by Dennis Daniel
"Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascent the brightest heaven of invention!"
From Henry V by William Shakespeare
It was a passport to wonder.
It was a creative tool from heaven.
It repeated whatever you told it with a tinny, mono sound emanating from a small dust-encased speaker surrounded by horizontal plastic rivulets that ran across the upper part of its body.
It was a portable cassette tape recorder made by Panasonic--rectangular shaped, brown, with a dark black clear plastic cover that lifted to put the cassette in, condenser mike on the left side. You could also plug in a small microphone with a long cord and cool little "on" and "off" button.
Fifteen-year-old Jack Moriarty couldn't stop staring at it.
The wonder of it all really got to him. The fact that there, sitting on the table, was a wonderful mechanical tool he could use to create any world he wanted. All he had to do was push that cool little "on" button up on the microphone and speak.
What would he say? What would be the first audio image? The first voice? His choices were wide and varied. Ever since he was ten years old, Jack had been imitating voices. He could never understand how he did it; it just happened. All it took was a little concentration, a key phrase or two that the imitated person often uttered, and out it would come.
The first imitation he could ever remember doing was of Flip Wilson's female character, "Geraldine." This was a character with many "key phrases.” Whenever any guest star on the show would appear in a "Geraldine" sketch, the time would come where they would inevitably touch her in some accidental way. The moment this occurred, Wilson would have "Geraldine" bark out in "her" high, squeaky voice, "Don't you touch me! Don't you ever touch me! You don't know me that well!” She was also famous for saying, "What you see...is what you get.” She made her first appearance out of Jack's mouth in the Moriarty household when his mother asked him to take out the garbage. Jack, for reasons he still can't explain, froze in his tracks, stared at his mother and blurted out in Geraldine's voice, "Don't you tell me what to do! Don't you ever tell me what to do! You don't know me that well!” This response, rather than upsetting his mother, caused her to laugh hysterically!
Jack discovered his secret weapon.
Whenever a specific chore or some kind of reprimand loomed its ugly head, Jack would utter some famous phrase with a famous voice, thus causing his Mom to keel over with laughter. All else would be forgotten.
In order to keep this up, Jack would have to learn new phrases and imitate new voices. The Panasonic tape recorder was going to be put to good use!
Every evening, the downstairs TV den of the Moriarty household became the family congregating area. Jack, his thirteen-year-old sister, Kate, and his parents, John and Gabrielle, would gather to watch the popular shows of the day. The year was 1975. The shows were groundbreaking. All In The Family, Sanford And Son, Columbo, Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show. Jack loved them all, and he began to record them all. He'd place his recorder on the corner of the green hassock that his dad used to put his feet on. It was just high enough that the condenser mike could be pressed against the speaker of the TV, yet not be in anybody's way. Then, once the show had been recorded, commercials and all, Jack would listen to it as he fell asleep. If he enjoyed a particular episode, he listened to it over and over. Lying on his bed with eyes closed, Jack could see all the images. It was wonderful to revisit the show and have it play in his mind's eye. Slowly but surely, every line of dialogue burned its way into his brain. Pretty soon, he was regaling his mother with a whole new litany of phrases and voices! From that point on, conversations with his mother became imitation comedy sketches.
"Jack, don't forget to take out the garbage!"
Jack would reply as Archie Bunker, "Don't be such a dingbat, and get me a beer, huh?"
"Jack, you have got to do better on your next report card."
Said Jack, as Fred Sanford, "Oh, this is the big one! Ya hear that, Elizabeth! I'm coming to join ya, honey! With a bad report card in my hands!"
"Jack, who dropped the gallon of milk on the kitchen floor?"
Jack would cross his eyes, hunch his back, pretend to have a cigar in his hand and give her his best Columbo. "Uh...I'm sorry. I don't mean to bother you but...if I could just ask you a few questions about the milk, I'll be out of your way as soon as possible...if you don't mind."
Soon, Jack began to record anything and everything.