By age 6, I already knew my life's calling: to be a radio/TV announcer. The most exciting, glamorous job anybody could hope for in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio was to be a radio DJ. Then, as now, I felt there could be no more wonderful career in all the world than being "on the air." To visualize this goal, I started drawing plans for make-believe radio stations during grade school "study halls." This intensive R&D finally paid off at age 12, when I launched the mighty WCHM, beaming 1/10th watt of glorious AM sound from my bedroom to about three blocks down the street. I even talked two local business owners into buying airtime, which proved just how serious I could be about the whole thing. (Those of you who've also been bitten by the radio bug, and God knows, zillions of us were back in the '60's, know exactly what I'm talking about.) Here, I'm pictured wiring the "control room," moments before learning the meaning of the phrase "no user-servicable parts inside." (I built that EICO pre-amp kit for about $12.95. Today, vacuum-tube gear has become so retro, a lot of it sells for the price of a used car. Would somebody explain this to me?)

Anyway, at age 14, having survived my self-taught "Introduction to Capacitors," I went from make-believe radio to a weekend gig at Dayton's 5,000-watt WING (AM), one of the best "Top-40" stations in the nation (with those very cool call letters!). WING always had a great air staff...as a matter of fact, comedy genius Jonathan Winters got his start in show biz as the station's morning man, and "Bart Simpson's" voice, the wonderful Nancy Cartwright, was first heard doing her brilliant character work on WING's airwaves.

For me, being on WING was an unforgettable thrill. (Some of the great people from that station who were mentors to me are still around, and some are gone, but I want to say "thank you" to all of them.) I went on to study broadcasting in college, but got my "real-world" education as a DJ in small-to-medium markets. It turned out that I was adept at commercial production, so, armed with this ability, a box of tapes and my last $500, I ventured west to Hollywood. (Much more about that odyssey in a moment.)

By the late 1970's 's, I had headed back east, all the way to New York, where I somehow felt at home.I became an in-house ad agency broadcast producer, and was pretty good at it, remaining on-staff until I went freelance in 1994. My work received recognition from the Telly Awards, the Big Apple Awards, the Hollywood Radio/TV Society, and the International Film and TV Festival of New York. I also launched my career as a freelance voice artist, which continues today. The thrill of being on WING was finally surpassed during my first year in New York, when I heard myself doing a spot on "Musicradio 77" WABC, the biggest powerhouse station on the planet. What a moment! I knew I had made it. In recent years, I've spoken on the subject of voiceovers at area colleges, and have tried to be a mentor to my own voiceover students, with the hope that they, too, will experience that same kind of thrill. I'm thankful for my success, yet I know there's one particular part of my life, now an almost surreal memory from my youth, that's far more interesting to most people than anything else I've done. It's my pleasure to share the stories of those days with you now. I hope you'll enjoy them.

MEMORIES OF THE MEL BLANC STUDIO

My 2,100-mile road-trip from Ohio had paid off. Within a couple of weeks, I found employment as a recording engineer for a company located right on Hollywood Boulevard, turning out "easy listening" tapes of the type you enjoy at the supermarket. No creative satisfaction, but a job! In LA! Unfortunately, Hollywood itself was a letdown...kind of seedy, really. I stayed in a transient hotel just a block or two from the Chinese Theater, wondering if I had made a huge mistake. But then one night, my whole outlook changed. I got to meet one of my childhood idols, Mel Blanc...the voice of "Bugs Bunny" and virtually every other Warner Bros. cartoon character...and went to work for him just minutes later!

A TRIBUTE TO THE FINEST FRIEND ANYONE COULD HAVE IN HOLLYWOOD (and the man responsible for my employment by the greatest voice artist of all time), ROD THIBAULT

Since I got off work at the tape duplicating company by 3 each afternoon, I had a chance to go and network with the owners of other studios. One of these studios was Magnesonic Recording, in the old Taft Building on the corner of Hollywod and Vine. Owner Rod Thibault (pronounced TEE-bo, pictured at left) was to become my greatest friend in Hollywood. No, that's putting it too mildly. He was more like my guadian angel. I'm sure you haven't heard of Rod, but many of the biggest stars in Hollywood knew and loved this talented, gentle man. Rod's reason for living was simply to help others, and I was a beneficiary of this great man's enormous generosity. Just look at that face. The kindness in his heart is written all over it.

In a town that is infamously filled will users and phonies, Rod was the exception...a selfless, kind-hearted man who loved nothing more than doing good deeds for others. Celebrities frequented his humble studio just to be around him, and they often employed him to install custom sound systems in their lavish homes. Rod was a consultant to big recording studios in LA, and even performed audio maintenance for the TV networks, at important facilities such as ABC's Vine Street Theater. I traveled with Rod to many famous Hollywood locations, and he was always eager to introduce me as his new "studio assistant" to every star he knew...and he truly seemed to know them all. On one particular evening, the star was Mel Blanc...and that meeting changed my life forever.

