In January of 1942 Ray Kemper had just graduated from high school. The whole country was still reeling from the shock of Pearl Harbor, and the West Coast felt particularly vulnerable to possible Japanese attack. But for Ray -- in spite of his "1-A" draft status with Uncle Sam -- life was full of promise. He was working in radio at KHJ in Hollywood!
It was difficult to grow up in the shadow of Tinsel Town without dreams of an acting career, and Ray was no exception. In high school he joined a little theater group and landed the lead role of Henry Aldrich in Clifford Goldsmith's hit play What A Life! Another twist of fate had opened the doors to acting parts in radio shows.
Ray came from a modest, middle-class family with an older brother who had volunteered for military service in 1938 and who was already overseas doing combat duty. A friend of the family who worked in radio knew Celeste Rush, the wife of Lou Merrill, a very busy, very good radio actor in Hollywood for many years. Celeste, a handsome woman with raven black hair, had at one time done some radio acting herself. Currently, however, she conducted the Celeste Rush School of Radio Acting. The family friend contacted Celeste on behalf of the eager teenager, and Celeste invited Ray Kemper for an interview. This resulted not only in his acceptance but carried a scholarship so that Ray's tuition would be only $10 a month, a fraction of the usual rate. Ray explained that his parents were "anything but wealthy," so his after-school job at a grocery store paid the modest fee. He remembers his radio acting school days vividly:
"There were only about eight students in the class which met once a week on Saturday morning. Celeste herself was the teacher and I believe a good one. She also held classes for other students during the week, but, of course, I couldn't attend any of those because of school. She had some kind of arrangement with local radio station KFWB to air a production of her choice each week. We, her students, were the actors, sound effects men or women and anything else that needed doing to get the show on the air. It was always done live. That was great experience for all of us. I had a big advantage in the choice of parts because I was the only male in the class. Celeste always directed the production."
Perhaps it should be noted that such local productions on radio by groups within the community were not totally motivated by the radio station's altruism. The FCC required evidence of community service broadcasts for license renewals, and such productions by educational and civic organizations didn't cost the station a dime! The time slot was usually one that wasn't attractive to commercial sponsors.
Valuable as these live in-house productions were to her students, Celeste Rush was always on the lookout for independent opportunities. At one point she encouraged Ray to audition for a part in an upcoming series "The Jamisons." He remembers that the writer/director of the weekly drama was named Lucille, a lovely person who battled the ravages of time to her hair with a horrible flaming red dye. Lucille conducted the auditions in her private studio. When young Kemper arrived there was an acquaintance of his also vying for the young lead part in the show, Farley Granger. Both teens had been rivals on other turf: dating the same girl in high school. They frequently met on the path to her house -- one just arriving while the other was just leaving! This time Ray was clearly the winner and played the lead role in the series on KPIS, a local Pasadena station.
Celeste Rush also had friends in high places: one of them was Van Newkirk, the program director of KHJ. This friendship was undoubtedly the reason why Ray found himself employed right after high school graduation at the station. True, his job was only in the mail room. Not to worry! Within two weeks KHJ held auditions for an announcer's position. Ray modestly declares that "the station manager who auditioned me was deaf, so I got the job and for the next year worked the night shift."
Ray was the announcer on KHJ's FM station. A few FM stations were established before WWII in major markets such as Los Angeles, but although FM had been widely heralded as "high fidelity radio" with static-free reception, high fidelity programs were very hard to come by. For example, the standard 78 rpm phonograph records with even slight surface wear sounded terrible on FM. Network "live" music programs lost most of their "fidelity" when carried over Class-C telephone lines to the local stations.The electrical transcriptions which rotated at 33 1/3 rpm fared much better on FM. Early in the history of FM broadcasting the stations also felt honor-bound to feature separate programming, very often a diet of music and news-on-the-hour (a forerunner of what all radio has become today!) Of course, with very few FM receivers in homes because of war-time restrictions the listening audience was very limited in spite of the fact that the FM signal was much more reliable than AM after sundown. So when Ray Kemper describes his routine as a night announcer on FM in 1942, his account makes perfect sense.
