Within minutes, audiobook narrator Nelson Runger of Yardley had captivated his listeners at the Pennwood/Langhorne Branch of the Bucks County Free Library recently, transporting them halfway around the world and back in time by more than a half-century.
Reading from James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, the subject of the One Book, One Bucks library program, Runger portrayed the pidgin-English accent of Bloody Mary, the voice of a Seabee from Bryn Mawr, and the dialects of a young Frenchwoman and a Japanese soldier.
Runger is a giant in the audiobook industry. He is like a movie star to listeners who choose a spoken-word book because he reads it, rather than for the title or author. More than 100 fans made reservations and packed the library to hear his voice.
Runger has narrated more than 160 unabridged biographies and history books for Recorded Books, the largest unabridged-audiobook publisher, including just about everything written by David McCullough (except 1776, which McCullough read) and John McPhee.
In 2002, he was awarded the Audie Award by the Audio Publishers Association for his narration of McCullough's John Adams, beating Tom Brokaw's reading An Album of Memories.
But Runger is not a show-off.
"I try to get out of the author's way," Runger said. "As a narrator, I don't want to intrude on the story. Authors write so carefully, research painstakingly with a lot of heart and soul. I want to be transparent."
He is careful not to overdo characterizations, yet the listener is aware of a subtle change in dialect, pitch and volume to discern who is speaking.
"The listener should get the same distinction between a direct quote that a reader gets by seeing quotation marks," Runger said.
Among the characters Runger tackles is Benjamin Franklin. He has no idea what Franklin sounded like. However, his narration of Franklin is compelling in Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; H.W. Brands' The First American; David Freeman Hawke's Franklin; and Donald T. Phillips' The Founding Fathers of Leadership.
Runger said he does not imitate Franklin, but "I try to put a sparkle in my eye, intensity in narration or a hint of laughter in the tone unless the dialogue is obviously tragic."
The history books Runger narrates in his mellow baritone are unabridged and long - some taking more than 30 hours on cassettes or compact discs.
"Nelson makes a book come alive - he sees history in his imagination, so we can see it in ours. Listeners feel as if he is speaking just to them, conveying what it was like to be alive in the era," said Claudia Howard, producer at Recorded Books' New York studio. "He has a wonderful voice to spend a long time with."
Runger, 75, started reading books out loud when he was growing up near Pittsburgh. His mother told him the skill would improve his presentations.
He and his family gathered around the radio and listened to one-act plays and the voices of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman.
Those memories paid off when Runger narrated Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer-Prize winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II and McCullough's Truman. Without exaggeration, Runger slightly emulated Eleanor's accent, portrayed the rhythm and tone of FDR, and delivered Truman's quotes "by making my lips as thin as possible," Runger said.
After graduating in 1953 from Princeton University, where he met McPhee, he worked as a spokesman for AT&T.
His wife of 52 years, Peggy, beams while her husband performs. Runger said he fell in love with her North Carolina accent and lilting voice.
When Runger retired from the phone company in 1985, his delight in the spoken word unexpectedly led to a second career. He saw an ad for Recorded Books, sent in two five-minute recordings, and was invited to an audition in New York.
"He was a natural," said Howard. "We audition 500 to 600 professional readers a year, but we only choose five or six. It's rare to find a narrator who can bring a book to life."
Runger takes the train to New York two or three days a week to go to Recorded Books' studio. He reads for five hours with a few breaks. He does not rehearse, but he gets help from researchers with pronunciation of foreign words. His latest work is McCullough's The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 on 27 cassettes for 32 hours.
After his performance, many in the Bucks library audience told Runger they had spent countless hours listening to his narrations, often sitting in their cars long after they reached their destination. Some said they listen to books they never would have read just because of his voice.
Most left with at least one rental of a Runger-narrated audiobook and many purchased a copy of the paperback Tales of the South Pacific (which has never been narrated). Some asked for his autograph.
Runger often donates his time to read to schoolchildren and people in assisted-living homes in the region.
To hear Nelson Runger's narrations, go to http://go.philly.com/rungerEndText