The following is excerpted from “Calvin Cobb – Radio Woodworker,” by Roy Underhill.
Across the studio, behind a grove of microphones on stands, the piano sat silent under a quilted cover like a sleeping racehorse. Calvin leaned forward in his chair staring at it, trying to strike an intense, artistic pose as Bubby read over his script. A figure in the hallway passed the small window in the studio door and Calvin whipped his head up painfully quick. He glanced at the clock. Bubby said they would have the studio to themselves until four. The chair creaked as he leaned back, shifting his pose to one of relaxed confidence—which would do just as well if Kathryn Dale Harper should happen by. But this pose quickly grew tiresome as well, and he leaned forward again to poke quietly at the saws, augers and gouges in his pasteboard box.
Bubby finally handed the script back to Calvin. “Okay. You need to write an introduction. You need to say who you are, what you’re doing, and who it’s for. You need say the title and set the stage. And you have to state that it’s a transcribed show at the beginning and at the end. That’s a federal regulation.”
“Do you want me to write all that now?”
“Nah, its just boilerplate to me. Same on every show, time-wise. Like the ending, it’ll be something like—
If you would like a measured drawing to make your own folding ladder of liberty, handy around the farm and home, just write to Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air, care of the National Farm and Home Hour, US Department of Agriculture, Washington 25, D.C. Be sure to include a three-cent stamp to cover the cost of duplication. This has been Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air, transcribed from Washington, D.C.
“So ‘Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air,’ that’s the title?”
Bubby pinched at a weeping blister on his left hand. “Hattersley’s suggestion, so I’d go with it, if I were you.”
“I thought it had a certain buoyancy about it!”
“Thought you’d like it.” He grinned at his friend. “Okay, after the close, you need a signature sign-off. Something that will stick with ’em.”
Calvin leaned over toward the sound effects table in the center of the studio as he thought. “How about:
This is Calvin Cobb wishing that, as you slide down that banister of life, all the splinters go in your direction!”
Bubby nodded enthusiastically. “Believe me, that’s not too corny.”
Calvin rubbed the canvas cover of the wind machine. “Nah! You know we can’t end each show with a Confucius-say joke about splinters in the ass.”“Well, it’s borderline. So, got any theme music?”
“This is very psychological, now. You need some old music that’s gone out of fashion, but that still has positive associations. Gotta pluck the right strings.”
Calvin stared at the piano and flipped through mental images of tattered sheet music. Willow Weep for Me?
Bubby shook his head. “It doesn’t have to have a wood reference.”
“Something by Bela-Bale, maybe, then.” He waved away his comment. “Sorry, uh, how bout Nola?”
Bubby hummed the tune to himself for a second. “It’s bouncy.”
“Yes, but is it buoyant?”
“Buoyant enough for government work. Okay, Nola for now, and your first sound effect is what?”
Calvin looked at the script. “The auger, I guess.”
Bubby wrote the cue on a notepad. “Right, okay, I’ll do peanut shells in a meat grinder for that.”
“I brought over an auger and a brace,” said Calvin, rummaging in his box of tools.
“Wouldn’t sound right. Okay, you got sawing here too. Let me hear you saw.”
“Rip or crosscut?”
“Both. And I’ll do Washington’s snoring since you’ll be doing the character voices over it.”
Calvin pulled his five-and-a-half point Disston No. 9 from the box and rip-sawed down the length of a pine plank spanning two sawhorses. Bubby made snoring sounds, striving for a comic asynchrony. He signaled Calvin to stop. “You know, if this was a union job they’d have to give me actor’s pay for the snoring. Alright, lets hear the crosscut.”
Calvin changed saws and began cutting across the grain. Bubby snored while studying the bouncing needle on a meter. He shook his head. “Get a thinner board so it’s a little crisper, and I’d better do the sawing too. I can make it funnier.”
“Right! Tell me how you can saw funnier than me.” Calvin plunked the saw blade with his thumb, making it ring with a “boing” sound.
“It’s all in the timing. And that ‘boing’ you just did is a perfect rimshot for the punchline.” Bubby reached with his toe to level the gravel in a big shallow box on the floor. “So, here’s your Hessian on guard duty.”
He stepped in the box, marched in place for a few steps, then swiveled and marched in place again.
“We’re going to be making history, you know that.”
“Well, it’s not very good history.”
Bubby frowned at him for a second, then grinned and slapped at Calvin’s script. “No, not your story itself! Just that it’s going to be the first recorded program ever on the networks.”
“You mean the second. You did the first. And what’s the big deal, anyway?” said Calvin, trying to shift the subject. “Unless there’s a scratch or a skip on the record, you can’t tell if it’s recorded or live—or is that the problem?”
