This installment of Radio Round-Up touches upon the character voices of radio that made appearances in animated shorts. To be clear, we’ll discuss the actual radio performers who provide the same vocal characterizations as their radio counterparts in these films—not take-offs or imitations (i.e. Kenny Delmar’s Senator Claghorn, who served as inspiration to Foghorn Leghorn). One such example would be Mel Blanc’s Happy Postman character, from the Burns and Allen show, using almost the same voice and signature catchphrase as the overworked Easter Rabbit in Easter Yeggs (1947).
It was an anomaly for radio celebrities to lend voice to their own caricatures, as Hal Peary did for the devil, patterned after his Great Gildersleeve character, in the SNAFU cartoon Hot Spot (1945). In Bob Clampett’s cartoon Africa Squeaks (1940), with Porky Pig, musical professor “Cake-Icer,” a spoof of popular bandleader Kay Kyser (known as “The Ol’ Professor” on his musical quiz show program, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge) appears. The success of Kyser’s radio program led to a starring role in an RKO musical film derived from one of his catchphrases, That’s Right—You’re Wrong! (1939). Clampett capitalized on Kyser’s popularity as he asked him to voice his caricature in the cartoon, to which he gladly obliged. Here are clips from That’s Right—You’re Wrong! (1939) and You’ll Find Out (1940), along with Africa Squeaks, which was released in between the two features.
With a vocal range unlike any other voice actors, Mel Blanc was an entertainment industry marvel throughout his long career. Besides lending his voice in almost every Warner Bros. cartoon starting in the mid-1930s, he had a prolific career on radio. By the mid-1940s, he was a regular player on The Jack Benny Program, The Judy Canova Show, The Burns and Allen Show and The Abbott and Costello Show, in addition to countless supporting roles in radio programs that kept him active throughout the week. Because of the hectic schedule radio demanded, Blanc dedicated his voice-over work for Warner Bros. to Tuesdays.
On Judy Canova’s program, Blanc played several characters, including Judy’s chauffer Sylvester, who spoke with a slobbering lisp. In Friz Freleng’s Life with Feathers (1945), Blanc used this voice for the tomcat who refuses to eat a nebbish, suicidal lovebird (patterned after Bill Thompson’s Wallace Wimple in Fibber McGee and Molly.) The tomcat would also be named Sylvester, but only after Freleng’s cartoon—it wasn’t until Chuck Jones’ 1948 film Scaredy Cat, even though the nomenclature of Blanc’s radio character was well established. Besides his voice, the tomcat’s first line in Life with Feathers, “Sufferin’ succotash!” was also borrowed from Judy Canova. Here is an excerpt from an October 19, 1943 broadcast, along with the introduction of Freleng’s tomcat:
Blanc’s broad acting was a significant component on The Jack Benny Program, which led to a lasting friendship between him and Benny. Among the characters lifted from Benny’s program in the Warners cartoons was the train announcer who cried out three designated stops on Track 5, “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cu…ca-monga!” After listeners heard this phrase on January 7, 1945, it became widely recognized. A year later, Benny was awarded with three wooden keys, and named honorary mayor of all three cities by representatives prior to his Sunday program. Here is an excerpt from the broadcast that introduced the catchphrase, and several Warners cartoons that reference the line.
When he came to the West Coast in 1935, radio actor Wally Maher (1908-1951) appeared in many episodes of the Lux Radio Theatre, among other dramatic anthology series. Around 1942, he appeared on Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou as Betty’s nasally, simple-minded playmate Wilbur. The program itself featured Tommy Riggs, a performer who could speak in his natural tone and switch to the voice of the seven-year-old Betty. Tex Avery heard Maher’s voice on the program and used him to play the role of Screwy Squirrel for five cartoons. (Avery also used Maher as the indignant baseball player who berates the narrator in the opening of Batty Baseball, and the Jimmy Durante turkey in Jerky Turkey.) Wilbur’s “Hello!” followed by a deep sniff was used in some of Screwy’s appearances. Presumably, this July 21, 1942 excerpt could be one that led to Screwball Squirrel (1944), which had a model sheet prepared by December of that year.
