Nature 14

Thomas R. Courtenay-Clack

December 4, 1940 ~ July 2, 2022 (age 81)


  A frog chorus vibrates through the swamp; a heavy door creaks ominously open; an old man falls asleep in his soup with a plop. Sound effects like these were the life’s work of Tom Clack, the Englishman whose onomatopoeic name was one of the most highly regarded in the business. From the rubbery cheese on a slice of pizza that stretched from room to room, to the frantic footsteps of the apartment-dweller who “forgot to add the fabric softener,” and thousands of others, Clack crafted a forty-year career of memorable noises in the often-overlooked field of Foley art. His sound effects graced commercials for radio and TV; animated shows, feature films, and records, and are still being heard today.

The Blitz was in full effect when Thomas Edward Ralph Courtenay-Clack was born in Dallington, East Sussex, England on Dec. 4, 1940. He was the youngest child of four, the only boy, born to Gladys Marjorie Courtenay-Clack (nee Fremlin) and Col. Thomas Stanley Courtenay-Clack. Educated at Wellington College prep school, Clack went straight from there to a radio training program at the BBC in London. Along with his passion for sound recording came an interest in travel, almost as strong; in the early ‘60s he joined a ship’s crew in the British Virgin Islands, prompted by a classified ad in the Times. For decades, he carried a reel-to-reel tape recorder at all times, eventually amassing his large library of sound effects and field recordings.

            Tom Clack arrived in New York in 1964, a few months before the Beatles, and assimilated fast into this gritty, cut-throat Madison Avenue world despite his fundamentally sanguine personality. His sound art was used in a variety radio spots, major-label records, and several animation projects for Rankin-Bass. Clients enjoyed the company of this genteel Englishman who dressed in proper khakis and an Ascot scarf, plus hipster granny glasses and bushy sideburns connecting to a large mustache. Soon, the precocious engineer went into business for himself, founding Clack, Inc. in 1970 in midtown Manhattan.

            First impressions of a polite, well-spoken Clack somewhat belied the boisterous personality enjoyed by his many friends. On the front door of Clack Studios was the company logo, a jagged comic-book balloon drawn by Tom himself, blaring the distinctive name: CLACK! Guests found a lively workplace crackling with jokes and hospitality, with a reception area overflowing with fruit, pastries, English tea and Marmite, and a stack of “lunch records”—used LPs that one was compelled to choose from when the takeout came, laying a disc across their lap to create a flat surface for eating.

            As one of the leading sound effects studios in the country, Clack Inc. provided sounds for major ad agencies in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and London. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, their work was regularly heard in commercials that aired during the Super Bowl, including the iconic Budweiser frog’s spot. Clack and his staff of engineers worked with the new cable network MTV as they were launching—going on to record on-air promos almost daily for its family of cable channels, including VH1, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central. Clack resided on the Upper West Side, his studios were on west 45th Street, and he usually walked the thirty blocks to work.

            Outside of the office, Clack was a devoted friend, cherished by those close to him as a raconteur and a gifted cook. His talent for voice impressions and funny sounds made him especially popular with children; he was the beloved young uncle of nine nieces and nephews, as well as a faithful younger brother to his three sisters, who all remained in England. Almost every weekend, regardless of weather, would find him driving the four hours to his country house in Jefferson, NY. There, he would hike, ski, feed the wild birds, and prepare foods of many nations for his inner circle. No trip abroad was complete without the purchase of spices to add to his pantry.

            In 1982 Clack, intending to take a one-year sabbatical, stayed away for a year and nine months. He traveled across 26 countries in Central America, South America, and Africa in a restored 1970 Land Rover named Winnie. In 1985 he made a second trip to Africa—this time with his soon-to-be wife Clara van Beek—which concluded with him donating Winnie to an aspiring safari guide in Zimbabwe. From then until his retirement, framed photos of lions, wildebeest, and other exotic wildlife graced his studio walls.

            Tom and Clara Courtenay-Clack were married in June 1986, welcoming a daughter in 1987. In 2000 Clack retired to his former weekend home in Jefferson, where he enjoyed gardening, walks in the woods with his dogs, and cooking sumptuous meals for a panoply of visitors. For ten years, he volunteered at nearby SUNY Oneonta, teaching radio production to college students. Clack became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008.

Tom Clack is pre-deceased by his sisters Judith Ricketts, Felicity Cripwell, and Virginia Awdry, and by two nieces, Rose Ricketts and Kate Courtenay. He is survived by his wife, Clara Courtenay-Clack- van Beek, of Jefferson, NY; his daughter Alexandra Clack, of Schoharie, NY; and a stepdaughter, Amanda Nazario, of Brooklyn. The former Clack Studios business continues in Manhattan as HotHead Productions.

Private services will be held for the family and a public celebration of life for the public will be announced at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to Helios Care 297 River Street Service Road Suite 1, Oneonta NY 13820.

Arrangements have been entrusted to Mereness-Putnam Funeral Home, 171 Elm St., Cobleskill.

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