Hagrid, Hermione, Harry: 'Just Jim Dale' is the voice behind the 'Harry Potter' audiobooks
Jim Dale still hears voices.
Hermione, Hagrid, Harry, and hundreds of others.
Thanks to Dale, generations of "Harry Potter" fans — including those too young to grip a wand — will hear those same voices. They’ll get to know J.K. Rowling's characters through the seven audiobooks Dale recorded between 1999 and 2007.
One hundred ninety-nine chapters told in just over 117 hours. From a sorcerer’s stone to a chamber of secrets, past goblets of fire, encountering Azkaban prisoners and half-blood princes; if Rowling wrote it, Dale read it, aloud, and gave each character his or her or its distinct voice.
There are pinched professors, sibilant snakes and Harrys of advancing years. After all, the boy wizard grows up before our very ears; The series takes him from almost 11 to well into fatherhood. And there is You-Know-Who, too.
The voices Dale still hears once belonged to aged aunts, or folks from the raucous British music halls of his youth, and to one unfortunate little man who happened to be standing behind Dale in an overcrowded London department store elevator.
He summoned them all, and put them to the best possible use in service to Rowling's wildly inventive series.
A house elf named Dobby took on the meek rasp of that long-ago elevator encounter.
On Dec. 13 and 15, a fortunate 297 people will get to hear some of what went into those recordings — along with the story of Dale’s hyphenated life — as the comic-actor-singer-songwriter-voice-artist presents his one-man show, “Just Jim Dale,” at the 99-seat Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls. There are just three performances.
It won't be a long commute for Dale, who has had a country home in Kent for nearly 40 years.
An entourage of one
Once the toast of Broadway — for a Tony-winning performance in “Barnum” that involved his crossing the St. James Theater stage on a tightrope, eight shows a week — Dale has managed to keep his professional balance, all these years later, on the strength of the voices he has collected throughout his life.
On a recent day, Dale visited the Schoolhouse to talk logistics and explore the space with Bram Lewis, the theater’s artistic director.
Dale arrived, wearing an Audible baseball cap and a Hogwarts sweatshirt, with an entourage of one: his playful Doberman, Gypsy. As Lewis squired the actor through box office and gift shop, gallery space and rehearsal room, dressing room and backstage, Gypsy, too, had things to investigate.
When Dale sat for an interview, Gypsy trotted off with Lewis; Their post-interview reunion was a cause for joy for both man and fantastic beast.
But the show. Yes, the show.
"Just Jim Dale" is not just the man behind all those "Harry Potter" voices, although Rowling fans will learn plenty about Hagrid and Harry and Dobby, the house elf.
It's also about: a kid who grew up in the center of England during World War II; a one-time stand-up comic; a star of a British sketch-comedy film franchise called "Carry On;" a pop singer who was "Beatles" producer George Martin's first singing act; the Oscar-nominated writer of the 1966 smash song, "Georgy Girl;" and the Tony-winning best actor from the 1980 musical, "Barnum."
All of them are Dale.
Every. Single. ‘Potter.’ Word.
There isn't a single "Potter" word that Dale didn't speak.
From Chapter 1 — The Boy Who Lived in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:" “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of No. 4 Privet Drive were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
To the final words of the epilogue to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows": "The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well."
All is decidedly well for Dale, now 83, who struck gold with the first audio book he ever recorded, 1999’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
He has earned 10 Audie Awards (the audiobook Oscar), a couple of Grammys and two spots in the Guinness Book of World Records: for occupying six of the Top 10 audiobook titles in one year, and for voicing a record number of characters on one audiobook (134, for 2007's "Deathly Hallows"). The audiobooks have sold millions of copies, on CD, cassette and streaming services.
For this contribution to children’s literature, Queen Elizabeth II named him a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, making him, officially, Jim Dale, MBE.
Not bad for a guy who admits, with a bit of wonder in his voice, that he had no idea what he was doing in the summer of 1999 when he first stood at the microphone in a recording studio with the script from the first chapter before him.
By that time, the first three “Potter” books were out, so he was playing catch-up, in a medium he knew not at all.
On stage, Dale could use his every movement, gesture, glance and raised eyebrow to flesh out his characters. He has the rubbery face of a comedian.
“But when you're doing an audiobook, everything else has to go but the voice," he said. "You have to try to create the emotion of what that character is feeling through your voice, and the excitement and the pathos and the sadness all has to come out just through that little voice of yours.”
The learning curve was steep that first day.
“After 20 minutes, I hadn't even recorded the title," Dale said with a laugh. "I kept fluffing it. And hiccups. And burps. There was a fly loose in the studio. We had to get rid of that fly before we could go on.”
Ah, show business.
“If people knew how many times you have to stop and start when you are recording an audio book, they wouldn't believe it,” Dale said. “Every time you turn a page, every time you scratch yourself, it makes a noise, so you can’t do that. That's all in the show.”
Some of the “Potter” voices were tougher than others, Dale said.
“Hagrid. I started to speak in a very low voice for Hagrid when I first started recording the first book," he said. "And I thought, ‘Whoops, I’ve made a mistake.' I said ‘I can't continue this low. It’s going to ruin my voice.’ You shouldn't have to scream or shout as a narrator. Let the emotion do it, not the volume.”
He had to re-record Hagrid.
Dale learned to protect his voice, to keep it supple and the same from one day of recording to the next. That meant stopping early on Hagrid days and recording the giant's voice last.
He recorded about 20 pages an hour, plotting about 100 pages at a time, concentrating on finding just the right voice.
Back then, the release of a new Rowling book was cause for camp-outs at bookstores.
Dale had to sign papers vowing not to divulge the story.