“Oh, that’s what they say, but it’s just money.” Bubby leveled the sound effects gravel with his toe. “It’s like Rockefeller oil. Once you control the pipeline, you can strangle the little guys. NBC and CBS put all this dough into their wire networks. But if anyone bypasses them by mailing out shows on disks, there goes the hegemonic power of the dastardly duopoly.” He laughed. “I sound like Kathryn Harper.”
Calvin glanced at the window and stretched his arms over his head in an exaggerated show of nonchalance. “Are you suggesting that the voice of the American homemaker is a red?”
“Oh, she’s very in with that Popular Front jazz.” He tossed his head back, regarding Calvin through narrowed eyes. “Are you surprised?”
“Well, it is kind of an odd fit—slip covers and surplus value.”
Bubby shrugged. “Lots o’ radishes out there still—all stylishly red on the outside but white underneath. But me? I’ve got you some surplus value right here.” He reached into his jacket pocket and handed Calvin two blue tickets.
“Holy cow! Tommy Dorsey! How’d you get these?”
Making a show of adjusting his collar, Bubby affected a hoity-toity voice. “I’m a celebrity now, don’t you know? Such things come my way.”
“But don’t you want go?”
Bubby shook his head slowly. “The dance is out at Glen Echo, right next to the roller coaster. I’ve heard all the screaming I need to hear for a while.” He blew out a breath and sat on one of the sawhorses. “I just burn my hands trying to pull some stupid girder and the next thing you know my name is in the paper and everybody’s being nice to me!” He stood, taking control of his breathing before reaching into a bag beneath his table and pulling out a head of cabbage. “So here’s when your Kraut gets clubbed.” He whacked the cabbage with a short billy club, let a half second of silence pass and grunted “Unhh!” A sequential flopping of his elbow, forearm and fist onto the tabletop made the sound of a body hitting the ground. “Trust me, it’s perfect when you can’t see it.” Bubby nodded slowly as he looked in his little spiral-bound notebook. “Okay, we got the prison door.” He leaned over and patted the chain-festooned iron firebox door standing on a short wooden frame. “Got the tunnel.” He patted the empty trash drum beside him. “Got your wood gouges, creaking gridiron and unfolding ladder.”
Calvin took up the challenge and pointed to a yellow balloon on the cart. “All right. Thumb dragged across the balloon for the creaking gridiron. Where’s the folding ladder?”
Bubby picked up a short cedar box with a paddle-shaped cedar lid. He held the lid handle and rubbed it down the edge of the box to make a squeaky opening and closing sound. “Its a turkey call.”
Calvin nodded appreciatively. “And the gouges?”
Bubby took up a serving spoon and swept it repeatedly across the tabletop, slowly rolling its point of contact from the bowl of the spoon to finish the sweep with its edge. He bounced his eyebrows in happy triumph and popped Calvin on the shoulder with the spoon. “We’re going to be on a tight schedule, so I’m going to give you a production calendar for the whole summer. Enjoy the dance, ’cause you sure won’t have much time for a social life once we get going.” He glanced up at the wall clock. “Ah! Let’s get this place cleaned up.”
“I thought we had until four o’clock!”
Bubby crossed the studio to retrieve a broom. “When the piano man speaks, all must obey. He wanted to start at three.”
Calvin held a sheet of paper on the floor as Bubby swept the sawdust onto it. “Is Brockwell privy to Miss Harper’s pink persuasion?”
“Couldn’t be. He’s the bone they had to throw over the right side of the fence.” Bubby removed the quilted cover from the Steinway grand and began rearranging the microphones. “Some of his stooges in congress invoked the public interest provision of the Communications Act of 1934. As a balance to talking about social security, they say we have to let Brockwell share his helpful hints about blood, soil and der volk.” He handed the piano cover to Calvin and nodded toward the props table. “He’s been trying to get his own radio program for years now.”
“What’s been stopping him?”
“Stay and listen.”
Calvin finished tidying the props and wandered slowly to the booth. He let himself in and began thumbing through the record collection in the dark corner.
Bubby, still in the studio, switched on a microphone so that his voice came on the speaker in the booth. “You may be stuck here for an hour or so,” he warned. “We’re going to rehearse and then we’ll cut one.” He made a farting noise. “Or maybe two.” He made another.
5 thoughts on “‘Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air’”
One of your most underrated books.
Excellent book. Perhaps my favorite book cover of all time.
What a different world it was before television. Growing up, the radio was exclusively tuned to classical music (no advertising) in my home, and two daily newspapers were the source of news. But I do remember being allowed to stay up to hear the returns when Eisenhower was elected president (a rare instance when the radio was on), my first introduction to American-style politics on its steady 70-year postwar descent.
I really liked reading this book
Back when I was still blogging about project management, I used to recommend Roy’s book, “Kruschev’s Shoe, and other ways to captivate an audience of 1 to 1000.” If I still had a venue, I would recommend it again. Oh, wait …
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