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The Voice That Launched 469 Books

January 20, 1991|JOHN ESPEY

Just a minute," the familiar voice says over the telephone, "and I can tell you exactly. Oh dear, my desk! Yes, here it is. I am now narrating my 466th book."

The voice is Flo Gibson's, an unaffected, yet clearly trained voice, the voice of an accomplished actress turned reader, or, as Audio Tapes Classics on Cassette prefers, "narrator."

Flo Gibson is speaking to me after a day's recording in her Washington, D.C., studio, and I am sitting in front of my cluttered desk in Topanga. Her voice is familiar to me as the persuasive voice that has not only seduced me once again into the labyrinth of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" but also has given a moving interpretation of the poems of the Bronte sisters, to name two of my own favorites among the 465 completed titles--not that I make any claim to having listened to anything like all of them.

When I ask her if she has any California connections, she laughs and says that she has indeed; for she was born in San Francisco and received her bachelor's degree from Berkeley. Even now, she maintains a Marin County pied-a-terre in Tiburon, visiting it when she can. How she ever finds time to set pied in it is a mystery to me, considering her weekly schedule. Two days a week she narrates "Talking Books" for the Library of Congress.

The remainder of her time is given to the Audio Book Contractors, featuring Classic Books on Cassettes. Nevertheless, she considers herself a Californian, and even admits to a Hollywood visit or two. But after training in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and a brief venture into theater, where she realized she was so young that she was in danger of becoming typed as the eternal Irish maid, she turned to radio in San Francisco, performing regularly on Stations KPO, KGO and KRE in "Pat Novak for Hire," "Fisherman's Wharf" and "San Francisco Story," among other programs. Only when Jack Webb decided to move to Los Angeles with "Dragnet" did she return to the East and WRC in Washington.

Marriage to a Peruvian diplomat followed, and Flo Gibson became a wife and mother, devoting herself to her family. "But the day after our youngest left for Amherst," she says in tones that any devoted parent would respond to, "I marched up the Hill to the Library of Congress and auditioned for their 'Talking Books' program." If the rest is history, it is an ongoing, strenuously active history. For her work at the Library, she is offered a number of selected titles and given her choice among them. For Classics on Cassette, she is her own mistress.

As she speaks of her favorite writers and her concern for keeping the past alive for the future, her total dedication to this labor of love colors everything she says. For writers like the Brontes, she has gone so far as to visit Haworth and hang out in local pubs to make sure that she can reproduce enough Yorkshire mannerisms to create an illusion of authentic dialect.

The modest price for either purchase or rental of these cassettes is made possible by a self-imposed limitation that both reduces expenses and guarantees the staying power of the works themselves. All of the titles are in the public domain. Flo Gibson tries each year to add at least one work each from a cluster of her favorites: Edith Wharton, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, Willa Cather, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot. Recently she has added Mary Roberts Rinehart. She usually has three books in progress: one at the Library of Congress, one at her own Washington studio, and one being given a final polish with corrections and rereadings. In what she calls "the old days," she had time to rehearse, but now she is unable to give as much time as she would wish to preparation.

This leads her to generous praise of what she calls her "unsung heroes"--her monitor/director/engineers who control the sound during her tapings and smoothly eliminate her fluffs by splicing tapes. I suggest that such an accomplished narrator must make few errors, only to have Flo Gibson laughingly assure me that this is simply not true: "I couldn't manage without these marvelous helpers," she insists, and I get the feeling that it must be fun to work with her.

As demand for the cassettes has increased, she no longer narrates everything herself. She recruits the new members of what I suppose could be called her volume of voices only from among trained actors. Yet that in itself is not enough.

"Actors want to play to the audience, to the house," she says. "Narrating is one to one, and not everyone can handle that." But there's no syllable of doubt that Flo Gibson can handle it. I realize that she has been handling it supremely for something like three-quarters of an hour by now--and this after a full day of work in her studio. An acute to moderate victim of telephone phobia from my youth on, I am actually reluctant to hang up.

When I call again several days later to check details, I misquote the number of books Flo Gibson has narrated. "Wait a minute," she says. "Oh dear, my desk! Yes, here it is. I am now narrating my 469th book."

"But your voice, Mrs. Gibson," I venture.

"Laryngitis!" she answers with difficulty. "The curse of the narrator! I'm in the middle of Henry James' 'The Golden Bowl' and can't go on."

"One of my favorite novels," I say.

"It's a very difficult book to narrate," she says.

I hang up as soon as possible to spare her voice, knowing that when I eventually hear it narrating the intricate relationships of Charlotte Sant, Prince Amerigo and the Ververs, it will be another superb rendering without the hint of a rasp.

Only after I've hung up does it occur to me that I should have suggested this would be an ideal time for a visit to Tiburon.

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