Making it Rain – Radio Sound Effects

Radio was called “theater of the mind” because the listener had to imagine everything that was happening. That meant, of course, that if was a fight, someone had to make the sound of that fight while the actors performed the dialog.

Take for example, this section from the first chapter of THE DARKNESS KNOWS.

The well-choreographed struggle began on cue. The organ hummed. The soundman punched a fist into his open palm once, twice while he scuffled his feet through the small tray of gravel in the corner. Graham growled, “Take that!” There was the sound of a single gunshot – a blank fired into the air from a real pistol – then a beat of silence.”

And this is from HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (during a live production of The Scarlet Pimpernel).

“The head soundman opened and closed a metal door on its special stand. It clanged ominously.

 Another soundman stood far off in the corner, covering his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound. “Ready!”

The head soundman and his assistant picked the prop muskets off the table and locked them.”

“Aim!”

A pause. All was silence in the studio. Vivian looked at Graham, his eyes trained on his script, waiting for the blast. Her eyes flicked to the control room. All were rapt with attention, mouths agape, including the ad man practically on his toes in anticipation.

“Fire!”

Then the thunderous sound of rifles firing filled the studio. Vivian flinched, even though they’d been through this scene ad nauseam in the past week.”

Depending on the size and importance of the production there were likely several people at a table off to the side in the studio behind a table full of sound props. They were responsible for anything beyond dialog that was needed for the production: rain, gunshots, doors slamming, footsteps, car engines revving, squealing tires, thunder, wind… use your imagination – the list is endless. Plungers were used to mimic the sound of horse’s hooves slogging through mud. A crackling fire might be made by crinkling cellophane in front of a microphone. Car doors were often the actual doors detached from the car itself and brought into the studio. And believe it or not, real guns were often fired in the studio (as in the excerpt above) to simulate gunshots.

Later on, after recording became popular, they started to use sound effect records for the more unusual or hard to produce sounds.

Here’s a Chevrolet-produced short from 1938 that shows the behind the scenes of how it was done:

 

My Interview on the Nostalgia Digest Podcast

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I had a fabulous time talking Old Time Radio with Steve Darnall of Nostalgia Digest (and I’m excited to be part of the Fifth Anniversary Podcast!). We talk about my “gateway drug” into old time radio, historical Chicago, and my inspiration for the characters in The Darkness Knows – among other things. I come in around the 36 minute mark.

Radio Guide Inspiration (Thanks, Henry Grimm)

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I scored a whole lot of 1938 Radio Guide magazines off of ebay about six years ago – all from the collection of one man, Henry Grimm (or so I assume, since his name is written in pencil on the front cover of most of them and yes, that’s Lucille Ball on the cover of the one in the middle). I’ve spent hours pouring over them, and I thought I’d share a little of the real stories that inspired characters and incidents in my first book, The Darkness Knows.

First of all, there’s a gossip section in every edition centered around Chicago radio called The Radio Tattler. You may recognize this as the gossip section Vivian’s excited about being mentioned in at the beginning of the book. (There were also gossip sections devoted to New York and Los Angeles).

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The character of Little Sammy Evans was inspired by this feature story in the March 19, 1938 edition.

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Also, Vivian mentions when talking to Charlie that there are women that specialize in crying like babies for radio programs. That came from this blurb.

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And here’s the actual listing for Thursday, October 27, 1938. The Darkness Knows would have been listed in the 8:00 time slot – if it had been real, that is. (I love that Henry Grimm put a check mark next to the programs that he planned to listen to – Rudy Vallee’s Variety Hour at 7:00, Maxwell House Coffee’s Good News of 1939 at 8:00, and the Kraft Music Hall Starring Bing Crosby at 9:00. He must have gone to bed after that. ;))

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A Very Brief History of Old Time Radio in Chicago

(I wrote this brief history of Chicago radio for my publicist at Sourcebooks, and I thought I’d share.)

Radio Tattler

Chicago was a major player in radio from the beginning of the medium in the early 1920s. AM band stations (which was all they had at the time) were and are known for their strength of signal. Because of the flat geography of the Midwest, it was possible tune in a Chicago broadcast from the east coast all the way to the Rockies. Chicago was also a central switching point for transcontinental network lines (like NBC, CBS), and production facilities in Chicago fed programming to the various time zones in the days before pre-recording technology. The networks were committed to 19 hours of original programming a day and a good portion of that came out of Chicago.

National favorite programs originating from Chicago included Fibber McGee and Molly and Amos ‘n’ Andy (both eventually moved production to Hollywood).  One of my personal favorite spooky shows Lights Out originated in Chicago.

The soap opera format was pioneered in Chicago by Irna Phillips on WGN in the early 1930s. Many soaps were produced in Chicago, among them one of the most popular soaps of the radio era, Vic and Sade. The Guiding Light started in 1937 in Chicago and played on radio for 15 years before moving to television to become the longest running soap opera of all time (72 years!).

There were live radio remotes from Chicago nightclubs like the Empire Room, the Edgewater Hotel, etc… that showcased sets from the top bands of the day like Benny Goodman (who was born in Chicago). “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge” was a popular national musical quiz show broadcast live from Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant.

Radio guides and fan magazines in the 1930s had three distinct gossip columns focusing on New York, Hollywood, and Chicago. That’s a screenshot above of a Chicago gossip column from a December 1938 issue of Radio Guide.

There were three major stations/networks in Chicago in the late 1930s. (WCHI – The station in The Darkness Knows is completely fictional. J)

  • WGN – CBS/Mutual Broadcasting (broadcast from the Wrigley Building)
  • WMAQ – NBC Blue Network (broadcast from the Merchandise Mart)
  • WLS (Standing for World’s Largest Store – aka Sears) was famous for its programming aimed at the farmers of the rural Midwest. The station was famous for The National Barn Dance with the “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry

Chicago itself was also a major stopping point for those traveling from NYC to LA. They had to change trains and stations while in Chicago. That meant a lot of celebrities stopped, at least briefly, in Chicago during that era and were interviewed on the radio and had their photos taken for the newspaper.

Comedian Jack Benny was from Waukegan (where I lived briefly) and mentioned it often on his popular radio program.

Chicago’s heavy involvement in producing original radio content petered out by the end of WWII. Most shows were produced in LA or NYC after this time. And radio, as a medium of original content anyway, died out with the growing popularity of television in the 1950s.

Where It All Started (For Me, Anyway) – War of the Worlds

I first heard the original War of the Worlds broadcast in Sister Barbara Jean’s 8th grade reading class. The first ten minutes or so gave me goose bumps and sparked my love of old time radio. It made such an impression on me that I set my first mystery, The Darkness Knows, in October 1938 to coincide with the original Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast on October 30, 1938 (a character is actually listening to the live broadcast near the end of the book).

Do yourself a favor and listen to the original (It’s brilliant and so far ahead of its time.): Orson Welles Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast on YouTube 

One of my current favorite radio shows, Radiolab, did a fascinating episode around the psychology of the broadcast – why it worked so well and what happened when it was repeated: Radiolab War of the Worlds Live Episode 

There’s also a PBS documentary on the subject: American Experience War of the Worlds