Or, An Audiobook Narrator Pays Tribute To Jim Dennison, His Great-Grandfather Who Made Him Fall In Love With The Spoken Word
Despite the fact that I’m writing this on July 30th, it is a Christmas story. The reason for starting this blog so long before publishing it in December is a personal one. See, today would have been my great-grandfather’s 106th birthday, and it’s a day I always celebrate. Why? Because he’s the man who made me love the spoken word. I’m often asked why I got into audiobooks, but I don’t usually tell the real story; I’ll usually point to my love of old time radio instead. It’s not because…Keep Reading
Despite the fact that I’m writing this on July 30th, it is a Christmas story. The reason for starting this blog so long before publishing it in December is a personal one. See, today would have been my great-grandfather’s 106th birthday, and it’s a day I always celebrate. Why? Because he’s the man who made me love the spoken word.
I’m often asked why I got into audiobooks, but I don’t usually tell the real story; I’ll usually point to my love of old time radio instead. It’s not because I don’t want to tell the story; just the opposite. Problem is, most of the time I’m asked these questions during an interview or a panel discussion, and I’m very conscious of the fact that I’ll be fighting a word count, maybe a few hundred for an article, or a minute or two for a panel. This is a long story, though, one whose import and power don’t come through when I rush it. So I keep silent, and usually only tell it every few years, when the time seems right, when nobody’s in a hurry to be somewhere else, when I can take my time to not only tell the story properly, but to relish the memory. Because it’s one of my favorites. Without a doubt, my favorite Christmas memory of all time.
I’m not sure if anyone reading this in December will remember, but on the evening of July 30th, 2010, I posted the following on my Facebook page:
On this day in 1904, my great-grandfather Lewis Ford “Jim” Dennison was born. Jim was a terrific human being, and because he lived to such a ripe old age, I was blessed to know him for many, many years, far into my adult life. He was gruff, peremptory at times, as strong and tough a man who ever lived, but he also had an infectious laugh, and wasn’t afraid to cry. It’s been more than 15 years since he passed, but I miss that man every single day.
Jim was always around when I was a kid. As he’d done with my mother, he helped raise both my brother Mike and myself. And maybe because he was such a tough guy, it was all the more amazing when he’d cut loose with a laugh, or tell a joke. His laugh really was infectious, as Mike and I were to find out, much to our chagrin.
See, it turns out Jim had a bunch of jokes in his head that he’d first heard back around World War I. Most of these jokes were the result of an old vaudeville act he’d seen, two guys named Moran and Mack, who went by the name The Two Black Crows. Problem is, these jokes really weren’t funny to us. Yeah, no, not funny at all.
Before going further, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The Two Black Crows were, without doubt, politically incorrect: they were white guys in blackface. They were precursors to the famous radio comedians Amos ’n’ Andy, but to be fair, if you didn’t know they performed in blackface, you’d likely not be able to tell just by listening. Their humor wasn’t as painfully racist as many of their contemporaries, but rather more laconic than anything else. Even though they’re largely forgotten today, they had a pretty successful run back in the early days of the 20th Century. The team appeared in vaudeville with W.C. Fields, on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920, and when talkies arrived, they even starred in a couple of feature films for Paramount. “The Two Black Crows” became a weekly radio show in 1928, but the act soon ended when Charles Mack died in an automobile accident in 1934.
I was about nine when Jim started telling us about them, around 1975. My brother Mike and I would be working in my parents’ Western Auto store in Porterville, California, when out of nowhere Jim would bust out with some cornball joke he’d heard two vaudevillians perform. One in particular was about these two guys who were going to go down to the post office. If you get there first, the one guy said, you make a line. If I get there first, I’ll rub it out. Or something along those lines.
Vaudeville humor, right? Nothing too sophisticated. Mike and I were clearly old hands at refined comedy, even at that tender young age. Jim, that’s not funny, we’d say, that’s stupid.
Nope, Jim would reply. That’s comedy.
So, years go by, it’s now the mid-’80s. I’m a theater student at UCLA, and have long since discovered the glory of Old Time Radio. I’m such an enthusiast that I go to an OTR convention in Los Angeles. While there, puttering around in the dealer’s room, I happen upon a guy selling old records. REALLY old records, as in 78s. The vast majority of them are old musical acts, but I notice that a few are comedians like Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor. Reminded of the comedy albums by Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy I loved when I was a kid, I began to wonder if people made comedy albums even back in the day of 78s…?