"My duties consisted of playing 16-inch music platters (I played a lot of Charlie Spivak) and announcing the tunes. I would also take the news off the teletype machine each hour and read that. I hated that because I had to read it cold and was always nervous about coming across words or phrases I couldn't pronounce. I'm sure all three of my listeners got a boot out of those occasions."Ray recalls that announcing was only one of his jobs. As "low man on the totem pole" he also acted as "go-fer" in many situations. There were very few occasions when his voice was heard over the AM outlet. One anecdote from this period comes vividly to mind.
Ray's announcing headquarters were just across the hall from the AM studios, where Albert "Doc" Bennett occupied the control booth as engineer with Charlie Arlington right next to him in the announcer's booth. Arlington was an excellent announcer with a beautiful deep voice and he prided himself on never breaking up. Kemper remembers this particular incident with glee:
"...our nighttime studios were upstairs in a building on the back lot at KHJ and the outside door was usually left open. Charlie was reading a 15-minute news segment to the AM audience when the biggest, shaggiest dog you ever saw moseyed up the stairs and went wagging into the AM booth with Doc Bennett. Grasping the opportunity of a lifetime Doc slipped out of his chair and, while Charlie was deeply engrossed in his news, Doc hoisted the dog into the engineer's chair and put his paws on the control knobs; then he hid below the console. When Charlie Arlington glanced up and saw that big mutt staring at him through the glass -- tongue hanging out with happiness and slobbering on the controls -- he blew sky high and couldn't talk for minutes. Of course, over in the FM booth I was laughing so hard tears were running down my cheeks too."
While working nights Ray spent the days trying out for various acting jobs at the movie studios and was tested for several parts. All in all, it was an idyllic year which ended all too quickly when Uncle Sam decided "We want YOU!"
"Not long after I found myself standing in front of the entire battalion blowing that stupid horn. One terrible clinker after another came from the end of that bugle and the snickers started, very softly at first, and then louder and louder until the troops just could not control their mirth. Out of the corner of my eye I even saw the Colonel choking up as he valiantly attempted to contain himself -- he failed. Gratefully, that was the end of my bugle blowing."Ray Kemper was saved from going to North Africa with the 390th when the Army decided it needed engineers desperately and tested the eager candidate for college placement. Ray was assigned to the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. He claims that his academic record there was unimpressive, to say the least, because his ambitions lay in another direction: flying for Uncle Sam. He wrangled a pass and hitched a ride to Fort Leonard Wood to take the Air Corps exam. He passed, and became an air corps cadet. Kemper was sent first to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, for processing and then to Foster Field, Texas. But the fickle finger of fate was to intervene again!
The Army suddenly decided that infantrymen were more in demand than pilots, and anyone who had formerly been in the ground forces was to be sent back to the ground forces. Visions of wearing flight wings faded quickly as Ray was shipped to Alexandria, Louisiana, to train with the 86th Infantry Division.
Just as he was about to be shipped out, his commanding officer noticed that Ray Kemper had never recieved a furlough in the two years of his Army service, so he was issued an emergency 7-day leave to go home and say goodbye to his family. At this point the story taxes the credulity of even the most romantic reader. Ray, you take over, please!
"I hitched a ride on a cargo plane and did get to see my mother and dad; but when I returned to Alexandria seven days later, the 86th Division was gone and orders had been cut for me to report to the 103rd Division at Camp Howze, Texas. Once again I went through advanced training as an infantryman and once again a strange thing happened.When Ray got out of the hospital he was placed in what was called the Reconditioning Section. Major Johnson, the head of the section liked him and opted to make him a part of his rehab cadre. Consequently, Kemper was permanently assigned to the medical corps as a reconditioning instructor. His duties were to work up programs of exercise for the many amputees coming back from the battlefields and to see that those men got the proper movement training. To this day Ray marvels at the courage of those young men, many younger than himself, who lost limbs in battle.
"It was the day before we were to go overseas and we were restricted to the post, so we got up a football game. The ball was kicked off and it came to me as if it had eyes. I grabbed that sucker and ran like hell. Then about ten guys hit me at once and something broke. I got up from the bottom of the pile and looked at the bone sticking out of my finger and said "Oops!" I was taken to the base hospital and was operated on and when I woke up -- you guessed it! -- my outfit was gone overseas."
