CHICAGO — It’s been 25 years since a Milwaukee man strolled into a Chicago studio to record the thousands of directions, delays and warnings that still move the nation’s third-largest city.
Lee Crooks, “The Voice of the CTA” who tells “L” and bus riders what stop is coming and on which side the doors open, doesn’t have much to say about the fact that most people still don’t know the name behind the recordings.
But when his daughter got married to a man with Chicago friends a couple years back, Crooks couldn’t help himself.
“It’s time for the father of the bride speech, I made it through the usual thank yous, and then finished with ‘This is State and Lake,'” Crooks said. “It got a huge cheer from a certain table.”
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Crooks’ commitment to the craft comes down to the syllables, whether it’s a “smiley” uptick on the tail-end of “Fullerton” or an “informative,” flat cadence to announce a rainbow of train transfers.
The polished voice actor, now 64, drives down to Chicago two or three times a year to record updates to the transit system. Most recently Crooks told Chicagoans about detours due to the Blue Line’s West Side rebuild, laid down sharper recordings for the new 7000-series trains and gave folks a reminder to give up their seats to “people who are pregnant.”
Crooks’ favorite call?
It’s a simple one.
“‘This is Chicago,'” the famed announcer told Block Club over the phone with pristine diction. “It’s a definitive statement, that just captures the feeling of the city.”
Chicago’s most ubiquitous voice said blending in has always been the goal.
The CTA has long been a small hustle for Crooks in his voiceover business that stretches the phone tree at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, training films for technicians at Navistar trucks, local commercials for remodelers, toilet installation videos for plumbers and a copycat transit system in Buffalo, New York.
Crooks had long chose to stay hush about his role until DNAinfo asked to profile him in 2013.
Over the years, he’s moved in silence while manicuring and tweaking his voice to be efficient, clear — and nothing else. Describing the “fun challenge” of cutting to the chase, the train-traveling wordsmith quoted Hemingway: “‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.'”
“My job is to get people to where they need to be. That’s it,” Crooks said. “The guy who’s on the trains and buses, I don’t want him to look like anybody. He’s faceless, and that’s by design. I want you to focus on the message, not me.”
Crooks said his home life back in Milwaukee is severed from his alter-ego riding around Chicago all day, every day. He’s taking bass guitar classes — with inspiration from the late Jimmy Buffett and The Eagles. At home, he likes to sit quietly for hours to save his voice.
And he’s a grandfather for the first time.
“I can’t wait to take him on the train for the first time, and see his face when he hears grandpa’s voice,” Crooks said. “But if I talked to my wife like I do on the CTA, she’d throw me out the house.”
In the late ’90s, Crooks had just taken his family to Disney World when he caught wind of a casting call for the voice of Chicago’s transit system.
The $5.4 million project required the agency to upgrade its equipment and software to install its first “pre-recorded, automatically triggered announcements,” a CTA spokesperson said.
Crooks knew he had a golden voice ever since he left a message on a crush’s landline as a teenager, her parents then wondering why their daughter was “trying to date an older guy.” He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, but found he had a better ear than he could strum a tune. He worked “humping equipment” for a country rock band before launching his own recording studio in Wisconsin. When the studio shut down after a good decade run, a friend told Crooks he should get a coach and give voice acting a whirl.
The CTA gig sought a smooth tenor who would “give information in a friendly manner that was unobtrusive,” Crooks said.
With an ear to the ground for his big break, Crooks burned his audition tape onto a CD and mailed it off, the performance inspired by the whimsical, professional and “a little bit hyped” voice he had just heard on the Disney monorail.
About six months went by before the CTA called Crooks in. He bunkered down in a small Chicago studio in 1998. Over two-and-a-half days, in eight-hour-plus recording sessions, Crooks laid down “every saying that existed on the trains at that time,” from street names to “stand clear of the closing doors,” he said.
“They had me counting from 1 to 1,000, so the drivers could punch in their train number and get the sound they needed,” Crooks said. “It was a zen experience. I shut my eyes and tried to make every number sound like the last one.
“And I hoped I wouldn’t lose my voice and get replaced.”
A quarter of a decade later, Crooks said there’s “something really cool” about the possibility of his voice outliving him. He’ll hold onto the gig as long as the CTA will have him.
But the voiceover business has gotten more competitive. Some of Crooks’ clients have retired, his sound is “aging out” and he’s thinking about retiring, too.
“When I was starting out, there were about 100 people around Chicago working regularly with their voices, and now with home studios and microphones, there’s literally thousands in every city, and now it’s all audition-driven,” Crooks said. “Most jobs can get over 500 tapes, and they’re likely only going to listen until they hear someone they like. … My business is slower.”
Last time Crooks rode the CTA was pre-pandemic. It’s not every day he thinks about trains or buses, or gets recognized by a sharp ear as the “Voice of the CTA,” but it’s usually pleasant when he does.
“If I was Taylor Swift getting it constantly, it might get annoying,” he said. “But for me, it’s just kind of fun.”
Crooks’ first question to starstruck transit nerds: “What’s your stop?”
His version of signing an autograph is recording someone’s voicemail.
A Chicago rapper recently asked Crooks to record CTA sayings for an album (he declined). A bewildered fan told Crooks he always thought the train voice was a computer (mission accomplished).
The Milwaukee man guesses he’s recorded 1,200-plus Chicago transit prompts with over 20,000 takes — and counting.
“I’m always looking to improve,” Crooks said. “There’s a range to work within so it doesn’t all sound the same, it doesn’t get grating on the ear of the rider, for each line we record next.”
But for now: Crooks was running late to his bass guitar lesson.
“When you’re done working at the end of the day, we are who we are,” Crooks said. “And that’s enough for me.”
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