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Volunteers With Performers' Souls at Heart of Agency

May 19, 1994|SCOTT HARRIS

Russ Fox wears a bib when he reads. So does Bill Jackson.

"They drool a lot," Mort Feingold explains.

Actually, the bibs assure that the microphones hanging from their necks don't tap against their shirt buttons. On this evening at the east Hollywood headquarters of Recording for the Blind, Fox is reading a selection from a book titled "Chemical Process Controls."

"A thriller," he says from the sound booth. He's on Page 228. Feingold gives the cue and starts the tape recorder. Fox begins: "Consider the three storage tanks in Figure P.III.1. . . ."

And then--no small feat--he ad-libs a description of diagrams A, B and C.


There are nine sound booths here, and once in a while, every one of them is busy. Someday, a master tape of "Chemical Process Controls" will join the 80,000 other titles on file at RFB's national headquarters in Princeton, N.J.--a monument to the painstaking efforts of thousands of people like Fox, Jackson and Feingold.

"We are powered by our volunteers," says Carol E. Smith, executive director of RFB's Los Angeles operation.

In an age when people justifiably worry about where their donated dollar winds up, it's heartening to witness a nonprofit agency like RFB at work. Money magazine recently listed RFB as one of the most efficient educational nonprofits in the country; in the Los Angeles office last year, administration and fund-raising costs accounted for only 6.5% of the expenses. Meanwhile, volunteers logged 32,175 hours in RFB's studios in Hollywood and Manhattan Beach, produced 5,958 recorded tracks--more than any other RFB unit in the country. Smith is now seeking office space in the west San Fernando Valley in hopes of attracting more volunteers.

Founded in 1948 as a way to help veterans who were blinded in World War II take advantage of the GI Bill, RFB is filling a niche not addressed by the renowned Braille Institute. Today, RFB specializes in the recording of textbooks, from the fourth grade through postgraduate studies. The Braille Institute and commercial concerns are more apt to tape recreational reading.

People who are born without eyesight or are blinded young typically learn Braille. Those who lose eyesight later in life, or have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, are more likely to rely on tapes.

In the Los Angeles area, RFB serves more than 2,000 clients who are blind, visually impaired or have learning disabilities. A one-time registration fee of $37.50 provides them access to the RFB library and entitles them to request that new titles be recorded. At any time, hundreds of books are in the process of being taped at RFB facilities across the country.

Not just anybody is cut out to be an RFB volunteer. Each must have the soul of a performer. Russ Fox, a 32-year-old general manager for a paging company, was a play-by-play sports announcer on his college radio station. Mort Feingold, a retired civil engineer, used to give public tours of DWP facilities. Bill Jackson is an actor and a voice on AM 540--the station that provides traffic info around LAX.

Fox, who has a degree in chemical engineering, is one of the few volunteers who can handle such a technical text. Feingold is one of the few who can serve as the "monitor"--the director who operates the four-track recorder while reading along, always checking for errors that must be recorded over. If Fox is the Robert De Niro of "Chemical Process Controls," Feingold's the Martin Scorsese.

Thankfully, not all the readings are so dry. Maury Hill, a thespian who is in his 40th year of volunteering at RFB, revels in "Hamlet." "Where else can I be King, Queen and Laertes all at the same time," he says.

David Gelman, 61, used to do stand-up under the stage name "David Who?"

"I got to read 'Kiss of the Spiderwoman' in Spanish," he recalls. "I learned a bunch of new words."


There's something that bugs Gelman. Just the other day, he met a blind woman on the bus who wasn't aware of RFB. The nonprofit is so obscure, he says, that people routinely assume it's part of the Braille Institute.

They're trying to change that. That's why this Saturday, RFB will open its doors at 5022 Hollywood Blvd. for its second "record-a-thon" fund-raiser. Feingold and seven other volunteers are planning to read for 15 hours. Meanwhile, the former David Who? is delighted at the chance to direct James Earl Jones in a reading of some Maya Angelou short stories. Other celebrity readers include actors William Windom and Lloyd Bochner and radio personalities Gary Owens, Mother Love and, of course, Bill Jackson.

And if you're really lucky, maybe someone will read "Chemical Process Controls."

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