In his spare time he had been spending most of his army pay on flying lessons at a local airport in nearby Sherman, Texas. Then there was another interest. It happened this way. Bob Davis, a good friend in the reconditioning outfit kept telling him, "Ray, you've got to come over to the hospital post office and meet this girl. She's beautiful, and I know you'll be crazy about her." The first chance he had, Kemper checked out the post office -- and Bob was right. "As soon as I met Novice Reynolds I was a goner!" They began to date in February 1945 and by September they were married. Here is a vivid recollection from courting days which deserves a direct quote:
"I found a weird civilian instructor at the Sherman airport who soloed me after three hours of flight time, so naturally I considered myself a hot-shot pilot. I think I had amassed a grand total of eight hours in the air by the time I offered to take Novice up. However, I couldn't take her flying from the Sherman airport because I only had a student permit and was not allowed to take passengers. A minor technicality! We got in a car with Novice's sister Eleanor and searched out what appeared to be a safe cow pasture to land a plane in. The girls then took me back to the airport where I rented a Piper J2, also affectionatley known as a Piper Cub. In the meantime Novice and Eleanor returned to the cow pasture to await my arrival.In spite of this and another hair-raising experience with a borrowed ambulance, Ray and Novice have shared a joyful marriage from that September day in 1945 through the present!
"By the time I got there the pasture had filled with cattle. Undaunted, I buzzed the cows and scared them away from the area. Then I landed and Novice got in the plane. Just as I turned the little plane around for takeoff the rancher who owned the cattle came galloping up on his horse, madder'n hell that I had scared his cows. I "poured the coal" to the plane and started my take off roll with the rancher racing after me on his horse. I don't know whether he had a gun or not, but I wasn't taking any chances.
"I had also made the mistake of not realizing how wet the pasture was, and my takeoff roll was much slower than it should have been. Mud started building up on the wheels and I was beginning to wonder if I was going to make it. Slowly the little J-2 lifted off the ground but ahead of me was a stand of trees I knew I couldn't fly over. I spotted a small gap in them and headed for that. My landing gear went between the trees and the wings missed the tops of the trees by no more than one or two feet.
"In the meantime sister Eleanor quickly left the cow pasture area and followed our plane. Knowing we would not be able to land there again I stayed where Eleanor could easily see us; and after flying Novice around a bit I landed on a nice straight stretch of country road. Eleanor picked up Novice, and I flew back to Sherman where my whacky instructor knew I had been up to no good. He looked at the mud on the wheels and said, 'You really shouldn't do things like that. It's dangerous.'"
In his book The Great American Broadcast Leonard Maltin quotes from the Gassman brothers' tape Ray's accounts of how sound effects can misfire, how he and Tom Hanley achieved more realistic gunshots for the later CBS radio classic Gunsmoke, and other highlights. Kemper is quoted as saying, "You used different psychology with different directors." Then he goes on to describe precisely the way he and Bill James met Director Bill Robson's request for "10,000 drunk chickens" (Maltin, p. 99). To this author he confided the priceless story of how he and soundman Bill James met another challenge: the CBS Radio Workshop of January 27, 1956.
"It was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and the effect called for was a machine for making babies. Bill and I got together all the stuff we could think of -- an anvil, slide whistles, drums, kazoos, cork pops, etc. We asked anyone available in the sound department to help out. We gave each person an effect to do and worked out a definite rhythm for each one. It was quite a conglomeration of sound but very rhythmic. We then tape recorded the sound for about two minutes and on the show played the whole thing backwards. It delighted the director Bill Froug and all the cast, including author Aldous Huxley."Kemper never remembers being stumped for an effect. Half the fun was meeting a new challenge. There were a lot of good sound men around always trying new and different things. "We'd all pick each other's brains when necessary." Ray recalls a personal innovation:
"I know in 1947 at KHJ I spent a long time building a splash tank that could be used for a legitimate sound of rain or a shower as well as splashing water. I enclosed a water pump and electric motor in the base of a tank, below the water, routed a shower pipe from the water pump to a position above the tank and attached the shower head to that. The difficult part was soundproofing the motor and pump. That took a lot of time and trial-and-error, but by using a lot of heavy insulation and mounting the whole thing on shock mounts, I succeeded. It worked great and was used by many sound men at KHJ thereafter. To my knowledge it had never been done before."Another challenge faced Kemper in 1947. Along with Bill James and/or Tom Hanley he was working on the sound effects for The Count of Monte Cristo. Jaime del Valle was the producer/director of the series. Ray tells it this way:
"I always believed I could do anything anyone else could do and felt certain that I could write a script for the show, so I did one strictly on spec and presented it to Jaime. I didn't pressure him, just asked if he would read it and comment. He said of course he would and to my surprise the very next day told me he liked the story and was going to buy it. Believe me, I was in the clouds! The show aired July 20, 1947. I titled my first script 'Hour of Vengeance' and I used the pseudonym N. Clint Reynolds (remember he had married Novice Reynolds!) because it was against company policy at that time for employees to submit scripts to producers. I have no idea why. At Jaime's urging I used my own name for the next scripts I wrote for the show. I think I wrote about eight or ten scripts for Jaime and Bill Gordon, the producer/director who succeeded Jaime."Kemper can only find four of the original scripts and has no disc or tape copies of any of that Monte Cristo series. Can anyone out there on the Internet help?
