The "Empire Builders"

CURATOR'S NOTE: Here's your chance to sit in the control room of studio D and look over the shoulders of the engineer, the production director and the 'advisory director' (actually a representative of the sponsor) as the Empire Builders, one of network radio's earliest adventure shows, goes on the air.

If you look closely, you'll see a young actor by the name of Don Ameche stepping up to one of the mikes. Don was an "Empire Builders" regular.

(You can also listen to two complete "Empire Builders" broadcasts from December 22nd, 1930 and January 5th, 1931. Unfortunately, Don Ameche seems to have been on vacation the days these broadcasts aired. But they are well worth listening to nonetheless.)

Empire Builders, sponsored by the Great Northern railway (whose premier limited, which ran from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest gave the program its name), first aired in 1928 and left the air at the end of its 1931 season (an apparent victim of the depression). With a large cast of actors, a 23-piece orchestra, seven sound effects technicians (five of whom worked in the studio, two of whom worked outside on the Merchandise Mart roof) and a studio audience, Empire Builders epitomized the elaborate productions of netork radio's early days.

Empire Builders
aired Monday nights from 9:30 to 10 p.m. (Central time) over the NBC Blue Network

The photographs and text below are from the June, 1931 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine. The article erroneously calls studio D the 'world's largest radio studio'. That honor (at the time) actually belonged to the Merchandise Mart's studio A.

The control room of studio D: On the left, in front of the 'talk-back' mike, is program director Don Bernard. His left hand rests on the switch that activates a cue light on the Merchandise Mart roof that will alert the sound effects technician stationed there to either blow their locomotive whistle or ring their locomotive bell. At the control console is studio engineer Ralph Davis, riding gain on the five microphones used for the broadcast. On the right is Harold M. Sims, executive assistant to the president of the Great Northern railway. Sims---supervising the implementation of his beloved 'passing train' sound effect---has his eyes glued to a clock that ticks off the seconds. A loud speaker in the panel on the right feeds program audio into the control room.

Curator's note: This is an artist's rendering of the scene. Click here to see a photo of Studio D control.

"HELLO---on the roof! Give us the whistle. Turn it up full. Now fade it. Passenger bell's coming through too loud for the whistle tonight. Are we all set? Stand by everybody! Fifteen seconds. Watch for the light! All right, here we go!"

You are peering from a little booth through the three panes of glass into the largest broadcasting studio in the world. A director is shouting, the orchestra is tuning up and there is a clatter of tin plates and snare drum, but not a sound penetrates the monitor room where the program director, studio engineer and advisory director are seated at a long table overlooking the scene.

Each man has a script, or complete story, of the radio drama in his hands, as a large clock, whose one hand jumps forward one-fourth inch at a time, clicks off the last few seconds before the program is sent out over 33,400 miles of wire to twenty-seven radio stations in all parts of the country and then flashed through the air to millions of listeners at a cost of about $200 a minute.

All told, nearly three hundred persons take part in such a broadcast. First the play is written and checked for absolute accuracy. Then "sound effects" And a musical theme are carefully woven into it. There follows sometimes as much as thirty hours' rehearsal of the musical conductor, twenty-three musicians, fifteen actors, five sound-effects experts and the two directors. In addition there are eighty-one engineers at the various broadcast stations, and twenty-seven announcers, or one for each station, and also eighty-one engineers at the repeater stations of the telephone company to see that there is no break in the wires over which the program is flowing.

In the silent control room, the program director, Don Bernard, turns a switch, and suddenly the sounds of the studio come into the room through a loud speaker in one corner. Before him is a microphone through which he can talk to the people in the studio and the invisible sound effects men on the rood outside. At Bernard's right sits Ralph Davis, the studio engineer, or "gain rider", before what looks like a small radio set---the all important mixing panel.

Five microphones from the roof and the various parts of the studios of the National Broadcasting Company, in Chicago, are connected directly to this mixing panel. There are five knobs, or controls, on the front, and by turning them, the sounds from any mike are raised or lowered, just as you control the volume of your set, so that the various effects will blend together into a perfect program for the listener.

The third man in the control room is Harold M. Sims, assistant to the president of the Great Northern railway and advisory director of the program. He slips into his seat in the booth as the opening strains of the orchestra fade away and begins to count the seconds by waving his arm in time with the second clock. Now follows a realistic radio reproduction of a moving train. It lasts just forty seconds, but it took months to prepare.

"Last few bars of music!" says the director, interrupting the orchestra leader by talking through his microphone as the dress rehearsal gets under way. The musician raises his violin bow and starts the orchestra off again. The announcer starts off with his introduction.