They needn’t have worried.
“Sometimes when I went in the studio in those first books I didn't even focus on what the story was about," he said. "I was listening to it at the same time as I was recording it and then focusing mainly on the voices of the characters.”
The pace was rapid, often just one take, with the narrator talking until he made a mistake. Dale soon learned that, if he was unhappy with a take, he could swear or deliberately fumble, giving him a second chance.
Rowling’s words sometimes defied pronunciation, so Dale would record every possible pronunciation and the author would later choose the correct one.
“You can bet your life that, if I had a chance, I'd do the whole series of seven books again because I'd want to do it slightly different on the second take or the third take or the fourth.”
Harry Potter introduces Jimmy Smith to the queen
There are benefits, the actor says, to flying solo in the recording studio.
“It's even better than a director showing you what he thinks your character should be doing, either in film or television or stage, telling you to move over there and then do a big gesture," he said. "When you just use your voice, everybody is now creating your character in their mind with that voice, but they're the ones who are giving it the movement or the expression.”
When it works, and it has worked spectacularly well so far, it leads to the kind of reaction for which Dale lives.
“One little kid came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Dale, you sound just like those characters,’ " he said. "And I thought, ‘Thank you! Yes! That’s the best compliment you could ever pay a narrator.’ ”
That a-ha moment is now part of his legacy.
Not bad for a boy who grew up as Jimmy Smith during World War II. His father was an iron-foundry worker; his mother worked in a shoe factory, “like all the other mums” in a working-class English town called Rothwell.
“No rich people lived in Rothwell,” he said, but they were all working class, not poor.
(As an actor, he changed his name to avoid confusion with another actor named James Smith.)
In reminiscing, Dale remembers his long-ago self as someone else, in the third person: “From seven or eight years of age when he — he — started to entertain at amateur shows or in his own living room with dad playing the piano," he said, "it's terrific to look back and to remember where you come from and know that little Jimmy Smith will, at one time, be shaking hands with the Queen of England and getting a medal.
“It's nice to look back on those days. I never used to do that, but I keep thinking, ‘This is a long way from a little town called Rothwell,' which was the dead center of England in every way.”
His brother, Mick, who is eight years younger, still lives there and apparently shares the Smith family sense of humor and flair for show business. When Dale suggested he fly Mick to New York to see his one-man show, “He said ‘Thank you, but no. I'm doing my own one-man show.’ ”
His brother, a welder, had a one-man show?
Yes, he did, and he was playing to standing ovations all across Northamptonshire, touring with display cabinets and books and photographs, thank you very much.
“I said, ‘Well what's your show about?’ He said, ‘My brother.’
"He said, ‘I've saved every joke you ever sent, every photograph you’ve ever sent, every record you've sent and every poster you’ve sent and it's all displayed,’ ” said Dale.
Jim Dale is a cottage industry in his hometown, with proceeds from the show going to local charities.
'Carry On' and absorbing voices
Some of the "Harry Potter" characters have just a few lines, but Dale adheres to the no-small-parts-only-small-actors credo, breathing life into each, no matter their contribution to the advancement of the plot.
He credits much of his audio-book success to two jobs at the start of his career: as a stand-up comic touring the fading music halls of the United Kingdom, and his work on 13 of the wildly popular British sketch movies called “Carry On.”
“When J.K. Rowling asked me to do the ‘Harry Potter’ audiobooks, she knew my work from the ‘Carry On’ films," he said. "I didn't know I had the ability to do different voices.”
The voices, he says, he absorbed on the road.
“Because I had toured England for two whole years in a different town every week and lived for that one week with people speaking in that dialect, I think that stayed with me, unbeknown to me," he said. "Consequently, I was able to delve deep into those memories of what it was like living in Yorkshire, living in Scotland, living in Ireland, living in Wales, and reproduced some of those accents when called upon to do so by J.K. Rowling.”
His Schoolhouse show, at which he'll be accompanied by Mark York, will capture the spirit of Dale's beloved music halls, with stories and sing-alongs.
While millions have heard his voices in those celebrated readings, from the raspy giant Hagrid to the meek house elf, Dale has not.
“I've never heard any of my audiobooks, ever," he said. "I've made 40 years or so of them and I haven't heard one of them.”
The voices in his head are enough.
But his grandson, Alfie, had heard the audiobooks.
When he was little, Alfie used to go to bed with headphones on, listening to a tape.
Dale saw a chance for a bit of fun.
"We took the tape out one day and put another one in of me saying 'Good night, Alfie,' in the voice of all the main characters," Dale said, laughing at the memory. "My son said, 'That's it, lights out!' and the lights went out. Long pause, then (Alfie screamed): 'They're talking to me!' "
Just Jim Dale
What: The Tony-winning actor ("Barnum") in his one-man show of reminiscence.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 13; 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 15
Where: Schoolhouse Theater, 3 Owens Road, Croton Falls.
Tickets: $38, $35 for seniors.
Note: Dale will also appear at the New-York Historical Society's exhibition, "Harry Potter: A History of Magic" on Jan. 9. That event is sold out.
A Putnam neighbor
Jim Dale and his wife, Julie, have lived in Kent for 28 years.
“Everybody seemed to miss Putnam County, which is a beautiful county. They don't even know what's up these little windy woodland lanes, and there are beautiful houses up there.”“I phoned up one Realtor 30 years ago and I said, ‘Do you have eight or nine acres?’
And he said ‘Yeah, we've got 89 acres.’ ” Months later, the price reduced, the Dales had 89 acres.
“We need places like this little (Schoolhouse) theater. This is community. If you start losing the little theaters, your little grocers, your little you-name-it, you have no community left.”