Interview with Dan Keller
The English language dubbers of Rome in the 1960s and 70s had a large and versatile pool of talent to choose from, but there was one area that was to prove problematic time and again: child dubbers. There simply weren’t many available, which sometimes forced the dubbing directors to cast adult females trying to impersonate children’s voices. One of the few genuine child dubbers who was active in Rome during that era was an American teenager by the name of Dan Keller. From the late 1960s on, Dan was the go-to guy for young boy voices, and in this exclusive interview he shares some wonderful and insightful memories of his time in the dubbing salas of Rome.
Johan Melle: Can you start by telling a little bit about yourself, where you’re from and how you and your family came to live in Rome during the Hollywood on the Tiber era in the 1960s?
Dan Keller: That story is told here. The short version is, in 1961 my family went to Rome for a year and stayed for 12.
JM: How did you end up doing English dubbing in Rome and how old were you when you started out? Was there a casting call or similar?
DK: There was an audition at my junior high school, then called the Overseas School of Rome, now the American Overseas School of Rome. The music teacher – Mr. Estrada – had been asked by someone he knew in the film industry to find American English-speaking kids to do dubbing. He had each of several boys sing a song and he picked one, me.
JM: What are your memories of your first dubbing job? How was it like being in a dubbing studio for the very first time and stepping in front of the microphone and be directed by a dubbing director?
DK: Alas, I don’t remember that first job. There were many; they are a blur in my memory. But I do remember that I really enjoyed the work. My boyhood voice is in literally hundreds of movies, mostly spaghetti westerns. From roughly 1967 through 1971 or so mine was the first-call American-sounding English-speaking young male voice in Rome.
JM: So… that would be roughly from the age of 13 to 17, then? Were the actors you dubbed more or less the same age as you, or did you have a light enough voice that you also dubbed actors that were several years younger?
DK: Yes, 13-17. Yes, I dubbed a wider range of male child voices, down to ages 5 or 6, I’m guessing.
JM: Can you take us through the dubbing process and explain how it was done back then? What were the biggest and most frequent challenges you faced when trying to put English words into Italian mouths?
DK: Much work has already been done by the time I arrive at the studio to do my part. The movie has been chopped into “loops” – short segments of a few seconds or minutes containing one or a few lines of dialog that need to be re-recorded in the target language. A translated script has been written. The loop is shown over and over (“looped”) while I practice speaking (or yelling or crying or whatever) in sync with the image and when I’m confident I’ve got it, the engineer behind the glass window to the control room “mette magnetico” (turns on the recorder) and we record “takes” until the director (also in the control room) is satisfied.
The range of emotions sometimes made the work challenging. We had to cry, laugh, shriek, moan, whistle, whisper, etc. High quality performances were demanded. And I was proud to deliver! Frankly, watching a movie with my voice in it, you very likely wouldn’t be able to tell that it wasn’t the original actor speaking.
Here is how dubbing works: you must match up the labials and the fricatives. A labial is when your lips close: the letters B, M and P. The fricatives are when they partially close: F and V. So, the line that you speak must have a labial whenever the actor is uttering a labial (you can say a P when they’re saying an M, for example) and similarly of course for the fricatives. This is the challenge for the translator; they must watch the loops over and over and write lines that have the right meanings for the story, and the right sounds for the lip syncing. Sometimes, in the studio, we’d find that the translated line didn’t quite work so we’d rewrite it on the fly.
JM: I know these dubs were done very quickly one after another, but are there any specific films you remember working on, or certain actors you know that you dubbed?
DK: Mostly spaghetti westerns but also some Korean monster movies, low-budget romantic dramas, etc. The actors? No idea.
JM: Since you mention Korean monster movies… there is one Korean monster movie I know was dubbed in Rome and which happens to feature a young boy in a pretty large role: Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967), which used to be a staple on American television for years and is now considered a bit of a cult classic. Maybe that’s your voice doing the boy?
DK: Many thanks! Yes, that’s my voice in Yongary. Of course, when dubbing, one sees only the short loops that require one’s voice, only a small percentage of the movie, and not in order. Until I received the link you sent, I had never seen the entire thing. What a hoot! It’s hilarious! Thanks again!
|Dan is the English voice of plucky boy hero Icho (Lee Kwang-ho) in the cult classic Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967)|
JM: Child and teen dubbers seem to have been in short supply, and there are in fact several examples of films where young boys were dubbed by adult females trying their best to sound like kids, so I would imagine that made you much in-demand. Do you have any idea about roughly how many films you might have dubbed?
