Last updated: October 30, 2018
Cliff Thorsness (1914-2002)
Famed CBS Radio Sound Effects Artist
An appreciation of my sound effects mentor, Cliff Thorsness. I delivered this as a speech at Cliff's wake in August 2002.
Cliff Thorsness, an accomplished radio sound effects artist, who worked for CBS from 1938 to 1962, died June 14 2002, of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87. The funeral was private, but a public tribute was held on the afternoon of August 7 at the Horace Heidt Estates, where Cliff lived.
Cliff was part of the talented CBS sound effects crew assembled at station KNX in the late 1930s when the network opened its West Coast radio drama studios to make use of Hollywood movie stars. He co-organized the KNX sound effects department and, during his 24 year tenure, Cliff worked with all the greats--Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, William Conrad, Jack Webb, Elliot Lewis, Janet Waldo, Gerald Mohr, Paul Frees, Harry Bartell, and many more. His credits included stints on programs such as The Jack Benny Program, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Big Town, The Eddie Cantor Show, Fanny Brice, Fibber McGee & Molly, and the Escape thriller-anthology series.
Cliff had an illustrious and suitably "noisy" career. He was at CBS on the night that the famous October 31, 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast from New York panicked the nation. He recalled "quite a commotion at even the Hollywood studio switchboard" —but was kept in the dark about the hoax, as was the rest of the staff. When Orson Welles later moved to Hollywood, Cliff created sound effects for him. Orson later complimented Cliff, writing archly, "I owe you more than you'll ever know." Think about that...
Amazingly, in the days of old-time radio, Cliff even received on-air credit for his sound effects work. In 1949 he, along with Gus Bayz and Jack Sixsmith, were awarded the "Best of the Year" prize by Radio and Television Life magazine for their work on a famous Escape episode, "Three Skeleton Key," for which they created the sounds of thousands of rats attacking a lighthouse. There's a wonderful photo in Robert Turnbull's book, Radio and Television Sound Effects showing Cliff and his crew gnawing on berry baskets to create the sound of the hungry rats eating their way through doors and walls. This program is available on the Radio Spirits collection, The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century. Cliff's work is heard on more than a few of the legendary programs included in this collection. (Here's a link about "Three Skeleton Key" including audio MP3s.)
Cliff also provided the hoofbeats for Champ, radio star Gene Autry's famous horse, and his trusty coconuts are on display today at the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. In 1997 Cliff donated his personal collection of battleship-gray CBS sound effects to the Museum of Television & Radio (MT&R), where they are still causing a racket in the weekly Re-creating Radio family workshops that have introduced radio drama to thousands of young people.
Cliff always encouraged others who sought to take up his art, and I'm proud to have had him as my mentor. Here's one story of how he helped me turn ideas into a sonic tapestry.
A few years ago, I wrote a horror radio show--in tribute to Cliff--about corrupt Crusaders in Turkey in 1204 A.D. The story was an allegory about the McCarthy-era blacklist, which destroyed the careers of many of Cliff's friends and colleagues.
In the show, a deranged nobleman, Cliff of Thorsness, mounts massive battles (a sound effects free-for-all) and resorts to torture (with excruciatingly wonderful thumbscrew sounds) in his quest for revenge and plunder. In the end, he falls prey to demons from the 70,000 hells of the Arabian Nights--complete with a monstrous black wave of five million rats. The fictional Cliff of Thorsness is done in by the real Cliff's rodents from "Three Skeleton Key." And just as Cliff had done, we rubbed dozens of wet wine corks against glass to create the effect of millions of rat squeals.
But while rehearsing the show at the MT&R, I ran into a problem. I'd written a scene that called for Crusaders venturing through volcanic tunnels. At one point, they had to wade through "an ocean of bones"--some of the bones not "fully" human! It was a powerful image that would create just the sense of dread required by horror. Unfortunately, I couldn't mechanically produce the sound I had in my head.
I tried stirring a cooking spoon in my gravel box, but it wasn't evocative enough. Luckily, Cliff was at the MT&R for this tribute workshop/performance. I described the scene and the feeling I was after and pleaded for his help.
Cliff came into the studio, surveyed my sound effects kit and went to work. First, he grabbed some highlighter pens and shuffled them around in his hand. No good. "Too small," he said. "That sounds more like a BAG of bones--not an ocean."
Then he went to the gravel box and started manipulating the grave. Specifically, he hung his palms on the edges of the junk-drawer-sized box and grabbed bits of gravel and stone and pulled them up--to rub against the wooden sides. With the right sashaying rhythm, he nailed it--wading through an ocean of bones! I had the right gear but the wrong technique. Cliff demonstrated that in sound effects, it's the technique that matters. It's all in the wrists! For this horror show, he also cooked up a convincing beheading of a snake-haired Ifrit using a pancake flipper, a board, and a half-deflated punching bag.
He taught me how to unleash my imagination and how to make sounds sing—and I will be forever grateful.
When performing sound effects, Cliff was like a jazz musician. He could improvise on the spot--and do variations, too. He played those sound effects devices like musical instruments. He wrung nuances out of bits of leather and wood and metal. He shaded the sound to accompany specific actors and actions. Cliff was a wizard of sound. He conjured "a world before your very ears."
He was my sound effects hero. On radio, Cliff was ten feet tall with four sets of hands. In person, he was a slim man with just two hands but a quick and imaginative mind.
When CBS ceased radio drama production in 1962, Cliff became a radio engineer. When he retired, he still kept active in the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters and as a mentor for radio sound effects aspirants like myself. But Cliff would bristle when somebody referred to his art as "Foley." "Don't call it 'foley,' he'd tell me. "Foley's for movies. We're SOUND men. Sound effects ARTISTS!"
You can actually see Cliff at work in the 1980 movie musical Annie, where, at about 80 minutes in, he creates the sounds of a fake tap dancing radio star. He knocks off this easy sound effect with a bit of comic flair and tosses his script page down.
And now Cliff is gone. Also, the fine and funny Los Angeles sound effects artist David L. Krebs, another of Cliff's students, passed away in January 2002 at age 57.
There's something terrible about the very idea of a sound man being... silenced. These artists injected action and setting into radio plays. They provided the motion that made e-motion possible. They brought mere stories to life. And as such, they shouldn't go out with a bang... OR a whimper. Instead, you want it to be some extraordinary montage of sound patterns, an avalanche of milk bottles... or the Pacific Ocean evaporating...
Or the sound of a heart... being broken.
It's a sound I, thankfully, don't hear too often. But for those of us who knew Cliff, it is his final sound effect. It's a sad sound and it's true, and it touches us.
Cliff Thorsness could work that kind of magic.
I'll miss him.