Director Bob McKimson often cast various radio performers as one-shot characters. He hired Jim Backus as Smokey the Genie in A-Lad-in His Lamp (1948), modeled after his millionaire playboy Hubert Updike III on The Alan Young Show. Hubert’s signature expression, “Heavens to Gimbel’s!” was inserted into the cartoon, in addition to “I’m here! I’m here!” and “That was a witty one!” followed by a forced hearty laugh. Here is an excerpt from an October 3, 1946 broadcast, along with the first scenes of Smokey the Genie, which were recorded just two days later:
For Corn Plastered (1951), McKimson enlisted radio actor Pat Patrick as the propeller beanie-wearing crow. The voice was based on Patrick’s pixie-like character Ercil Twing from The Chase and Sanborn Hour, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The character generated enough tremendous laughter from the radio audience for McKimson to hire him. The crow’s farewell in the cartoon—”Goodbye-aye-aye”—was the same as Twing’s in each of his appearances on the program. Here is an excerpt from a November 30, 1947 broadcast (with special guest Edward Everett Horton), followed by a clip from Corn Plastered, with Patrick’s voice slightly sped up:
Admittedly, the audio of the Fibber McGee and Molly excerpt with Wallace Wimple—in part two of the show’s profile on this column—was of slightly poor quality. As a bonus, here is a different sample of Wallace Wimple, from a June 22, 1943 broadcast, which has remarkably better quality, along with Droopy’s debut in Dumb-Hounded (1943).
I’m very pleased with the response my new column has received. I have more ideas, but I need to dole them out like precious gems. The animator breakdowns will start up again next week!
(Thanks to Keith Scott, Yowp and Andrew Gilmore for their help.)
I’ve always had this strange feeling that Jerky Turkey felt like a rejected Screwy short..
Enjoying it, too.
Yeah, but what kind of person hunts squirrels for Thanksgiving?
I’m really enjoying this series of articles. From the way the same lines appeared in cartoon after cartoon, I guessed that they were popular catch-phrases of the day, but never knew the stories behind them.
I’m really enjoying these, Devon. Thanks!
You can see Mel Blanc deliver his train conductor announcement as a guest, alongside Jack Benny, on the episode of The Johnny Carson Show linked below. (Blanc segment begins at 34:29.) But the genius moment is the story of the English horse (at 41:41): https://youtu.be/BTKkjxfouyU
Wow! I’ve had a 16mm print of AFRICA SQUEAKS for 40 years… there are several celebrity caricatures in it, never realized Kyser supplied the voice for his!
Mel Blanc before coming to Hollywood worked for Portland Oregon radio stations KGW & KEW where his family lived after moving from San Francisco in 1915 and after graduating from South Portland’s Lincoln HS started to work as a musician at the Multnomah Hotel in Portland and in 1927 was invited to join the Hoot Owls radio program which was a very popular radio show that aired on KGW. Mel’s nickname on the Hoot Owls radio program was “The Grand Snicker” Mel moved to Hollywood in 1932 after leaving the Hoot Owl program but at first wasn’t successful securing a job there at first so Mel returned to Portland in 1933 to star in KGW’s sister station KEX to star in their popular radio program Cobwebs and Nuts. It wasn’t until 1935 Mel returned to Hollywood where he worked for radio station KFWB which was owned by Warner Brothers and as they say the rest was history.
This is a terrific series. Thank you so much for your research and thoughtful compilation!
Other than Mister Magoo and the genie in “A Lad in His Lamp,” did Jim Backus do any other cartoon voice work?
Not counting GILLIGAN’S PLANET… Backus did do other voices for UPA (like in THE POPCORN STORY) as supporting players and the like…
What about “Plutopia” where he voiced that strange cat butler?
Jim Backus also starred in the 1977 re-dubbed of the Soyuzmultfilm animated movie The Magic Pony as the “Foolish Czar”.
The wolf in the Bugs Bunny short Windblown Hare albeit just the first few words with blanc taking over
Very nicely done and very nicely laid out.
I’ve always wondered why Screwy Squirrel always sniffed when he said hello. And I’ve also wondered where that crow in “Corn Plastered” came from. And I never knew that Sylvester was based on a radio character. Very informative post this week.
Let’s not forget that Mr. Blanc starred in his OWN radio show…The Mel Blanc Show…from Sep 1946-June 1947 on CBS. He was the owner of a fix-it shop.
For TV The Jetsons, except Elroy, the other three humans in the family are nods to earlier franchises enacted by their respective actors. GEORGE: George O’Hanlon from Joe McDoakes; daughter JUDY: Janet Waldo a-la Meet Corliss Archer and similar radio sitcoms; and JANE his wife: Penny Singleton – multimedia Blondie. Come to THINK of it – George also is Blondie’s hubby Dagwood.
Then in the first Rankin Bass Frosty the Snowman was the many radio/film appearances of narrrator Jimmy Durante and silly-fey irritable-foppish wizard Billy DeWolfe were a major point along with tv comic snowman jackie Vernon to Frostys success – but ironically stand-up comedian Jackie Vernon seems to have had no major radio roles.
I’m guessing Meathead the dog from the Screwy Squirrel cartoon also is related to radio?
Hello, the actor voice of Smokey is Jim Backus the actor voice of Mr. Magoo