ANIMATION SPIN
March 16, 2021 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Saluting Disney’s Record-Setting Story Reader, Robie Lester

“Let’s begin now…”

It’s tradition. Whether it’s Mary Poppins, Iron Man, Frozen, The Lion King, Star Wars, Cinderella or most recently, the Oscar-nominated Soul, almost every Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Muppet or Lucasfilm book-and-recording uses this phrase to take its reader/listeners on their next voyage to reading along.

Robie Lester as Blue Fairy

Robie Lester said it first and most often. Since 1965 as the original “Disneyland Story Reader,” no one has spoken it on more read-along sets. Adding those recordings to her singing, narration and acting roles on various other Disney releases, it can be stated that Ms. Lester (who passed away from Leukemia in 2005) appeared on more individual Walt Disney Records than any other artist in history.

The Disneyland “See Hear Read” series was produced during a flurry of mid-sixties creative activity when Robie was very much in-demand as a studio singer and actor for animation, commercials and records. Both careers had been in development since her days singing with orchestras, big bands and the USO, as well as studying in the prestigious Jeff Corey acting classes, whose other students included James Dean, Richard Chamberlain, Jane and Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Leonard Nimoy, Rita Moreno and James Coburn.

Under contract with Liberty Records in 1956, one of Robie’s earliest singles was “With You Where You Are.” Billboard said, “”Here’s a harmony dual-tracking job by the gal on a bouncy tune. Songstress has an easygoing style with potential to break thru on future sides.” Regarding the “B” side, “Listen to the Wind,” the magazine said, “The new thrush offers a slightly mystical, minor-key ballad that has charm. Organ backup makes the whispering wind sound.” Playing the organ and conducting the orchestra was Gaylord Carter, the legendary silent movie musician whose is one of the organists who is heard throughout the Disney Parks Haunted Mansion attraction.

Another single for Liberty, “Whispering Guitar” and “My Love and I” was accompanied by The Spencer-Hagen Orchestra.

Robie recalled being in the Liberty studios at the same time as Ross Bagdasarian was recording his instrumentals and just beginning to create Alvin and the Chipmunks. Though her singles charted but did not reach very high, the people with whom she worked within the industry took notice of her perfect pitch, impressive octave range, professionalism and engaging work ethic. As Tutti Camarata told me, “Robie could do almost anything we gave her to do.”

The fine print of these singles reveals top arrangers, producers and songwriters like Earle Hagen (The Dick Van Dyke Show and Andy Griffith Show themes); Don Ralke (Snoopy, Come Home); and Sy Miller, who with his wife Jill, wrote “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” Not only was Robie among the first (if not the first) to record the song, she was also Godmother to one of their children.

Herb Alpert’s A&M Records label (she called him “Herbie”) released the biggest pop single of Robie’s career, though she was not the credited artist. It was “Guantanamera” by The Sandpipers (a folk-rock trio that came along several years after the Golden Records quartet). This group began their career as members of The Bob Mitchell Choir, a renowned Hollywood group of young singers heard in dozens of films and TV shows including Going My Way, The Bishop’s Wife, Peter Pan and The Flying Nun.

Robie is heard during the middle verse of “Guantanamera” singing the Spanish lyrics as one of The Sandpipers explains the meaning.

Robie made only a handful of on-camera appearances, one of which is sadly lost to the erase button. When NBC destroyed Paul Winchell’s classic TV shows, one of them was a special musical adaptation of Pinocchio with his ventriloquism partner, Jerry Mahoney. Fortunately, legendary performer (also the voice of Tigger, Dick Dastardly and Gargamel) had already preserved the story and songs with on Decca Records, but singer Elise Bretton (who worked in New York on several Golden Records) played the Blue Fairy.

During Robie’s Disneyland Story Reader and “Guantanamera” era, Dot Records released “One Step from Heaven,” a groovy tune that she performed on a 1966 episode of the syndicated teen pop show Shivaree. This footage did survive and someone was kind enough to post it (Teri Garr is one of the go-go dancers).

With TV animation on the upswing in the early to mid-sixties, Robie was heard a regular role as Polly Plum on The Funny Company and several supporting roles, including Roxanne in the “Cyrano” episode of The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. It was also the height of the “Mad Men” era of advertising jingles, comedy skits and mascot characters. Robie’s costars in this collection include Mel Blanc and Thurl Ravenscroft.

The number of replacement dialogue (“looping”) gigs Robie did for films and TV are impossible to calculate. One example is a restaurant scene in this episode of the TV sitcom That Girl (at 6:45).

As a favorite demo singer of Disney composers Mel Leven, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, her voice was familiar to the Disney studio staff. Leven was a longtime friend and worked with her on demos for the abandoned Chanticleer animated feature project of the early sixties. Had the project been selected for production by Walt, Robie might have been given a substantial role in the film. Disney Legend Marc Davis discussed the project with our renowned colleague Jim Korkis in this interview.

