UW News

May 19, 2020

Campus colleagues: Curtis Takahashi — academic adviser, live radio ‘sound effects dude’

UW News

Curtis Takahashi reminds the audience to applaud in a Seattle Radio Theater production of "The Bishop's Wife" at Town Hall Seattle, broadcast by KIRO TV.

Curtis Takahashi cues the audience to applaud in a Seattle Radio Theater production of “The Bishop’s Wife” at Town Hall Seattle, broadcast by KIRO TV.

Curtis Takahashi helps UW Bothell students explore new academic pursuits, build job skills and connect with employers as an adviser with the UW Bothell Career Development Program. An alumnus himself, he returned as a staff member in 2018.

But for many more years, Takahashi has honed a different sort of craft that is a little retro and very cool: He performs sound effects live on stage — front doors, footsteps, telephone rings, car horns, birds flying, whatever the script demands — for local radio drama production groups.

Radio’s famous “golden age” may have faded with the 1950s, but radio-style audio drama and comedy is alive and well in Seattle in the podcast age.

UW Bothell’s Curtis Takahashi, right, and partner Frank Rosin provide sounds effects for a production by Imagination Theatre, performed live at the Kirkland Performance Hall.Larry Albert, Aural Vision LLC

Seattle Radio Theatre has been entertaining audiences at various local venues for 20 years with holiday productions featuring players from local TV and radio. Imagination Theatre — created by longtime local radio announcer and writer Jim French, who died in 2017 — continues to produce several original series of radio drama as Aural Vision LLC. The group performs and records a few episodes live each year at the Kirkland Performance Center.

Takahashi provides live sounds effects for both of these groups and several more. For Imagination Theatre live shows, he works with a partner, Frank Rosin.

UW Notebook, long a fan of radio drama, caught up with Takahashi recently to talk about his unusual avocation.

How did you get into this work providing sound effects for live radio? How long have you been doing it?

Curtis Takahashi: I first got into the radio drama world by writing scripts for Jim French’s Imagination Theatre. As a writer/fan of the show, I was always intrigued by the sound effects artists at their live shows. So one day during a conversation I mentioned that I’d be available to help out with sound effects (how hard could that be?) if they had any need.

“Flapping leather gloves sounds like a bird flying away. Snapping a clipboard sounds like a gunshot. Balloons and plastic grocery bags can make a variety of useful sounds.”
Curtis Takahashi, sound effects performer

About a month later, they called and brought me and my partner Frank Rosin into a live recording show in Kirkland. I’ve been doing this ever since. I really can’t remember how long ago that was. At least 15 years now?

How many radio programs in all, over the years, have you done the sound effects for?

C.T.: I honestly have no idea. Might be around 100 with Imagination Theatre. But, over the years, I’ve also performed with Seattle Radio Theatre on KIRO (anyone remember the cast of KING’s “Almost Live“?), KISW’s Live Day, the Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound, Camano Island Radio Theatre, and KPLU. I was also featured on KING-5’s Evening Magazine. I had no idea that a sound effects dude would be in demand.

Describe your setup. Do you have a small door to make door noises, shoes to make walking sounds and that sort of thing?

C.T.: I usually set up on a couple of long tables with three or four microphones. The table props usually include shoes (women’s/men’s), walking surfaces (wood, stone), phones, doorbells, plates, silverware, glassware, bells and whistles, and an array of other “stuff.” Flapping leather gloves sounds like a bird flying away. Snapping a clipboard sounds like a gunshot. Balloons and plastic grocery bags can make a variety of useful sounds. For door sounds, I have a half-door in a frame laying in the back of my car. (Left over from a home remodel project.)

Hear Takahashi’s sound effects work on KIXI radio in Seattle:

Imagination Theater recently recorded a new episode of its “Adventures of Harry Nile” detective series live in Kirkland with Curtis Takahashi on sound effects. “Just a Face in the Crowd” will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 16, and Tuesday May 19, on KIXI radio AM 880 in Seattle

Also: Watch a video of Seattle Radio Theater performing “The Bishop’s Wife” at Town Hall Seattle, broadcast live by KIRO radio.

It seems like sound effects would require an actor’s timing. Are you an actor as well?

C.T.: Absolutely! At least I call myself one. In radio, there are three types of sound: Actualities (dialogue), ambience (background sounds) and action (movement). The way I approach the craft is that I’m not just making a bunch of noise. I listen to the actors and how they approach the scene. My job is to build the scene, complement the dialogue and move the plot forward.

What are the most unlikely sound effects you’ve ever had to create?

C.T.: I get involved in a few crazy scripts now and then. Octopus tentacles come to mind. I used suction cups for that. I remember one Frankenstein script called for the sound of brains. I believe we cooked up some Jell-O. Splat!

You also write scripts. Which series do you write for?

C.T.: After writing a few “stand-alone” scripts for Imagination Theatre, I thought I’d try my hand at writing a detective series. “Phoenix Rising” (also produced by Aural Vision LLC) is a modern-day police procedural that features Detective Dena Rising (played by an amazing local actor, Caitlin Frances) as she solves crimes in Arizona. You can even follow Dena Rising on Facebook — she needs friends. While I wouldn’t call myself a great mystery writer, I have lot of fun with it.

What makes a radio show good? How do you know when an idea will make an entertaining program?

C.T.: For me it’s all about — like any kind of writing — keeping your audience interested. I’ll take a plot idea, create characters and start writing, plot twists and all, trying to fit everything into 25 pages (a half-hour show).

But writing for radio is a different kind of artform. You have to create visuals without the visuals. Realistic and engaging dialogue is essential. I therefore have to convey my ideas (the images in my head) through the characters’ voices (with sound effects), then rely on the director and actors to interpret my script, and then let the listeners form their own images in their minds. That’s what I love about this!

UW Notebook is a section of the UW News site dedicated to telling stories of the good work done by faculty and staff at the University of Washington. Read all posts here.