Many cartoon fans appreciate Jack Benny’s classic feature The Horn Blows at Midnight for its uncredited music by Carl Stalling. Among its other memorable sequences is its vision of a heavenly orchestra where Jack Benny is one of the musicians.
Will already knows almost most of the musicians, singers and actors there. He met them years ago in person or learned all he could about them. Rather than drop names, he elevated them. He made people and things out to be more interesting than he was. His life was one of constant delighted discovery since his youth, devouring movies, cartoons, comics and listening to music. His love of learning was second only to his love of sharing the excitement of knowledge. Words were precious jewels to him, to be written and spoken with care.
His unpretentious approach to his spectacular career could be why he goes largely unheralded in the mainstream. Nevertheless, he was a part of numerous box office smashes and gold record-winning recordings, long-running television shows and standing-room-only events. He acted, wrote, created, boosted and encouraged.
But even in an industry that deals in facts and figures, Will Ryan has the facts to back it all up. Some know that he was the voice of the sea horse in Disney’s game-changing box-office hit The Little Mermaid, few know he was at the readings with Jodi Benson (Ariel) and Kenneth Mars (Triton) before most of the others were cast. Will obliged by doing many of the missing voices.
For 38 years, he voiced Willie the Giant and Pete for Disney, since Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983 (Mickey’s first theatrical film since 1952). As the voice of Pete, Will was honored to be heard in the same film with Walt Disney’s archival Mickey Mouse voice in the 2003 3-D cartoon Get a Horse! In various projects, he played Rabbit, Tigger, Gyro Gearloose, The Beagle Boys, Uncle Scrooge and even Goofy. For various records and television shows, Will composed more than 100 original songs. He can even be heard on the Pinocchio’s Daring Journey attraction at Disneyland.
In addition to performing voices and writing material for Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss, Fox Animation, Film Roman, Warner Bros., Ruby-Spears and DIC, he performed in top-grossing animated features for Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth including An American Tail and The Land Before Time.
As a generous team partner, Will was part of several perfect matches, shifting effortlessly from being the funny one to the straight one when needed. He was half of Willio and Phillio, a live music and comedy duo with actor/musician/songwriter Phil Baron. In the early seventies, they were the toast of clubs and campuses across the country and the darlings of Chicago and their home base Cleveland, where Will had worked in the creative division of American Greetings.
On the strength of the Willio and Phillio debut album, producer Jymn Magon invited them to record for Disneyland Records. They moved to California and Gold records followed, including Disney’s Children’s Favorites Volumes 1 and 2. For the Disney album Goin’ Quackers, Will was instrumental in bringing Clarence Nash to the studio to voice Donald Duck. One of the duo’s most treasured memories was appearing at Disneyland for an elaborate Donald’s birthday event with Nash. Single records of the song “Goin’ Quackers,” backed with the Dr. Demento favorite “Vacuum Cleaner Hoses” were given to park guests. Also with Nash, their sped-up voices sang “The Chipmunk Song” as Chip ‘n Dale on the album Merry Christmas Carols. Willio and Phillio also guest-starred on the first revival of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1977, where they met Annette Funicello. Good times.
In the words of Bugs Bunny, “Offers poured in.” Phil was the voice of the first home animatronic character toy, Teddy Ruxpin, and Will played his (sold separately) pal “Grubby”. This led to dozens of special cassettes with books and the animated series, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin.
Will served on the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and as president of the animation industry’s premier organization of ASIFA-Hollywood, alongside one of his closest friends June Foray, who founded ASIFA in the U.S.
Will was an internet pioneer, winning an Annie Award from ASIFA for the early online animated series Elmo Aardvark: Space Detective, produced with a “who’s-who” of top animation names including director Darrell Van Citters. Elmo was a “real but fictional” cartoon character who originated in the twenties and starred in numerous animated adventures throughout the 20th century and inspired limited merchandise items and two soundtrack albums, also featuring top voice actors.
In recent years, a similar phenomenon occurred in live-action when writer/director Michael Schlesinger paired him with Broadway musical comedy actor Nick Santa Maria (the first actor to play Aladdin’s Genie live when it debuted on stage at Disney’s California Adventure park). They became “Biffle and Shooster”, a comedy team combining as many vocal inflections, facial tics, gestures and pratfalls from classic teams as possible with their own flair for the ridiculous. Schlesinger developed a detailed history for the team (including a break-up and reunion) and devised short films representing the golden eras of comedy filmmaking. The team made appearances in Southern California when it was possible to contain their madness in one region. Their collection of films plus voluminous bonus features are best enjoyed on this DVD, but the short comedies have also been edited into a feature available on various streaming services (without the extra features). The films are so authentic that some theater audience members believed them to be truly vintage “lost” treasures.
Some of Will’s songs made their way into Biffle and Shooster movies, as well as with fellow musicians and singers, like the Saguaro Sisters. Will formed his own label and released a series of albums as Will Ryan and the Cactus County Cowboys, blending comic whimsy with the romance of good-natured country-western music. One of his favorite performing locations was the Gene Autry Museum.
Will worked with too many veteran actors to fit here, but here are some: Janet Waldo, Hal Smith, Walker Edmiston, Corey Burton, Townsend Coleman, Katie Leigh, Chris Anthony, Dave Madden, Andre Stojka, Pete Renaday, Alan Young, Bill Farmer, Jess Harnell, Earl Boen, Steve Burns, Phil Proctor, Kenneth Mars, Lucille Bliss, Mary Kay Bergman, David Selby, Parley Baer, Robie Lester, Steven Franken, Susan Silo, Tony Jay, Wally Wingert, Wendell Burton, Joan Gerber, Dick Beals, Gregg Berger, Florence Stanley, Howard Morris, Hamilton Camp, Jason Marsden, Mitzi McCall, Michael Rye, Michael Gough, Jennifer Darling and Joe Campanella. All of the above appeared on Adventures in Odyssey, the long-running inspirational comedy/adventure/sci-fi/fantasy/satire program recorded in Hollywood. An animated Odyssey series was also produced with Will as the voice of Eugene.
The loss of Will Ryan takes a specific toll on those involved in that program, and the many listeners who know that he played Eugene Meltsner, a pivotal character during its 34-year history (in addition to hundreds of other roles). He also wrote complete (and usually very funny) musical scores for episodes and recordings including Eugene’s solo album. Here is a Christmas song he did as Eugene with June Foray:
There was a lot of Will in Eugene, just as there is a lot of Katie Leigh in the character of Odyssey’s Connie Kendall. Their recent YouTube series Tell Ya Later demonstrates their warm, easygoing chemistry and the mutual respect underneath the occasional comic bluster. This is an episode from November 15th:
Some of the finest, most giving people seem to leave us before we are ready. Are we ever ready? Or course not. Their time with us is so precious that it seems especially short. But kind souls like Will Ryan leave a lot of themselves behind–through what they have done and who they have known and made better for it. Like that gorgeously bittersweet “reunion party” scene in Coco, they never really leave completely.
As for Will, he’s got lots of great things to tell Jack and the heavenly orchestra. Not great things about himself, but about us.