"Too late," says the engineer; "off by two seconds." The announcer repeats. The orchestra fades to a whisper.
The scene opens in a railroad telegraph office. The staccato clicks are not faked. A real railroad telegraph operator sends a real message which any Morse operator can understand. At this point the script directions read: "Door opens. Wind up. Closes. Wind down. Stamping of feet." A stage hand opens a real door, and on the instant an airplane propeller is started by a motor, and throws off the whistling "whooo-ooo" of the blowing wind. Then one hears the slam of the door. Instantly the propeller stops. The stage hand who opened the door stamps his feet on a mat to simulate a man just coming in.
Empire Builder Studio D
Studio D: On the left, the actors and program announcer work in and around a small isolation booth (the actor to the right of the booth opening appears to be Don Ameche). In the background, five sound effects technicians work their mechanical devices. Through the cutaway in the studio wall, the artist allows us to see two more sound effects technicians, cued by a flashing light, stationed on the Merchandise Mart roof. Note that evening dress is obligatory for all those working on the studio floor---with the exception of the sound effects technicians who wear custom-tailored smocks.
Then the actors pick up the dialogue. Frequently the director interrupts with a suggestion such as "Blow your engine whistle on the word 'run' as we fade back", or, telephoning the men on the roof, "We're going to do a passing train effect on page two. Two flashes of light mean bell. One light, whistle.""O.K." answer the outside sound men. For the train sound effects a "track machine" was built to absolute scale, on which a speeding miniature train brings the listener the clickety-clack of a transcontinental train as it pounds its way through the night. Combined with the boom of the kettledrums, the shriek of a whistle, the clang of bells, the hiss of steam, the synthetic harmony produced by these mechanical devices gives a startling reproduction of the actual train. The total effect lasts forty seconds, and to have the train's approach and disappearance in the proper balance, experts calculated by seconds what the dominant sounds should be.In the first second, the sound man on the roof sees his white signal light flash. He pulls his cord and throws the steam into the great whistle, which has been taken from one of the Great Northern's monster locomotives. It begins with two long and two short toots. It gives one long toot from the sixth to the ninth second, and one long and two short toots from the sixteenth to the twentieth second. Then, as its volume fades, it gives a series of regulation crossing-signal whistles. Outside sound effects are picked up by a third microphone. In order to be certain that all the motley sounds die off at once, the volume in the last ten seconds is faded out by the engineer at the mixing panel. Mr. Sims, who is largely responsible for this excellent effect, conducted many experiments before he finally succeeded in adapting it to the studio.
Right: Studio engineer Ralph Davis and 'advisory director' Harold M. Sims.
Davis and Sims
"There is probably as much difference between the sounds of different trains as there is difference between flakes of snow," he said. "I have used a stop watch on fifty or sixty trains, actually timing the various units of the medley. Trains sound different in hilly country from what they sound in flat country. Even when you repeat the experiment at one point, there is a wide variation in every train, depending upon the atmosphere, the time of day, whether the train is going upgrade or down, whether it is picking up speed or slowing down, the length and weight of the train, its speed, power of the engine, and many other factors.

"Again, the time it takes a distant train to come up and pass one and disappear into the distance varies from three to five minutes. Limitations of the radio do not permit us nearly so much time, to say nothing of the fact that it would be tedious to listeners to wait that long.
Sound effects chart

Above: The chart devised by 'advisory director' Harold M. Sims to help the sound effects technicians and engineer Ralph Davis realize the effect of a passing train. Three microphones are required for this illusion.
"What I really had to do was to build up a synthetic effect that would make the sound even more colorful than the real. We bring the train up from a distance at a much greater speed than it actually comes up, and then we fade it out again even more rapidly. We have worked out charts on arriving trains, trains passing each other; train interior effects; passenger flyers passing strings of box cars, grade crossings with a warning bell, and clicking switches."

All broadcasting noises practically, must be made to order in the studio. A most critical audience, often numbering millions of people, lends careful ears to the synthetic sounds. The action of a radio play is as broad as that in a theater, and the faithfulness of the illusions depends largely upon synthetic sounds.

An airplane engine, if picked up outdoors, would be heard for what it is. Inside a studio, the reverberations and echoes, clashing against the walls, would give the radio listener nothing but noise. But an old-fashioned foot pump organ makes a noise exactly like an airplane motor.

The "zz-z-zzii--nnn-nngg-g-gg" of a bullet is simulated by plucking the steel string of a guitar. Hoof beats are hard to fake. "Sometimes," said the production manager, "they sound terrible. I almost considered bringing a horse into the studio and riding him myself, but he couldn't pass through the corridors."
Right: "Naught but ice, Master Hudson," Comes a Voice, and You Hear Grinding Bergs, Screaming Wind and the Booming of the Ship---Sound effects cunningly Woven into the Play
Sound effects technicians
Fire is simulated by crackling a bundle of canes together. Hissing water is easily imitated by letting off compressed air. If a house collapses, a box of bricks are allowed to fall down a chute. A firecracker celebration on the rood gives the radio listener an idea that a battle is taking place. Machine guns are simulated by riveting machines.
Master control
Above: NBC-Chicago Master Control: It's shortly before 9:30 p.m. on a Monday night early in 1931. The control engineer has preset the outgoing channels so that studio D will be fed to the NBC Blue network. Studio D will be on the air coast-to-coast as soon as the program announcer presses the 'on-air' button on the so-called 'delight box' on the wall of studio D adjacent to the control room.
"All right, here we go!" Stand by, everybody! Quiet, please!" comes the voice of the director, and as the second hand points to 9:30 o'clock you lean comfortably back in your chair while the loud speaker begins:

"The Great Northern railway presents 'Empire Builders,'" and another radio drama is launched on the air.

(Don't forget! You can now listen to two complete "Empire Builders" broadcasts from December 22nd, 1930 and January 5th, 1931.)

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
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