Clarence Nash was born December 7, 1904, in Watonga, Oklahoma, roughly three years before Oklahoma became a state.
He never grew to be taller than five foot two. Nash was raised on a farm, and for amusement started to imitate the barnyard animals. At age ten, his family moved to a town that is now part of the city of Independence, Missouri.
Nash recalled: “It was a big thing [at school] for the kids to try to outdo one another imitating animal sounds. By the age of twelve, I could do the sounds of dogs, cats, baby chicks, horses, pigs, raccoons, frogs, baby coyotes, and a lot of birds.”
It was at this time that he acquired his final childhood pet, a baby billy goat named Mary. Nash had a 1918 photo of her posing with one leg in the air on a wooden box. She died several years later and was laid to rest by a tearful Nash.
“When I got the goat, it was only a couple of days old and I had to feed it with a baby bottle. When I stopped feeding it, it would cry like a frightened little girl,” recalled Nash, who was challenged to imitate the unique sound, which he did to the delight of his schoolmates. He also worked at trying to convert the sound into simple words.
For a school talent show when he was thirteen, Nash recited the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the voice of the goat, and received wild applause from the audience.
Eventually, he dropped out of school as a teen so he could tour the Midwest as a mandolin player in the Alamo Quintet and an “animal impressionist” on the Redpath Chautauqua and Lyceum circuit. His most popular encore was doing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the voice of his billy goat. At the time, he felt that vaudeville would last forever, but was given a shock when it died out in the late 1920s.
Nash married his 18-year-old sweetheart, Margie Seamans, on January 25, 1930, and moved to San Francisco to look for a “normal” job, but in the beginning of the Depression, that was not easy. So the couple moved to Los Angeles where Nash found work doing his animal impressions as part of the KHJ local radio show The Merry Makers. That led to a job with the Adohr Milk Company when they heard him perform.
To promote its brand of milk, Adohr hired Nash as “Whistling Clarence, the Adohr Bird Man”. He would drive a miniature open-topped milk wagon (decorated with games, plugs for the milk, and Clarence’s name with painted black silhouettes of different birds underneath) pulled by a team of miniature horses.
He would go to local schoolyards and assemblies to entertain children with his bird calls and animal sounds as well as giving out treats like a small tape measure with Adohr’s name on it. He was attired as a standard Adohr milk man.
After two years working for Adohr, as a favor to a friend in San Francisco who missed hearing him on the radio, he made a free appearance on The Merry Makers, unaware that Walt Disney was casually listening to the show at that particular moment.
Nash’s friends had urged him to audition for The Disney Studio who had just announced that they were looking for someone to provide animal sounds for their animated short cartoons. Two days after the radio broadcast, he found himself at the studio.
Nash remembered: “On my way to work one day, I was driving my milk wagon down Hyperion Boulevard. I saw this big billboard picture of Mickey Mouse and it said “Walt Disney Studios, the home of Mickey Mouse.” So I pulled over to the curb and decided to go in. I gave the receptionist a circular advertising my work with the milk company and did some bird imitations. I suggested she give it to somebody who might be interested and, two days later, I got a call from animation director Wilfred Jackson to come in and audition.”
Nash was still wearing his milk-man outfit because after the audition he had to go back to work. He performed all his animal sounds, his bird calls, and then began to recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as his big finish. Jackson stopped him for a moment. He switched on the intercom which went directly to Walt’s office and then asked Nash to continue.
Within moments, Walt rushed into Jackson’s office and said excitedly, “That’s our talking duck!”
Nash was smart enough not to say it was the voice of a goat. Walt was thinking of doing a cartoon with a girl duck, but it hadn’t quite jelled as a story yet.
As he was leaving, Nash ran into Disney storyman Ted Osborne, who had produced the recent episode of the radio show featuring Nash, and said, “Hey, Walt heard you that night and he was going to look you up.” Apparently, during a break at a late-night story meeting, Osborne had turned on the show to see how it was going, and Walt heard Nash.
Nash was not hired immediately, but put on a retainer for a year, so he kept his job with the dairy. His first actual voice work for Disney was supplying bird sounds in the Mickey Mouse short The Pet Store (1933) and he kept being tossed similar little bits.
On December 2, 1933, Nash became Disney’s 125th employee. He was earning the same amount he made at Adohr: $35 a week.
Nash could not put in enough hours just doing voices to justify that full-time salary, so he often found himself temporarily in side jobs, from accepting artist portfolios and processing them to being a chauffeur for visiting celebrities.
His wife’s reaction to him being hired to do the voice of a duck was, “That’s nice, but it probably won’t last.”
Nash was actively involved in 1984 with the 50th birthday celebration for Donald Duck, touring the country, giving interviews and appearing at special events.
In order not to spoil the festivities, Nash did not let people know he was suffering from leukemia. In what turned out to be his final public appearance, he went back to his hometown of Watonga, Oklahoma, on December 7, 1984, where Governor George Nigh declared that day to be Clarence Nash Day throughout Oklahoma. Watonga renamed a street Clarence Nash Boulevard in his honor.
Nash was unfortunately too ill to ride on the City of Glendale Tournament of Roses float on January 1, 1985, which was themed to Donald Duck. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank on New Year’s Eve. He died on February 20, 1985 at the age of 80.
Nash’s tombstone in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, is shared with his wife (who died in 1993) and has a carving of Donald and Daisy Duck holding hands.