If you hang out long enough, and enjoy even a modicum of success, someone is bound to ask you how you got into this business. “How’d you get your start?” is the usual way the question is posed. Others are perhaps more specific; they’ll ask, “How did you get into voice over?” If it happens to be an actor posing the question, almost without exception they’re asking about your origins, because they’re in search of some secret thing you might offer; a minor morsel of fact, which might serve them as an enabler on their individual road in search of success.
And what constitutes success is a whole other story.
But for now, as is my usual method… I’ll precede to the past in order to generate a reasonable truth about my own beginnings; you know, like reflect.
(If you’ve got a minute or two.)
In the beginning, God didn’t refer to it as “Voice Over.” Often, a community leader (organizer) handled communications; the people didn’t elect him; they were under the impression he had been anointed by God. No voting was allowed. The job required the communicator to do a great deal of shouting, and so it became the natural realm for the man with the most powerful voice. His messages to the villagers were written on huge granite slabs, which were held up by the communicator’s worshipers on each side of the hill he was standing on. In that way, the communicator was able to look like he really knew a great deal about his subject matter. These early prompters were known as “cue slabs.” On occasion, a slave was known to tire and drop one of the slabs. It required the communicator to improvise his speech until a new slave could be brought in as a replacement. This really raised hell for the communicator, as the Stanislavski Method was years away from being invented. In any event, this particular method for selecting a communicator lasted only until the days of radio came along. In actuality, it was only for about four years. Many of the “Village People” stopped paying attention to the communicator and began forming singing groups.
Since recording equipment had not yet been invented, communicators were able to say whatever they pleased. In other words… in the very early days, people accepted what the town communicator (organizer) had to say as the gospel, only to discover following the invention of new and better equipment, that the village communicator was indeed nothing more than a carbon copy of themselves.
Following the invention of the radio, and vast improvements in megaphones (now referred to as microphones), communicator’s voices began to change. In some societies even women became communicators. As a matter of fact, in 1920 women were even given an opportunity to vote. It was initially considered to be a “Noble Experiment.” There was, however, a big difference between the men and the women who ultimately got the jobs. Early newspaper reports one women claiming another women got her job as the village communicator because she became intimate with the mayor. This story was never proved, but the rumor still lingers. It was the era when the now famous colloquialism, “It’s all about who you know,” was established. Many believed women were given the right to vote as the effect of men no longer being permitted to legally drink alcohol for a full year prior to the female voting emancipation.
Did you know?
In the history of the United States, Prohibition, also known as “The Noble Experiment,” is the period from 1919 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally as mandated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
When I was a kid, there was no such animal as a voice over. We had a thing we all called “acting.”
But even before I uttered the words “act,” or “to act,” or “be in an act,” or “I’m an actor,” my environment pushed me in a direction.
Excuse me, but I’m about to be guilty of personal nostalgia sharing. You might agree, personal nostalgia sharing sounds so much more genteel, than me saying how I intend talking about myself.
My aunts and uncles were constantly accusing my mother and father of being overly boastful about what a great child I was. One of my uncles told my father, right in front of me, I might add, “You think your kid is so smart, polite and perfect; he never causes any trouble. He’s a regular angel”. My Dad looked my uncle straight in the eye, and said, right in front of me, I might add, “You finally got something right,” as he began laughing at the poor guy. The descriptive “precocious” was not yet in vogue.
There I was, in the second grade; not yet known as da harv, but never the less, firmly established as our neighborhood communicator. Nobody voted for me, it just happened. Telling people what to do came with my territory. The descriptive, director was not yet in vogue.
One day, my second grade teacher was about to go into shock when she discovered I had disappeared from class. She became aware of my absence because the schoolroom was far quieter than usual.
I wasn’t kidnapped, and I wasn’t playing hooky. I was merely engaged in my earliest presentment. They found me on the ground level of P.S. 233 in a kindergarten class, doing an audiovisual about school safety.
Being in front of those kids, and commanding their attention was an overpowering event for an eight year old. The strange part about the incident, was the fact, I wasn’t going for it. Although it was early in my life, intellectually I was having a blast. Honestly, my memory really won’t serve any further narrative. I know for sure I wasn’t punished. And although I can’t be certain, there’s a good chance, that incident may have stimulated my beginnings.
Acting, teaching and helping people develop within the confines of the subjective art form of their choice, began for me as an eight year old; maybe earlier than that.
Adding to what influenced me, or pushed me towards the voice over world will require some historical notes about my grandma, (my father’s mother). While it wasn’t her intent, she contributed to my development without knowing it.
Some kids remember the smells of the wonderful delights being cooked and baked by their grandmas. It was different for me. I vividly remember the sounds. Each of my dad’s brothers and sisters (all nine of them) played musical instruments. Oddly enough, there wasn’t any sheet music to sing or play along with. Much of the music was derived from ancient Hebrew chants. The musical notes were passed on from one shtetl (village) to another. The modern music of the day was learned by ear while listening to the radio. A family member would learn a new tune and then pass it on to a brother or sister by playing it for them.
Shtetl rhymes with “kettle.” The German translation: a little town.
My Grandma Ethel was treated as a true matriarch. She was in total control of the family until the day she died. She rarely did any cooking or house cleaning. Her job was to provide the sustenance for her families survival.
Anyone who may have seen “Fiddler on the Roof”, will have an idea of my grandmother’s roots. Her father was a village leader. He owned a factory which manufactured saddles for members of the czar’s Cossack cavalry. All went well during her young life until just before the Russian Revolution began, and the ouster of the czar, and an end to her father’s saddle business.
Grandma Ethel saw the handwriting on the wall. So in 1903 she packed her belongings and somehow managed for her husband and two children to make it to (as she would say, with her hand over her heart) “The United States of America.” Within the first few years after their arrival to Brooklyn, New York, Grandma found herself in the unlikely position, due to her young husband’s death, of being a single parent and responsible for her family’s sole support.
(Here’s where the fanfare would be inserted.)
Enter the eight-year-old Harvey Kalmenson. Please don’t get the idea I enjoyed visiting Grandma Ethel. That wasn’t the case at all. In actuality, I was probably afraid of her. That’s not to say I wasn’t learning, by soaking up the environment surrounding this lady of unbelievable strength. Once each week my Dad would say we were going over to visit his mother. It never entered my mind to say no to my father. If I did say no, I probably wouldn’t be here telling you about what influenced me creatively.
There was always someone playing the piano or violin when we arrived. With a mandate set down, each of my nine aunts and uncles were bound to show up. While all this transpired, grandma was usually conducting her business as a translator. She was busily continuing her business of reading and writing letters for many of the neighbors to their relatives in the old country. It was the sounds of all those different languages that got me going. Yes… I really didn’t care about going to see Grandma Ethel, but to this day, she remains one of the most adept linguists I’ve ever come in contact with. I can’t imagine how valuable she would be working at the United Nations. But the most amazing part of relating this story is it’s unlikely reoccurrence.
Each time I’m asked the question about what influenced me, in my mind’s eye a picture of the house in Brooklyn, the music playing, the rhythmic chanting, and all those people of foreign extraction coming in and out of the very small apartment grandma lived in during her entire life in the United States. Long after each and every one of her children became prosperous, and she no longer needed to work, she never moved and never stopped doing for others. She had long since stopped charging for her services.
I do believe she had something to do with my life’s direction. I can still hear the sounds. I can still hear her saying to anyone and everyone, “Speak English. We’re in America.” And, oh yes… she had her hand over her heart when she said it.