Sound Effects

by Dan Haefele

One day a few decades ago when dramas were still a regular part of the radio broadcast day, CBS sound effects man Ray Kemper checked the script of an upcoming broadcast and found a most unusual request.

One scene required the sound of ten thousand drunk chickens.

Kemper and his noise making partner Bill James, like most of mainstream America, were unfamiliar with the sounds of inebriated poultry.

And they had another problem. Director William N. Robson had a reputation for being a little bit difficult to work with and the two sound men knew he would accept only top quality work.

"With Bill Robson, if the script called for the rattle of onion skin paper, you'd better damn well have onion skin paper there, because he'd jump all over you if you didn't," Kemper recalls. "He wanted sound effects exactly right."

What to do?

"We found a couple of (sound effects) records with hundreds and hundreds of clucking chickens," Kemper said, adding that they also had the option of using recording tape.

The two sound men recorded the records onto tape, then made a separate tape of the two of them alternately clucking and hiccuping. "Then we speeded our little hiccups and clucks up a little bit, and we overdubbed that onto the (tape of) hundreds and hundreds of clucking chickens," Kemper explained.

There was still the problem of contending with Bill Robson.

"You know, he's not going to believe this," Bill James told Kemper.

"I"ve got an idea," Kemper replied.

"We took the tape and went to the recording studio. We said to the engineer, 'transfer this to a 12 inch disc.' He did. Then he gave us a very official looking CBS label," Kemper continued. "I took that label and imprinted on it 'ten thousand drunk chickens.' Then I glued it onto the record."

During rehearsal, Kemper manned the sound effects turntables. When it came time for the unusual sound effect, they got the expected response from director Robson.

"He wanted to embarrass me so he hit the talkback so the whole world could hear," Kemper said.

"Ray, that's not ten thousand drunk chickens," Robson bellowed.

"I didn't say a word," Kemper explained. "I just took the record off the turntable. I walked over to the (director's) booth and I stuck the record up against the glass."

The point was clear.

"He didn't say another word for the whole show," Kemper reported.

Years later Kemper told Robson the story. "I remember that," Robson said. "I knew I'd been had but I didn't know how so I decided to keep quiet."

After doing some work as a stage actor in little theater productions, Kemper went to work in 1942 in the mail room at KHJ, the Mutual outlet in Los Angeles. Two weeks later he won an audition for an announcer's position at the station.

"They put me on the night shift because I was so bad," he said modestly.

He didn't stay long. He was drafted in February 1943 and spent three years in the service.

"After I got out in February of 1946, I went back to KHJ. An announcer's position was not open. There was a position available in sound effects," he said.

"There was a sound crew there, headed by Art Fulton, the supervisor of the sound effects department at KHJ. Tommy (Hanley) and Bill (James) had already been there when I came back (from the war). I learned a lot from them."

His other mentor/co-workers included Art Surrence, Norm Smith and Bob Turnbull, who later became a producer-director-writer for network radio.

"Sound effects were sometimes indicated in the script in detail, and sometimes not in detail. They were left up to our imagination as to what to do," he said.

The intervening years have washed many program titles away from the memory, but Kemper specifically recalls working on Red Ryder, Cisco Kid and Casebook of Gregory Hood. "I cut my teeth on the Cisco Kid and Red Ryder. I learned a lot on those two shows," he explained. "that's where I met Tom Hanley and Bill James. We became quite a triumvirate. We worked well together."

They also established a good reputation for themselves. "When Voyage of the Scarlet Queen came in, Elliott Lewis wanted Bill and me to do the show," he said. "It could just as easily have been Tommy (chosen) but he was doing something else."

Often the Scarlet Queen scripts for the show called for such complicated sound effects that Tom Hanley was hired as the third sound man on some shows, if he was available.

"Elliott was a marvelous, marvelous talent," Kemper reflected. "He was a brilliant person, a superb actor and a fine director. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him."

"I want the most realistic sounds you can give us," he said Lewis told them.

"He very seldom made suggestions to us," Kemper said. "He liked our work so well he did something that was unheard of in those days. He gave Bill and me a fee by writing in a little line occasionally (for us) and giving us an actor's check."

The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen was one of radio's top quality productions. It employed good writing, performances by Hollywood radio's most successful actors, and realistic sound effects.

