CAN WE TALK?
I'm a hugger," confesses voice-over artist and teacher Dick Terry. He draws nearer, his smile exuding a blinding white glow.
"Did you know that your voice changes when you smile?" he asks. With each elongated, oddly cadenced syllable, he broadens his already enormous grin until his face is all but lost amid a parade of molars and bicuspids. "It... changes...ev-ery-thing...about...how...you...sound. You...can't...help...but...sound...haaaaaappppppy...when...you...smile.
"And when you frown," he continues, his features falling faster than a bowling ball heaved from a skyscraper's window, "your voice changes, too. You sound depressed--doooowwwwn. No one will buy anything from you if you frown. I was getting ready to shoot a TV commercial for a cable company a couple of years ago, and I was doing this." His hangdog look snaps back into a smile, then reappears, disappears, reappears, disappears. "And I overheard someone say to the director, `What is he doing? He's not going to do it like that, is he?' And I spoke up and said, `Would you rather I do it like this?'" His visage, which had seemed dour before, is suddenly transformed into something out of Edvard Munch. His jowls hang from his jaw like matching suitcases. "After that," Terry points out, "he didn't say another word."
Words: Dick Terry knows that they matter. But when words are printed on a page, they have not yet achieved as much as they should. They need to be stretched and pulled and rolled from one side of the tongue to the other. Each consonant, each vowel, each epiglottal blend has a potential that can be realized only if it is spoken aloud by a person who recognizes its power. Words can beguile, words can enchant, words can excite. The next sentence out of your mouth may not represent the most profound thought ever conceived by Western man, but if you say it right, it can seem pretty damn close.
Terry, who's lived in southwest Denver for the past six years, has devoted most of his 67 years to this proposition. A New Yorker by birth and personality, he dreamed of earning a living as an actor, then became one. "I've worked with a lot of gifted performers in my day," boasts this compulsive yet charming name-dropper. "JoBeth Williams. Ted Danson." But his throat has taken him much farther than has the rest of his body. From the late Fifties through the Sixties, he hosted a radio show, Bandstand U.S.A., that was aired in fifteen countries. And during the same period, he owned, operated and taught at the New York School of Announcing and Speech, among the first institutions of its type.
Terry's latest school, Talent of America Workshops Inc., is a much more modest establishment--a single office in a squat building near the Denver Tech Center where he sees students several times a week. But these reduced circumstances don't seem to bother Terry, who apparently spends every waking moment brimming with enthusiasm. He's got a great voice, and he loves the sound of it--particularly when he's sharing with visitors highlights from his career as a TV-and-radio announcer and pitchman.
"Here's one you'll remember," Terry predicts as he screens a videotape filled with some of his greatest hypes. "I think they're still showing it. At least I still get residuals from it." He points at the monitor as an animated spot for Tootsie Pops flickers to life.
"Mr. Turtle," asks a glum cartoon lad. "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?"
"I ain't never made it," replies Terry, both in person and as a disembodied turtle voice beamed from the set. "Ask Mr. Owl."
The boy marches toward an owl and repeats the question. "Let's find out," burbles Terry the owl and Terry the human. "One. Two-hoo-hoo. Three." Crunch. The owl returns the half-eaten Tootsie Pop to the boy. "Three," the two Terrys conclude.
Finally, yet another Terry--a dulcet-toned one--offers the commercial's moral. How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? "The world may never know."
Neither is the world likely to discover how many Terrys are bouncing around inside Dick Terry's head. Over the years he's been a dozen different characters living a dozen different lives. And if you ask him, he'll tell you, in his somewhat flighty fashion, that each one of them has been great. "My father never encouraged me--he was an insurance agent," he says, selling himself as relentlessly as he sold candied suckers. "So I had to become my own cheerleader."
