Blanc, Mel (1908-1989)

views updated

Blanc, Mel (1908-1989)

Mel Blanc, the "Man of a thousand voices," helped to develop animated cartoons into a new comedic art form by creating and performing the voices of hundreds of characters for cartoons, radio, and television.

Melvin Jerome Blanc was born on May 30, 1908 in San Francisco, California, to Frederick and Eva Blank, managers of a women's retail clothing business. A poor student and class cut-up, Blanc was popular with his peers but often annoyed his teachers and principals. At age 16, goaded by an insult from a teacher, Blanc changed the spelling of his last name from "Blank" to "Blanc." Blanc had made his class laugh by giving a response in four different voices, and the incensed teacher said, "You'll never amount to anything. You're just like your last name: blank." Nonetheless, high school gave Blanc some opportunity to practice future material. For example, he took advantage of the great acoustics of the school's cavernous hallways to develop the raucous laugh that eventually became Woody Woodpecker's signature.

After graduating from high school in 1927, Blanc started working part-time in radio, on a Friday evening program called The Hoot Owls, and playing tuba with two orchestras. He then went on to play in the NBC Trocaderans radio orchestra. By age 22 he was the youngest musical director in the country, working as the pit conductor for Oregon's Orpheum Theatre. In 1931, Blanc returned to San Francisco to emcee a Tuesday night radio variety show called "The Road Show." The next year, he set out for Hollywood, hoping to make it big. Although his first foray into Tinseltown did not bring him much professional success, it did wonders for his personal life. In 1933, Blanc eloped with Estelle Rosenbaum, whom he had met while swing-dancing at the Ocean Park Ballroom in Santa Monica. The couple moved to Portland, Oregon, where Blanc (with help from Estelle) wrote, produced, and acted in a live, hour-long radio show, Cobwebs and Nuts.

In 1935, Blanc and his wife returned to Hollywood to try again. By 1941, Blanc's career as a voice actor had sky-rocketed. In 1936, he joined Warner Brothers, brought on to create a voice for an animated drunken bull for an upcoming production called Picador Porky, and starring Porky Pig. But soon afterward, Blanc was asked to replace the actor who provided Porky Pig's voice. In his first demonstration of his new creation, Blanc ad-libbed the famous "Th-uh-th-uh-th-that's all, folks!" Released in 1937, Picador Porky was Blanc's first cartoon for Warner Brothers. That same year, Blanc created his second lead character for Warner, Daffy Duck. Around this time, he also changed the way cartoons were recorded by suggesting that each character's lines be recorded separately and then reassembled in sequence. In 1940, Blanc helped create the character with whom he is most closely associated, Bugs Bunny. Bugs had been around in different forms for several years as "Happy Rabbit," but Blanc re-christened him after his animator, Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, and gave him a tough-edged Brooklyn accent. Bugs also provided the inspiration for the most famous ad-lib of his career, "Eh, what's up Doc?" Blanc completed the character by chewing on raw carrots, a vegetable which he detested. Unfortunately, other fruits and vegetables did not produce the right sound. In addition, Blanc found it impossible to chew, swallow, and say his next line. The solution? They stopped recording so that Blanc could spit the carrot into the wastebasket before continuing with the script.

In 1945, the studio introduced a romantic lead for Blanc, the skunk Pepe Le Pew. Blanc modeled the character on French matinee idol Charles Boyer, and received amorous fan mail from women who loved the character's accent. The final leading character that Blanc created for Warner Brothers was Speedy Gonzales, the Mexican mouse, the studio's most prolific character in its final years. Of the Warner Brothers characters, Blanc has described the voice of Yosemite Sam as the most difficult to perform, saying that it was like "screaming at the top of your lungs for an hour and a half." Another voice that required a lot of volume was Foghorn Leghorn. His easiest character, and one of his favorites, was Sylvester the Cat. According to Blanc, this voice is closest to his natural speaking voice, but "without the thspray." In his autobiography, Blanc revealed one of the little known tricks used by engineers to manipulate the voices for characters such as Daffy Duck, Henery Hawk, Speedy Gonzales, and Tweety. Using a variable-speed oscillator, lines were recorded below normal speed and then played back conventionally, which raised the pitch of the voices while retaining their clarity.

