A story within a story within a story
In 1956, three friends started Noisy World (later to become Noisy World, Incorporated) after several discussions on the back lot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios in Los Angeles. John Birnbaum, Arlo Rafferty, and James “Jimmy” Cuevas worked in the sound department at MGM as assistants to some of the best sound men (and women) in the business. MGM was the place to be for budding sound engineers, in those days, as the studio had unleashed some of the greatest movie musicals in the years prior.
An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ In The Rain (1952), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) were among the biggest, most successful movies of the early part of the decade, and the three founders of Noisy World had worked on all of them. Birnbaum had worked under Norwood Fenton on Singin’ In The Rain, and when Fenton recommended him for The Great Diamond Robbery (which was starring Red Skelton) in 1954, he met Rafferty who was assisting Douglas Shearer on the film. Both single at the time, Rafferty and Birnbaum hit it off instantly and started hanging out together away the set.
While The Great Diamond Robbery was a flop, the friendship forged between Rafferty and Birnbaum was cemented as they began discussing the need for outside income. Being the low men on the totem pole in the sound department was not making them rich, by any stretch of the imagination, and over some beers one night at a place on Melrose named Bob’s, the two decided to find a house they could rent together and save a little money. These conversations took place during the summer of 1955, while the men worked on It’s A Dog’s Life (1955), which came out at Christmas time.
Rafferty knew another guy in the sound department who worked primarily on music scores, Jimmy Cuevas, who he thought would be a good fit to share the bills as well. Cuevas worked a lot with Lennie Hayton, who had been nominated for an Academy Award for best score for Singin’ In The Rain. Hayton was married to Lena Horne, so Cuevas was part of the crew assisting on Lena Horne Sings (1953) and It’s Love (1955).
In fact, Cuevas was making quite a name for himself among the sound community in Los Angeles at the time for his ability to place microphones and pick up sound in a way that others were missing. It may seem like a small thing to those who do not record sound for a living, but microphone placement in the 1950s was very important. When Rafferty suggested Cuevas as a possible roommate, Birnbaum got every excited.
All three of the future partners in Noisy World were roughly around the same age. When they initially got together at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax in September of 1955, Birnbaum was 24 years old, Rafferty was the oldest at 26 years old, and Cuevas was just a month younger than Birnbaum, but also 24. The tallest of the three was Jimmy Cuevas, who resembled the actor Jimmy Smits, who ironically, had just been born a few months earlier.
Cuevas grew up in Los Angeles and was interested in recording at an early age. His father, Dan, had fought in the Pacific in World War II and was a guitar player who often did session work around town. Jimmy would often tag along and was keen to ask questions of the engineers working at the recording studios. He had a natural ear for recording and could almost instantly tell when something was not quite right in the studio. This innate ability, most likely, is what helped him figure out how to get that great mic placement when he was doing a recording session.
Birnbaum grew up in what was then the small town of Tempe, Arizona. His parents taught at Arizona State College (later Arizona State University) and hoped their son would follow in their footsteps. Bitten by the movie bug, though, Birnbaum moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Tempe High in 1949. Short and stocky, Birnbaum looked like a cross between James Cagney and Dom DeLuise.
Arlo Rafferty had been wounded during the first phase of American involvement in the Korean war. Attached to a film crew covering what was then known as a “conflict,” Rafferty took shrapnel in his right leg, just above the knee, when the jeep he was riding in took fire from communist guerillas. He was discharged from the Army after he recuperated in a Seoul hospital and decided to make his home in Los Angeles. Rafferty had an interest in motorcycles and there was a rumor going around Hollywood that some of the characters in The Wild One (1953), may have been modeled after him.
Rafferty looked more like Eric Stoltz than Marlon Brando, but his penchant for black leather jackets and dusty Levi’s paled in comparison to his interest in recording the world around him. Portable tape recording had become the rage in the 1950s with the proliferation of magnetic tape machines being used, and Rafferty spent some of his hard-earned Army money on a Magnemite 510 E, designed by Peter Paul Kellog. He liked nothing more than going out in the world and recording every day sounds and he would listen to them for hours as if they were the latest hit record from the early rock and rollers he dearly loved as well.
So, there they sat in Canter’s Deli in September of 1955. Three young men looking to rent a house together and maybe make some recordings. They didn’t realize their company would change the world.
