Lingua Toluca

ELIZA JANE SCHNEIDER has her own fingerprints, Social Security number, employment history, references, everything. If you could see the photographs I took of her as she led me through the hallowed private libraries of her mentor and landlord, legendary dialectologist Robert Easton, you’d understand just how nonfictional she is. Easton, who is 76 now and no more fictional than Schneider, is by far the most sought-after dialect coach in all of Hollywood; he’s also appeared as a character actor in 80 films, more than 800 television shows and 1,200 radio programs since the late 1940s.

No slouch, either, is Schneider, though she’s less than half his age. Probably best known for voicing most of the female characters on South Park between 1999 and 2004, she has done too many nonstop fascinating things to list here, including traversing America 10 times in an old ambulance to record dialects, and then distilling her studies into a highly acclaimed one-woman, 34-voice stage production, Freedom of Speech, which earned favorable comparison to the work of Lily Tomlin and was awarded Best Solo Show at the 2003 International Fringe Festival in New York.

Schneider has a bedroom office upstairs in Easton’s West Toluca Lake compound. I’m not sure where Easton sleeps — it’s a big place — other than not with Schneider. Books and books and books and books on shelves and shelves and tables and chairs and even a floor or two, but more books than I’ve ever seen in one residence — that’s the main house. The other two libraries are housed in two separate buildings out back.

“See the way the entry is, with the boxes stacked everywhere?” says Schneider. “The entire house was like that. And you would not believe what was underneath that stuff. Every fecal matter known to man, and, like, maybe pathogens from Zimbabwe. Bob gets these books imported from fucking everywhere. So I spent two months with the dust mask and the rubber gloves. And I found, like, the Uganda notes for Forest Whitaker, for Idi Amin. There are so many little treasures buried beneath these boxes and boxes of books from everywhere.”

EVERY DAY FOR DECADES, Easton has been writing these notes in a phonetic shorthand of his own design, based on the International Phonetic Alphabet but now readily decipherable only to himself and Schneider.

“For 10 years,” says Schneider, “I’ve been telling everybody that as soon as I get Bob to just shut up and talk into a microphone, our book — The Encyclopedic Textbook of the Dialects of Spoken English in Five Volumes With Accompanying Digital Recordings — will be done. It’s written. It’s in his head. He’s recited the first chapter practically verbatim to me, sitting at the dinner table. But because he’s a perfectionist, he’s got that thing that we all have — where the desire for perfection leads to procrastination, which leads to paralysis.”

Schneider finally figured out a way to get Easton behind the microphone: The music studio she where she’d been housesitting this summer had air conditioning. “And I said, ‘Hey, Bob! We’ve got free access to a recording studio! Which means that you don’t have to put air conditioning into the one we built in the library! You could save a couple thousand dollars!’ And that did it!”

The five-volume Encyclopedic Textbook of the Dialects of Spoken English With Accompanying Digital Recordings is not an encyclopedia or a dictionary, but an index of the pronunciation of the English language.

“So you can look at these lists,” says Schneider, “and if you have a word and you’re a foreigner, and you’re like, ‘How the fuck do I pronounce this word?,’ you can look, and there it is. And it’s all organized really well, and it’s . . . it’s just fucking beautiful! Anyway, Bob sat down behind the microphone last week, and he’s like, [Bob voice] ‘Well, we’re not entirely prepared, but I’ll just wing something.’ It was, like, the magic words — I’ll just wing it. THANK GOD! HE FINALLY SAID THE WORDS! And so I put him behind the microphone, and he just . . . just the brilliance . . . just exuding from his mouth, and it just didn’t stop for 102 minutes. And I sat there crying, because the book we’ve been working on for 10 years is being written!”

I’VE LURKED IN EASTON’S LIBRARIES before. There’s the house library, where we were, the old library, where we’re heading, and the new library, the one with the non-air-conditioned recording studio. The oldest is the largest. Upon entering, I can only do what I did the last time: stand in silent, gape-mouthed reverence. Really.

“It’s like a religious thing,” I say.

“It actually is,” says Schneider. “The Book Baron, in Long Beach, is going out of business, so we’ve spent our last two Sundays there — because we don’t have enough books! And we started talking about how it is somewhat of a religion for us. But that we’re not allowed to tell anybody else that, because they’ll think we’re crazy.”

There’s no beginning or end. Wandering through bay after bay of all manner of books of all ages in every language and direction, organized by topics large and small; most shelves quakeproofed with bungee cords; sad and beautiful ancient hardbacks lovingly bound; exotic and austere leather- and clothbound tomes, some dating back to the 16th century. Grand, proper old hardwood library card catalogs. Cover designs of late-1960s trade paperbacks. The illustrations in an edition of Erasmus’ Adagia published in 1559. (To hold such a book in one’s hands, to open it . . .)

“It would be good to record in here,” says Schneider. “Because Bob’s really comfortable in here, and when he gets comfortable, the brilliance just oozes from every pore.”

It’s not just a big, open structure with multiple levels of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves and shelves of books — Schneider estimates that there are about 1 million volumes in all — it’s that it’s in such a peculiarly intimate, wondrous state of curation; at the same time I’m in awe, I also feel very comfortable here. In fact, it might be the comfort that creates the awe.

After one last look upstairs, at a section where some of the finer historic volumes are preserved, we descend the narrow, book-lined staircases toward the outside world.

“For me,” I say, “this is the Grand Canyon. But I haven’t actually seen the Grand Canyon.”

“The Grand Canyon is nothing compared to this,” says Schneider. “The Grand Canyon is a dirty hole in the ground. This is a place to be marooned.”

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