DK: I wish I had kept track! One or two hundred, I’d guess. I never encountered any female dubbers impersonating children.
JM: There were a few other young dubbers, too. I know Leslie La Penna, the son of dubbing actor/director Tony La Penna, did some occasional dubbing as a young boy in the 1960s. I think you and him are about the same age. Andy and Steven Luotto, the sons of dubbing director Gene Luotto, and Paul Goldfield were also young dubbers, but a bit older than you, I think. Do you remember any of these guys?
DK: Yes. The Luotto kids and the Goldfield kids (Paul’s sister Barbara was in my sister’s class) all attended my high school though I never actually worked with them.
JM: Are there many particular dubbers you remember working with?
DK: Alas, no. Usually we worked solo. We were booked to the minute and one dubber would be departing as the next was arriving.
JM: Solo? So your sessions were usually single-tracked then? That’s surprising to hear, because I’ve always thought it was common that the dubbing actors who had lines in the same loops recorded their lines together in the same session.
DK: No, you’re right, I misspoke. Sometimes there were several dubbers being recorded at once. I also met others on the job, arriving early or hanging around after my work was done to meet them and see them in action.
JM: Did you work for all the various dubbing directors? And did you have any favorites that you were particularly fond of working with?
DK: Yes, many. Everyone was professional and courteous. In the studio, everyone was focused on getting the work done fast and well. Studio time was expensive! I recognize (and worked with) some of the directors you mention in your blog: Lew Ciannelli, Frank Von Kuegelgen, Bob Spafford. Other people you mention that I knew were Michael and Rhoda Billingsley (their maid, Elizabetta, was also my family’s), Frazier Rippy, Shirley Herbert, and Sandra Kennedy who also worked as a hairdresser and cut my hair at her salon. Two of the studios I worked at were Fono Roma and CDS. There were more but I’ve forgotten their names.
We dubbers all belonged to ELDA, the English Language Dubbers Association, which booked the jobs, set our fees, and called us up with our assignments. Mine were scheduled so I could go to the studios after school.
|Hairdresser and part-time dubber Sandra Kennedy who dubbed with Dan as well as cutting his hair at her salon|
JM: How was the pay like for someone of your age? Were you paid based on the number of lines you had?
DK: The pay was great! Yes, dubbers were paid by the line. There were two types of lines: the ones we had to sync and the ones we didn’t (termed “brusio” such as in crowd scenes or when the actor’s back was turned.) Synced lines paid more. Also, “English-on-English” paid more; paradoxically, it is more difficult to sync with the same language. When the ELDA lady called to book us for jobs, she told us how many lines (and what type) we were to do, which would give us an idea of how big the job was. Often, the job was just a few lines. A few dozen lines was a big job and could take hours to do. My parents allowed me to keep and spend my dubbing earnings so all through high school I was well-equipped with motorcycles and electric guitars.
JM: You guys dubbed a lot of great films, and you also dubbed quite a few that were not so great. Generally speaking, how did the dubbers feel about the sort of films you usually worked on, and what was the atmosphere like in the sala? Were there a lot of laughs and jokes, or did tempers often flare due to the hectic work schedules?
DK: Most of the movies were pretty bad but we didn’t care about that. We did our best for them all. I don’t recall any flared tempers though there were sometimes some challenges such as laughing convincingly for which the director (and assistant director when the budget permitted) had to be creative to evoke the desired performance. I remember once the assistant came into the “sala” (the soundproofed room with the screen and microphone) to dance around with me to get me to have a playful tone. Sometimes, too, there were technical issues such as “si sente la sala” – “you can hear the room” when there was a resonance that made the voice sound indoors when the scene was outdoors. Then the engineer would have to reposition the microphone or tinker in other ways (The mics were always Neumann U87 – industry standard). We dubbers could, if it would help, use a “cuffia” (earphone) to hear the original soundtrack to get the right timing, e.g. when there was a long pause between some words.
Sometimes, for laughs, someone would toss out a line (with labials and fricatives in the right places) that was a bawdy joke synced with the actor’s lips. Of course, the “magnetico” (recorder) was not running at those moments.