The enrollees at Talent of America Workshops hear a lot of advice a la Ann Landers and Dale Carnegie--and plenty of unconventional wisdom, too. Terry, for example, is a fan of astrology, and he's apt to alter his approach to you based on your sign. Likewise, his theory about why so many of his current voice pupils are lawyers is, to say the least, unusual. "At first it seemed strange how many of them there were," Terry concedes. "But then I found out I was a lawyer in a former life.
"Don't laugh," he goes on, holding his index finger upright. "This Australian psychic--he's called `The Man Who Can Look Backwards'--did a reading for me a while ago. Some of the past lives he told me about weren't very nice. In England, I was a highwayman who was shot and thrown across my horse dead. But I was good when I was a lawyer. It was early in the nineteenth century, and I lived in Paris--my name was Henri Descamp--and I was involved in a famous case where I defended a contractor whose building collapsed. He was innocent, and I got him out of Devil's Island. And after that, I ended up teaching Hebrew law in a monastery somewhere. So I've spent a lot of time around lawyers."
Is this account accurate? With Dick Terry, it hardly seems to matter. To him, it's the pitch that's important--and if a little embellishment here and there makes his real, true story better, where's the harm in that? Hyperbole is a show-biz tradition--and Terry is nothing if not show biz.
As Terry tells it, he grew up in the Washington Heights section of New York City under his given name, Joseph Wippler. Acting was a passion early on, but just as he was reaching an age when he could begin trying to make his fantasy a reality, World War II intervened. By lying about his age, he joined the Navy just past his sixteenth birthday and wound up off the coast of Italy. "I was shot--it was a rear injury--and I was laid up for about six months," he reports. Once healed, he was shipped to the Pacific, where he fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
At war's end, Terry returned to New York and ordered "a five-dollar book from the Better Speech Institute of Chicago, Illinois." He also used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the Albini Academy of Dramatic Arts. "Fred Astaire went there," he announces. "And I was in classes with Brian Keith. You know, Brian Keith the actor?"
In the middle of coursework at Albini, Dick Terry the actor had a fateful conversation with one of his teachers. "He said, `Boy, you have a nice voice. You ought to try radio,'" Terry remembers.
With this compliment still ringing in his head, Terry added a radio course to his class load, and upon graduation he landed a job as a disc jockey in Easton, Pennsylvania. He moved there with his new wife, Mary, then pregnant with their only child, Kathy (who is now married and lives near San Francisco), and wound up staying for four years. Then it was back to New York City and a position at WMGM-AM, among the most popular outlets in the Big Apple. "We had all the big names: Ted Brown, the redhead. Jerry Marshall. The tennis pro, Gussie Moran."
Those were fat times. Terry made a nice living at WMGM. He acted in such productions as Dark Violence, an early Fifties B-movie ("co-starring Neil Hamilton and Linda Blodgett") so obscure that it no longer appears in even the most comprehensive reference guides. And he began teaching at Broadcast Coaching Associates, a struggling school that trained announcers and DJs. After it went bust, in 1958, Terry decided to open his own school.
Hence, the New York School of Announcing and Speech, which, according to its brochure, was "dedicated to the performer and teaches the pure art form. Naturalness, confidence, poise, good speech and assurance of delivery on camera and on the microphone are stressed always." Among Terry's unique methods of instruction: When students fluffed lines, they were fined either two or five cents, depending on the severity of the error. At the end of the course, a party was financed by the total of the fines. The more screwups, the merrier.
Meanwhile, Terry took another strange professional twist. "In 1959 I met two women from Curacao," he recalls. "One of them was the program director for the biggest radio station there, and she told me they needed material and asked if I could do something for them."
Using the school's equipment, Terry concocted Bandstand U.S.A., a hits-countdown show starring "Joe Wippler, the All-American Boy." The homemade experiment did so well in Curacao that Terry began shopping it to other international markets. At the height of its popularity, Bandstand U.S.A. was heard on 87 stations in fifteen countries, including Liberia, whose radio czars personally requested that he wish the country's president well after the leader was stricken with a case of chicken pox. He proudly displays autographed photographs of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, sent to him for helping to spread the American way across the globe.
