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Even the strife is wonderful for sound dude.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series about Bob Welch playing a part in Lord Leebrick's production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play."

In the men's dressing room, half an hour before curtain at Springfield's Wildish Theater, I thrust my right fist into the palm of my left hand.

If it's my sound effect that's going to make the audience believe George Bailey punched Bert the cop in the mouth at the old Granville House, it must be believable.

My left hand seems to believe it. I've punched so hard that my palm is throbbing and I've sprained my index finger. Rookie mistake. I'm overhyped.

But this is no time to whim--per. Nobody said it was going to be easy being the Assistant Sound Effects Dude for last Sunday's "Wonderful Life" production.

In 30 minutes, it will be my job to help make an array of sounds, from the noise of crowd "hubbub" to Uncle Billy running into a garbage can to the piece de resistance: a bell on the Christmas tree ringing, prompting Zuzu to say: "Look, Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."

Beyond that, I will speak five lines as "Mr. Welch," the actual name of a character who, as the husband of a schoolteacher whom George has bawled out, punches him in the nose at Martini's Bar.

It is, on one hand, small potatoes. But, then, the point of Frank Capra's story is that none of us is small potatoes. That we all make a difference, more than we know. So each punch I throw, each bell I ring must be the best I can offer. And arrive precisely on time.

"We'll head down in about five," says Dale Jestice, the sound-effects Mr. Miyagi to my Grasshopper.

I exhale. This is a man who takes his noises seriously, carefully having shown me, in the past month, how to do, say, a perfect Martini Baby, complete with cupped hands. When I'd first tried it in rehearsal, the cast had broken out in laughter. "Sounds like a cat in heat," someone said.

"Only make the sound of consonants," said Carol Horne, our cut-to-the-chase director who is that splendid combination of "make-it-better" and "you-guys-rock!"

I had no idea the sound of a crying baby could be so complicated. "And don't forget, it's an Italian baby," said Bill Reid, whose portrayal of Clarence the Angel is delicious. "Give it a little splash of that."

Now, weeks later, it is showtime and that baby is less likely to have an Italian accent than a bit of hoarseness from having screamed on every Oregon defensive play at the Civil War the previous day.

Dale and I take to the stage. The set is simple: four microphones out front, the giant call letters "WBFR" above us and our sound-effects tables in back.

We sound folks are to drama what a drummer is to a band, the subtle but significant percussion that can make or break a song. (Or so we like to think.)

We go over dozens of our sound-making devices one final time. I make sure my sheet metal is there for a clap of thunder. A sound-effects technician's worst fear is that someone might walk off with one of his devices. While we were in the dressing room, for example, I'm glad nobody has stolen our thunder.

Soon, the rest of the cast joins us on stage. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to a live broadcast of WBFR Playhouse of the Air!" begins Bary Shaw as host Freddie Filmore.

After a month's worth of practices - I attended four - it's an emotional high to hear an audience laugh. It's like a writer realizing that someone is actually out there, reading this stuff. (Or so we like to think.)

"The audience is the last character to act in the play," Horne had told me the previous night, while I watched the debut with her from far back in a Wildish Theater that is drawing raves from audiences and actors.

My first scene is when a drunk Mr. Gower, having learned his son has died, tells a young George to deliver some pills to Mrs. Blaine. When Gower spills the pills, I pour jelly beans from a jar. When Gower slaps George, I snap a belt. I feel a little like the skater who nails a triple-axel; it boosts the confidence for the rest of the program.

I do some crowd hubbub - a sound tech's chump change - and then it's time to drop the garbage can lid as Uncle Billy leaves Harry's homecoming party while feeling no pain. Disappointing. I am hoping for a long-lasting spin but don't get it.

Can't mope. There are phones to ring, babies to cry, bank customers to pound on doors. Soon comes time for my first solo noise with my mouth - the Martini Baby's cry while George and Mary are helping celebrate the family's move to their new house.

"Whaaaah. Whaah. Whaah." I offer the baby sound with no thought of consonants or Italian spice. The audience laughs - perhaps mistakenly thinking Martini said "bring the cats or hogs." (But I wouldn't want to think so.)

Jestice, meanwhile, is nailing his sound effects - car horns, train whistles, George puffing on a cigar in Potter's office. Working with him is like being an acolyte helping the Pope lead Mass.

Now, as George arrives home on Christmas Eve, missing $8,000, the sound-effects slopes get more slippery. I need to talk into a glass to make it sound like I'm Mr. Welch, on the phone to George, who thinks he's talking to Mr. Welch's wife-the-school-teacher. Think low, Bob. Think mean. Think anger.

"Now who do you think you are?" I say. Passable, but not perfect.

After intermission, it's time for the bar scene. A distraught George has just prayed "show me the way, God." Mr. Welch, sitting nearby, overhears Martini call George by name.

"Bailey?" I say as Mr. Welch. "You say Bailey? Which Bailey?"

Realizing it's the guy who chewed out my wife, I say "George Bailey, huh?" and slap my hands together to connote the fist-to-the-jaw sound. Fearful of hitting the microphone, I ease up on the slap, creating a punchless punch. Argh!

I finish my lines, castigating George for berating my wife, calling his kids "stupid" and - this is kind of weird, when you think about it - threatening that "next time you talk to my wife like that, you'll get worse." (Is this a death threat or is Mr. Welch going to subject George to listening to little Janie play that shaky rendition of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" one more time?)

At any rate, the Wildish crowd cheers, meaning that either the lines worked or my mother in the audience organized Row F to cheer.

"Well," Clarence is soon saying to George in the bridge master's office, "you've got your wish. You've never been born."

I warp the sheet metal. Thunder jolts the audience - and relieves the thunder-maker, since I'd feared dropping it. (Hard to hide ill-timed thunder.)

Soon we're back in the Bailey living room, reveling in news that the community and Sam Wainwright have kicked in tons of money to save George's behind.

Dale gets off a perfect sound of a wine bottle being uncorked, complete with the glub-glub-glub that follows. And, finally, comes my big moment - the ringing of the bell.

I hold a bell casing within an inch of the microphone and ring it with a little plastic mallet.

Perfecto! That is, until I realize that the bell is soon touching the microphone and exuding more like the sound of "bell thunder."

"Look, daddy," I imagine Zuzu saying, "teacher says every time a bell rings and it hits the microphone, a columnist loses his sound-effects job."

But afterward, when the cast and audience has sung "Auld Lang Syne" together, the cast and crew are their usual forgiving selves. We pose for photos on the set and say our good-byes, the cast leaving me with a copy of the "Wonderful Life" script cover with their autographs on it.

And with the pleasant memory of getting to spend one small season in my favorite town, Bedford Falls.

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"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" now shifts to the Lord Leebrick Theatre, 540 Charnelton St., for eight performances: 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and on Dec. 13, 14 and 15, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sunday and Dec. 16. For tickets - $17 for adults, $14 for seniors and $12 for students - call 465-1605 or visit www.lordleebrick.com.
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Title Annotation:City/Region Columnist
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 4, 2007
Words:1446
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