One year later in 1948 an "executive" (who shall be nameless) lured Ray Kemper away from radio to a position as writer/director for a major ad agency in Hollywood. He soon found that the main criterion for a good ad man was to be a first class "huckster." After suffering in that job for two years Ray resigned and returned to what he perceived to be his "first love" -- acting. He did a few radio shows and appeared in one movie, Navy Bound with Tom Neal. However, Ray explained that because he and his family had become accustomed to eating regularly he accepted a position in the CBS Radio (Hollywood) sound effects department when it became available in March, 1951, and for the next seven years did sound effects with such programs as The Jack Benny Show, Gunsmoke, Suspense, Escape, Fort Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Whistler, Romance, Amos 'n Andy and many others. During this period he continued his writing career, selling scripts to Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel. You may see a list of Ray's radio scripts at by clicking here
Ray was quick to point out that his association as sound effects man on the Jack Benny Show was strictly as "second banana" to Gene Twombly. Gene told this story to Kemper in confidence, but it bears repeating if only to show the real character of Jack Benny off mike.
Two or three times a year Jack would take his show to Las Vegas or Palm Springs. The entire cast, crew, and the Phil Harris Orchestra went along. On one occasion in Las Vegas one of the members of the orchestra, a compulsive gambler, spent the night after rehearsal at the gaming tables and lost a huge amount of money. Thinking he could win it back he signed a note for his home -- and lost that too! The poor guy was beside himself and barely got through the air show the next day. When the Benny entourage returned to Hollywood the musician reneged on his gambling debt and the "guys with the broken noses" showed up at his house, scaring the living h--- out of his wife. Jack Benny heard about all this and immediately came to the man's rescue, paying off the gambling debt and leaving the man's home free and clear. Not quite so incidentally, Jack never took his radio show to Las Vegas again. Being the man he was, perhaps Jack felt responsible for what had happened to that musician. Ray added this from his personal experience:
"For the four or five seasons I worked his show as #2 sound man I got a check from him every week -- over and above my CBS salary. Not many stars did that in those days!"
Another true story related to the Jack Benny Show finds Ray Kemper in dire straits. It happened one of those times when Jack took the show to Palm Springs. Twombly went to Palm Springs with the show a day ahead to get things set up, and Ray stayed in Hollywood to do sound effects on another program before joining the crew in the desert. Let him tell it.
"By the way, I failed to mention that in 1952-53 I purchased half interest in an airplane: a WWII primary trainer designated PT-26. It was a Fairchild with tandem seats and a sliding hatch. I told 'Twom' I would fly down to Palm Springs in my plane to meet him if he would pick me up at the airport. He agreed to that, and the Friday morning I was to take off from Burbank showed overcast skies and strong winds through the San Gorgonio pass leading to Palm Springs. Not a good sign!
"Knowing better, I took took off anyhow and soon found myself in the midst of the soup. That didn't particularly worry me because I had a good instrument panel. After I had been in that muck for a few minutes a loud explosion occurred, sounding like a 45 caliber pistol going off right by my ear. All of a sudden I was very cold and I discovered why: the skin on the left side of the plane had sheered off and there was nothing between me and the air outside but a very flimsy looking wooden fusilage. In addition, the loss of the skin had caused the plane to go into an unknown attitude. My altimeter told me I was going down at a very fast rate, but I didn't know if I was right side up or upside down because my instruments were 'tumbling' and the overcast kept me from seeing even the ends of the wings.
