On May 24, 1948, Burt Lancaster was running late on his way to the Lux Radio Theater building on Vine Street in Hollywood. He would not make the live broadcast of “I Walk Alone” on time, so director Fred MacKaye quickly gave Lancaster’s lead role of “Frankie” to stock player Ira Gossel and MacKaye took his supporting role of “Dave”. About ten minutes into the broadcast, Lancaster’s voice was heard as Frankie. A few scenes later, Gossel was still on the show, as Dave.
Most listeners had no idea. Those who did notice that it was not really Lancaster probably did so because Gossel’s voice was so ubiquitous on radio. They only heard Burt occasionally at the movies, but Gossel was a more frequent presence in radio comedies and dramas (he did 63 Lux shows alone). He eventually changed his name to Jeff Chandler and became a popular on-screen action movie star, an unmistakable inspiration for Race Bannon of Jonny Quest.
While the Lancaster switch during a broadcast was unusual, radio programs and theatrical short cartoons often mixed and matched the voices of even the most famous characters. When Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were unavailable for the Lux version of Casablanca, their roles were played by Alan Ladd and Hedy Lamarr. It was not the same, but it was interesting to hear and enjoy.Penny Singleton played “Blondie” in 28 movies, but during only half its radio sitcom run. Ann Rutherford replaced her and duplicated her vocal qualities. Most reading this article know that there were several Popeye voices, but even some of Warner Bros. characters did not originate with Mel Blanc, whose Woody Woodpecker laugh and “guess who” was heard in cartoons long after Grace Stafford Lantz was playing the role.
“Cover versions” were the heart of the record industry in the mid-twentieth century. When there was a new Broadway show, a movie musical, or a hot new tune, each of the major record companies would plan to release as many versions as possible by their top artists and the up-and-coming talents. Budget labels released covers with lesser-known or uncredited artists. The public did not necessarily care whether the recording was authentic to the source material, they just wanted their favorite songs by the artists they enjoyed on radio and in films. Soundtrack and original cast albums truly took hold with the introduction of LP records in 1948.
Children’s records hit their first golden age shortly after WWII when big labels like Capitol, Columbia, RCA and Decca were racking up big profits with them. It was the era of the “Doggie in the Window” novelty song, a haven for crossovers from kid’s discs to teens to grownups with “covers” of the same songs. Children’s LPs slowly gained in number toward the late fifties, some as composites of earlier 78 albums, like the famous Capitol Children’s Series.
Mel Blanc was one of the big names in animation and children’s records. He was the major artist on Capitol other than Bozo the Clown (Pinto Colvig). Stan Freberg, Don Wilson, Claude Rains and others were also featured, while other legends like June Foray, Daws Butler, Alan Reed and Billy Bletcher were usually uncredited support players. But Capitol still could not avoid the occasional “cover” title. Disney’s Pinocchio, for example, offered Foray and Butler in place of the original cast; Lady and the Tramp featured “members” of the cast. Freberg played Mickey, and several other Disney characters for Capitol’s Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party.
Not every feature and TV show soundtrack was legally cleared for commercial records, nor was every actor in a given cast was available and/or affordable. Children’s records are, as a rule, modestly-budgeted. Time is also a pressure, so if they could not get the cast within the allotted release time, they went with who was available and who could approximate the other voices.
Disneyland Records began producing, marketing and distributing their label in 1956 and also could not always use original voices and soundtracks. (Much of this has been covered in earlier Animation Spins.) Disney called studio recordings their “second casts” and tried to include as many members of the original voices as possible. The results varied but the effort always seemed to be of a consistent quality standard, even as the lower budgets of the sixties (and the loss of Walt) made full orchestrations and sumptuous productions impossible.
So for years, it was not unusual, and somewhat acceptable, to hear a strange voice or two from a cartoon character, especially on records. The industry had been operating in this way for decades and most likely assumed the public would continue to be fine with it. However, as movies gave way to TV and musical tastes changed in the fifties and sixties, the big band era gave way to star vocalists, and teens embraced pop music groups, the artists who originated the works were gaining more importance. Specific artists were becoming increasingly identified with their songs, anything else was either an attempt to sound like it or take it in another direction.
When Hanna-Barbera and other studios began bringing new TV cartoons into millions of homes every day, seeing a favorite character changed from a “special visit” to the theater to see an animated friend, but instead a daily or weekly routine. No one could have anticipated the impact this would have on the attachment viewers would have with the characters and shows.
