Thursday, June 2, 2011
Blasts from the Past, Day 2
Well, yesterday's post got a nice response. Seems people are rather curious about "the old days" of audiobook recording. In the 30's and 40's (well before my time, of course), "talking books" were recorded on vinyl discs that played at 16 3/4 rpm and lasted about 30 minutes. Page turns and minor slips went uncorrected. If you really fumbled it you had to start all over again on a fresh disc. Then reel-to-reel came along, but because of the way the Library of Congress recorded the tapes, on both sides at 3 3/4 speed, you couldn't cut them up. Retakes had to be punched in and punched out on the fly. If the engineer's finger slipped and you recorded over the start of the following sentence, you had to record that sentence again. If you slipped once more and went over the mark, you had to redo the next sentence, and so on and so forth. Young engineers these days marvel at how I can exactly reproduce the timing of a re-take. I had a lot of practice!
Did I mention that we smoked in the booth? It wasn't unusual to have a cigarette going in the ashtray and pause for a few puffs between paragraphs. Hard to imagine these days.
Flo Gibson was a larger-than-life personality in more ways than one. She was very tall--"statuesque" would have been the polite word back then--while her husband Charles was very short and rattled around the house like a character from a Wodehouse novel. The stairs to the basement were narrow and steep, and Flo would hurl herself down them in a state of perpetual haste. Sometimes this was a literal phenomenon and she would end up in a heap at the bottom of the steps. In one of these plunges she broke her neck (really) and this was the start of some of the physical problems that plagued her in later years. Eventually she had an elevator installed that could take her from her bedroom directly to the recording booth two floors below.
Flo held a rather idealized view of her favorite authors. A spunky young woman who was engineering one of her Edith Wharton recordings remarked that she found a certain passage "sexy." Flo stopped dead in her tracks, glared at the poor thing through the glass window of the booth and replied frostily, "There is no sex in Edith Wharton!"
I did a lot of nifty recordings for Audio Book Contractors, including a special translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy by a local college professor that attempted to explicate the many topical references without resorting to lengthy footnotes. It read very well, actually, and can still be found on Audible. I also recorded Cyrano de Bergerac and King Lear, O. Henry and Arthur Conan Doyle, and a host of other entertaining things. One book I do NOT remember recording was Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--yet there it is on Audible, much to my surprise, along with a highly complimentary review. I listened to the sample and was startled to hear myself reading something I simply don't recall having done. (Must have been all that wine.) But it's definitely me, and it's not bad at all, if I do say so. Back then, when there were few British narrators working in America, we Americans did a lot of classic British lit, using a sort of "faux" accent that resembled a cross between Basil Rathbone and Alexander Scourby. Nowadays we get real Brits to do these things, of course.