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The Stories Behind 5 Familiar Voices

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Note: This article was originally published in 2008, before Brenna wrote a book and went on to big things at Mashable. Server migration week continues, so forgive us for reposting a few oldies/goodies.

You may not recognize the names or faces, but the voices you know. They might tell you to stand clear of closing doors, that your favorite show is coming up, or that it looks like rain. Read on to learn the stories behind five familiar voices.

1. The Game Show Announcer

The Voice: Johnny Gilbert


The Story: Each day, thousands of trivia junkies and elderly folks hear the siren call: "This is Jeopardy!" Johnny Gilbert, the man behind those words, started out as a choirboy at his Lutheran Church in Newport News, Virginia, which led him to pursue a singing career. He hit the entertainment circuit when he left his home state (for the first time) and traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, for an audition with the Dean Hudson Orchestra. He missed that audition, which turned out to be a twist of fate. Gilbert was hired as an emcee at the Sky Way club, and his announcing career was born. Still, he never gave up singing, even while serving in the army—he played the starring role in a military musical called Xanadu.

After serving his country, Gilbert lit up the small screen as host of Music Bingo, cementing his role as a gob for game shows, and leading to the recording of his first album. After working on a few more programs, including The Johnny Gilbert Show, Gilbert's voice earned him the legendary position of Jeopardy! announcer for the Alex Trebek incarnation, which first aired in 1984. Gilbert's impassioned intro has been setting hearts (and heart monitors) aflutter ever since.

Voice of: The $25,000 Pyramid, The Joker's Wild, Tic Tac Dough, Anything for Money, Every Second Counts, The Price is Right and Jeopardy!, among other programs

Famous Phrases: "This is JEOPARDY!"

Here's Johnny:

[Image courtesy of johnnygilbert.tv]

2. The Movie Trailer Guy

lafontaine.jpgThe Voice: Don LaFontaine


The Story: In a world where movie previews had yet to strike a dramatic cord, 13-year-old Don LaFontaine's voice changed right in the middle of sentence. And on that day, the puberty Gods blessed young LaFontaine with a gift of great power. During his school days in Duluth, Minnesota, LaFontaine used his manly cords mainly for evil—for example, imitating his friends' fathers to get them out of class. But after a stint in the Army as a recording engineer, LaFontaine moved to New York City, where he got into the sound editing business. Along with fellow soundman Floyd L. Peterson, LaFontaine helped shape the format of the modern movie trailer, and, in 1965, his voice got its big break. When an announcer failed to show up to narrate a preview for Gunfighters of Casa Grande for MGM, LaFontaine grabbed the reins.

LaFontaine went on to head up his own production company—its first gig was Godfather: Part II—and was the longtime voice of Paramount Pictures. He passed away on September 1, 2008, at 68.

Voice of: NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, UPN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Ford, Budweiser, McDonalds, Coke, and nearly 5,000 films

Famous Phrases: "In a world," "A one-man army," "No where to run, no where to hide and no way out."

Here's a clip of Don talking about his life and career:

3. The Disney Monorail Man

The Voice: Jack Wagner

The Story: If you've been on the monorail at Disney World, you've probably wondered just who was behind that cocoa and butterscotch voice—the fatherly presence that warned you to stand clear of the doors and pointed out Cinderella's castle. Well, that would be vocal veteran Jack Wagner.


Like most folks associated with Mickey and the gang, Wagner got into the fame game at an early age (four). That's when he began dubbing American-made movies into his parents' native French. During the "˜50s, Wagner made appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett, and also appeared on shows like Sea Hunt and Dragnet.

In 1955, Wagner was invited to the opening of Disneyland, which led to a string of jobs doing narration for parades and voicing announcements. By the beginning of the "˜70s, he was a production consultant and park announcer. Although vocal cord surgery forced him to retire in 1991, his voice continued to haunt the park like some kind of friendly ghost—even after he died of a heart attack in 1995.

Voice of: Disney Parks and trams at Orlando International Airport

Famous phrases: "Enjoy your stay," "Keep your arms and legs inside the coach," "All aboard!"

Listen to Mr. Wagner narrate this Space Mountain clip:

4. Mr. Moviefone

The Voice: Russ Leatherman

The Story: Not everyone subscribes to French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema; some folks just want to know when the latest blockbuster's playing. To help simplify the movie-going process, Russ Leatherman co-founded Moviefone in 1989. Leatherman is best known for his distinctive, yet schmaltzy voice, which has been parodied on both Seinfeld and The Simpsons. He's in on the joke—Leatherman has described his character's phone voice as "Dick Clark on crack." Up until 2000, Leatherman had to bite his famous tongue with regard to the quality of the films. But when AOL bought his company for $388 million in stock, Leatherman started meting out his cinematic opinions as a movie reviewer for ABC-7 in Los Angeles, leading gigs on the radio, CNN, and the Internet.

The Voice of: Moviefone

Famous Phrases: "Hello and welcome to Moviefone!"

Here's Mr. Moviefone in action:

5. The Time Lady

time-lady.jpgThe Voice: Jane Barbe


The Story: She's purred in the ears of many men as they lay tangled in the sheets of seedy hotels. No, she's not a sex phone operator—she's the Time Lady, the voice of the wake-up calls and weather reports that were piped through telephone lines for 40 years. Although she retired in February 2003 and died in July of that same year, Jane Barbe's messages have been heard by a good portion of America.

Barbe grew up in Atlanta, where she was a sorority girl at the University of Georgia—a Tri-Delt president, no less. She met her husband, John, while they were on tour with the Buddy Morrow Orchestra, and the pair went on to create and produce music for commercials, industrial films, and shows. She began phoning it in when she joined up with the Audichron Company in the mid "˜60s, where she became the voice of the time, temperature, weather, and various and sundry other announcements for the next 40 years.

Voice of: ETC's Audichron time, temperature, weather announcers and intercept systems.

Famous Phrases: "At the tone, the time will be 10:52." "I'm sorry, your number cannot be completed as dialed."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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