Mel Blanc would be 110 on Wednesday, so here’s a “Spin” focusing on a little-discussed member of his “stable” who he performed longer on records than in films.
WOODY WOODPECKER AND HIS TALENT SHOW
Capitol Records Record Reader Series DBX-3032 (2 Discs 10” 78 RPM & 45 RPM)
Capitol LP Reissue JAO-3251 (1961) (With Popeye & Other Songs for Children)
Capitol/Wonderland/Ziv LP Reissue L-6989 (1975) (With Bozo Has a Party)
Released in 1949. Producer: Alan W. Livingston. Writers: Tedd Pierce, Alan Livingston. Music: Billy May. Running Time: 12 minutes.
Performers: Mel Blanc (Woody Woodpecker, Stanley Squirrel, Billy Goat, Plato Platypus, Fido, Happy Hedgehog, Harry Humbug); June Foray (Thomasina Cat).
Tunes & Melodies: “Platypus Song,” “What Kind of Wood Would a Woodpecker Peck” by Tedd Pierce, Alan Livingston, Billy May; “O Sole Mio” by Giovanni Capurro, Eduardo di Capua, Alfredo Mazzucchi; “Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss II; “Aloha ‘Oe” by Princess Liliʻuokalani; “How Dry I Am,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (Traditional).
Woody Woodpecker was Mel Blanc’s first character voice. He didn’t know it at the time, but as teen, running up and down the halls of Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, going “Ha-ha-ha-HAAAA-haaa!” he was sowing superstar birdseed.
Decades later, in a lengthy Bugs Bunny section of his autobiography, That’s Not All, Folks!, Blanc explains how the wascally wabbit evolved both visually and vocally. “By the time of A Wild Hare (1940), which is considered Bugs Bunny’s debut, he’d obviously had some work done… he was a sly-looking rascal… and the boisterous laugh I’d originally given him would no longer fit. It was redeposited in my memory bank, to be withdrawn several years later for another Ben Hardaway creation: Woody Woodpecker.”
Blanc’s contract with Warner did not prevent him from voicing Woody anywhere but in films. Ben Hardaway himself–in addition to a few others–did Woody’s slightly sped-up voice before Grace Stafford Lantz assumed the role until her passing).
Blanc kept playing Woody on radio and records until 1955. In addition to his version of “The Woody Woodpecker Song” (which was an even bigger hit for bandleader Kay Kyser with featured soloist Gloria Wood, who told and sang Disney’s marvelous Christmas Adventure in Disneyland), Blanc’s prolific association with Capitol Records yielded two double-disc albums and eight single records featuring Woody, in addition to his many Looney Tunes-related recordings for the label.
The two albums featured in today’s Spin are the only ones that were released as LP records, which is a shame because the singles are also very entertaining and could have been compiled into at least one six-story album like Capitol’s Bugs Bunny and His Friends.
Woody Woodpecker and His Talent Show could easily have been done as “Bozo and His Talent Show”, since there is no special reason for Woody to be there except to sing about his fondness for wood. Bozo or any other character could just as easily have introduced each “talent show performer.” Like the Bozo records and some of the Looney Tunes discs, the format is a “meet-and-greet” revue in which each character appears to say something funny, sing or play a short musical piece. The oft-returning billy goat serves as a through line to make the story hold together, more or less. The Capitol records series is so delightful, it’s easy to overlook this repetitive format because it is presented so well with legendary voice actors and lavish music. This was top-notch recorded magic for kids and they were designed to be played over and over again.
WOODY WOODPECKER’S PICNIC
Capitol Records Record Reader Series DBS-3091 (2 Discs 10” 78 RPM & 45 RPM)
Capitol LP Reissue JAO-3251 (1961) (with Gossamer Wump & Tickety Tock)
Capitol/Wonderland/Ziv LP Reissue L-6989 (1975) (with Sparky and the Talking Train)
Released in 1951. Producer: Alan W. Livingston. Writer: Tedd Pierce. Music: Billy May. Running Time: 13 minutes.
Performers: Mel Blanc (Woody Woodpecker, Tommy Turtle, English Bulldog, German Shepherd, Irish Setter, Scotty); June Foray (Sammy Squirrel, French Poodle).
Tunes & Melodies: “What Would I Do Without Wood?” “Woody Woodpecker Polka,” Ants March #1; Ants March #2; by Tedd Pierce, Billy May.
The second of the two-disc Woody Woodpecker Capitol record albums, this has more of a story line than Talent Show. Even though Woody still has a “meet-and-greet” with several animal friends who tell jokes and sing little tunes, there is a fun story line about ants attacking a big chocolate cake that gives this album a stronger overall script than the first album.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Woody Woodpecker’s Picnic”
This was not a record-reader title like Talent Show, but was a two-disc set later released on one side of a LP album.
Though Mel Blanc and Walter Lantz were friends and remained so, Blanc found it unfair that Lantz continued to use the trademark Woody laugh in subsequent cartoons, even though he was no longer doing the voice. Lantz believed every aspect of Woody was his property. Blanc took Lantz to court a year before all of these records were made.
“Mel lost the suit,” wrote Ben Ohmart in Mel Blanc, Man of A Thousand Voices. “Superior Judge Daniel J. Stevens ruling that since Mel had failed to copyright his musical crescendo, his exclusive right under common law gave him title only for the original publication.”
As Joe Adamson explained in The Walter Lantz Story, the judge decided that the laugh was public domain unless Blanc had copyrighted sometime in his life. The book quotes Blanc: “Yeah, but who copyrights a laugh?” The case became the focus of much legal debate.
“When Lantz heard that Blanc and his attorneys were taking the decision to the California Court of Appeals, he contacted the voice actor and made an out-of-court settlement that apparently satisfied both sides,” wrote Adamson, who adds another quote from Mel Blanc: “Walter’s a nice guy.”
This sort of thing was never easy for Blanc, however. As Ohmart concluded: “It was a hollow victory for Mel, since even Warner Bros. continued to do whatever they liked with the recordings they owned and paid for. Until the 1960s when he renegotiated his contract, Mel made barely $20,000 a year from Warner Brothers cartoons. Most of his earnings came from radio and TV work.”
In describing the Capitol Woody Woodpecker singles in his autobiography, Blanc ends on a telling note, describing one record in particular to reflect his own feelings on the compensation issue.
“Other Woody 45s and 78s combined music with children’s stories and morals,” Blanc wrote. “For instance, 1952’s Woody Woodpecker and His Spaceship, in which Woody blasts off into outer space. His rocket comes to rest in ‘Double Land,’ the inhabitants of which possess two heads, speak in double-talk, and drink double-chocolate malts. However, not everything in Double-Land is idyllic. They have to wash two faces. If only the sales royalties had been based on a similar mathematical principle.”
Woody Woodpecker and His Space Ship
These are the other single-disc Capitol Woody Woodpecker records:
Woody Woodpecker and the Scarecrow (1952)
Woody Woodpecker and the Lost Monkey (1953)
Woody Woodpecker and the Animal Crackers (1953)
Woody Woodpecker and the Truth Tonic (1954)
Woody Woodpecker Meets Davy Crockett (1955)
Woody Woodpecker’s Fairy Godmother (1955)
Woody Woodpecker in Mixed-Up Land (1955, no audio available)