Nevertheless, lots of Disney film, TV and records came her way. Along with Gloria Wood, she might be heard, at an accelerated speed, singing for Chip and/or Dale as well as Donald’s nephews, depending on the project. In Walt Disney’s The Three Lives of Thomasina, after the male chorus sings the opening verse, and Karen Dotrice lifts up her cat, it is not Karen’s voice we hear but Robie’s saying, “Thomasina!” before singing the theme song. (Sequence begins at 2:40.)

Nearly all the Disneyland and Buena Vista Records were recorded, edited and mixed at Tutti Camarata’s Sunset Sound Recorders on Sunset and Cherokee in Hollywood. Even the discs themselves were cut on lathes on the premises. Robie might be in the booth to sing, narrate or perform in full ensemble casts for stacks of releases. It might be “The Litterbug Song” one moment, and “The Siamese Cat Song” the next. Jimmy Johnson, the president and founder of Disney’s in-house label, also wrote most of the scripts. He and Tutti would often combine several projects into one session.

Robie Lester and singer Bill Lee

This could be a challenge for any performer, especially when it came to the read-along book and record scripts. Robie recalled being handed a stack of scripts with little preparation time before heading into the booth to record. Children’s records had low budgets with little allowance for more than one or two takes. A “Disneyland Original Little Long Playing Record” and book set sold for 69 cents or less in the mid-sixties.

For example, Robie might have been handed the script for Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians, The Haunted Mansion and “it’s a small world.” There was no film or video playback reference (and it’s unlikely there was time for audio reference). She might have read them through, decided on some approaches, made some notes, and recorded with takes kept to a minimum (and upon careful listening, one cannot detect evidence of multiple takes).

Robie relied on her instincts, training, and basic approach to reading the books as a gentle caregiver who was doing each voice as a loving person would to a beloved child. The individual results varied, but the cumulative results were powerful because millions of these recordings were listened to, over and over again, by countless millions of children, their friends and families, for at least two generations. The kind, unpretentious voice of Robie Lester reached farther than she herself could have ever dreamed.

One of Robie’s most collectible Disneyland LP albums is The Haunted Mansion. It features spectacular artwork by Disney Imagineer Collin Campbell and a very odd recorded presentation of the attraction. Substituting for Paul Frees as the Ghost Host is veteran Disney film and attraction actor Pete Renaday (Renoudet), whose voice was double-recorded, then played back out of sync in stereo for an especially eerie effect.

The music, sound effects and voice of Madame Leota (Eleanor Audley) are from The Haunted Mansion soundtrack. Jimmy Johnson’s somewhat campy “B-movie” concept for the album script concerns two teens coming home from a date who become trapped in the mansion. The narrator is Thurl Ravenscroft, the teen boy is Ron Howard and the young lady is Robie (who also squawks for the raven). It’s a curious camp classic, has been reissued often and is available for download on iTunes and Amazon. Robie also read the little book and record set.

1970 saw doors close and open. Disneyland Records, which was alternating her storybook readings with those of Lois Lane (Lois Wilkinson), released her final read-along title, Susie the Little Blue Coupe.

The much-anticipated premiere of the Disney animated feature The Aristocats meant a new line of recordings in various formats. As per usual with some children’s recordings, the budget did not allow for every original cast member to participate in the vinyl versions. Eva Gabor, who voiced the speaking part of Duchess for the film, was not available, nor were the actual soundtrack music tracks (for more details please see these Aristocats Animation Spin posts about the song albums and the Grammy-nominated Storyteller LP record and book set.

Audio sequences with Phil Harris and Sterling Holloway were recorded for the album (mixed with a few moments from the soundtrack), along with a completely different arrangement for the songs created at London’s Abbey Road studios by Camarata and The Mike Sammes Singers. Robie Lester spoke and sang for Duchess on the recordings, including an extended version of the Sherman brothers’ “She Never Felt Alone” that was not used in the film.

Robie also sang for Duchess in the film. She can be heard singing in “Scales and Arpeggios” and “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat.”

When Eva Gabor was brought back to voice Miss Bianca for 1977’s The Rescuers, Robie provided her singing voice for “Rescue Aid Society.”

1970 also brought Robie’s best known role: Miss Jessica, the schoolteacher who becomes the wife and partner of Kris Kringle in the Rankin/Bass perennial favorite, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. This was one role for which Robie was fully credited, not performing for another artist and creating an original character, one that even resembled her in stop-motion animation. She recalled the joyous sessions with Fred Astaire and members of the cast, though she said that Mickey Rooney was recorded separately. For over fifty holiday seasons, Jessica has belted out Maury Laws and Jules Bass’ “My World is Beginning Today” at the Sombertown Fountain.

