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.”