So when a record with a picture of Huckleberry Hound or Yogi Bear on it did not sound like Daws Butler was talking, it came as a jolt to many a young person who knew the voices extremely well. This jolt might be sustained with little or no further acceptance But for those who got past their initial reaction and ventured forth into the grooves, allowing a well-executed recording the chance to speak for itself, sometimes they were rewarded with other creative aspects superseding their limits.
Each individual’s reaction is just that, shaded by subjective factors so there is no attempt here to make a case for or against the results. Some records are just not all that well done, but some are delightful when done with a talented group of “second cast” personnel. Just like various interpretations of a fine play or musical score, a great creative work and open for interpretation as long as it is done with sincere respect and not in an uninspired “it’s just for kids” way for a fast paycheck. Even as a kid, I like to think I could discern quality efforts and eventually learned to understand the reasons why they were different from the TV shows.
Naturally, the first reason was budget. Children’s records are usually not priced very high, often they were grouped with other low-cost records in the bins. Only more elaborate, usually celebrity-based discs, like the Mary Poppins soundtrack or Free To Be… You and Me, were priced differently.
A hefty budget buys time, performers, staff, music rights, and musicians. Even if the cast of a cartoon was available for recording (and not contractually bound to another label), sometimes they did not all work for scale. That is why you might find some albums, including Disneyland Records, with “members of the original cast.” Some performers were tied to other labels or simply requested fees beyond the project’s reach.
Countless recordings got by with versatile performers who could “double” and “triple,” allowing for more characters from fewer actors.
Recording in multiple locations was especially expensive in the days of classic cartoon records before technology simplified it. A cast was usually based either in Los Angeles or New York. Golden Records was only able to secure the TV casts of The Flintstones and Magilla Gorilla, whose albums are virtually Hanna-Barbera productions. But Golden could not cast Daws Butler or Don Messick for their famous voices, so experienced radio and TV actors like Gilbert Mack, Frank Milano, Cecil Roy, Dottie Evans and Sascha Burland took their place.
This was done with full authorization with the understanding that there is no way that one actor can pick up the complete portfolio of another. According to a newspaper interview (thank you, Bill Smith), Gil Mack worked very hard to approximate the voices, as he did for Mel Blanc’s cast on Golden’s version of “Merrily We Roll Along.” Time has proven that there are very few singular actors who even now can reproduce all of any single performer’s voices. Mack did not have the luxury of video or years of watching the cartoons.
These factors cannot affect the subjective positive or negative effect of hearing favorite characters sounding different on a record, especially when very young and after seeing cover art implying authenticity (even when the credits say otherwise). But Golden did sell millions of them, especially the single 45’s and 78’s.Almost all of these “studio cast” records were done by seasoned professionals, many with impressive credits in animation themselves, like New York actors Jackson Beck, Allen Swift, Lionel Wilson, Corinne Orr, Peter Fernandez, and Herb Duncan. During Hanna-Barbera’s sojourn into the record business, they sometimes assigned legendary actors to voice they didn’t usually do, like Paul Frees for Super Snooper and Mr. Jinks, June Foray for Blabbermouse and Boo-Boo, and Allan Melvin for Yogi Bear. A particularly unusual Colpix LP titled Wake Up America! stars Chuck McCann as Yogi, Boo-Boo, Cindy, Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw.
Read-along book and record sets may not have the budget of a full album, but often have to tell an entire movie story. There is rarely enough money for original casts, yet some truly remarkable impressions have been accomplished. Daws Butler himself was the “guardian angel” for Walt Disney Records’ full cast read-alongs beginning in 1977 with The Rescuers. Producer Jymn Magon hired young talents direct from Daws’ voice acting class, like Corey Burton, Tony Pope, Patty Parris and Linda Gary to do dozens of iconic Disney voices and the level was set extremely high whenever soundtrack dialogue is unavailable.
Whether a given recording worked or not depends not only on the accuracy of the vocal impression but also on the care in which it was written and produced. Again, even the youngest cartoon watcher could tell if the writer barely heard of the cartoon and hardly tried to make an effort, yet when these are done well, some of them are very entertaining and, based on what I have read in hundreds of comments for many years now, fondly remembered.