Terry wasn't able to translate this overseas success to the syndication market in the States, but he's certain that his influence was pervasive. He insists that You Can Be a Disc Jockey, an LP he released under the imprimatur of his school, led directly to the creation of the Columbia School of Broadcasting a few years later. And he's equally certain that Casey Kasem must have heard Bandstand U.S.A. while in Japan on military leave and swiped its concept for his countdown programs. "His format was borrowed from mine, but I don't begrudge him," Terry allows. "He has a nice voice."
Life continued along this route until 1969, when a midlife crisis struck. Terry was feeling frustrated, trapped, so "I separated myself from everything." Over a twelve-month span, he divorced his wife, stuck a fork in Bandstand U.S.A. and sold his school for $250,000. And he decided to become a painter.
Zoom--it was off to Albuquerque, in the kind of state where painters live. While there, Terry began taking private art lessons. He let his sideburns grow and began wearing open-necked shirts with kerchiefs or ascots around his neck. And he met Wendy, the young woman who would become his second wife (they've now been married for over two decades). He had not a worry in the world--at least until he began to realize that his supply of cash was not inexhaustible. "One day it was there," Terry reports, "and the next day it was gone." How did that happen? Terry offers a shy grin. "I spent it."
In fact, Terry did as little work as possible until the mid-Seventies, when it became clear to him that he'd better find a way to restore his bank account. The solution, he decided, was a return to New York City, where he aimed to start over with a new name. "Quite a few years had passed," says the former Mr. Wippler. "And I didn't want people to think I was a has-been." Terry, he reveals, was his father's sister's handle. And "Dick" just sounded good with it.
All Terry needed to get back into show biz was his voice and a single audio cassette. He made a sample tape of voice-overs and inside of two months was bantering with Bugs Bunny (dialogue by Mel Blanc) in a TV commercial for Johnson & Johnson dental floss. Then came spots for Entenmann's pastries, Village Inn restaurants and so on.
Terry also found employment on New York-based network soap operas. Sometimes he was just a voice on a radio, but as time passed he found himself on-camera more and more often. "On some of the shows," he emphasizes, "I had a name." On the defunct serial Somerset (the launching pad for JoBeth Williams and Ted Danson), he was Franklin, a hit man. On Love of Life, he was Chuck, the friendly bartender. On One Life to Live, he was Fred Cooper, newspaper reporter. He also appeared on Guiding Light, All My Children and Search for Tomorrow, sharing camera time with such ultra-celebrities as Morgan Fairchild and Michael Nouri. "I have the original record Michael put out autographed to me," Terry mentions. "Would you like to see it?"
Sure, there was an element of glamour to this lifestyle, but it wasn't easy to find new gigs week in and week out. Plus, living in New York was hard work to which Wendy, a Denver native, never warmed. By 1988 she wanted to move back home. So Terry set aside all the money he was paid for voicing 300 radio commercials for Grossman's Lumber, a giant concern in Boston, and used it to relocate to Colorado.
Given Terry's resume, he had little difficulty scaring up voice-over opportunities here; among his most recent spots is a commercial that reminds travelers wary of Denver International Airport that they can fly out of Colorado Springs instead. He also was hired as a teacher at Kristi's Talent, a local agency. And shortly after Kristi's went belly-up, he opened up Talent of America on his own. Since last year, he's seldom had fewer than eight or nine students. "I've lived a long time," he says by way of explanation. "I know more than most people."
The first thing people who take Terry's class must do is eat a Tootsie Roll as hard as a bolt. Terry keeps these snacks piled atop his television set out of pride. "I did all the Tootsie Roll commercials for ten years--from about 1976 to 1986," he says. "Tootsie Rolls have been very, very good to me." Then, Terry will hold out a pumpkin seed and ask its color. Anyone who answers "white" is greeted by Terry's gentle reproach. "When I look at it, I see orange," he insists. "Because if you plant that seed in the ground and water it and nurture it, it will grow into a beautiful orange pumpkin. It's orange because I see potential."