"We used a lot of records for the winds," he said. "We experimented until we got what sounded like a creaking ship to us. Occasionally we built the smaller items ourselves because we were experimenting." Bigger items, such as a large platform, were constructed by the network's carpenter shop.

Another of the Mutual programs Kemper did sound effects for was Count of Monte Cristo. "Jaime del Valle was the producer'director on that show," he said.

Once during his days at KHJ-Mutual, Kemper was working a detective show with two other sound men one night when they needed to provide the sound of a knife going into a wall. Usually a sound man would hold a piece of wood in one outstretched hand and jab the block hard with a knife.

"He got a little piece of wood and put it in the palm of his hand," he said. "On the air, he missed and the knife went right into his hand and he fainted."

Kemper remembers well the work sound man Bill James had to do on Jimmy Scribner's radio show, on which the star portrayed all the characters. "Jimmy Scribner never had a script. He ad-libbed the entire show," he said.

"Bill James had to ad-lib every sound effect on the show. He just brought up a bunch of stuff and told Scribner what he had. He brought up a door and a footstep board," he continued. "If Jimmy wanted something specific, he'd say, "Bring a train whistle." But Bill was hanging out there trying to figure out where he was going and what was going to happen next. It worked out very well."

Steve Allen and Wendell Noble's Smile Time was another of radio's ad"lib shows. And Bill James was also the sound man for that program.

Cisco Kid writer Bill Gordon, too, provided many last minute surprises for the cast and crew of his shows. "Bill couldn't write unless he was under pressure. He had a heck of a time getting to a typewriter and making himself write," he said.

"You have no idea how many times we went on the air (live) with the Cisco Kid and Bill, while we were doing the first act, was typing on a stencil the second act and running it off on a mimeograph. Then he would run in with the last pages as we were going. Sweat was running down Jack Mather and Harry Lang's (foreheads). But he never missed a show," he added.

"Bill would tell us what was going to happen, so we set up (sound effects) for everything," he continued. "We had standard equipment -- footstep board, sand and gravel box for footsteps, triple turntable with all kinds of possible effects and records we might need. All of these things would be patched into the audio board and ready to go. But Bill would give us an outline of what was going to happen. He didn't leave us dry."

Kemper left Mutual to work for an advertising agency - a job he hated. In March 1951 he was hired to do sound effects for CBS Radio. He encouraged his superiors to hire Tom Hanley later that same year and a few months later they influenced CBS" decision to hire Bill James.

After his move to CBS, one of Kemper's best remembered assignments was to work sound effects on Gunsmoke.

"There was a lot of fear on the upper floor about doing a show of realism. They were afraid of it. And Norm (Macdonnell) and John Meston insisted on this being realistic," he said.

"This is going to be a realistic show, guys," he said Macdonnell told the sound men. "Let's do it right. We will take all the time necessary for sounds effects."

Macdonnell was true to his word, Kemper said.

"One time we walked Matt Dillon along the board walk, crossed the street, into the Longbranch. Then he had to come back out of the Longbranch and cross the street back to the boardwalk again," he recalled.

"Ray, when you come back across the street, cut that down to about seven steps," Macdonnell told him.

Kemper took his headsets off and walked up to the director. "Norm," he replied, "it took him 23 steps to across there. It's going to take him 23 steps to get back."

Macdonnell laughed, "damn you, you're right. Do it." Some dialog was cut instead. The realism remained intact.

Macdonnell's mandate for realism was taken so seriously that sound men Kemper, Hanley and James even used different sounds for the various drinks poured at the Longbranch.

"To pour the beer, we took a soda pop at room temperature and poured that into a glass. The bubbles formed by the soda pop gave it the soft sound that beer has. But (for) whiskey, we used plain water. It has a harder sound," he said.

At CBS, as had happened earlier at Mutual, Kemper and his comrades experimented with various ideas when they needed new sound effects. For a pot bellied stove needed on a Gunsmoke show they built a small wood frame and attached an old iron door.

"We just used our imaginations," Kemper explained. "A lot of times we tried many, many things before we found the right sound."

One of their many experiments provided the sound of a horse's saddle being mounted. They bound together cut up sections of old microphone cable. When the sound was needed, a sound man simply twisted the cable pieces near a microphone.

And once a rider had mounted his horse, it was time for Hanley, James or Kemper to grab the coconut shells so the horses could gallop away.

