For this week, I decided to turn my column over my colleague Chris Buchman – whom I wrote about here in May 2014. With Chris, Thunderbean produced and released “A Conversation with Walter and Gracie Lantz” and I cannot recommend this disc more highly. Here is Chris’ recollections of putting together that historic interview. – Steve Stanchfield
“Smiles Of A Summer Night”
Woody Woodpecker is two years younger than I . . . that makes him 74 years old and me . . . nuttier than a fruitcake at 76.
When Woody turned 40, I had the honour of celebrating his birthday in the company of his creator, Walter Lantz and his wife, Gracie, on a special edition of an archival film series I hosted on a midwest PBS channel.
As happens this week, to be precise, Thursday, July 9th, marks the 34th anniversary of their visit, the culmination of exchanges over a 33 year period beginning when I was a wee lad of 8.
It was early in 1981 when Walter called to say he and Gracie would be in nearby South Bend (Indiana) in July to unveil his colourfully-whimsical ‘Happy Art’ collector plates, and would I like them to join me on my show, and to let him know what I wanted to do.
Just inviting me to let him know what I wanted to do was an honor in itself. Walter was open to a mini retrospective of his work; and as there were no time constraints, I selected a dozen films apropos to the occasion.
We, in fact, had about 90 minutes at our disposal to leisurely converse about the early silent days, Oswald, Meany Miny Moe, Andy Panda, Woody, the Musical Miniatures, Swing Symphonies, redesigns of Oswald and Woody…
Among the treasures were Oswald’s 1933 opus, Confidence promoting President Roosevelt’s NRA (National Recovery Act); Woody’s 1940 debut in Knock Knock; and the complete King Of Jazz (1930) opening sequence featuring Oswald introducing the ‘King’ himself, Paul Whiteman (a beautifully restored vignette transferred to a flawless two-inch master tape).
There were other significant films and clips, too, one of which, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Of Company B (1941) I elected to exclude primarily out of respect to Walter and Gracie, and because its ethic character renderings were too delicate and sensitive a subject to address within the span of a few minutes.
My initial reason for wanting to include Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy was to exploit the exciting arrangements of Lantz Studio composer-conductor, Darrell Calker whose invigorating arrangement of the Andrew Sisters’ top-selling record could easily be mistaken for that of the team’s arranger, Vic Schoen. In other words, Vic Schoen was to the Andrew Sisters what Darrell Calker was the Lantzes ‘Musical Miniatures’ and “Swing Symphonies”. They were, in a word, “inseparable”!
And of course, there was Paul Whiteman and the synchronization of the music for The King Of Jazz animated sequence; the recording process of which is described in detail by Walter during the interview. Jimmy Dietrich, long with the Whiteman band in the 1920s, soon joined Lantz to score many Oswald cartoons, the earliest entries employing melodies from The King Of Jazz.
I must, here, pay tribute to Ferde Grofe, who remains among the foremost composers, arrangers and extraordinary musicians of the twenteith-century. Most everybody is somewhat familiar with his “Grand Canyon” and “Mississippi” suites, but few know his work in arranging “Rhapsody In Blue” and scores of other Gershwin compositions; likewise the scintillating arrangements of Paul Whiteman including most, if not all, of the melodies in Universal’s “King Of Jazz”.
Grofe’s symphonic impressions of high society New York of the Art Deco 1920s is remarkable. Although Louis Alter composed “Manhattan Serenade” which served as the central theme for “My Man Godfrey” (1936) and the basis of Tom & Jerry’s “Mouse In Manhattan”. (1945), Grofe’s influence is unmistakably present.
Walter and Gracie arrived early on the day we taped my little show. Meeting them in person for the first time had the emotional impact of seeing your favorite aunt and uncle whom you’d not seen in a long time; and while there was no physical hug, it was an emotional hug keenly felt.
The first thing they said to me was “there’s no need to be nervous” intuitively knowing more about me than I did myself. They were an instant comfort and very reassuring. I’m sure they had that effect on everyone they met.
All was in readiness as we prepared to tape the show ‘live’; every photo and film clip had been numbered in the order intended for the director to call up instantly. But we were over confident. We hadn’t anticipated what to do if the chat went in a direction I hadn’t planned and we had to omit or jump to a desired clip. And that is what happened. Of course, we could have just taped the conversation and inserted the clips prior to airing two days hence. But that never occured to us and I got caught on camera trying to contact the director. There were also technical delays causing some confusion. None of this bothered Walter and Gracie; and during one of the delays we gave them a little gift (which was not televised). They were obviously enjoying themselves, chatting with staff and reminiscing about the old days of radio and vaudeville.
The delays forfeited the chance to talk with Gracie about her work in films and years in vaudeville with her father, later highlighted in our DVD, “A Conversation With Walter & Gracie Lantz”, which includes a number of choice and memorably-amusing moments. It was, Walter confided, the longest interview they had done for television.
Walter and Gracie were at the station over three-and-a-half hours – a long time, and they didn’t really seem to want to leave.
The affectionate glances shared between Walter and Gracie during their tele-visit are priceless.
I regret never having been in a position to accept their invitation to visit them in their home; but they did keep in touch and that was very rewarding.
9th July 2015
NOTE: You can order a DVD of A Conversation with Walter and Gracie Lantz at Amazon.com