This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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OTR'S “ANIMAL IMITATORS”
by Jack French, © 2004
(From Radio Recall, October 2004)
Providing the vocalizations for all the animals who occasionally appeared in radio scripts was a small but talented group of sound technicians. Most, but not all, of them were primarily sound effects artists who occasionally were called upon to replicate animal sounds. A few of them performed the animal sounds so well, they did nothing else.
Brad Barker was one of the latter; you can hear him as the wolf at the beginning of every Renfrew of the Mounted show. He did all the animals on that series: dogs, wolverines, horses, and even a moose.
Dewey Cole at WXYZ was employed there as a sound effects man, and later was picked to be the voice of “Yukon King” on Challenge of the Yukon. Sgt. Preston originally had a French-Canadian guide as his sidekick, but station owner George Trendle preferred the Mountie talking to his dog, not his guide. The reason may have been one of economy since sound effects people were paid by the week any way and that saved Trendle the cost of an actor.
Although Cole objected to this arrangement, he got paid nothing more for doing “Yukon King” until about a year later when his union, AFRA, ruled that he was “impersonating a dog” and therefore was also entitled to actor’s pay.
An OTR actor and singer, Gilbert Mack, was primarily a performer in various adventure and comedy shows, but he had perfected his sound of a small dog. It won him the role of “Asta”, the terrier on Adventures of the Thin Man, but unfortunately for Mack, the dog seldom appeared in the scripts.
One of Brad Barker’s chief rivals in New York City was Donald Bain, who was as small in stature as Barker was large. The little guy was somewhat eccentric and loved to confound subway passengers in Manhattan by creating cat and bird sounds behind his newspaper.
Many of the regular sound men could come up with a passable dog or cat sound if needed, but few had the skill to whinny like a horse. Frank Milano did all the animal sounds on Bobby Benson of the b-Bar-B, a Mutual show produced at WOR. In it, Frank did the vocalization for horses, cows, dogs, cougars, bears, including some scenes where two animals fought each other, with Frank doing both parts. In one episode he did a fight scene between a mountain lion and Bobby’s horse, Amigo. In another program, he was both voices when a dog was fighting off an enraged bull. (This gave a whole new meaning to the term: “talking to yourself.”)
The children’s show, Let’s Pretend, was one of the most challenging, since any animal might show up in the script. George O’Donnell, on this series, voiced an elephant, owl, unicorn, monkey, snake, peacock, and many other creatures. In case two animals were heard in the same scene, George’s partner, Art Strand, pitched in.
Even when the listening public was lead to believe a real animal was making the noises, it was a talented imitator. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie could not read a script so they were portrayed by humans. Earl Keen was the voice of Lassie.