My Dad Oversaw Sound for the Super Bowl. So the Audio at His Funeral Needed to be Epic.

...and no one was going to stop us.

My Dad Oversaw Sound for the Super Bowl. So the Audio at His Funeral Needed to be Epic.

At no extra charge, the mortuary will record my father’s funeral and host it online for thirty days. After that, anyone who wants to see the service will have to pay $30 for the DVD. At first, the idea seems ghastly. But Sal, the funeral director, explains that while the idea of streaming a funeral on the Internet might seem strange, a lot of people find it helpful, especially for mourners unable to attend.

“It helps people feel connected,” Sal says. “Obviously, it’s a very personal choice.”

As I have done numerous times in my hour-long conversation with Sal, I mute the phone to discuss the choice with my mom and my sister, Allison.

“What?” Mom snaps. “Are they serious?”

“I’m just going to tell him no,” I say.

Then Allison speaks.

“I think we should do it,” she says, a smile cracking through the pain.

“You do?” Mom asks, her tone softer, surprised.

“You know Dad,” Allison says. “If he could broadcast something, he would.”

Larry Estrin on duty in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy Michael Estrin)
Larry Estrin on duty in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy Michael Estrin)

It’s true. All his life, Dad was a sound man. After overseeing the audio for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the show’s producer, David L. Wolper, nicknamed him “The Round Man of Sound.” Mom had often joked that Dad resembled Winnie the Pooh, but he chaffed at the Round Man of Sound nickname initially. Then he came around. He ordered a vanity license plate that read RMOS. For decades, if the world was watching a major event on television – a Super Bowl, a Papal visit, a Presidential Debate or inauguration – our dad didn’t just do the sound, he was the sound.

“He did funerals too,” Allison reminds us. “Maybe it’s not so weird.”

Dad did the audio for Marilyn Monroe’s funeral. He was only twenty, but he’d already been a sound man for five or six years. According to Dad, he persuaded the mortuary to let him mic the starlet’s casket so the mourners could hear every word clearly. Suddenly, the once ghastly idea of streaming Dad’s funeral on the Internet seems sublime.

“Allison’s right,” Mom says. “If Pop was here, he’d insist on doing the sound himself.”

As it turns out, the mortuary will handle the audio and an unnamed third-party vendor will provide the webcast.

“We’re not responsible for the quality,” Sal warns.

Later that day, friends and family gather at my parents’ home. I tell my dad’s friend and business partner about our decision to stream the service.

“Yeah, that’s perfect,” Peter says in his thick Brooklyn accent. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to be there, but can’t. You know this crazy business.”

I know my father’s crazy business. Peter is pushing seventy, but on a whim, while touring with Katy Perry, he dyed his hair neon green, a look that draws stares from mourners who have normal jobs. Peter is glad to hear that the service will be available online, not just because it seems fitting, like something his partner in crime would’ve done, but because their crazy business means he’ll have to rejoin the tour and miss the funeral.

“Dad would’ve told you the show must go on,” I say.

Peter nods in sad agreement. Then to change the subject, I relay Sal’s disclaimer about how they aren’t responsible for the quality.

“Yeah, yeah. Typical.”

“Hopefully you can hear it OK.”

Peter doesn’t hold out much hope. Like all professional audio engineers, he knows that sound systems in places like hotel conference rooms, auditoriums and even cemeteries seldom perform as advertised and never rise to a quality level suitable for broadcast. But here at my parents’ home, the air so thick with grief that it stifles all ambition, there is nothing we can do but be sad. My mother has lost her husband of 41 years, Allison and I have lost our father, and the man with the green hair has lost his best friend.

We decide not to dwell on the likelihood that the words we choose to honor the Round Man of Sound will be broadcast with the clarity of a fast-food drive-thru order. I make the awful small talk you make when death’s dark cloud dims your world; Peter makes calls. Five minutes later, he returns.

“I just talked to Steve,” he says.

Tears momentarily overcome Peter.

“I just talked to Steve,” he begins again. “He’s packing gear and he lands in L.A. tomorrow morning. He’s going to make sure the sound is perfect.”

Suddenly, we are both crying. The tears are the kind of sadness that approach joy – the kind you feel when small gestures of humanity push back on the lonely sorrow of grief.

“You just have to get Steve connected with the mortuary,” Peter says.

I never followed in my father’s footsteps. I know which end of a microphone is up, that’s about it. But I’m touched to see my father’s team rallying around him, and I am grateful to play a small role.

“I won’t take no for an answer,” I say.

Peter smiles. The words are my father’s credo – never take no for an answer, unless that’s the answer you want­. He would say those words to will his team to break new ground in a field where innovations are emulated, but seldom fixed in a historical record. Dad pushed the limits of physics and technology to give the world sound, often pushed the limits of the people he worked with. The story behind the RMOS nickname is this: for months, Dad pushed to use a new speaker at the Olympics. Eventually, he prevailed, but only after a test at the dress rehearsal. Aided by a half-dozen competitors, Dad and his crew worked around the clock to install a new sound system in the L.A. Coliseum the night before the Opening Ceremonies.

