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Ray Erlenborn, 92; longtime sound effects man for CBS

June 18, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Whenever Arthur Lake as Dagwood on the CBS radio comedy "Blondie" was running late for work, he'd race out the front door and run smack-dab into the mailman, with Daisy, the Bumstead family dog, yapping at his heels.

That's when Ray Erlenborn, ace CBS sound effects man, would spring into action.

"I could do the whole sequence myself," Erlenborn recalled in an interview with Atlantic Monthly in 2000. "You can choreograph it so it works: Start running from off-mike, then do a whiz whistle for Dagwood flying through the door, then the dog starts barking, then you do a tom-tom for the two bodies hitting together, then I would actually drop a big handful of mail right by the mike.

"You just have to make sure you keep all the props where you can grab 'em."

Erlenborn, 92, a former child vaudeville singer and silent film child actor whose career as a CBS sound effects man spanned the late 1930s on radio to the late 1970s on television, died of complications of a bacterial infection June 4 at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center, said his son, Dan.

Erlenborn's talent for making sound effects was heard on radio shows such as "Suspense," "Big Town" and "Amos 'n' Andy," as well as programs starring George Burns and Gracie Allen and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

"Ray was not just a technician," said Leonard Maltin, who interviewed Erlenborn for "The Great American Broadcast," a 1997 history of radio's golden age.

"The first thing I learned delving into this subject was that the really good sound effects men were artists and performers," Maltin said. "If they hadn't had been, they would not have done a good job, because they had to understand the context of the sounds they were making: funny, suspenseful, horrific -- whatever the scripts called for. And they also had to work in concert with the actors in terms of timing and emphasis. So they were really members of the creative team, just as sound people are today in movies."

Born in Denver on Jan. 21, 1915, Erlenborn was singing at age 3 and touring in vaudeville three years later.

As a child actor in Hollywood in the 1920s and early '30s, he played Spike in the "Winnie Winkle" comedy series and had bit parts in scores of other silent films and early talkies, including Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights."

Erlenborn sang on numerous Los Angeles radio shows in the 1930s, including KFWB's "Junior Hi Jinx" and his own weekly three-hour show on KGFJ, before joining the sound effects staff at KNX, the CBS affiliate, in 1937.

"There were just three sound guys there when I was hired," he said in the Atlantic Monthly interview. "I'd start the day by playing a recording of a rooster crow for the 'Hancock Oil News Review.' That was at 6 a.m. From then until midnight, when I did a show called 'Nightcap Yarns' with Frankie Graham, I'd be doing sound effects for sometimes 15 or 20 different shows. Sometimes you'd do the same program twice: once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast."

After serving in the Army Air Forces' First Motion Picture Unit at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City during World War II, Erlenborn moved into doing sound effects for television.

He appeared as an actor on early TV shows starring Ed Wynn and Buster Keaton and played the boss of Betty White's TV husband on the syndicated 1953-55 sitcom "Life With Elizabeth."

At CBS-TV until his retirement in 1977, Erlenborn did sound effects for programs such as "The Jack Benny Show," "Playhouse 90," "The Red Skelton Show," "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" and "The Carol Burnett Show."

One of his favorite sound effects was created by crushing peach baskets to make the sound of Skelton's hand smashing into a door, followed by popping a champagne cork as the comedian pulled out his hand.

Erlenborn did animal sounds for "Crusader Rabbit" cartoons and for the 1967 movie-musical "Doctor Dolittle," as well as providing sound effects for Stan Freberg and Spike Jones comedy albums.

In recent years, Erlenborn was a resident of the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills. In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Meredith; daughters Diana McArdle and Valerie Phimister; 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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