I asked the dealer if this was the case, and he said absolutely, lots of old comedians recorded their routines on vinyl. That’s amazing, I thought, not putting two and two together until he said the words, “Quite a few vaudeville acts recorded their routines for posterity.”
And all of a sudden, it hit me. The Two Black Crows were vaudevillians. Any chance THEY could’ve recorded their stuff…?
“Absolutely,” said the dealer. “I’ve seen a few of their records, think I even own a couple.”
It was November at this point, and an idea suddenly hit me, fully formed in my head. Christmas was a scant five or six weeks away. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to let Jim hear voices that had been silent for half a century?
Scott Corbett was the record dealer that day. He’s an amazing guy, and when I told him about my idea, he became my own private record detective, a guy who crawled through not only his own musty, dusty record collection, but sifted through others’ as well. Scott originally thought the Crows had made a total of five records, and he was pretty sure he could get me four of them, but I’d get these periodic phone calls, sounding like an old noir-ish gumshoe tracking down a misbehaving spouse. “Turns out there are six records, and I’m pretty sure I can get five,” he’d tell me, then soon call back and say, “Spoke too soon, there are SEVEN records, and I’ve got a line on SIX!”
Every time I heard about a new one, I’d yell, “Buy it!” Which was pretty bold for a poor college kid. I was in desperate straits that year, and I probably had a budget of about $50 to spend on Christmas. Total, for everybody’s gift, combined. Jim’s present alone turned out to be about $150, but I didn’t care. I somehow knew I’d stumbled upon that thing we always crave at the holidays: the Perfect Gift Idea. Given his age and precarious health, it seemed as though this might be Jim’s last Christmas. I wanted it to be a truly special one, so “Buy it!” became my new mantra.
I drove out to Scott Corbett’s place in Ontario, about an hour out of LA, to pick up the records, and soon realized I had a dilemma on my hands: I was now the proud owner of half a dozen 78RPM records, with nary a record player in sight. I didn’t own one, and more importantly, neither did Jim.
Yikes! What was I supposed to do now?
Click here to listen to The Two Black Crows yourself (Jim’s favorite joke is in Part 3).
That was when I started to cry. As did my mom, and most everybody in the room. But still, I sat and I watched him. I stared at Jim’s face, and the hands that held the tape player to his ear, and as I did, it occurred to me:
Between the cassette deck playing those long-ago recordings and Jim’s ear that took them all in -- in that half-inch between the plastic case and Jim’s head -- the last 60 years didn’t exist. Jim was hearing voices he hadn’t heard since he was a child in World War I, voices he’d originally heard in a darkened vaudeville house, and he’d never once considered that he might hear them again. And while his eyes remained closed and his mind swam in memory, for those few moments, in those few inches, time ceased to exist, and he heard those voices as though they were new.
And why? Because all those years ago, someone had the brilliant idea of recording those words.
That was when I knew: the spoken word is powerful. The spoken word can be miraculous.
It isn’t always. But when it is, it’s glorious. When comedians lay down their routines, or authors have their work recorded, it leaves a unique legacy behind; more than just words on a page, these recordings become history we can hear for years to come. And I knew then that this was something I wanted to be involved in. I didn’t suddenly dedicate my life to becoming an audiobook narrator, no, by no means, the words “Aha, books on tape!” didn’t echo portentously inside my mind, but still, I knew I wanted to be a part of something like that, to record something that could live on long after me.
As it turns out, Jim had another ten or so ‘last Christmases’ after that, and I was thankful for every one of them. And each year, I’d make more and more recordings of other things he hadn’t heard in decades, a month’s worth of old Lum and Abner radio shows, that kind of thing. But even ten more years weren’t enough. Jim passed away very soon after Christmas of 1994, and although it was eleven months later that we spent our first Christmas without him, I was very lonely that year.
To this day, I still have the compilation of The Two Black Crows I gave Jim that year, the politically incorrect mix tape, if you will, and even though those recordings are now online in MP3 format, I still plug the cassettes in when I want to hear them. They just sound better that way.
So that’s it. In many ways it was The Perfect Christmas Gift, because I wasn’t just giving Jim some old recordings -- what I gave him was the past. His past. And now, all these years later, when I’m blessed enough to make my living making recordings that, who knows, someone might treasure, or perhaps stumble upon years after I’m gone, all these years later, when someone asks me why I have such a passion for what I do, I remember Jim, and I smile.
I narrate audiobooks, and because I do, I get to speak to the future.
Thanks for listening, and Merry Christmas.