Late that night, I email Sal about our “very special request.” Briefly, I explain my dad. He worked on Disneyland’s Main Street Electric Parade. He oversaw the first live stereo broadcasts of the Academy Awards and the Grammys. I even mention that dad first put wireless microphones on NFL referees, because maybe Sal is a football fan. I’m not trying to brag, but I need Sal’s permission. I want him to understand that we are serious about this request, that it matters to us as much as the service, that the sound must be perfect for the Round Man of Sound.

Larry Estrin working with President Obama. (Photo courtesy Michael Estrin)
Larry Estrin working with President Obama. (Photo courtesy Michael Estrin)

The next morning, Sal sends a long response. My heart sinks; people don’t write long notes to say yes. Naturally, Sal is polite, even complimentary. He writes about how impressed he is that Dad was Don Ho’s road manager for four years; evidently, Sal is a fan of the Hawaiian crooner who sang “Tiny Bubbles.” He goes on to say how, as a veteran, he’s grateful for Dad’s USO work with Bob Hope, during Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Then Sal says no.

“We can’t let you touch the camera or the web casting gear because that equipment doesn’t belong to us,” Sal writes.

Unlike my father, I am accustomed to taking no for an answer. It’s part of the gig when you write for a living. But in that moment, I feel an unfamiliar resolve bubble up from deep inside me. I can’t accept Sal’s answer; it isn’t the answer I want.

“Fair enough,” I write back. “You can’t give us permission to touch what doesn’t belong to you. I understand that. But the sound system does belong to you, and so I’m asking you to let us look at the sound system.”

I press send. A moment later, Steve calls. He’s just landed at LAX, and because I blind copied him on my email to Sal, I don’t have to explain.

“We’re going to get this done, Michael. We’re just going to have to Larry it and not take no for an answer.”

Hearing Steve use my father’s name as a verb gives me strength. But an hour later, I hear back from Sal. This time his email is brief.

“The sound will be fine,” he writes.

My knees feel weak and my stomach aches. This, I’m learning, is one of the peculiar features of grief; at times you feel strong enough to move mountains, and in the next moment you cannot lift a tissue.

Then I hear my father’s voice: Don’t take no for an answer, unless that’s the answer you want. For the first time since I watched him take his last breath two days ago, I can feel my father’s presence. Suddenly, I feel stronger. I fire back a response.

“That’s the problem,” I write. “We don’t want the sound to be fine, we expect it be perfect. Steve is on his way, please do him the courtesy of hearing him out.”

Even funeral directors have their limits. Sal isn’t pleased and he lets me know it in his curt reply. The matter is closed, he writes. But then he makes a mistake, adding that he is home sick today.

I phone Steve with an idea. My voice is conspiratorial, like I’m plotting a coup, and in a way, I suppose I am.

“I think you just show up and talk your way in, like it’s all been arranged, like we have permission.”

I feel good just saying those words, like we’re doing something, pushing back against some immovable obstacle.

“I love it, Michael.”

Then I hang up, and doubt overwhelms me. I’m not sure if our plan to bluff our way into the mortuary will work, and I don’t feel good about how I’ve treated Sal. As I go about my day getting my suit pressed and my hair cut, my mind works overtime thinking up ways to turn a no into a yes, should Steve be turned away. Would offering to pay more do the trick? I don’t know, but I check my bank account just in case. I Google California law because I want to know if I can still cancel the burial contract, even though I doubt my ability to swing that particular piece of leverage. I even consider joining Steve at the cemetery, but decide against it because I knew I’d only end up crying, and I’m not sure my tears would persuade the mortuary’s audiovisual guy to break the rules and risk his job.

Then late in the afternoon, my phone rings.

“We’re all set,” Steve says.

I exhale. Steve explains how the audiovisual guy had been hesitant initially, and how he had courted him by glancing at the setup and – seeing a common mistake – mentioned that he could fix their feedback problem. Suddenly, Steve was inside, and once there, he gave the facility the full treatment. He redirected the speakers so that the sound wouldn’t echo, he swapped out the mic, and he even replaced the cabling on the webcasting gear because whoever installed it had used coaxial cable instead of Cat 5. I’m not sure what all that means, but I know it’s exactly what dad would’ve told Steve to do.

“We pulled a Larry,” Steve says. “We didn’t take no for an answer.”

All my life, I thought my dad’s power was obstinacy. I was wrong. The power of the Round Man of Sound, I realize now, is people power. It’s the power to summon the will of the team to make the impossible real. We “pulled a Larry” not because Larry was with us, but because we were always with Larry.

The next morning, friends and family gather for the funeral; others from around the world join online. We are connected through light and sound.

Allison stands at the podium, the microphone carefully placed to pick up the sound of her voice without obscuring her face. But nobody notices the sound or the microphone. We’re not supposed to. When the sound is perfect, Larry would say, you don’t notice; you lose yourself in the moment.

The sound is perfect.

We see the love in a daughter’s eyes and hear the warmth of her words. Allison tells us about the time she and Dad once saw a rainbow and how he said they should follow it, no matter where it led them. Then we hear music, and the melody carries us away to somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere in our hearts, where Larry is.