JM: Was that the guide track recorded on set that you listened to on the “cuffia”? Weren’t those tracks a bit of a mess, with actors reciting their lines in all sorts of different languages depending on where they were from, and crew members talking etc. since it was all to be dubbed later anyway?
DK: I don’t remember any guide tracks (though they did of course exist, as you say, because any recordings done on location were throwaways; almost all Italian movies are dubbed because that’s cheaper). What we heard in the “cuffia” was the Italian dubbed soundtrack.
JM: Sometimes, the English dubbers did Italian dubbing, too, if the Italians needed someone who could speak Italian with an authentic American or British accent. Did you ever dub anything in Italian?
DK: No, I worked only in American English. I’ve never learned to do accents and thankfully didn’t need to.
JM: Do you have any memories of Italian directors or producers taking an interest in the English dubs and coming to the sessions to supervise etc., or were you pretty much always left to yourselves?
DK: No, the original cast and crew were long gone by the time the dubbing phase was reached.
JM: What is your best or funniest memory from the Roman dubbing salas?
DK: Hmm, let me think about that. Mainly, my memories are of hard-working, highly skilled people.
JM: When did your dubbing career come to an end, and why did you decide to call it quits?
DK: I would have loved to continue that work forever, but with adolescence my voice deepened and that was the end of my career.
JM: I understand that your mother Judith was also involved with English dubbing. Can you tell us a little more about what her job was and how she got in on the scene?
DK: My mother’s career was later and unrelated to mine. I never actually worked with her; it was coincidence that we both were employed in the same industry. She was not a dubber, but worked as an assistant director for a director named Cesare Mancini. He used some of the same studios that I worked in, but I never worked for him. Like me, she loved that work.
|Judith Keller, Dan's mother who also worked with dubbing|
JM: Dubbing wasn’t your only involvement with the motion picture industry, because you also stepped in front of the camera. In fact, you were one of the kids in the WW2 film Hornets’ Nest (released in 1970, but shot in 1969) starring Rock Hudson and Sylva Koscina. How did that experience come about?
DK: I guess it was a “who you know” situation. Someone suggested I go for a screen test on the Rock Hudson movie – it was very exciting, in Cinecittà where lots of great movies were being shot, including Fellini Satyricon (I saw a bus loading up with actors wearing the most amazing elaborate costumes and makeup, headed for the soundstage/set) – and I somehow managed to get the part. It was one of the great experiences of my life.
I wrote about the Rock Hudson movie here as I think you’ve seen.
JM: Can you share some memories from the shooting of the film? What was it like to be in front of the camera for a change, and acting alongside a huge star like Rock Hudson? And did you feel that your experiences with voice acting was helpful to you in any way?
DK: Acting and dubbing are completely different; the skills for one don’t apply to the other. I was hired for the summer of 1969. Shooting was on location in Piacenza, Italy. The big stars (Rock Hudson, Sylva Koscina, a few more) had their own trailers on the set. Everybody was friendly and professional. I shook Rock’s hand and got his autograph. There were lots of people in the crew; makeup/hair people, dialog coach, director of course, lighting guys, electricians, sound guys, assistants of various kinds, caterers, drivers, and Rock even had a stunt double. But it was mostly long days (we had to be out of our hotel and on the bus to the sets bright and early) and lots of sitting around in costume and makeup in case the director called for us, which he mostly didn’t.
|Dan (in the blue and white striped t-shirt) in Hornets' Nest|
JM: Did you appear in more films, or was Hornets’ Nest your first and only time in front of the camera?
DK: That was my only one. Some screen tests were offered but the administrator at my school said I couldn’t take time off to do them. In retrospect, I wish I’d disregarded his edict.
JM: Your Roman adventure eventually came to an end. Can you say a little about the career path you eventually chose and where you are today?
DK: Yes. Rome in the 60s was a wonderful place to grow up but my plan was to return to the US for college, which I did. I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz. Grad school was at UC San Francisco. I’ve lived in California ever since. I am retired now, after several careers including computer programmer, technology trainer, and nurse.
Thanks for this opportunity to stroll down memory lane! I hope some of these words are useful to you in your wonderful blog.
|Dan all grown-up|
My most sincere thanks to Dan for generously taking the time to answer my questions and for allowing me to use some of his personal photos. An all-around great guy and if you want to learn more about him and his colorful family, his website is well worth visiting.