THE GRAND OPENING OF "THE MEL BLANC SCHOOL OF COMMERCIALS AND VOICE"

The great Mel Blanc, in response to thousands of requests for advice about getting into cartoon voice work, had started a school of voice acting in Beverly Hills. The school's premiere was a 'toon lover's dream: "Looney Tunes" producer Friz Freleng, "Woody Woodpecker" creator Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barberra and many great voice actors, were among animation "royalty" in attendance that evening in 1972. I was there thanks to my mentor Rod Thibault, who handled studio maintenance for Mel Blanc Audiomedia. This company, a "creative audio boutique" operated by Mel and his son, Noel Blanc, had won countless awards for its brilliant commercial work. After a few pleasantries, Noel asked Rod if he could provide another tape operator for the school that night, as they were short handed. Then and there, I went on the Mel Blanc payroll...at first, just one night a week at the school, then later as assistant recording engineer at the studio, in Beverly Hills. When Mel's studio operations manager moved on, I stepped into the job. (I became even more proud of this accomplishment just recently, when I discovered that Howard Schwartz, the owner of a renowned audio complex in Manhattan, had held the same position with the Blanc studio a couple of years before me.)

Hollywood's biggest names were frequent visitors at the Blanc studio. I'm seen here in the control room, surrounded by five good 'ole Maytag-sized Ampex reel-to-reel machines, one track each. They were used to record such luminaries as Jack Benny, Kirk Douglas, Jack Palance, Vincent Price and Rod Serling. I also worked with many of the era's great voice artists, including ABC's famous "image" voice, Ernie Anderson, cartoon genius Paul Frees, Laugh In's brilliant Gary Owens, and "the man who counts 'em down," Casey Kasem. In just two years, I had amassed enough memories to write a book. And now, some three decades later, I've been urged to do just that. So here's the first installment, which covers just a few of the more memorable sessions directed by Noel Blanc, with yours truly seated to his left.

WORKING WITH THE STARS (Part 1...more to come)

Jack Benny, one of America's most beloved comedians for 40 years, was a "regular," stopping by every few months to record a series of commercials sold to banks around the country. I loved conducting sessions with this dear, sweet man. Jack Benny was, in real life, an extraordinarily generous soul, in complete contrast to his miserly character. Mel, who had been a popular featured player on Benny's radio and TV shows, informed me that Jack was quick to extend a helping hand. He lent thousands of dollars to people in need and paid his cast some of the highest wages in the business, as well, but with one important stipulation: his generosity was to be kept secret, so as not to spoil the "tightwad" image. Taller and more handsome than he appeared on TV, the real Jack Benny also seemed much, much older. You could understand how, in his youth, he had been considered for leading-man roles, but you knew that had been a long time ago. But when called upon to deliver his lines, the years melted away, and he truly was "39" again. Especially when he played his beloved violin, which I also got to record.

Acadedy Award-winner Kirk Douglas was bigger than life in roles like Spartacus, so I was quite surprised when I met him in person. A soft-spoken man with a rather slight, trim build, he seemed too small to have battled the giant squid in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or to have produced such fury on the screen as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life. He politely asked Bill Baldwin, Jr., our resident studio photographer, not to take any snapshots for the "celebrity wall." "I hope you don't mind," he explained quietly, "but I've been photographed so many times that I'm just a little tired of it." So we got to work, and as he narrated the story of his his own immigrant mother, Bryna, for the pilot of a syndicated radio program, everyone in the control room began to be deeply moved. Eyes teared up. And what he had proven so many times before on the screen, became obvious to us again: this is a towering, gigantic talent, Ironically, the title of that syndicated radio series was Champions of Courage...a fitting description of Kirk Douglas himself in the years that would follow.

Another Academy Award-winner, Jack Palance, turned to Mel Blanc in hopes of developing a syndicated radio program, and I engineered the pilot for his bone-chilling horror series. Upon being introduced, I asked Mr. Palance for the correct pronunciation of his last name. (He was a very nice man, but with his tremendous, imposing presence, you certainly didn't feel comfortable addressing him as "Jack.") "I've heard your name pronounced PAL-ance and pal-LANCE," I explained. He answered very matter-of-factly. "It's PAL-ance. Just plain PAL-ance," putting the accent squarely on the first syable. "None of that French s**t." He explained that, during his early fame, some broadcaster had put the more flowery "pal-LANCE" into common use and the affectation stuck, much to his annoyance. Hollywood was also apparently an annoyance to Jack Palance. During breaks in the session, he spoke of his dislike of the city, and his preference for life back on his farm in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the daily Palance show didn't sell to radio stations...probably because it was so genuinely frightening, it just didn't fit comfortably between the hits! (If only audiobooks had existed back then!)

Vincent Price met more success with his syndication project, which found a national sponsor and aired on quite a few stations. I was again fortunate enough to be at the controls for the pilot of Tales of the Unexplained, in which Price, a veteran radio actor as well as a movie star, demonstated his mastery of the storyteller's art. A refined and cultured man of the world, he had a warm, engaging personality that almost made you forget his definitively creepy horror-film characterizations and film noir villany. Although he was a respected authority on fine art and gourmet dining, and talked about both at length, he exibited no trace of snobbishness. Instead, he clearly enjoyed poking fun at his own screen persona. There was lots of laughter around the studio as he read the true story of The Man Who Couldn't Be Hanged. With Vincent Price reading it, even a story about an execution could be fun!

You're invited to send any thoughts your have about these recollections to me. I'll try to answer every inquiry, although I can't promise a fast or detailed response. I'd especially love to hear from anyone who has memories of my dear friend Rod Thibault. Please E-mail: phillyvo@comcast.net

Dedicated to the memory of my parents, whose unconditional love, tireless patience and constant encouragement allowed me to realize my dreams.

Copyright © 2001-2008 by Charles McKibben. All Rights Reserved.

 

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