Harry Gennett, Jr., and the Gennett Sound Effects Records (1928 – 1956)

Harry Gennett, Jr., and the Gennett Sound Effects Records
(1928 – 1956)
By Allan Sutton

 

In November 1956, Harry Gennett Jr. (the son of Gennett Records president Harry Sr.) recalled his involvement with the Gennett Sound Effects records for a reporter from the Richmond, Indiana Palladium-Item. Much of the following information came from his recollections, supplemented by data from the Gennett ledger sheets.

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Gennett Record’s sound-effects program was launched in 1928 as a client service for the Hannaphone Company, [1] a Philadelphia-based theater-management company. On November 21, it was announced that Hannaphone had contracted with Gennett to produce sound-effects records for use with motion pictures.

Harry Gennett apparently already had such a venture in mind at the time of the Hannaphone announcement. Sound-effects recording began to appear regularly in the Gennett ledgers beginning on October 16, 1928, [2] several of which were played for a gathering of the Richmond Foreman’s Club at which Gennett announced the deal. [3]

Demand for sound-effects recordings quickly mushroomed as producers of sound films began dubbing pre-recorded sound effects into their soundtracks. Gennett’s offerings included “Hog Calling Contest,” “Poultry—Roosters and Geese Predominant,” “American Can Factory,” “Electric Washing Machine—Not Much Suds,” “Single Man Walking Through Sand and Gravel,” “News Room—Confusion of Sounds,” “Winds Howling–Continuous,”  “Auto Crashes with Screams,” “Auto Race with Crashes,” and the ominous “Railroad Comes Through the Middle of the House.” [4]

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Gennett’s original mobile recording laboratory. The truck was outfitted with assistance from William C. Kaeuper, woodworking supervisor of the Richmond, Indiana, plant.

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The sound-effects operation was quickly handed off to Harry Gennett’s son, Harry Jr., along with Richmond plant manager Robert Conner. The corner of Eighth and Main in Richmond was a favored spot for early recording sessions, providing numerous recordings of street and railroad sounds, factory whistles, and the occasional car wreck.

But Gennett and Conner also traveled widely in their pursuit of sound. In 1929, they and William C. Kaeuper (the plant’s woodworking supervisor) equipped a large panel truck with what Harry Jr. recalled as “a ton” of recording equipment [5]  and began taking to the road — at first, just scouting around the Richmond area, but later (after recording equipment became sufficiently compact to transport in a car) traveling across the country. They recorded the mission bells in Santa Barbara, California, [6] Hopi Indian dances in New Mexico (with the recording equipment hidden in nearby vegetation), [7] and braying mules in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

 

In later years, as recording equipment became more portable, Gennett and Conner employed a car as their mobile unit and traveled widely. Here, it’s parked in front of the Santa Barbara Mission in California.

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Among the films employing Gennett sound effects was Frank Buck’s “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” which used animal noises that Harry Jr. recorded at the Cincinnati Zoo. Gennett recalled that he was allowed to stay overnight on the zoo grounds but was ordered to remain in his car to avoid being shot by the zoo’s guards. He was also warned that his cables could spook the giraffes, who might mistake them for snakes.

Some recordings, like the boxing-match, railroad, and airplane-noise sides, were straightforward live captures, unstaged and untinkered-with. But in many other cases, Harry Jr.’s creativity and technical expertise came into play. The “Alley Cat” record employed a human imitator, but “Braying Mule” used the real thing, with a bit of coaxing. Gennett recalled having a boy lead one mule away from the herd, causing “a loud voice of disapproval” from the others. Studio personnel were recruited to re-create a medieval battle and other chaotic scenes, and Gennett sometimes tested new noise-makers in the main factory, much to the displeasure of some employees.

Thunder effects were obtained by recording shotgun blasts, then dubbing the results at a slower speed, which Gennett claimed gave better results than the real thing. To create the gear-shifting effect in “Automobile Continuously Running” (reportedly a top seller), Gennett simply altered the recording speed while the car remained stationery. Gennett also became a master of overdubbing. One of his most popular efforts combined a long tire screech and collision noises (the latter recorded live on a Richmond street) with the existing “Automobile Continuously Running” recording to create a sensational car-crash record. [8]

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The original 1928 sound-effects label (upper left); a sound-effects recording on the Gennett Electrical Transcription label, marketed for radio use (upper right); an Electrical Transcription test pressing (lower left); and the later-1930s version of the sound-effects label (lower right)

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Some attempts at staging backfired, but probably none so badly as when Gennett and Conner accidentally set the recording-studio building on fire in an attempt to capture crackling flames on disc. [9] There were human perils to be dealt with as well, including a suspicious local patrolman who fired a shot their way while they were parked on a country road one dark night.

