ANIMATION ANECDOTES
September 16, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

Walter Lantz Stories

Suspended Animation #389

Like some animation fans, when I was growing up I was generally dismissive of most of Walter Lantz’s cartoon output – especially in the later years – but with age sometimes comes a more mature perspective and I am now much more appreciative of some of the Lantz cartoons from the 1940s.

Jerry Beck had recently sent me a postcard featuring Woody Woodpecker (that was much appreciated) and it got me to thinking about Walter Lantz.

In 1989, Lantz recalled in an interview with me, “After awhile, these characters become no longer characters to me. They’re real. Color’s done a lot to make Woody. They hit a red that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Woody was a little wild at the beginning and he was really raucous and loud in all his actions. But he was never as wild as Daffy Duck. I think his appeal is that he does things you would like to do, but just don’t have the nerve.”

At UCLA’s “A Tribute to Walter Lantz” held in November 1992, producer Lantz surprised everyone in the audience, myself included, when he revealed that he had been going through some personal papers at his lawyer’s office and saw his birth certificate for the first time.

It stated he was born in April 1899, not April 1900 as his parents had always told him. So he was a year older, not 92 years old but actually 93, and all those newspaper and magazine articles for decades were completely wrong about the year of his birth.

Lantz offered no explanation why his parents told him the wrong year. This is one of those examples of how animation scholarship is so frustrating (and exciting) because new things about the past are being discovered every day.

Walter Lantz (1899-1994) began his career as an animator at the age of sixteen. His big break came when he took over directing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short cartoons for Universal after Walt Disney left to create Mickey Mouse.

Lantz became an independent animation producer supplying cartoons featuring characters including Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker and many others for Universal Studios to distribute theatrically until 1972.

In 1985, Lantz sold his library of cartoons to MCA/Universal.

Lantz starred in his own half hour television series, The Woody Woodpecker Show that debuted in 1957. He was honored with a special Academy Award in 1979 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1986. Woody Woodpecker received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990 to commemorate his 50th anniversary.

According to legend, while Walter Lantz was on his honeymoon at a cabin at Sherwood Lake in California, his marital bliss was interrupted repeatedly by an annoying woodpecker. At the worst of times as Lantz tried to get intimate with his wife, the bird would tap away on the roof, searching for acorns and insects hidden under the roof shingles.

In interviews, Lantz would continue to embellish the story, at one time even claiming that he “threw rocks at the bird and he would not go away. I was going to shoot him, but my wife told me there was a law against it”. The legend continues that upon returning to the studio, Lantz regaled his staff with his honeymoon misadventures. (see video embed below)

It was decided to incorporate Lantz’s experience in a new Andy Panda cartoon entitled Knock Knock (November 1940). Lantz told several variations of that story for decades (even claiming in one version that the woodpecker made holes in the roof so the rain leaked through on them while they were in bed).

Gracie was married to cowboy star Tom Keene and divorced him in 1940 and married Lantz shortly thereafter. The first time she provided the voice for Woody Woodpecker was the animated segment in the live action film Destination Moon (1950).

Lantz and Grace Stafford were married on Friday, August 29, 1941 at the home of Rev. Carl F. Schmidt in Reno, Nevada. Schmidt’s two daughters were the only witnesses, according to the Reno Evening Gazette. The first Woody Woodpecker cartoon had been on screen for over nine months by that time.

If the story was true then Gracie and Walter were sharing the cabin months before they were married.

Animation enthusiast John Semper Jr. said, “I once asked Walter point-blank if the story about the woodpecker and the cabin was true. ‘John, as God is my witness, that story is 100% true. It really happened,’ he asserted.

“Then he added, ‘Now, that story Gracie tells about me listening to her unlabeled audition tape for Woody’s voice, and how I chose her to be the new voice for Woody without knowing it was her? I have no idea where she came up with that one!’.”

Mel Blanc voiced Woody Woodpecker for his first two cartoons (and Blanc’s version of the laugh was still used until 1951 and his phrase “Guess Who?” until 1972).

Harry Babbitt did the famous laugh on the popular Kay Kyser version of the theme song. Voice artists Danny Webb, Kent Rogers and Ben Hardaway also filled in occasionally for the woodpecker. Then Grace Stafford, the wife of Walter Lantz, did the voice starting in 1950. For the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1989) Cherry Davis did the voice for Woody’s cameo.