While at Warner Brothers Blanc worked with a talented group of animators, producers, and directors that included Friz Freleng, Milt Avery, Chuck Jones, and Leon Schlessinger. The studio's work earned five Oscars for cartoons. The first award came in 1947 for Tweety Pie, starring Sylvester and Tweety. Blanc calls the 1957 Oscar winner Birds Anonymous his all-time favorite cartoon, and producer Eddie Selzer bequeathed its Oscar to Blanc upon his death (cartoon Oscars are only awarded to producers). By the time Warner Brothers closed its animation shop in 1969, Blanc had performed around 700 human and animal characters, and created voices for 848 of the studio's 1,003 cartoons. He also negotiated an unprecedented screen credit that enabled him to get freelance work with other studios and programs. In addition, Blanc occasionally acted as a dialect coach to film stars such as Clark Gable.

During World War II, Blanc appeared on several Armed Forces Radio Service programs, such as G.I. Journal, featuring his popular character Private Sad Sack. Hollywood legends who appeared on the show with Blanc included Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, Frank Sinatra, and Orson Welles. Warner Brothers also produced several war-related cartoons such as Wacky Blackouts and Tokyo Jokio. In 1946, CBS and Colgate-Palmolive offered Blanc his own show, but it lasted only one season, due, in Blanc's opinion, to "lackluster scripts."

After leaving Warner Brothers, Blanc returned to broadcast full-time. One of his most well-known roles was a dour, forlorn character comically misnamed "The Happy Postman" who appeared on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In 1939, Blanc joined the cast of Jack Benny's popular radio show on NBC. Blanc came to regard Benny as his "closest friend in all of Hollywood." On The Jack Benny Program many jokes featured Blanc's Union Depot train caller who would call, "Train leaving on track five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc-amonga!" In one series of skits the pause between "Cuc" and "amonga" kept getting longer and longer until in one show a completely different skit was inserted between the first and second part of the phrase. In 1950, The Jack Benny Program made a successful transition to television, ranking in the top 20 shows for ten of the fifteen years it was on the air. Television provided even more voice work for Blanc, who began to perform characters for cartoons specifically produced for television. In 1960, Blanc received an offer from the Hanna-Barbera studio to play the voice role of Barney Rubble on a new animated series for adults called The Flintstones.

In 1961, Blanc and former Warner Brothers executive producer John Burton started a commercial production company called Mel Blanc Associates. Three days later, while driving to a radio taping, Blanc was hit head-on by a car that lost control on the S-shaped bend of Sunset Boulevard known as "Dead Man's Curve." Although the other driver sustained only minor injuries, Blanc broke nearly every bone in his body, lost nine pints of blood, and was in a coma for three weeks. After regaining consciousness, he stayed an additional two months in a full body cast. While in the hospital, he recorded several tracks for Warner Brothers, and then had a mini-studio installed in his home so that he could continue working while convalescing.

The Blanc's only child, a son Noel was born in 1938. Blanc has joked that he and his wife later realized that in French their son's name translated into "white Christmas," which Blanc noted was "a hell of a name for a Jewish boy." At age 22, Blanc's son Noel joined Mel Blanc Associates, eventually becoming company president. Later, Blanc taught his son the voices of the Warner Brothers characters, so that he could carry on his legacy.

Mel Blanc Associates quickly became known for its humorous commercials. Its client roster included Kool-Aid, Volkswagen, Ford, and Avis Rent-a-car. They also began producing syndicated radio programs. In conjunction with the company's thirtieth anniversary, the renamed Blanc Communications Corporation became a full-service advertising agency. In 1972, Blanc established the Mel Blanc School of Commercials, which offered six courses such as radio and television voiceovers and commercial acting principles. Proving too costly, however, the school only existed for two years. Meanwhile Blanc continued to do voice-work for commercials and programs. In 1988, he had a bit part as Daffy Duck in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Both Blanc and Bugs Bunny have their own stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Blanc's resides at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard). Blanc has said that the honor of which he is most proud is his inclusion in the United States entertainment history collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Active in many philanthropic organizations, Blanc received a plethora of civic awards, including the United Jewish Welfare Fund Man of the Year and the First Show Business Shrine Club's Life Achievement Award.

Although Blanc was a pack-a-day smoker, who started when he was eight, a doctor who x-rayed Blanc's throat compared it to the musculature of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Blanc quit smoking later in life when he developed severe emphysema and required portable oxygen to breathe. In 1989, Blanc died at the age of 81 from heart disease. The epitaph on his headstone in Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery reads, "That's All Folks."

—Courtney Bennett

Further Reading:

Blanc, M., and P. Bashe. That's Not All Folks! New York, Warner Books, Inc., 1988.

Feldman, P. "Mel Blanc Dies; Gave Voice to Cartoon World." Los Angeles Times. July 11, 1989, 1.

About this article

Blanc, Mel (1908-1989)

Updated About content Print Article