Harry Potter

"The Magical Voice of Harry Potter and Friends"

by Jan Hoffman ("New York Times," July 13, 2000)

STEP in, please, and don't forget to pick your jaw off the floor. See the papier-mâché elephant balancing on a tightrope. The Victorian hatpin, the turquoise sheen of its 21 hummingbird heads catching the light.
Ceiling-to-floor pre-Raphaelite tapestries. Miniature wooden clowns.
Tiffany chandeliers casting a warm glow in the museum-toy shop that is Jim Dale's Manhattan apartment.
And then stand back as Mr. Dale, the rubbery English actor who owns a Doberman pinscher named La-dee-da and a four-foot rabbit made of bottle caps, capers around, performing impromptu sketches about his wondrous and whimsical objects.
"Ah," he says at last, settling into a late-19th-century armchair. When he and his wife, Julie, come up in the elevator, he says, "We pull up the drawbridge, and this is our castle in the clouds."
If it is not quite Harry Potter's magical domain, then it is Hogwarts-by-the-Hudson. This castle is , presided over by a man who is part blithe spirit and who, it now becomes clear, was perfectly cast to narrate the series's audiobooks, including the latest, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," for which Mr. Dale created 125 speaking voices.
"When they sent me the first book, I thought, 'I wish it had been around when I was a kid," says Mr. Dale, a taut, springy 64, who has acted on stage and films, been a disc jockey, a pop music and television star in Britain and the lyricist for "Georgy Girl." Done all kinds of entertaining, except narration..
He remembers thinking, "Oh, well, I'm still a kid, and adventure is adventure wherever you find it, so why not?' "
So precisely imagined is Mr. Dale's reading of the Potter tales' best-selling compact discs and cassettes for the visually impaired, new readers and travelers on long car trips that the rare quibbler did it on Mr. Dale's fabulist terms:
"One critic said, 'Where in God's name did Dale get a Welsh accent for the centaurs?' " says Mr. Dale, his face alight with merriment. Then, assuming a scholarly mien, he intones, "Clearly, he didn't know the Welsh are famous for their centaurs!"
While the accents spring largely from Mr. Dale's antic mental attic, he needed guidance from the author, J. K. Rowling, for the phantasmagorical names. During taping, she would be telephoned and asked, "Nagini: hard g or soft?"
"Ah, nog-EE-nee!" Mr. Dale says brightly. "That's it, then! God has spoken!"
Hard to imagine Mr. Dale, a die-hard audience man, alone in a recording booth.
"I visualized the reactions of children listening," says Mr. Dale, who has five grandchildren. "Stunned silence here! So hold the break two, three, four .. . . This line is worth a giggle, it deserves more than a laugh, pause, two, three, so their shouts don't drown the next line. That's what more than 40 years of being on stage teaches you."
HE most difficult aspect of narrating was not keeping all those voices straight -- he says he can memorize three decks of cards -- but sitting still, for the microphones could pick up the rustle of cloth as he crossed his pants legs. And Mr. Dale, who taught Laurence Olivier how to change a lightbulb atop a table on stage, tumble off a chair and land right side up; twinkled across the audience's seats during his breakout American performance in "Scapino"; and walked a 38-foot tightrope for his Tony award-winning role in "Barnum," has been restlessly agile since boyhood, when his prescient parents, factory workers, sent him to dancing lessons.
"I had more fights in tights than any 10-year-old I knew," Mr. Dale says. "But, thank God, I grew up solid working class. I understand what makes most people laugh."
With the exception of a disappointing Broadway "Candide" and a celebrated "Travels With My Aunt" Off Broadway, he hasn't been on the American stage much recently.
The subject tightens his jaw, brings wistfulness to his eyes. He blames his resistance to type-casting -- "I'm not just a song and dance man!" -- and his own rules.
"I won't travel," he says, "because I have a lovely wife and I adore her and I can't bear to be away from her." Mr. Dale has been married for 20 years to his second wife, Julie Schafler Dale, a gallery owner.
So Mr. Dale appears on the London stage (Julie visits), brings Hogwarts to life and tromps around a country home with a weedwacker, a chain saw and a child's eye for treasure: in a field, he found 40 different metal molds of doll heads from an abandoned factory. They polish up quite weirdly, thank you.
And he performs for anyone lucky enough to bump into him. Like the police officer on Central Park West who yelled at him for walking La-dee-da on a leash 20 feet long.
"A leash is a leash is a leash!" squawked Mr. Dale, who recounts this by imitating himself -- exasperated, veddy British -- and the towering Noo Yawk cop.
Cop, shouting: "But what if your dog leaps into a carriage and scares the people!"
Mr. Dale: "Officer! I can assure you the very first thing I taught this dog when I got her was, ' Never jump into a carriage and scare people.' "
Cop (reddening): "Are you trying to be funny?"
Mr. Dale (stoutly): "Sir, I'm having no difficulty!"
Happy to have an audience, he dissolves into laughter.