Voice artist Billy West did the voice on the FOX animated television show from 1999-2002.

Writer for the show, Richard Pursel commented at the time “(Billy) is perfect. He’s definitely got him dead on. Every Woody voice in the old days from the 1940s and 1950s when slowed down was a different actor. It seemed like they just got somebody who was pushing a broom to do it, because when you sped the voice up, it sounded the same.

“With Billy doing it, they’ve improved it. He can actually act. Woody was always kind of a jerk. I figured the way to make him more likeable is to have him show some remorse for the things he does. He might be reckless or careless in the beginning, but he cares about what he’s done.”

19 Comments

  • Walter Lantz’s warm, fun-loving personality was manifest in all his TV appearances. It certainly helped give me a positive impression of his cartoons at a very early age, although it was apparent to me even then that the older ones were better than the newer ones. It was always a treat to see an early Woody, Swing Symphony, Musical Miniature or Andy Panda cartoon.

    The chronology of the cartoons suggests that at the time of the “honeymoon” that inspired Woody Woodpecker, Walter and Gracie may have still been married to other people. Both of them divorced their first spouses in 1940.

    It’s true that woodpeckers will sometimes peck on rooftops in search of food, which is a good indication that your house has termites. It’s also true that they sometimes make holes as storage compartments for nuts, as Lantz avers. During the mating season, male woodpeckers may engage in a form of compulsive pecking called “drumming” to attract females. Rooftops and gutters are more resonant than trees and therefore, one presumes, more impressive to a potential mate.

    As far as obnoxious bird behaviour goes, Lantz was lucky. The ravens in my area have taken to hanging around parking lots and chewing everybody’s windscreen wipers to shreds. There’s a chemical in the rubber that gets the birds high. Everyone I know has had to have theirs replaced multiple times. All the local tennis courts now have camouflage netting over them, because cockatoos used to chew up the tape that marked the courts; they got high on the adhesive. Then there was the flock of cockatoos that hung out at a train station in Sydney, where they would chew on the valves of the tires in the parking lot. Returning commuters were not happy about finding their cars with four flat tires day after day. A security guard was hired to chase the birds off. They figured out when he went to lunch and kept right on doing it. Such are the ravages that drug addiction inflicts on our society.

  • Such a great clip explaining Woody’s origins. I believe The Woody Woodpecker Show was Lantz’s greatest legacy to the world of animation. I grew up watching it and loving it. Really endeared me to the characters. I was so disappointed when the Saturday morning version of the show dropped all of the live action segments. Lantz brought the right kind of warm personality that kids could appreciate.

    There also was a book that looked like a coloring book titled “E-Z Way to Draw” that gave instructions on drawing in general and on drawing the Lantz characters in particular. I treasured that book and even though I never truly became an artist, I like to think that it helped me to draw fairly well.

    Any tidbits on Lantz or his studio are greatly appreciated. Thanks for another day-brightener.

  • If Lantz owned the Oswald cartoons (and thus they would have not been part of the silents destroyed by Universal), how come Universal’s archivists couldn’t locate the early Disney Oswald cartoons (except the sound reissues) in 2006?

  • Walter Lantz’s 50s TV show was where I learned EXACTLY how cartoons were made; I was hard-wired to that show. (Wish I coulda seen it in color!) Golden-Age cartoons were already an obsession, and to discover the secret formula was mind-expanding. All presented with a compelling kindly-grandfather personality. For years I had every intention of moving to Hollywood to be an animator, and hang out with the Lantzes, Joneses, Blancs, Averys. Of course in the late 50s, I had no idea that theatrical shorts were on the verge of a swan song.

    As for the “honeymoon” cabin? Well, a good yarn is a good yarn.

  • “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s been pretty clear Walter adhered to that concept. But I’ll just mention it in terms of his 1992 public reveal at UCLA, which I attended and helped organize. Jim, as you wrote above, Walter told the crowd he’d gone through his personal records and discovered he was born a year earlier than he’d EVER realized. Lantz must have known this was pure showmanship! To me, the likely reason is that during his producing career, being born in 1899 always made him seem older than was professionally convenient. Better to be younger, born in 1900. So just like that. Then, in his golden years, when he was undeniably an old man and one of the few remaining pioneers of silent cartoons, it may have just served him better to be older again, to correct the record. I suspect he always knew (one’s age is a relative number in Hollywood, others did this too) and a public event gave him the opportunity to spin another crowd-pleasing tale. It was a newsflash, exclusively for those who attended. We all loved being part of that moment, I did too, even if it was only a half-truth.