"I soon passed red line which is the speed beyond which you are in danger of losing your wings and other parts of the aircraft. However, I was wearing a parachute. I throttled back , took my hands and feet off the controls and decided that if I did not break out of the overcast by the time I reached 2,000 feet I would bail out. At 2,500 feet I suddenly came free of the overcast and found myself going straight down in a tight spiral directly toward the center of the town of El Monte. I pulled the plane out, leveled off and limped back to the Burbank airport where I asked for and received clearance for an emergency landing.
"I immediately called Twombly and told him not to meet me at the airport -- I would drive down! I threw my suitcase into the car and headed for Palm Springs. I must confess I didn't tell Novice of the episode until some time later. I didn't want her to worry and I knew she would. So much for my experience traveling with the Jack Benny Show."
The Crosby/Clooney Show
In 1958 he became sound editor for the Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney radio shows and remained in that position until the shows left the air in 1960. Ray's duties were no longer to provide sound effects but to serve as recording engineer and tape editor. Murdo MacKenzie was the director and Bill Morrow the producer/writer. Murdo's office was upstairs in an annex of the main CBS studios. Adjoining Murdo's office was a small recording studio which housed three Ampex 350 tape machines, a good speaker system, and a patch bay and rack that were hard-wired to the main studios. This made it possible for Ray to connect to any of the CBS studios with a few patch cords and record anything that went on in a studio.
After recording everything that transpired during a Crosby/Clooney session Kemper would then edit the show, using the best portions of the tunes Bing and Rosie sang, editing for time if necessary. Ray remembers:
"Although I never went to the studio where the singers were performing I soon learned every nuance of their voices and could easily inter-cut any portions of music from one piece to another. It was a challenge and a lot of fun, even though I never really met Bing nor Rosie."
Buddy Cole (the legendary theater organist) was the orchestra leader and arranger. He had a combo consisting of Vince Terri on guitar, Nick Fatool on drums, Don Whittaker on bass, a percussions man, and Buddy himself doubling on organ, piano, celeste and any other keyboard required. Kemper recalls that the program started out to be a half-hour show once a week and later became a 15-minute show five days a week (as described in Jay Hickerson's book). Naturally Bing and Rosie would come in one day a week and record all five shows.
Forty years later Ray Kemper still isn't sure why he was asked to take over the engineering/editing responsibilities for the Bing Crosby/Rosemary Clooney Show "because" as he confesses,"up to that time I had not done a large amount of tape editing. However, I had done sound effects a few times on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall. Murdo MacKenzie also directed that and I guess he liked what I did because he asked for me when he needed to replace the editor he had. Murdo was a hard taskmaster, but a more loyal or honest man you could never find. We soon became good friends. I picked up a lot of tape editing tricks doing those programs, and when the Crosby/Clooney show folded that experience held me in good stead when I transferred to the music editing department at CBS's Television Center in Los Angeles."
CBS TV and Red Skelton
During the next twenty years Ray Kemper was responsible for the audio on such shows as the Red Skelton Comedy Hour, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Jeffersons, Maude, Three's Company, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers' Comedy Hour, One Day at a Time and many more. He also rode herd over CBS specials including Death of a Salesman, The Ann Margaret Show, Brigadoon , and showcases which featured Diana Ross, Dean Martin, and Danny Thomas. In 1967 he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his sound engineering on the musical Brigadoon.
The Red Skelton Comedy Hour was on television from 1951-1971, the seventeen successful middle years were on CBS. Ray Kemper was audio engineer for many of these years and developed a particular fondness for the comedian who was one of the last to graduate from vaudeville. Highly respected in show business circles for his amazing talent, Red was also deeply admired for his personal qualities. Ray remembers an occasion when megastar Lana Turner was to appear on Skelton's show. This was her "maiden voyage" on live television and she was nervous and frightened. Red went out of his way to explain to the audience during his warmup how proud and thrilled he was to have her as a guest on the program. Ray observed that the look of gratitude on Lana Turner's celebrated face "said it all." Red's outpouring of affection had provided the courage she needed to give an outstanding performance.
