"WE USED to sign on every NBC show saying 'Bob and Ray present the National Broadcasting Company,' " remembers Ray Goulding with a chuckle in his soft voice. "We used to think that was so hilarious."
That kind of gentle humor has carried Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, best known simply as Bob and Ray, through 35 years of ribbing America on the radio. Their amazing, elastic voices created a cosmos of classic characters, such as Mary McGoon, Harry and Mary Backstayge, the befuddled Mr. Science and the Fast Talkers of America.
And they're still at it. A 25-hour retrospective of the team's triumphs in radio, television, theater and film opened last month at New York's Museum of Broadcasting. They make a brief appearance in the current comedy "Author! Author!" with Al Pacino. And they just finished taping eight half-hour episodes of "The Bob and Ray Public Radio Show," to be aired on National Public Radio's Sunday Show starting Oct. 3.
"It's a marriage," Elliott says about their enduring partnership. "We think alike now. There was a chemistry from the beginning."
Goulding agrees. "After 35 years together, we usually know what the other will say. I don't think there are many other show business teams that have lasted as long as we have." Both are overtly self-deprecating and prefer not to talk about themselves. "I'm pretty dull, actually," Goulding says. "Most of our work when we get on the radio is the characters--Bob and Ray are very rarely there."
Elliott, 59, lives in Manhattan and paints watercolors when the duo is not doing commercials or appearances. Goulding, 60, lives on Long Island, and says he is inspired to pick up a camera now and then.
Both got their start in Boston radio "around 1940, at different stations," Elliott says. "Then we went into the war, and met at WHDH after that. We just kind of sparked off each other. Improvised. It became more and more popular, and so we made more of an attempt to formalize the comedy part."
The duo joined the NBC Radio Network in 1951 and soon after became a strong influence on the infant medium of television. "I suppose television changed our act, but not too much," Elliott says. "That was the beginning of it all, you know, everyone said you had to get into TV then. Everybody was contributing to something that nobody knew a tremendous amount about. It was fun then. There's a lot more pressure now."
"Radio has changed, too," Elliott says. "It's all so formularized and specialized now."
"The only real good radio now is public radio. Radio used to have a personality, it's just a blah now," Goulding says.
Which may be why a personality-starved America has greeted Bob and Ray with open ears. Commenting on their new popularity, Elliott says, "Maybe it's the nostalgia thing," then adds quickly, "but we're not doing nostalgia. We have quite a young following, too. We're doing new versions of things we've already done. A lot of the NPR stuff is based on shows that haven't been around for a long time. Younger people may not know what it is we're doing, but I believe it stands up on its own. That's the beauty of it."
Contemporary life is still an inspiration. The NPR shows feature, for example, an eight-part soap opera takeoff called "Garish Summit," described by Elliott as "a combination of 'Dallas' and 'Falcon Crest.' You know, it's got a million plots."
Producer Larry Josephson, who "grew up on Bob and Ray," persuaded the duo to tape before a live audience. "They were reluctant to do it--they're used to working in a studio, in shirt-sleeves," Josephson says. "We were going for that old-time live radio feel."
"The retrospective is tremendous, quite an honor," Elliott says, modestly asserting the show is as much a history of early radio and television as of Bob and Ray's career. "I've only seen some of the memorabilia so far. But I plan to put on some dark glasses and go," says Goulding. "Oh, I did see a tape of an Ed Sullivan show where I look like my own son."
"It's very satisfying. It's nice to know there's still a demand for your work," Elliott says, signing off.
"This is Ray Goulding, reminding you to write if you get work."
"And Bob Elliott, reminding you to hang by your thumbs."