Grab a friend and head to the nearest set of uncarpeted stairs. Close your eyes and listen as she goes up and down the steps. Can you hear a difference?
Earlier this semester, students in English 346 did a version of this exercise as they learned what it takes to make realistic sound effects for classic radio drama.
“We learned that going upstairs sounds like skiff, skiff, skiff, skiff, skiff and going downstairs sounds like clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk,” said Michael Byers, associate professor of English language and literature. “You’re trying to convey a lot of information with just your footsteps, and you don’t want to say, ‘come on, let’s go upstairs’ if you don’t have to.”
Byers teaches the course called American Sounds: Radio Drama and Comedy, 1930-1962, in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In the highly interactive course, students learn about the Golden Age of Radio and are challenged to write and produce original dramas or comedies, complete with authentic sound effects.
Students were assigned to write an episode for one of the historic radio series they listened to in class or to create an new concept. Three original dramas—two mysteries and a children’s program—were selected for a final performance April 18 at the U-M Museum of Art.
A few days before the performance students were rehearsing TinTin, a story about a journalist who stumbles upon a plane crash and two counterfeiters. His nose for news ends up getting him into trouble with the pair and with the law, as the crooks attempt to frame the hero.
It was up to Randy Lockett and about a half-dozen other students to help TinTin come to life with sound effects.
“I’m playing the shoes in this episode,” said Lockett, a senior English major, explaining how he has to take an ordinary pair of dress shoes and make the characters walk and run on several surfaces like gravel and the metal gang plank on a ship.
Various gadgets were divided among team members, including an old dial phone, a metal file drawer and a set of door knobs that make the sound of a gun being cocked.
A cherry stoner that is cranked to remove the pit from the small fruit becomes a locomotive on the tracks, but only for scenes outside. A wooden drying rack for a fly rod reel line used in fishing provides the steady clickety-clack for a scene inside the train car. A meat grinder makes the grinding, screeching brake sounds as the train comes to a stop. An old school bell is rung to signal all aboard.
“It’s interesting to me how they put the shows on. A lot of them were live. If you made a mistake it just stayed in,” Lockett said. “It’s fun, it’s nostalgic to look back and see how they did stuff.”
Byers, who refers to himself a fan and aficionado of the genre, said his aim for the course is not just to help students develop an appreciation for radio drama. He calls it his “secret mission” to share its historical place in the lives of several generations.
“We’re teaching a bit of American history through these great old shows,” he said. “Think of what happened during those years. It’s the Depression. It’s the oncoming of World War II. It’s World War II. It’s after the war when the soldiers came home. It’s the onset of the McCarthy era, it’s the Cold War, and it’s the beginning of the ’50s conformity.
“Every day, all day, people listened to the radio, and they would listen to stories on the radio.”
On the day of rehearsal, Eva Mooney, a classics and English literature major, was a stand-in for the actor who normally plays TinTin.
“We learned a lot about politics of radio which is very interesting, and how a lot of these radio shows reflected a movement, or social unrest, or were backed by the government, or were disliked by the government, and I found that very interesting,” Mooney said.
“It’s a class that is very deeply rooted in an actual legitimate love of the time period and of the medium,” said show announcer Caleb Browner, an English major, who called the class a great find.
The student from Detroit said he and his mother have been radio drama lovers since finding a satellite radio station that plays many of the classics, as well as a few new creations from the small resurgence of interest in this form of entertainment.
“We became a huge fan of Johnny Dollar, the Shadow, the Whistler. It became sort of a family thing,” Browner said.
The delivery of his lines demonstrated his understanding of the form.
“I tried to do the sort of radio announcer voice, which was kind of a very standard thing in the industry at that time.”
In the style of old radio drama, the scripts also included a sponsor. Javier Torres, an English and screen arts major, delivered the opening and closing Colgate tooth powder plugs: “Does your breath wilt the flowers when you stop to admire them?”
The actors hovered around a period-appropriate single microphone to deliver their lines, while Byers stood in the middle of the room, cuing the effects team on when and how long to deliver the sounds: a dog barking, doors slamming and the sound of a scuffle, which was created by the team slapping their bodies over and over.
The ferryboat whistle failed. Not everyone is able to blow into a glass bottle and make the air vibrate to create sound. A different student tries it on the next run-through. Success!
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