With all of the news updates about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) listing the numbers of infected people and the daily tally of those who have died we could use something to cheer us up. If you, like most of us, have experienced the ups and downs of life now and need something uplifting I have a solution. Read a book. Not just any book, but one of my favorite biographies. It’s title is “That’s Not all Folks,” the autobiography of the greatest voice actor ever Mel Blanc and written with Philip Bashe.
I came very close to meeting Mel back in 1980 when I was working in Spokane, Washington. Mel was in town for an appearance and a reporter from the TV station where I worked, KREM-TV, interviewed him. I not only viewed the story on TV like all of the viewers, but I got to see the “out-takes” the reporter didn’t have time to use in the story.
Like a lot of the “Baby Boomer” generation I grew up watching the Saturday morning cartoons. Mel Blanc was the main voice-man for the “Looney Tunes” cartoons. I don’t know about you but I get nostalgic when I hear the Looney Tunes cartoon ending video with Porky Pig’s famous sign-off line.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you, but I just have to relate a few of my favorite stories that Mel described so well.
Melvin Jerome Blank was born on Memorial Day May 30, 1908 in San Francisco, California. He and his family soon moved to Portland, Oregon, yes a transplanted Oregonian. Portland was populated with people from many diverse parts of the world and that’s where Mel began parroting their accents. He tells the story of what happened to him after one of the many times he disrupted class in school with his jokes and telling stories in various dialects. One teacher was particularly upset at his antics and admonished him saying ” You’ll never amount to anything. You’re just like your last name: blank.” That stuck with him so much that at age sixteen he started spelling his last name Blanc. He always wondered if that teacher ever connected the kid she made fun of with the famous voice-man Mel Blanc. I relate to part of that story quite well myself, since I was always getting in trouble for talking too much in school too.
He relates another incident that occurred in school. He was attending Lincoln High School in Portland which had a corridor that acted like a canyon echo chamber. One day he ran down that hall perfecting a very intense laugh. He literally ran into the school’s principal who asked him what he was doing. Mel said he was using the hallway’s echo effect to practice a new laugh. The principal yelled back at him “I should kick you out of this school!” He wasn’t kicked out, but that laugh, just fifteen years later would be heard by millions of people. That became his famous signature laugh of Woody Woodpecker.
Mel started his broadcasting career working at KGW Radio in 1927. His career blossomed as he ended up at one point working for Walt Disney. His next job would be with Warner Bros. providing voices for characters in their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. One day his boss, Leon Schlessinger, told him that a problem had come up. It seems the man who did the voice of one of their big characters, Porky Pig, a man by the name of Leon Daugherty, was making them waste a lot of film because his real stutter was making it impossible to do the job. A quick explanation is needed here. Back then they were making the cartoons on optical sound film. The individual “cells” (frame-by-frame drawings) were recorded on film that had an optical strip running along the side. That meant they recorded the sound in real time while the film was running. The stuttering actor couldn’t keep up with the relentlessly moving film and had to keep doing it over and over again so Mel was asked to take over. Porky Pig had already been in 16 theatrical shorts, but if Mel didn’t take over Porky’s career would have ended right there.
In 1940 Mel was still working for Warner Bros. and freelancing for another cartoon animator Walter Lantz. For Lantz he utilized the laugh he developed in high school for the character Woody Woodpecker. We move forward to 1950 and Warner Bros. signed Mel to an exclusive contract. This meant that he could no longer voice Woody. Warner Bros. allowed Blanc to make a new “clean” recording of the laugh so that Lantz could use it. After trying out other people to voice Woody the job went to the actress Grace Stafford who later became Mrs. Walter Lantz. Mel jokingly reminded Walter Lantz that he married Grace just so he wouldn’t lose the voice of Woody Woodpecker ever again.
We’re going to zoom ahead to January 24, 1961. Mel was on his way to a job when an Oldsmobile 98 (a big car similar to the one above) crossed the center line and struck his Aston Martin (small car like James Bond’s) head-on as he was negotiating the famed Dead Man’s curve on Sunset Boulevard. The other guy suffered only minor injuries, but Mel had just about every bone in his body broken. He was in a coma for three weeks. His wife Estelle and his 22-year-old only son Noel tried but could not succeed in bringing him back to consciousness. Here is where this “Believe it or Not” story takes an unexpected turn. On the twenty first day of Mel’s coma Dr. Louis Conway, a Neurologist, was examining Mel and as he looked up from the medical chart he saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon on the black-and-white TV in the room. TV’s were left on for coma patients in hope that it might engage their brain and bring them out of the comatose state. This gave the doctor a wild idea. He bent down to Mel and asked “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” Through the bandages on Mel’s head came the voice of Bugs saying “Eh, Just fine Doc. How’re you?” Then the doctor asked ” And Porky Pig, how are you feeling?” The response in perfect Porky the Pig fashion was “J-uh-ju- uh-just f-fine, th-th-thanks.” Mel later summed up his reaction to the miraculous event by exclaiming “It was as though Bugs and Porky, into whom I had breathed life three decades earlier, were returning the favor. I may have been on the verge of death, but they were very much alive inside me.” I don’t know about you but that just takes my breath away.
I’ll give you just one more piece of this man’s incredible life. The studio needed Mel’s voice for the “Bugs Bunny show,” which began in September 1961, but he was still stuck in a body cast. They set up a recording studio in Mel’s bedroom and with a microphone hanging above him, while he was flat on his back, the recordings were completed. A new show was set to premier and again Mel’s voice was needed. Little did the viewers of “The Flintstones” know that Mel Blanc recorded the part of Barney Rubble (in more than 40 episodes) in his home studio while still in a body cast. The picture above shows Mel in a body cast recording a scene from the “Flintstones” with Jean Vander Pyl (R) as Wilma Flintstone and Bea Benadaret (L) as Betty Rubble. Mel liked to joke about the fact that he named his son “Noel” after a Christian Holy Day and played the voice of a pig. He said that’s not what you’d expect from a good Jewish boy.
I have skipped many other impressive things Mel Blanc participated in like his own radio and then TV shows, The Jack Benny Show and many others. I’ll let you read Mel’s words which will amaze you and entertain you. “The Man of a Thousand Voices” may be gone, but his voices will live forever.
These stories were taken from “That’s Not all Folks” written by Mel Blanc and Philip Bashe published by Warner Books. I hope his story of survival and the great memories we all have of his wonderful cartoon characters gives us all a bit of a lift during this difficult time.
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].