Robie’s life was also devoted to her family and numerous causes, particularly animals, and she hosted events to enlist support. But health issues began to take their toll and she retired to a small citrus farm north of Los Angeles where she believed she was long forgotten. She had no idea how many lives she had touched.

It was Tim Hollis, co-author of Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records, who first located Robie and convinced her that there were people who had been trying to find her for many years, and were very fond of her work. To her astonishment and joy, she spent the last few years of her life hearing from people about how much she, her records and animated films meant to them.

Robie was being treated for Leukemia but still eager to work. Her last role was a small one, as “Madge” the receptionist in an episode of the Adventures in Odyssey radio series with some of her fellow cartoon and record legends, including Janet Waldo, Alan Young and Will Ryan.

One of Robie Lester’s last projects was a song she wrote called “We Are All Connected.” I am not able to identify the vocalist, but I am grateful this was posted.

12 Comments

  • Robie also wrote an autobiography titled “Lingerie for Hookers in the Snow” which has been virtually impossible to find over the years.

    I assume Amazon rejected it, assuming it was about something else
    (they once sent me a complimentary book on bible quotations accompanying the Kristine DeBell musical version of Alice In Wonderland)

    Did she really have to give it that daft title?

    • Sometimes a publisher will change a book’s title over the objections of its author. That may have been what happened.

  • Wow! Great article. I really liked the way Robie Lester mimicked Eva Gabor’s voice when singing in The Aristocats and The REscuers.

  • The range of her vocal talent is particularly on display in “My World is Beginning Today” (which as a youngster I mis-heard as “My World is Beginning to Change”). While Disney utilized her talents at vocal reading and acting, her singing talents were a bit underused on the records. There are several albums she narrated which could also have benefitted from having her perform some of the songs as well. “Mickey and the Beanstalk” comes to mind as one example (although don’t get me wrong….that album turned out prime with the vocals it had). But she certainly excelled at whatever assignment she was given. Her ghosting for Eva Gabor was so spot-on that many people, myself included, thought it was Ms. Gabor’s voice on the Aristocats album and elsewhere (I didn’t always read the credits).

    One thing I’ve wondered….how was her name pronounced? I’ve heard it mentioned as “robe” with an “e” after it, and I’ve also heard it pronounced as if to rhyme with “bobby”. Was it her given name or a stage name? Also, was “Lester” her birth name or her married name? And does she have any children living?

    Thank you for this post. There can never be too many posts dedicated to this remarkable vocal artist and her amazing talent. I’m glad she got to enjoy some appreciation from fans before she departed.

    • Rhymes with Dobie, I believe.:) And this has been your Disneyland storybook narrator.:-)

      • Yes, Robie’s name was definitely pronounced with a long “O” sound. Rhymes with “Dobie” as you mentioned. She was one of our guests of honor at the 2001 National Lum and Abner Society Convention where she performed her “My World is Beginning Today” accompanied by her husband’s prerecorded piano!

        • We will never forget that experience, Donnie!

  • I know this post is all about Robie Lester, and bravissima to her, but I’m just thrilled to see “That Girl” again for the first time in I don’t know how many years. I’m going to have to stream that series now. Especially the later seasons when Marlo Thomas stopped wearing a bra.

    That’s an interesting bit of looping in that episode, and I wonder why the actress’s dialogue was dubbed over. Marlo Thomas was notoriously tyrannical on the set, so maybe she had it done out of spite.

    Thomas later reprised her most famous role in the Rankin/Bass cartoon “That Girl in Wonderland”, which aired as an ABC Saturday Superstar Movie in 1973. Ann Marie takes a temp job at a publisher of children’s books, where she has an idea for a story combining elements of various fairy tales: Cinderella, Wizard of Oz, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears (I know, a brunette Goldilocks, but let it go), and of course Alice. Meanwhile her increased workload and jealous co-workers take their toll on her relationship with Donald. As Saturday Superstar Movies go, it’s a pretty good one. Ann, who goes through more costume changes than Barbarella, looks very cute as a cartoon character. It’s a shame “That Girl” was never picked up as a Saturday morning animated series. If Marlo Thomas was too busy to record her lines, I’m sure Robie Lester could have replaced her.

  • Thanks for this overview. Great childhood memories for me. And thanks for bringng up The Aristocats album, the key tracks are on The Legacy Collection bonus CD. “Thomas O’Malley Cat” and “Everybody Wants To Be A Cat” are absolutely spellbinding big band jazz numbers!

  • Wonderful article, Greg! Thanks so much.

  • Unca’ Donnie Pitchford:

    I remember that much about Robie Lester’s singing at the LUM AND ABNER convention, but not a whole lot else. As I recall it, your cohort Tim Hollis worked us all practically to death to get a ton of guests their own segments to talk and-or sing for the convention show. It seems like a “blur” to me today! Someday, I’d like to see any recordings of that you may have. Then, I can remember it!

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