In an effort to free his students' latent talents, Terry runs them through a series of readings. Up first is "The Little Match Girl," a dark holiday tale loaded with what Terry calls "feeling words--words that make you feel certain emotions just by saying them. `Happy,' `sad'--words like that. Words that you can act out." Within minutes, Terry has his charges mopping their brows while saying the word "hot," shivering and clutching their arms at the mention of "cold." From there, enrollees read dramatic scenes from old radio dramas opposite the tape-recorded voices of stars from days gone by--Vincent Price, Don Ameche, June Haver. Before long, you'll likely hear Terry say, "That was very good. I believed that."
Believability is only one of the reasons Marilyn Earhart came to Terry. A minister of religious science who's in the process of founding her own church in the Thornton area, she told Terry she wanted to become more comfortable speaking to large groups. Now, after a series of ten sessions in which the readings were supplemented with a variety of breathing and diaphragm exercises, she's grown so confident about her delivery that she says, "I've thought about doing five-minute spots for radio--like a positive thought of the day. It would be an excellent opportunity to let people know about us."
For his part, Rich Rediger, an attorney at the Denver firm Cook, Kotel and Fitch, believes that Terry helped him add muscle to his voice--a genuine accomplishment given that Rediger also sings with Opera Colorado and is a member of the choir at downtown Denver's Holy Ghost Church. "But even if you know how to sing, doing voice-overs is an entirely different ballgame," he says. "Now I think I have a much more sophisticated viewpoint of what people do when they're acting with their voices, the timing of how the lines are delivered, the pacing of the sentence, the phraseology of the sentence, the syntax and how you can get a certain kind of emotion into your voice."
Scott Cook, a senior partner at Cook, Kotel and Fitch (and the person who recommended Talent of America to Rediger), is equally effusive about the courses. "As a trial lawyer, I'm into voice anyway," he says. "But Dick was able to give me information relevant to doing voice-overs while at the same time giving me knowledge about how to use my voice in a better, more communicative way. I haven't gone into a full-blown trial since I finished his course, but I'll certainly try some of his things when I do.
"For instance," he adds, "did you know your voice changes a lot when you smile?"
As if Dick Terry needed another reason for lawyers to come to him for help, there's The O.J. Simpson Show. "With so many trials being televised," he says, "lawyers have to learn not to be artificial and not to pontificate too much. If they don't, they're going to lose their cases. But if they gain control over their voices, they won't just win their cases. They'll win at life."
According to Terry, Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, could use a few tips.
"I'd have her soften up and not act so much like an old schoolteacher," he says. "She's dictatorial, and when she gets mad, she gets this critical voice. She sounds like she's going to criticize you every minute. She needs to work on pace, too. That way she'd come across as much more believable."
Clark's skills pale in comparison to those of top Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, Terry feels. "He's very believable, and he's got great mike technique--although not as good as Gerry Spence, that Wyoming lawyer they've got commenting on the whole thing. Now there's a man who knows how to use a microphone. He's got that dooooown-hooooooome sound. Abraham Lincoln used the same technique. Without the microphone, I mean."
Terry would love to show everyone how to get that Honest Abe sound, but he doesn't want to stop there. At an age when many people spend their days molding sofa cushions to their backsides, he still has ambitions. He wants to keep improving his personal voice-over work while finding a way to package Incredible Sports, a 397-episode radio series that he narrated for King Features in 1959. He claims he currently owns the rights to these audio snippets, which he describes as "unusual stories in the world of sports. You know, the one-armed pitcher, the one-legged pitcher, the monkey buried under home plate." He's sure someone out there will be fascinated by this material. Thus far, he's been wrong.
Fortunately, Terry still has his school, which he keeps afloat mainly for sentimental reasons. "I make enough to pay for the advertising and the office and my time, but that's about all. But teaching--it's my giving." He leans in close. Very close. A gleeful expression spreads across his face as he says, "I...have...to...giiiiiiiiive.
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