That bump in the night? You can thank Foley artist Jonathan Ward for that

Radio Redux's Foley artist Jonathan Ward works his magic on stage during a show in the Soreng Theatre in Eugene. Photo by Paul Carter.

A shot. A gasp. A body hits the floor.

Jonathan Ward likes that last bit best of all. But it’s not a body. It’s a bag of sand that he has just dropped onto a soundboard on stage at a Radio Redux performance.

“The bag drop is my favorite. It’s just hilarious. It sounds great. It looks great. The audience sees it coming. They love it,” he says.

Jonathan has been dropping bags, making footsteps, slamming doors, ringing phones, firing shots, generating storms and otherwise creating the soundscape for Radio Redux since 2012, when he heard through a friend that Fred Crafts was looking for a Foley artist.

Named for the early Universal Studios master Jack Donovan Foley, the art of creating sound effects is a natural progression in Jonathan’s long career in radio and television production and teaching.

Jonathan earned a broadcast journalism degree at the University of New Mexico and worked in radio and television news, production and sales most of his career, taking a nine-year break to teach middle school.

“You really learn how to work a room when you’re a teacher,” he says.

Jonathan volunteers at KLCC, hosting "Tropical Beat" on Friday nights.  Photo by Bub Bishop.

But broadcasting was his first love.

He was 11 years old when he made the first recording of one of the voices he’d learned to mimic, spoofing John F. Kennedy in a mock interview with his younger brother.

He frequently practiced his voices, timing and delivery at home using a reel-to-reel recorder and a 45 rpm record player to learn how to introduce artists before playing their records. He still does that today as a volunteer radio host for KLCC’s “Tropical Beat” show on Friday nights.

In his professional career, Jonathan’s repertoire of voices filled ad spots on radio and television in Albuquerque, Seattle, Longview and Eugene, the latter being the city he and his wife, Sally, fell in love with during their honeymoon in 1981.

Jonathan hadn’t seen a Radio Redux performance before Fred offered him a shot at the Foley job.

“I really wanted to do the voice work. But I have worked my way into a niche and Fred won’t let me out of it,” Jonathan says, with a laugh.

 

“Why should I?” Fred retorts. “Jonathan’s so good at creating sound effects that I’d be foolish to let that go. However, to be fair, I do ask him to do double-duty by creating small characters in our shows—but nothing that takes him away from his Foley desk for long.”

From the outset, Jonathan determined he would play the Foley role as a full-fledged character. On stage he is a working-class Foley artist of the period: reacting to other actors, being as physical as possible, creating as many sounds as practical live on stage.

He has learned that leather soles on a soundboard produce the best footsteps, and that different techniques are required to make women’s footsteps.

Jonathan mugs during a photo shoot. Photo by Paul Carter.

Chips of thin metal in a wooden box dropped on stage sound like breaking glass. A wet rag in a plastic bag dropped on the soundboard created the sound of jam squishing on the Queen of Hearts’ face during the chaotic tea party for the Alice in Wonderland performance.

“My wife actually thought of that one,” he says. “I’m always trying to find the perfect sound. I go to garage sales. I go to BRING. We experiment a lot.”

In My Man Godfrey, Jonathan hauled in a giant washtub and a garden hose to simulate the sound of someone taking a shower. He combined the stage visual with laptop sounds, so while it looked like he was squirting water from a hose, the washtub and hose were a façade.

Jonathan usually has two or three ways to create effects when he meets with Fred to sketch out a soundscape before rehearsals begin.

“Our goal is to try to do everything we can live,” he says. “If we could do everything live, that would be really cool.”

But that’s not possible. For example, how do you create the sound of an ocean liner or a rocket ship without having a boat or a rocket on stage? There is one way around this problem. During the Golden Age of Radio, sound specialists often went out into the field to record hard-to-create sounds and played them from specially made records or, later, tapes.

These days, it’s done on a computer.

That can create modern-day perils for a performance, like the time the laptop failed to produce critical gunshots and Jonathan had to rush to a microphone and shout, “Bang! Bang!”

“The audience thought it was hilarious,” Jonathan recalls. “There’s always little mistakes here and there.”

Slips like an actor not waiting for a door to open before addressing the character who is entering the room, or the Foley artist missing a cue to sound the doorbell, he says. The actors know they must keep moving along whatever happens.

“When I’m on stage I’m hyper-alert. It’s not nervousness. I don’t get the shakes. I love the audience,” Jonathan says. “I’ve got to follow that script for all 90 minutes. I’m in every act. You really have to be organized. It’s all timing. I’ve got to be on it.”

Says Crafts, “Jonathan takes sound effects so seriously. He thinks about them all the time. I love throwing an usual sound cue at him and then watching how he solves it.

 

"For instance, when we needed the sound of a rock being thrown through a plate glass window in It’s a Wonderful Life, we figured it’d be too risky to actually break glass on stage so Jonathan made the sound by tossing a couple of metal rulers onto the floor. I never would have thought of that.”

“Jonathan has developed into a first-rate Foley artist. We’d be pretty silent without him.”

Jonathan is grateful that his role as Foley artist affords him a place in every Radio Redux performance.

Shoes (complete with socks) attached to old broom handles simulate the sound of someone walking, another of Jonathan's creations. Photo by Paul Carter.

“It’s such a fun gig. Fred is truly gifted in how he puts this together, how he handles everybody. He tries to keep all those talented people happy,” Jonathan says. “Everybody loves and respects him.”

Jonathan currently is striving for the perfect creaking sound, using a sound box he constructed.

“I still can’t get it to do what I want it to do,” he says. “I’ll get it one of these days.”

By Bub Bishop. Bishop is a retired reporter for The Register-Guard.