  • Lantz’s draft card in 1942 says he was born in 1899. A ship’s passenger list in 1958 says he was born in 1899.
    He knew. He always knew.

    Honeymoon? Sure, Walter.

  • Another aging fan of the Woody Woodpecker Show. Each week Woody would drop through the roof of what looked like a suburban home and grapple with a 16mm school projector. In the film segments, Walter Lantz and his studio were closer to a local business than a Hollywood studio.

    It wasn’t World or Color or Mickey Mouse Club. It wasn’t Bugs and Daffy in a big Broadway theater, Matty Mattel and the Harveytoons crowd running around an amusement park, or even a Tom and Jerry montage over MGM-lush music. It was just “Hey, we got some cartoons!”, and it felt right.

    Lantz was always a perfect match for Universal, a studio that specialized in bread-and-butter fare for neighborhood movie houses and later in bulk television production.

  • Actually, Jim, it’s not correct that Lantz “took over directing Oswald shorts for Universal after Disney left to create Mickey Mouse.” At least, not DIRECTLY after. George Winkler, Charles Mintz’s brother-in-law, took over production of the Oswald series for about a year after Walt Disney left the series. Walter Lantz, along with Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, Ben Clopton and others, “took over” directing the Oswalds until Walter Lantz assumed control with his partner Bill Nolan.
    Walter Lantz produced a lot of “Cartunes” from 1955 to 1972, yet very few of them have aired on commercial television, or even been released on DVDs or Blu-Rays. Admittedly, they are not the greatest cartoons in the world, but had more animation in them than the Hanna-Barbera cartoons which were such a big design influence on cartoons in the 1960s and 1970s. I would love to see at least the 1972 season released, as they are so BAD that they are enjoyable!

  • I like Lantz stuff okay. The Oswalds are fantastic, however!

  • Once in every show Walter would highlight a department in the studio to show how animation was done. Watching the Woody Woodpecker Show as a kid made me want to be an animator.

  • Thank you for bringing Woody Woodpecker back into my life. I always enjoyed that bird growing up but got sidetracked with the Warner Bros toons and Mickey and Donald over the years. The clip with Walter Lantz was so much fun to watch. I’m going to re-visit some books covering Walter Lantz and hopefully even find some that I don’t have. Gosh I enjoyed seeing and hearing Woody again!

  • What’s with Woody’s size in this clip? Why is he so tiny? He appears to be about as big as my thumb, based on how little space he occupies on that telephone. I don’t remember him ever being that small in the cartoons.

  • Grace Stafford was born Grace Boyle and was raised in my hometown, Worcester, Mass. She took her stage name from Stafford Street, where she grew up in a three-decker house (a Worcester staple) that’s still standing.

    • Grace also voiced Ms.Meany using her real voice. The character seemed to be inspired by the Almira Gulch character from
      The Wizard Of Oz. She, along with Gabby Gator(Daws Butler) were Woody’s main post 1060 nemeses.

  • For all of Walter’s tall-tales, Alex Lovy (who was the uncredited director of Knock, Knock and most of the Lantz cartoons in 1940-42) did back him up, in an interview with Milt Gray, that Walter told the woodpecker roof story to the staff and suggested it for a picture. (Lowell Elliot, the credited cowriter with Ben Hardaway, said it was all bull. Success has several fathers, failure is an orphan…)

  • Causing trouble again: I still think that story man Joseph Benson “Ben” or “Bugs” Hardaway created Woody Woodpecker. (Actually, Lantz’s story may _still_ be true, but…) As I mentioned in a post here about a million years ago – before some of you were even born! – I think Woody is “Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit” in a woodpecker suit.

    I suppose most of you know that the original version of Woody Woodpecker is REALLY ugly. How did he become so popular, as ugly as he was, originally? Well, the cartoon “Knock Knock” _is_ very good…

    I, too, saw “The Woody Woodpecker Show” when I was a kid, in the 1960s. Had no idea then that Lantz was still producing theatrical cartoons at that time.

  • I like Walter Lantz more than his cartoons (with the possible exception of one or two of the Swing Symphonies).

Leave a Reply to Paul Groh Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.