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(November 2003)

The Human Cartoon Voice
Mel Blanc and BugsOn Jack Benny’s radio (and later television) show he was the laconic train conductor (“Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc-a-monga”), as well as the voice of Benny’s ancient Maxwell motorcar – gasping, wheezing and struggling to crank up. In the cartoon world, he immortalized the expressions “I  t’ought I taw a putty-tat”, “Thufferin’ thuccotash!” and of course “Eh…what’s up, Doc?” We’re talking about the late, great Mel Blanc of course.

Mel (The Man of 1,000 Voices) Blanc was born in San Francisco in 1908. Even as a kid, he entertained his teachers and classmates with funny voices utilizing the various accents of his ethnic neighborhood. He used his high school’s cavernous, empty hallway as a makeshift echo chamber, practicing a unique laugh the likes of which had never been heard before. Later, in 1940, that laugh became the signature of the irresistible Woody Woodpecker. Blanc was the first voice of Woody but Walter Lantz’s wife Grace Stafford later voiced him.

When Blanc graduated from high school in 1927 he immediately got a job in show business- as a musician! For five years he played in the NBC Radio Orchestra, he was an accomplished violinist and sousaphone Mel Blanc in radioplayer, and he conducted the pit orchestra at the Orpheum Theatre in Portland, Oregon where he had grown up. In 1933 he and his new wife Estelle began hosting a daily one-hour radio show in Portland. The station management wouldn’t let them hire more talent so Blanc invented an entire repertory company. After two years, he and Estelle headed for Hollywood.

They struggled there for a year and a half with Blanc doing odd jobs while constantly applying for voice work at Leon Schlesinger Productions, the company that produced the original Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies. The popular story is that there was a production supervisor who turned him away several times. Finally this man died and Blanc got his chance. What really got his career going was Porky, the stuttering pig. The first actor who did Porky actually had a stutter but he couldn’t make it funny. Blanc not only made it funny but also could stutter and ad-lib in rhythm.

The rest, as they say, is history. Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble (Blanc also worked in television), Daffy Duck, Sylvester Pussycat, Foghorn Leghorn, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam and Pepe LePew. He was even the “Meep Meep” of the Road Runner. In fact, from the late 1930s on, he was almost every voice in every Warner Bros cartoons- except for Elmer Fudd whose voice was provided by Arthur Q. Bryan. Blanc helped develop the unique personas of these characters together with the giants in the field of animation- Robert McKimson, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Director Bob Clampett, who created Tweety Bird, gives Blanc credit for having raised the standards of animation art by “showing them all what the form was capable of”.

Mel Blanc was not just a great voice actor; he was possibly the best, most versatile voice actor ever. Before him, cartoon makers used a voice of whoever was handy- Mickey Mouse was first voiced by Walt Disney, for example, and the voice of Popeye was animator Jack Mercer. Blanc didn’t just do funny voices, he acted in them. He could voice Bugs Bunny of course, but he could do Bugs with an accent! He could be Bugs Bunny the opera singer or Bugs Bunny gargling- his versatile talent was almost unlimited. We sure miss him. Mel Blanc died in 1989. His son Noel Blanc has continued the work, doing many of the classic voices.

The Loss of Mel Blanc

As you all know, we here at The Toast are all atwitter with anticipation with the soon-to-open new film Looney Tunes: Back in ActionLooney Tunes: Back In Action. Opening in theatres everywhere November 14, we can hardly wait. Directed by the great Joe Dante, and starring Brendan Fraiser, Jenna Elfman, Heather Locklear, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Plus a score of other Looney Tune characters. Interesting, there are five different actors credited with doing voices. It looks like we’re not the only ones who miss Mel Blanc.

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