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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
On Music and Sound
The radio actor didn't have the luxury of long rehearsal time or unlimited takes, but he
had two advantages that an actor in film couldn't duplicate: live sound and music.
Sometimes they were quite limited, especially in music where the Hammond Organ
constituted the orchestra. Still, musicians like Milton Charles, Ivan Ditmars, Gaylord
Carter were able to bring a strong sense of dramatic color to a dead studio. The organ
"sting," a sharp accent at a very dramatic moment became a must in action drama or
soaps and it was easy for these musicians to write or even improvise background music
for narration or mood scenes.
On the bigger shows, especially those playing to a live studio audience, the effect can
well be described as grand. They were led by outstanding composer-conductors. I
know I'm leaving out some big names but these come to mind: Johnny Green, Gordon
Jenkins, Carmen Dragon, Lynn Murray, Leith Stevens, Bernard Hermann, Jeff
Alexander, Sandy Courage, and Cy Feuer. Feuer went on to become a producer of
gigantic hit shows in New York. These fellows would write music for introductions,
underscoring and bridges for orchestras comprising as many as 15 musicians. That
meant different music for each show and a different show every week.
Gunsmoke had another kind of musical group, Rex Koury chose to use a smaller
orchestra that would stay close to a western sound and yet have the ability to make real
crescendo curtains. Some of the musicians were on network staff, for example Lud
Gluskin and Wilbur Hatch at CBS. Lud would never be described as the smiley type.
Underneath it all I think he was really a dedicated man with an appreciation of talent,
but he always gave the impression that he expected to run into an argument and was
ready for it. He had a famous altercation with Al Jolson, which wasn't difficult. I have
heard two versions of the tag line and you can take your choice. There was a sharp
disagreement about the music on a Jolson show and Jolson started yelling at Lud. He
yelled back. Jolson said, "Don't tell me how to do this! I've got a million dollars from
performing. What have you got?" And Lud said,"A million dollars." In the other
version Lud said, "I've got a friend."
Wilbur Hatch, who later did the music for I Love Lucy also did the music for a
summer show I did at CBS for two or three years, the only time I did radio in costume
-- of sorts. It was called Fiesta and featured Olga San Juan with a male singer; Bob
Graham and later Johnny Desmond. The show had a definite touch of Yellow Bantam
but the music was great. Bill's wife and mine were both expecting babies and the ETA
was two days apart. His date the 17th, mine the 19th. The girls arrived right on
schedule but they switched dates and they have been lifelong friends.
It isn't easy to describe how working with music behind you makes such a difference.
With a singer it is rather obvious. The orchestra follows him and reinforces his pitch
location. The actor has more of a tendency to pick up the mood and sometimes the
phrasing of the music which was written with each point of the dialogue in mind. It is
helping to describe the scene or story he is narrating. The director might also break the
narration for musical accents and then continue. Where a scene is underscored it might
emphasize or even change a reading although the reaction is subconscious. In a way
there is a similarity to the use of music as a mood setter in the old silent films where
they had a small group on the set to help the actors.
The creation of sound effects is an art which has never been given proper credit even
by fans of radio. Listen to an audio book read in a silent studio and the same material
read with sound added. The difference is remarkable. My memories of most things at
NBC are not so clear but the work of Bud Tollefson and Wayne Kenworthy on
Dragnet was outstanding. You know it was as legitimate and accurate as possible if it
was on a Jack Webb show. Floyd Caton and Monty Fraser paired on the shows that
Jack Johnstone directed.
At CBS the names go on and on: Ray Erlenborn, Gene Twombley, Ray Kemper, Tom
Handley, Bill James (whom I first worked with on Sherlock Holmes when he was
assisting Art Fulton at Mutual) Cliff Thorsness, Billy Gould, Dave Light (he did the
cat on Shipment of Mute Fate) and others. Like most of the sound men they usually
worked in pairs, one doing live effects and the other at the turntable for recorded
sound. On some occasions if sound patterns were unusually complex there might be
three men working. Cliff was a master at simulating sounds live. Ray Kemper and Tom
Handley had their own method of making gunshots sound authentic. They fired guns of
different types and calibers out in the field or vacant rooms and recorded them. Live
shots would blow the needle right off the meter if done in the studio but when recorded
they could be monitored and still sound right. This was never a problem in films.
Those big .44s were loaded with 1/4 loads. On the set they went "pop." When dubbed
later they sounded like "BOOM!" Even the 1/4 loads could fire wadding a considerable
distance and that is why the gun was never supposed to be aimed directly at the actor.
It is hard not to at first. I know because although I warned him in rehearsal, a young
actor fired directly at me in the take and I was hit in the neck. Fortunately they did not
have to break out the tetanus shots.
Working at a microphone, the actor was within line-of-sight with the director who was
nearly always in the control booth. Sound equipment might very well be back of the
actor or located out of direct vision. The connection and interplay between actor and
sound then became almost a matter of instinct. The actor's voice and timing would
necessarily change indicating movement or other effort. The sound man, wearing
earphones could detect these changes and accompany them with the right effects. Also,
it is almost impossible to portray movement vocally without a small physical sample of
that movement at the same time. It might be a shift of the shoulders or even silent steps
in place to indicate walking. The sound man sees these and matches his patterns.
I can't recall any instance on Dragnet when there was a great deal of levity in the
sound effects department. On some of the other shows, the rehearsals didn't always
match the scripts exactly. Collectors seem to have made a hot item of some of the
Gunsmoke rehearsals. I'm afraid some of the laughter in the background is mine.
Harry Bartell maintains that his major accomplishment as a professional actor for forty years was to survive with his mind, morale and marriage intact.
Born in 1913 in New Orleans, he grew up in Houston and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University in 1933. After a stint at Harvard Business School and a couple of years forced labor in a department store he moved to Hollywood and stayed there for the next fifty-one years. Three seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse led to work in 185 radio series and 77 TV series plus a dozen or so properly forgettable motion pictures. He passed away on February 26, 2004.
These columns were originally written for the Internet Old-Time Radio Digest.