Noisy World, Inc. part two
It was early in their conversation at Canter’s when the three men each realized that living together might be a hell of a lot of fun. Their combined love of figuring out how to make things the way they should sound, whether it was the sound of a street scene in some B roll, a great song, or just a bit of conversation, was enough to make it a good fit, but there was something more. Rafferty, Birnbaum, and Cuevas also wanted something more out of life.
As they talked about some of the jobs they had worked or the people who they were learning the ropes from in Hollywood, the founding fathers of Noisy World, Inc. began to form a bond. Birnbaum and Cuevas wanted to get their hands on Rafferty’s fancy portable recording device and Rafferty wanted to pick their brains about getting good gigs (Birnbaum had all the good juice) and mic placement (which was Cuevas’ thing). After a few stern looks from the staff at Canter’s, the trio decided to vacate the table they had been holding hostage for over two hours to hit Zardi’s in Hollywood to see the Shorty Rogers and His Giants.
Cuevas knew Jimmy Giuffre and Shelly Manne who recorded with Rogers and played on his 1953 eponymously named record as members of The Giants. Manne was also known to Rafferty from their work on The Wild One, so going to see the band play seemed like a logical next step. Rafferty had some muggles (marijuana), so the fellas shared a quickly rolled joint as they headed around to the back entrance of the club. They were looking for Giuffre who was known to warm up on his tenor sax out back before the show.
The details on the rest of the evening are hazy, but it was a pivotal night in the formation of Noisy World for one main reason. Birnbaum, sometimes around 11pm, started saying, “It’s a noisy world, baby, noisy!” to anyone who would listen. This could have been because the band was playing “The Pesky Serpent” which was a song Giuffre had written or because of the combination of weed and a few too many old-fashioned cocktails. Either way, it became a kind of mantra for the trio. By the time they moved into the house they found on North Stanley Avenue between Rosewood and Oakwood, they had decided to call their new home, you guessed it, Noisy World.
On October 1, 1955, the gentlemen moved into 444 N. Stanley. It was a two-story job with plenty of room for the fellas to spread out. There were four bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a huge garage. It was determined pretty quickly that at least two of the bedrooms, the den, and the garage would all make great recording spaces, but which ones. Over the weeks they had been looking for a place, the conversations often turned to what each of them was dreaming about doing when they weren’t working on a film or record.
Birnbaum had a head for business in addition to being a gifted sound engineer. He had a knack for meeting the right people and setting up good deals for himself and his friends. Birnbaum posed a question to Rafferty one night when the guys were talking about whether or not they needed to borrow a truck from the studio lot to move their stuff.
“What do you think about doing some recording around town to make some money on the side,” asked Birnbaum?
“Like what?” replied Rafferty, his Pall Mall clenched tightly between his teeth.
“Well, you’ve got the gear to record just about anything. Let’s say some director needs the sound of a busy street at 3pm. We could set up on Fairfax or Beverly and just roll the tape.”
“I’m picking up what you’re laying down, Bernie. We could definitely do that.”
Birnbaum knew studios often used these kinds of recordings, even if were for just a few seconds here and there, to make sure they got a good, realistic sound for a street scene or a grocery story or anything from the “real” world. He also knew that these gigs could pay well, too. Between the three of them, if they worked on their off days, evenings, whatever, they could quickly amass a decent number of recordings.
Over the first few months of living together, it became apparent to the roommates that they needed to go into business together. For one thing, they each had a similar drive to be great at what they did, but each had been humbled enough by the existing sound engineer hierarchy in Hollywood to have learned how to keep their ego in check. For example, Cuevas has learned quickly how to massage the ego of his various and accomplished bosses by helping them feel like they were calling the shots in the studio. He would often talk to Rafferty and Birnbaum about how he managed this person or that person and got them onboard with going along with his suggestions. His reputation as a wizard in the studio was starting to grow, as were the job offers, and getting access to better and better equipment was good for everyone at the Noisy World house.
As the early months of 1956 came and went, Noisy World was beginning to take shape. With the money they were saving sharing living expenses and grabbing whatever side work they could grab, the three friends began adding to their array of equipment, as well. The access they had to equipment from the MGM lot was also very helpful and none of the guys were above borrowing something for a while if they needed to use it. Most people on the lot had no idea what it did, anyway.