"We each had our own set of coconut shells that fit our hands just right," Kemper revealed. "Tommy had much smaller hands than I, so he used smaller coconut shells.

"We drilled holes on the side about half an inch from each hollowed out half coconut shell and attached a leather strap loosely on each side so it went over the top of that coconut shell. We could slip our fingers under that quickly," he added.

A wooden box filled with dirt provided the other necessary ingredient for the sound of horses racing to the rescue, but careful sound men like Kemper and his colleagues came prepared with a variety of surfaces.

"The 'hoof box' was about 18 inches square by about 4 inches deep. It was filled with a mixture of dirt, sand and very fine gravel," Kemper said. "Just before air time we'd sprinkle it down with water. It would give us a nice, clean dirt sound."

If a script called for a horse to travel from a dirt road to a wooden bridge, the edge of the "hoof box" provided the perfect sound for the occasion. "If we wanted to move to cement, like Straight Arrow used to do on Fury in the cave, we'd have a little slab of cement off to the side. It echoes and it sounds real big," he said.

A four foot long, 18 inch wide board supplied the realistic sound of a boardwalk on radio westerns. "We used a one inch (thick) piece of Marine plywood and around the edge of the bottom side was about a two inch strip of wood that was carpeted so it wouldn't rattle around," he added.

On Gunsmoke there was one basic door used for most home and Marshall's office door sounds. "The only different sound that we got from different offices or different places was the way we would open the door," Kemper revealed. "We would handle it a different way: snap it open or give it a little extra rattle or something like that. It might sound like a different door, but it was not."

A smaller, framed set of bat-winged doors was used every time someone entered or left the Longbranch. "We'd hold one (door) and slap the other back and forth. It gave us the little rush of air and it sounded exactly like big bat-winged doors being opened," he said.

Likewise, a miniature jail door was employed any time Matt or Chester escorted an outlaw to Dodge City's jail house. Rusty hinges helped add to the effect, too.

"My favorite producers and directors were Elliott (Lewis), Norm (Macdonnell), Tony Ellis and Jaime del Valle," Kemper said. "Until people like Elliott Lewis and Tony Ellis, Jaime (del Valle) and particularly Norm really took over and pointed a major direction for the industry, sound was kind of a bastard child'that was true not just of drama but of comedy. The far-seeing people realized there was a great value there that (others) were missing," he observed.

"Tony was a fine, fine talent. I first met him when he was an actor. He had this soft, British accent," he said. "then he began writing for The Count of Monte Cristo. He and Bill Gordon wrote for that show-but Tony was writing those shows like crazy. Then he sort of faded away from acting because he got busy writing."

He credits Elliott Lewis' 1947 productions of Voyage of the Scarlet Queen as the beginning of an era of true understanding of the importance of sound effects. "Elliott was very cognizant of that necessity and that need (for authentic sound)," he said.

Later he encountered Ellis at CBS when the latter was associated with Suspense, Romance and Escape. "He was a fine writer and a fine director," Kemper noted.

Kemper and several other CBS sound effects artists occasionally wrote radio scripts. About ten Have Gun, Will Travel scripts were penned by Kemper.

He wrote an episode of The Count of Monte Cristo when he still worked at Mutual. Jaime del Valle bought his script. 'that was the first script I wrote," he said. "I was 23 at the time and I was thrilled out of my skull."

Sound man Ross Murray wrote several Suspense, On Stage and Escape radio plays and Tom Hanley also wrote for some of the popular CBS dramas. 'tommy wrote quite a few Gunsmokes for both radio and television," he recalled. "He was quite an excellent writer. He wrote quite a few Suspense stories also and received a national award for best drama of the year for a Suspense he wrote. That story starred Bill Conrad."

Kemper credits the work of the radio engineers for part of the success of the sound effects teams. "It was important to have a good mixer"a good audio engineer who worked in concert with us," he said.

At CBS, Bob Chadwick was that engineer.

"He was an excellent mixer, very conscientious, and he always worked in concert with us," he said.

Looking back at the work he and his colleagues did, Kemper now views their efforts in artistic terms. "We were telling a story and painting a picture," he said. "sound effects was what painted the picture. The voices and the actors held the drama. That, in concert with the sound effects, painted the portrait."

This article is based on an interview recorded by John Gassman in 1991.

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