Braille Monitor                                                                               June 2006

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NLS Celebrates Diamond Jubilee

by Stephen O. Benson

Steve Benson

From the Editor: The first article I wrote after joining the Monitor staff was called, "Mapping the Enchanted Kingdom," and it appeared in the December 1988 issue. It was a review of a little book that traced the history of the Talking Book program of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. At the beginning of the article I reminisced about the revolution the Talking Book program brought into my life as a nine-year-old child. That personal revolution took place two years after a similar event in the life of Steve Benson, a longtime NFB leader and the author of the following tribute to the National Library Service during its diamond jubilee year. The article was first published in the Spring 2006 issue of "TBC Focus," the quarterly newsletter of the Chicago Talking Book Center. Talking Book lovers will enjoy this fond recollection, and everyone who likes to read should appreciate Steve's recommendations of classic recordings. This is what he says:

In this, the seventy-fifth anniversary year of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), I can't help reflecting on the almost fifty-four years of reading I have enjoyed. My introduction to the NLS program occurred in September of 1952, after I had transferred from sight-saving classes at Abraham Lincoln School to Braille classes at Alexander Graham Bell School in Chicago. I was eleven years old and in fifth grade. As a sight-saving student I was never able to read print competitively or comfortably, so I had no interest in going to the library and checking out a book. My attitude toward reading had been shaped in the worst way by my struggle to read print.

My experience at Bell School was completely different. I learned to read and write Braille. It didn't take me long to realize that these compact patterns of raised dots would enable me to do what my peers had been doing since kindergarten and first grade. While my Braille reading speed was pretty slow at first, by January or February of 1953 I was not only able actually to read a book from the library, but interested in doing so. I think it was a biography of Andrew Jackson's boyhood. That was only the first of thousands of books I have read in Braille.

Over the intervening years my Braille reading speed has increased markedly with constant use. Braille is my primary access to the printed word, my avenue to literacy, as it is for thousands of other blind people. I have used it every day in my capacities as a high school English teacher, an agency administrator, a writer in the Chicago Public Library's press office and now part of the staff of the Talking Book Center, and a Braille teacher for the Veterans Administration. I have lectured at several universities, and I have delivered speeches before large conventions using Braille. I could not have done any of this effectively and efficiently without excellent Braille skills. How ironic it is that today (with changes in the copyright laws that allow almost immediate production of books in Braille and substantially reduced production costs) that 10 percent or fewer of blind children are being taught Braille.

My introduction to the NLS Talking Book program made me realize that reading could actually be interesting and fun. Recorded books have provided me many thousands of hours of information and entertainment. I can never think about reading Talking Books without remembering some of the wonderful narrators to whom I was introduced in the fifties. The NLS assembled an exceptionally talented corps of narrators in its first three decades. What made them extraordinary was their unique, classic training as Shakespearean actors or radio actors required to do cold reads and convey character with only their voices. Their cadence, dialect, tone, sonority, distinctive voices (often resonant), timing, and clear, precise articulation really made the stories come alive. Unfortunately some of the titles have been rerecorded and those exceptional performances lost. Fortunately, however, some of those fabulous voices can still be heard in outstanding interpretations of classic literature and contemporary fiction and nonfiction.

Here are a few examples:

RC 15199, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, narrated by Burt Blackwell. Blackwell's reading vividly conveys the pathos, tension, drama, and hilarity of this Twain romp.

RC 23130, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, narrated by Ralph Bell. Bell was an actor whose voice was familiar to those of us who listened to radio programs when they were new. Bell played many roles on radio, television, stage, and film. His powerful tones are just right for this classic American drama.

RC 24426, Tender Prey by Patricia Roberts, narrated by Robert Donley. Donley recorded numerous science fiction titles, but his acting background enabled him to handle any task. His mastery of dialect and his clear grasp of the author's message is fully conveyed in this recording.

RC 17363, Castle in the Air by Donald Westlake, narrated by Alan Haines. Haines's cultured and elegant delivery is just right for Westlake's wildly funny and improbable comic mystery.

RC 21675, Trio for Blunt Instruments by Rex Stout, narrated by Alan Hewitt. Many narrators have read Nero Wolfe mysteries, but for me Hewitt captures the genius detective's persona better than any of the others. For me Wolfe's voice and Archie Goodwin's irreverent commentary, for that matter, are supposed to sound like Hewitt's interpretation. It is sheer fun. By the way, Alan Hewitt was in the original Broadway cast of Death of a Salesman.

RC 34826, Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, narrated by Leon Janney. Janney's was another voice familiar to listeners of radio drama in the forties, fifties, and early sixties. He played many roles that didn't match his raspy voice, but he pulled them off with style and aplomb. So too does he render Archy and Mehitabel. Those of you who have never read Archy and Mehitabel are in for a treat. The whole notion of a cockroach writing pointed columns and commentary is hilarious.

RC 21320, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, narrated by Norman Rose. Here is another distinctive voice heard frequently during the golden days of radio drama. Norman Rose does a superb reading of Chekhov. His big voice is perfect for conveying a theater classic. For my money, Rose was in the class of elite narrators.

RC 15289, The Double Image by Helen MacInnes, narrated by Alexander Scourby. If Scourby had recorded the telephone book I would have listened with rapt attention. He too was among the class of elite narrators. His reading was musical. No doubt that came from his training on the Shakespearean stage and in his many other roles on radio and television. He may have been the best.

Needless to say, the above descriptions are my opinion; however, I'll bet, after hearing these and other titles by this group of outstanding narrators, you will share my enthusiasm. Other narrators with the same background who performed their narrations in the same style and with amazing quality but who are either deceased or no longer active include Randy Atcher, Ed Blake, Bob Butz, Michael Clarke-Laurence, James Delotel, Patrick Horgan, House Jameson, Kermit Murdock, David Palmer, Phil Regensdorf, Merwin Smith, Guy Sorel, John Stratton, Suzanne Toren, Jim Walton, Pam Ward, and Jim Zeiger.

As I prepared for this article, I was particularly struck by the longevity and durability of some of the narrators. For example, Mitzi Friedlander has recorded more than 1,300 titles; Roy Avers over 1,100; and Bob Askey more than 1,000. Bruce Huntey, Laura Giannarelli, John Stratton, Jill Ferris, Suzanne Toren, and Madelyn Buzzard have put their voices to more than 670 books. Several have recorded over 500 titles, including Ed Blake, Andy Chappell, Jack Fox, Gordon Gould, Lou Harpenau, John Polk, Catherine Byers, Yvonne Fair Tessler, and Bill Wallace. The immense talent exhibited by these and other NLS narrators is quite remarkable and deserving of our praise. In a very real sense we invite these people into our homes; they make good guests.

For seventy-five years the NLS program has distinguished itself as the one government agency for the blind that has consistently demonstrated that quality service is possible. For more than thirty of those years the program has been carefully managed by Frank Kurt Cylke. He is to be commended for his exceptional stewardship of this vital program. One day he will retire, and it will be up to us, the consumers of this extraordinary service, to monitor closely its mission, funding, direction, and quality.

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