When Gennett could not obtain a desired effect, he dubbed recordings from other sources, perhaps not always legally. He paid K. I. Sakai of Tokyo for his recording of “Japanese Traffic Noise,” but there is no indication in the ledger that he paid for or sought permission from Victor to use two of their recordings, which he dubbed and cobbled together as “Traffic Noises of England, with Big Ben.” [10]

The sound-effects records helped to keep the Gennett operation afloat after Harry Gennett, Sr., discontinued commercial record production in 1934. However, demand for the records declined after the 1930s, as special-effects recording techniques became more sophisticated. Still, the operation remained in business (later under the “Speedy-Q” name) into the mid-1950s. In his 1956 interview, Gennett reported that he still received the  occasional order. [11]

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Notes

[1] “Richmond Plant Joins in Making Sound Pictures.” Richmond [IN] Item (November 22, 1928).

[2] Gennett ledger sheet, October 16, 1928.

[3] “Richmond Plant Joins in Making Sound Pictures,” op. cit.

[4] Gennett ledger sheets, 1929–1937.

[5] Corya, Bob. “Gennett Recalls Trip to Zoo to Make Animal Noise Records.” Richmond, IN Palladium-Item  (November 12, 1956), p. 3.

[6] Corya, Bob. “Sound Effects Gags Irritating to Piano Tuners at Starr Plant.” Richmond, IN Palladium-Item  (November 13, 1956), p. 7.

[7] Corya, Bob. “Gennett Recalls Trip to Zoo,” op. cit.

[8] Corya, Bob. “Sound Effects Recorded Locally Over 20 Years Ago Still Popular.” Richmond, IN Palladium-Item (November 11, 1956), p. 10.

[9] Corya, Bob. “Sound Effects Gags,” op. cit.

[10] Gennett ledger sheets: Mxs.  N 19944 – N 19947 (dubbed from Victor) and N 19954 (dubbed from purchased Japanese master).

[11] Corya, Bob. “Sound Effects Recorded Locally,” op. cit.

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

The Gennett Sound Effects Records: A c. 1940 Review

Here’s an extract from a wonderful tongue-in-cheek review of the Gennett sound-effects records, which we found among Bill Bryant’s papers. Unfortunately it’s just a clipping, with a note that it was “from The New Yorker, c. 1940,” and those are all the details we have at the moment. Harry Gennett kept his legendary label afloat into the early 1940s with these records, which were popular with radio stations. The catalog at one time listed 375 releases, and there are still a lot of them around.

gennett-sound-effectsA white-label sample pressing of #1008, which is mentioned below

“CRASHES AND SCREAMS”

“Anybody who wants to drop around to my apartment with a wheelbarrow some evening can have all my phonograph records… From now on there’s going to be no room in my record library for anything but Gennett Electrical Transcription Effects…

“I was won over to sound effects when I read in the Gennett catalogue about their record No. 1205, which is listed under ‘Crashes.’ (The catalog listings are alphabetic­al, I might explain, running in thirty fascinating pages the gamut from ‘Adding Machines’ to ‘Wolves Howling.’ ‘All from life,” the catalogue remarks with justifiable pride. One side of 1205 is tersely described as ‘Crashes and Screams,’ a full minute and a half of them. The other side is a ‘Heavy Vibration,’ said by Gennett to be‘suitable for earthquakes, battle scenes, falling buildings, general destruction.’ It would be well worth two dollars, don’t you agree, to have the sound of crashes, screams and general destruction at one’s finger tips?…

“Gennett’s chef d’oeuvre, however, is 1099A, demurely catalogued as ‘Man walking on gravel road, wearing squeaky shoes and corduroy trousers. Incidental bird calls.’ Baroque, certainly, but I love it.

“The possessor of a complete set of Gennett Effects can say goodbye to dull evenings. You are sitting at home, let us imagine, alone and in the dumps. You conjure up a little gaiety with 1002B (‘Several Men Laughing’), and add a bacchanalian touch with 1096A (‘Putting Ice into Glass and Filling with Liquid’). Then you fall to cards (‘Shuffl­ing and Dealing Cards, or Rolling Dice’ — 1092A). It is a stormy night outside (1070B, ‘Rainfall and Thunder’). Suddenly a shot rings out (1007A: ‘Gun Shots’), and a woman screams (1003B). The police arrive in a squad car (1008B: ‘Six-Cylinder Automobile Running at Even Speed’) with the siren on (ll03A). They knock at the door (1133A: ‘Knocking and Pounding on Door’); then, failing to gain admittance, they chop it down (1092B: ‘Chopping Down Door’) and drag you off through a rapidly gathering crowd (1109A: ‘Crowd Yelling’). You can now go quietly to bed, satisfied that the neighbors are envying your thrill-packed life.

“One Effect should be saved for moments of suicidal despair. This is 1095B, which, you can believe it or not, is a recording from life of the noise a man makes break­ing up a piano with an ax. If that doesn’t bring about a complete catharsis, nothing will.”

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Victor and others also offered their own sound-effects lines, although none were as extensive or occasionally bizarre as Gennett’s. Details of the Victor issues can be found in John Bolig’s new Victor Special Labels, 1928–1941, just released by Mainspring Press.