ANIMATION ANECDOTES
April 5, 2018 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Floyd Norman on Ludwig Von Drake

Ludwig Von Drake is Donald Duck’s eccentric uncle from the European side of the family. Great care was made not to identify him as German despite his distinctive accent (because there were still hard feelings about World War II that had taken place just over a decade earlier) but rather as Austrian from Vienna.

In fact, comedian Sid Caesar’s famous, kooky “German” professor character on his 1950s television shows who was interviewed by Carl Reiner was also identified as being Austrian if you listen closely to his introductions.

He was given different names in the comedy sketches including Ludwig von Spacebrain, Ludwig von Fossil and Ludwig von Henpecked but was generally just referred to as just “the Professor”. He was an expert on everything from fishing to mountain climbing to sleeping to space travel and self defense.

Of course, the flamboyance of German scientists Wernher von Braun and the encyclopedic knowledge of Heinz Haber who had both served as technical consultants on the space programs for the weekly Disney television show were also inspirations for the character.

Veteran performer Paul Frees was also a major influence and provided the voice for the character. He was given wide latitude to ad-lib and improvise dialog that was later included in the final film to help create a high energy and the same sense of spontaneous “kooky” non-stop mumbly chatter as the Sid Caesar character.

After many years doing radio and television work as well as being known for his expertise in mimicry, Frees had a comic German accent as part of his extensive repertoire which he utilized.

After Frees retired from the role, the character was briefly voiced by Walker Edmiston. As writer Mark Evanier remembered, “being an ethical person, he only agreed to take it on after talking to Paul and getting his blessing”. Since 1987, the character has been voiced by Corey Burton.

Ludwig Von Drake made his first appearance on September 24, 1961 on the new NBC television show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color episode entitled “An Adventure in Color”.

As an expert on everything, he was to explain the superiority of RCA’s color television sets. RCA was the parent company of NBC and was in competition with other color systems at the time so they wanted something to make them stand out.

To help promote both the launch of the new weekly Disney television series and sales of RCA’s color television, viewers were invited to go to a local RCA TV dealership to experience the new television sets and “living color”.

As a promotional gift, people received a unique Disneykins set packaged in a red cardboard box with a cellophane TV screen–shaped window, showing five Disneykins and the lettering “Courtesy of your RCA Victor dealer”.

The four by three inch box box featured Professor Ludwig Von Drake in the center, surrounded by Disneykins figures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. Inside, on the yellow cardboard insert was a graphic of Nipper, the famous RCA Victor dog, as well as the RCA logo and the tagline: “RCA: The most trusted name in electronics.


On September 30th, 2017, I got a chance to talk with Disney Legend Floyd Norman about many things, including working on the character of Ludwig Von Drake.

“I don’t remember the exact date, but it was not long after the completion of the Walt Disney feature film, 101 Dalmatians (1961). Story master, Bill Peet had a good deal of work completed on the upcoming feature, The Sword in the Stone (1963), but we were not quite ready to begin animation. Conveniently, a good deal of television work needed to be done and that would tide us over until the feature was ready to begin production.

“After a long and successful run on ABC, Walt Disney decided to move his weekly television show to a new network. Color television was the hottest new thing and it appeared that NBC and its parent company, RCA was about to take the lead in this new technology. Clearly, the network needed a big new show to introduce color to the viewing public and Walt Disney was the obvious choice.

“The Old Maestro would re-brand his show as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Before long, we had a script up on the boards in the upstairs story room where in black and white, Walt Disney would introduce the new show and the importance of color in his theatrical films. A tour of the Ink and Paint department would lead to a transition to full color.

“Walt Disney would then introduce us to a new expert on color. After all, who better to explain the intricacies of color than ‘the renown expert on practically everything’, Professor Ludwig Von Drake.

“Story man, Bill Berg first created the wacky professor while developing the storyline for the television show. Berg’s rough, cartoony sketches would be handed down to the master character designer and animator, Milt Kahl who would lead the animation on the zany professor.

“Von Drake would be given a voice by the celebrated voice actor, Paul Frees. Frees was a Disney veteran who had done voices for darn near everything Disney including films and theme park attractions. I spent a lot of time talking with him in the hall which was great fun and he was certainly not immodest about his many accomplishments.

“In many ways, it was my first introduction to Milt Kahl, the directing animator I would assist on the next Disney feature film, The Sword in the Stone (1963). This television job was the perfect way to ease in to my time with the obstreperous, master animator. Working with Milt Kahl was a delight and sketching Professor Von Drake was one of the most fun jobs I’ve had at Disney Animation.

“Professor Ludwig Von Drake was initially considered a ‘one shot’ but the zany character proved to be so popular he was brought back again and again as show host and resident expert on practically everything. I continued to work on the wacky character over time including a brief stint as Ward Kimball’s assistant on the character.

“When Walt Disney removed Ward Kimball from directing the live action feature Babes in Toyland, Ward was sent to work on Ludwig Von Drake as punishment. Ward had been a producer and director and now he was demoted back into animation.

