of small bamboo sticks, when riffled and twisted, crackles like a campfire, but for a slow, consuming blaze one needs a sheet of cellophane, aged long enough to be nice and brittle, that can be slowly kneaded with the fingers. Crushing a peach basket or two creates the effect of charred timbers falling from a burning roof. Add the whooshing sound of a wind machine -- wooden battens scraping rhythmically against a taut canvas -- and the fire becomes an inferno. Sometimes, for a complicated effect like this, Erlenborn would organize a group of sound men to take the different parts, and conduct them like an orchestra.

The best sound effects, though, were often the simplest ones. Erlenborn showed me the method he developed to imitate a mouse's squeak: he purses his lips, holds a forefinger up horizontally against his front teeth, and wiggles it up and down. "There," he said. "That's what I use for a mouse sound. Everybody has a different technique, you know. But this one's mine." I tried to imitate him, and all I got was the sound of someone rubbing his teeth. "No," Erlenborn told me. "You have to sort of kiss your finger, like that." I watched him carefully and then gave it my best shot again. Suddenly, miraculously, coming from my own mouth was an uncanny squee-squee-squee: unmistakably, as any listener would agree, the voice of a mouse. Perhaps even a mouse with personality.

Adam Goodheart is a columnist for Civilization magazine and a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; On the Air - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 26-30.