The time is 1969. The final CBS videotaping of The Red Skelton Comedy Hour has just been completed and Red is back in his dressing room. Unbeknownst to him the cast and crew had prepared -- not a party -- but a farewell tribute to him. Not only the cast and crew but other employees in the building took seats in the audience area to wish him bon voyage. Willy Dahl, Red's stage manager for many years went to the dressing room and told him to come out on the stage to look at something. Puzzled by it all, Skelton came on stage, and as soon as he arrived Art Gilmore, Red's long time announcer, went into his standard opening announcement. Then Dave Rose and his orchestra (all had remained for the tribute) played their usual opening for Red's audience warm up.
Luckily for us, Ray Kemper was in the audio booth and had the presence of mind to record Red Skelton's impromtu response to the tribute. Readers should know in advance that Don Ferris was the rehearsal pianist for the show and Pettijohn was the "censor" employed by CBS to control the show's content. Red used to love to put outrageous lines in the rehearsals to "bug" Pettijohn. This brief but beautiful response in Skelton's own words reveals his playful humor, his gentle humility, his magical optimism and his childlike faith in the utlimate goodness of his fellow human beings. The reader may be able to follow the text below without choking up. It is impossible to hear Red's spontaneous, searching words via RealAudio without becoming part of a profoundly emotional moment in time. Kemper readily admits he still gets tears in his eyes any time he hears Red's goodbye speech. Here -- for the first time -- is most of what he said:
"This is like hearing your own eulogy without a box! [laughter]. This is really a surprise. I didn't...No one told me about this. I dunno what to say. When you need the damn writers they are never around! [laughter and applause]
"I've always had a very peculiar quirk and that is that I never really bothered to to learn the names of the people that I work with. David Rose, I think, I know and Don Ferris -- a few fellas in the band; but I never walked up and really learned people's names because I found as a very small boy I was impressed by names. And I found myself catering to one person a little more than the other because of that name. And as long as I didn't know their name I could treat each one the same. When I said 'Hello' to you, you said 'Hello' to me. We were friends, and I think that's the nicest name you can give anyone! And your being here right now [voice breaks] is the most friendly, the most warm gesture I've ever had in my entire life!
"I've always lived in beautiful homes. I could walk from a crummy dressing room out into my living room onto the stage to the most beautiful living rooms in the world. I found the greatest warmth. I don't always get to see your faces when I visit your living rooms now, but it's a lovely living room, and I'll do everything I possibly can to keep the dignity of your home -- even though I get pretty rough up here in rehearsal,[laughs] but that's mostly to make Pettijohn get drunk! [laughter and applause]
All I can say is thank you very much for your friendship, your warmth, and your concern -- that's the main thing -- your concern. I believe that each and every one of us are just bodies. We're all temples walking around with a soul. And every so often the body must die, but the soul is transformed into something else; and it's usually better. Each day something dies within us -- except our souls -- and it goes on. And I feel truthfully that my soul is now going to be transformed into a new body -- with new ideas -- and we'll all be a lot happier for it .All I can say is thank you and with all my sincere wishes.
"I must explain one other thing before I say this: People say 'Why do you say God bless?' I don't say 'God bless!' because that would be a benediction. I have not that power. I say 'May God bless!' because when I say that I realize what each and every one of you give to me; and it's a wish that you may be blessed with the same thing. So now I say to you, 'May God bless!' Thank you!"
Deciding that he'd had enough of the "craziness of Hollywood," Ray Kemper retired in 1980. He and wife Novice built a home in the Sierra Nevada mountains, 45 miles northeast of Fresno, where they now live. They have two daughters, three grandchildren and three great-grand- children.
He has resisted all temptations to return to "the business" except one:
"In 1991 I was asked to fly back to New Jersey to write and direct a recreation of a Gunsmoke show. I couldn't resist that one and accepted. Afterward they presented me with an award honoring me for my contributions to the golden age of radio. Although very flattered -- I also found myself laughing because I knew something they didn't. I knew that deep down inside I was still the same skinny, shy, red-headed kid I had always been."