“He had lost none of his skill with a pencil and in fact, would do a day’s work of animation in half a day and spend the rest of the time taking a nap. I guess that was his way of showing his defiance. I think he liked doing the character but didn’t like being ‘dressed down’ especially over something he felt was a misunderstanding that he had nothing to do with.”

Read more of Floyd’s wonderful true-life adventures on his blog, Mr. Fun’s Journal.

And don’t miss the fantastic documentary about Floyd Norman – Floyd: An Animated Life.

13 Comments

  • What happen on Babes In Toyland that led Ward back to animation?

    • Michael Barrier has posted the transcript of his 1986 interview with Kimball which gets into the Babes in Toyland situation

      http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/Kimball/interview_ward_kimball.htm

    • I heard that in a story conference they were deciding on the casting of Mary and Walt suggested Annette. When Ward stated Mary was usually thought of as a blonde he replied “We’ll put a wig on her”. Ward joked “Christ, Walt, isn’t she ugly enough?” and that moment things were never the same between them.

    • Dale – Who did you hear that from?

  • Ludwig Von Drake was always one of my favorite Disney characters. Modern depictions make him an eccentric inventor, but I prefer his original lecturer persona best. I can imagine him doing TED talks or even a You Tube series today.

  • How great to have Floyd tell us about Von Drake since he was actually ‘there’ from the beginning! Thanks Floyd. ….DJA

  • A wonderful, beautiful, and much-wanted post! Thank YOU!!

  • Like many of my baby boomer generation I was a gigantic Disney Kid. Wednesday was the biggest day of the week because “Disneyland” was on TV. I lived for the day I could finally go to the place itself. Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories were my favorite comic books. When the Disney show became “The Wonderful World of Color” and moved to NBC I forced my folks to move Sunday dinner from the kitchen to the dining room so our (black and white) TV in the living room would be in view while we ate.

    But from the start I couldn’t stand Ludwig Von Drake. I never laughed once. His jokes and schtick made me cringe. I actually felt embarassed that it was something that came from Disney. Of course, this was a bone of contention between me and my best friend who was as big a Disney Kid as I was and thought the character hilarious.

    Nothing against Paul Frees, though; I ate up everything he (and all the others) were doing on “The Bullwinkle Show” on NBC right before Disney. And I also loved Sid Caeser, including his Professor character.

  • I loved the Professor as a child and played this record album to death.

    https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/2/28/1222a.JPG/revision/latest?cb=20161201000108

  • I love the Professor. He’s my second favorite Disney duck (after Donald, of course).

  • RCA also gave away Disney-themed placemats, including one that had Von Drake working a Mary Poppins marionette. The merchandise item that really intrigued me as a kid was a simple stuffed toy with a speaker inside. You’d plug him into your reel-to-reel recorder and play a tape of Von Drake telling stories (sold separately).

    I was a big Von Drake fan, but only in his TV appearances. He always seemed out of place in the comic books somehow. As an animated character he was great fun to look at as well as hear, and he was more wild than the rest of the Disney stable without losing his essential Disney-ness.

    One curio was “Inside Outer Space”, which was compounded from the salvageable animated segments of the then-obsolete “Man in Space” with Von Drake as host and narrator. Was this meant for classroom and / or theatrical release? When it turned up on Vault Disney, the World of Color episode was cheaply padded with some performers singing “space songs”.

    Supposedly Leonard Maltin was working on a Von Drake set when they closed down the Disney Treasures series. Did he get very far, and is there any chance of it seeing daylight? Disney Movie Club issued “So Dear to My Heart” with a nice collection of archival stuff, suggesting they’d at least started a more ambitious release.

    • Dell comic books often introduced new characters or series in its Four Color line first to measure reader reaction but Ludwig was immediately given his own comic book that ran for four issues beginning with a December 1961 dated issue (although that meant it was on the newsstands weeks earlier) to May 1962. The artwork for all the stories was pencilled by Tony Strobl.

      Throughout 1962, Ludwig made other comic book story appearances including Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Album, The Wonderful World of Ducks, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and Walt Disney’s Christmas Parade.

      All of the Ludwig von Drake comic book stories were reprinted in Disney’s foreign comic book line. The character was so popular that many of these foreign countries, especially Italy, created original stories featuring Ludwig, as well.

      The Gund Manufacturing Company produced a talking plush Ludwig von Drake doll in 1961 with an accompanying booklet with songs and stories. Attached to the back of the doll was a speaker cord and amplifier unit and the doll had a built-in speaker. This was designed to connect to an RCA Victor tape cartridge recorder unit that was sold separately. The pre-recorded tape cartridge featured the voice of Professor Ludwig Von Drake (Paul Frees) singing songs and telling stories like Little Wet Riding Hood, Jack and The Cornstalk, Aladdin and the Eenie Weenie Genie, and Sleeping Beauty.

  • Complete list of Original Ludwig Von Drake Episodes:

    An Adventure in Color’
    The Hunting Instinct
    Kids is Kids
    Carnival Time
    Von Drake in Spain
    Man is His Own Worst Enemy
    Three Tall Tales
    Inside Outer Space
    A Square Peg in a Round Hole
    Fly With Von Drake
    The Truth About Mother Goose
    Mediterranean Cruise
    In Shape With Von Drake
    Music for Everybody

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