Voice-over lessons convince columnist to keep his day job

There may be jobs aplenty for those with a good set of pipes, but learning to emote about Del Taco's classic combo or cheap car insurance is harder than it sounds.

On my first trip to Valley Village, I was thinking up excuses to turn around and go home.

But Kristene Wallis had struck me as a lovely person, and I couldn't turn back after she'd generously offered to give me a bit of training. Plus, it was a chance to enter a world I knew little about. Who were all those people doing voice-overs on radio and TV, and how had they learned to speak that way?

I'd met Wallis several months ago when she was working on a documentary about Al Martinez, the legendary former Times columnist. Al and I had both scribbled for the Oakland Tribune before landing in L.A., and he'd always been an inspiration.

After the interview, Wallis made a curious comment:

"I didn't expect your voice to sound like this," she said.

Like what?

Like that, she said, telling me I had pipes that might be put to good use.

"I'm a voice agent," said Wallis.

She wasn't the first to suggest I might have a marketable voice.

I wasn't looking for a change of careers, though, and a friend who's had voice training once told me there's a whole rigamarole involved. You need an agent, formal classes, maybe a demo reel, and then, after shelling out a few thousand bucks, you might or might not ever get called to an audition in which you're up against legions of people.

So the odds against me ever making a nickel from my voice were about the same as the odds against a wide-eyed pensioner getting off a bus from Oklahoma hoping to join the cast of "Modern Family."

But, hey, next time I write a book, I wouldn't mind narrating the audio version myself.

"There's never been so much work for voice-over; however, the average actor doesn't … make a living at it," said Harvey Kalmenson of L.A's Kalmenson & Kalmenson, one of the nation's largest voice casting companies. But that doesn't slow the demand for classes at Kalmenson, which trains 800 to 1,000 students a year, all of them dreaming of voicing a "Toy Story" character. Or, at least selling garage doors on AM radio.

Cathy Kalmenson, Harvey's wife and business partner, said today's technology makes it possible for people to audition from their home or car, or in one job she handled, from a bathroom stall at Miami International. The lucky ones are landing jobs in which they utter a few sentences — or even just a few words — for movie trailers, gas pump ads, instruction manuals and mobile apps. But no matter how beautiful your voice is, Harvey said, the way you sound isn't as important as the way you perform.

Another strike against me: I'm no actor, and I can't imagine trying to become one for the sake of selling Allstate insurance.

And that's not even my biggest problem. Although I've goofed around at times, mimicking a TV game show announcer or an over-the-top radio ad for mattresses, I don't hear my voice as distinctive, mellifluous or even interesting.

But the journalist in me couldn't help but crave a glimpse into a world I'd never seen, and hey, what if Wallis was right and I had a shot at a second career if the news biz went south?

And so it began, with me driving out to Wallis' home once a week after work. I'd stand at the mike in her makeshift recording studio and deliver ad copy for various products, or read passages from a book.

I'd like to say I was a natural, but I may have been responsible for some of the worst acting this town has ever seen, and that's saying a lot. Wallis was encouraging, but she constantly directed me to give it "more passion this time" or "say it with a smile."

I went from feeling perfectly stiff and ridiculous to, on occasion, feeling like I was having a breakthrough. Wallis made CDs of my own voice for me, and I listened to them while driving. If that's not embarrassing enough, how about this: I began repeating radio and TV ads aloud, a development neither my wife nor daughter cheered.

Wallis finally pronounced me ready to sign up for a six-week training course. The Kalmenson schedule didn't fit mine, but Carroll Voice Over Casting had a class I could make. And Carroll Day Kimble was nothing short of brilliant, except for her questionable judgment in accepting me as a student.

I was, in fact, instantly intimidated by the talents of my classmates, including Sandy "Sandman" Fagin, a radio DJ, and Drew Sherman, an actor. The whole room seemed to vibrate when Fagin let loose with his baritone. And Sherman could invent characters on cue, from street tough to school counselor.

When Kimble quietly asked me to show up before the rest of the class the second week, I knew it wasn't to tell me she thought I was knocking it out of the park.

"There's a little bit of an actor in all of us," she said, encouraging me to loosen up a bit and embrace the material.

"You're a storyteller," she'd say. "Tell me a story."

Well, I tried, and I even had a little fun with it. I knew I'd crossed a line when I found myself trying to perfect the story of "the $2.99 classic combo meal from Del Taco."

And so it went.

I may never be the voice of Masterpiece Theatre, or even that guy hawking cheap car insurance on sports radio. But I am now a voice-over grad, which sort of makes me an unemployed actor, along with half the rest of Los Angeles.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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