Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rodney Punt's Western warbling maternal heritage

Music reviewer Rodney Punt comes from a long line of Western-migrating, music-loving Americans. His birth parents were from Colorado; a father on the violin and mother on the piano made for a musical romance.

Punt's ancestral lines had arrived in Massachusetts from England, his maternal side in 1628 and his paternal side a few years later. Two and a half centuries later, in the 1880's, his maternal great-grandfather Mel Turner was a cattleman with 1,700 head in the Bedrock/Paradox area of Western Colorado. Described by author Howard E. Greager as a well-liked man "who did not know the word fear", Turner had a tender side; his only recorded words were an expressed appreciation for music and a desire to obtain a musician in his hometown of Bedrock. As quoted by historian W.O. Roberts, Turner cackled: "By gory lightening, we got to get us a feller in a filed shirt to whistle us a few prayers and warble us a few psalms."

Turner's appreciation for music was passed on to his son, Willard ("Bill") Turner, who had a fine singing voice and played the fiddle for barn dances in his younger days in Colorado in the early 1920's. Bill Turner was fascinated by the emerging technology of recorded sound and, largely self-taught at the age 26, was hired as a sound technician at the newly formed Hollywood-based RKO Studios in 1929.

Turner had arrived at the right place at the right time. He worked on the Richard Dix-Irene Dunne epic Cimarron, the first Western to win an academy award, in 1931, and soon after on the Astaire-Rogers musicals during the 1930's. In 1940 he worked on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and after on The Magnificent Ambersons, and was selected by Welles to be part of the RKO team that was sent to Brazil to film aspects of the carnival of Rio de Janeiro in 1942, a project that lasted six months but was aborted by the studio and almost ended Orson Welles' career.

Bill Turner went on to win a technical award in 1943 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work on a film device that improved the synchronization of sound and action.

With a growing family in the late 1930's, Turner made sure his four children played musical instruments. They formed an odd grouping of violin, cello, saxophone, and piano, but were at least on one occasion able to con the neighborhood into paying 25 cents admission for a home concert. The Turner children later performed in the Hollywood High School orchestra. Punt's mother, Katheline Turner, was the rehearsal pianist for Hollywood High's Boy's Glee Club in the early 1940's. Bill Turner sang in the RKO Studio Singers in the mid-1940's and Katheline Turner sang and played piano for the group under the direction of the studio's vocal coach, Bob Keith.

Another of Punt’s maternal relatives was the late historian of the American West, David Lavender, whose books are often available at the Autry National Center. Lavender, who shared Danish ancestors through his maternal line with the Turner family, wrote elegantly of the rough and tumble part of Western Colorado in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

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