Donald Duck in Close-Up #8
The phenomenal sudden popularity of Donald Duck in the 1930s and ’40s carried with it a host of responsibilities. Donald was in demand, not only on the motion-picture screen, but in storybooks, in newspaper comic strips—and, increasingly throughout the 1940s, in “live” personal appearances. Odd though it may seem, this imaginary hand-drawn character found a congenial niche in live performances before audiences, on theater stages, in broadcast studios, and in smaller, informal settings.
This came about through the unique talents of the man who gave Donald his distinctive voice: Clarence Nash. Among my other projects, I’m pleased to say that I’ve been collaborating with Nash’s granddaughter, Margaret Barnes, on a biography of her grandfather. In the process I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the personal life of this extraordinary man. Nash is remembered today as the voice of Donald Duck, but in fact his repertoire included an uncanny range of bird and animal imitations, in addition to the talking duck. Nash was a born performer. Naturally outgoing and gregarious, he loved to travel and make new friends, and he relished the spontaneity of performing for an audience.
As early as 1938, promoters for the lecture circuits were approaching Nash with offers of live appearances, trading on his unique role as the voice of Donald Duck. Walt Disney reportedly resisted such engagements at first, feeling that the illusion of Donald’s screen character would be spoiled by the sight of a human performer producing that voice, but before long he had second thoughts. By early 1941 Nash was traveling on a modest personal-appearance tour, sponsored by the studio.
Later that year, America’s entry into World War II opened a new outlet for his live-performance skills. Equipped with a Donald Duck ventriloquist’s dummy, specially built by the studio’s Character Model department, Nash became a regular performer at bond rallies and other events in support of the war effort. Testimonial letters, and photos of laughing viewers, testify to the success of these performances. Donald and Clarence were a team that never failed to make a hit with an audience.
By the mid-1940s, Walt and Roy not only approved this unexpected studio asset, but decided to harness it to help promote Disney films in theaters. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was given its first formal theatrical reissue in 1944, and Disney and RKO, unsure how the film would fare at the box office in a second round of showings, mounted a tremendous promotional campaign to support it. Their activities included several companies of Disney talent who toured the theater circuits, appearing onstage, and one of those companies featured Nash and junior animator Dick Mitchell. Mitchell executed drawings of Disney characters while Nash and Donald entertained audiences with their informal banter. Nash actually did have a bona fide Snow White connection, having provided miscellaneous bird calls and other sounds for the feature—but it was as Donald’s voice that he was best known, and his stage show, and the accompanying advertising, focused on that role.
Once again audiences were delighted with his act, and subsequently Clarence and Donald became the go-to performers whenever the Disney studio launched a promotional campaign for a new theatrical release. So potent was their appeal that they were pressed into service for the openings of Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and other films that had nothing whatever to do with Donald Duck.Fun and Fancy Free (1947) was a film that did feature Donald in a prominent role, and the Disney forces planned a promotional campaign that leaned heavily on Clarence and Donald for radio dates and personal appearances. As early as May 1947, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen—who was featured onscreen, along with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, in Fun and Fancy Free—hosted Donald on his popular radio program to help promote the forthcoming film. Later in the summer, as the opening dates approached, Disney sent Nash on a full-fledged promotional tour to the East Coast. He arrived in New York by train on 11 August and immediately plunged into a round of personal appearances. Most of these were guest-starring spots on network radio programs, leading off with The Fred Waring Show. Waring was an extremely popular bandleader and radio personality at the time—and, not coincidentally, had just recorded the music for “Trees,” a segment in the upcoming Disney feature Melody Time. In broadcast studios and at a trade screening of Fun and Fancy Free, Clarence and Donald continued to work their magic with audiences, whetting their appetites for the film’s release.
This August 1947 marathon was so extensive that it soon clashed with Nash’s primary responsibility at the Disney studio: recording Donald Duck’s voice for new cartoons! Ten days after his arrival in New York, Jack Hannah’s production unit notified the publicity department that a new Duck picture was being held up and could not proceed without bringing Nash back to the studio to record Donald’s dialogue. The studio interrupted Nash’s promotional activities and hastily arranged a round-trip flight so that he could be back on the lot on Wednesday the 27th to record Donald’s voice for the new cartoon. (The cartoon in question was The Greener Yard, which would not be completed and released until October 1949, more than two years later.) This duty discharged, Nash boarded his return flight late on Friday the 29th. By Saturday he was back in New York, ready to resume his one-man (and one-duck) promotional blitz for Fun and Fancy Free. Even after completing his New York itinerary, he returned to California in September by way of Chicago, stopping there for four days of local and network radio broadcasts.
The campaign came full circle, in a way, late in September when Clarence and Donald—accompanied, this time, by Walt Disney—made a return appearance on Edgar Bergen’s radio show. These Bergen connections were a natural promotional opportunity, not only because of Bergen’s own role in the film, but also because Bergen’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and Donald made effective foils on the radio. They had no scenes together in the film, but their volatile personalities made for entertaining verbal sparring matches in these broadcasts. Their “feud” continued in October, when Nash and Bergen performed before a live audience of children at a special “birthday party” for Mickey Mouse on the Disney studio lot.
This was not the end of Nash’s promotional efforts on behalf of Fun and Fancy Free. Once the film began to open in theaters in the autumn of 1947, he embarked on another theatrical tour through the Midwest, similar to his earlier tour for the Snow White reissue. More of these tours would follow in later years, as he helped to promote the opening of Cinderella in 1950 and, in fact, another Snow White reissue in 1952. And even apart from these movie-related appearances, Clarence and Donald took on yet another role in the early 1950s as spokesmen for food products. Whenever a regional licensee introduced a new line of Donald Duck Orange Juice or Donald Duck Bread, Clarence and Donald would dutifully appear at local stores, schools, and theaters to help launch the new brand.
Throughout these years, of course, Donald continued to maintain a loyal following on the screen. But his unflagging popularity also owed much to his direct contact with the public. A personal appearance or a radio broadcast by the one and only Donald Duck was an event, guaranteed to attract attention. And audiences were never disappointed. The performance invariably left a strong impression, thanks to Donald’s colorful personality—and thanks to the genial, outgoing man who did so much to help bring that personality to life.
Special Thanks for audio, images and additional facts in this post go to: David Gerstein, Didier Ghez, Janet Klein, Margaret Barnes and Jerry Beck.
Next Month: Orphans’ Benefit revisited!