Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Bernice Hansen Mystery Solved

You’ve heard her squealing voice in countless cartoons from the mid-1930s. Little girls and animals her specialty. Leonard Maltin calls her “Bernice Hansen” in Of Mice and Magic. Even Bob Clampett and Rudy Ising called her “Bernice Hansen” in interviews. Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald call her “Berenice Hanson” in The Warner Brothers Cartoons (1981) and “Bernice Hanson” in their quasi-successor book Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (1989). Graham Webb calls her “Bernice Hansel” in The Animated Film Encyclopedia. He got the name from the Disney Archives, though Tex Avery once claimed that was her name.

They’re all wrong. But one is damned close. And you’ve got to be amazed with Tex’s memory.

For years, I’ve wondered who this mystery voice artist is. Some speculated she was a child. Some speculated she was a radio or movie actress using an assumed name. Others speculated she was a professional singer (and she does a good job with the Jimmy Dietrich tune “Dunk Dunk Dunk” in the 1934 Lantz cartoon “Jolly Little Elves.”)

They’re all wrong.

Recently, I found some crumbs of information, thanks to interviews conducted by Leon Schlesinger in the mid-‘30s, the period when a squeaky female voice was heard as Little Kitty in “I Haven’t Got a Hat” and in the title role of “Page Miss Glory,” among many cartoons. An Associated Press story of April 4, 1936 reveals:

On the “Merrie Melodies” vocal list is a woman who does no other film work than speaking for Kitty the Kitten.

But then Leon got a bit more specific in a full-page feature article by Alice L. Tildesley of the Ledger Syndicate. The Baltimore Sun ran it June 20, 1937, though I suspect it was written earlier and banked for use that day.

...we have a [stock] company just like the human ones on the major lots -- it consists of Beans, Oliver Owl, Kitty, Ham and Ex and Tommy Turtle. A middle-aged woman who works on the lot as dressmaker does Kitty’s voice. It’s her own natural voice, but it sounds like that of a very small girl.”

Okay. Now we know she’s not a professional actress or singer. She’s a seamstress. And definitely not a child. Maddeningly, Leon didn’t mention a name. However, we have several to pick from, thanks to the various animated history books. That sends us to the Los Angeles City Directory of 1936, conveniently on-line for public viewing.

Ah, maddeningly again, the directory contains listings for both Bernice Hansen and Bernice E. Hansell—and they’re both seamstresses. But that’s the last directory with members of the Hansen family, while Hansell appears for a number of years after when the mystery voice was still appearing in the cartoons. But both the directories and the U.S. Census returns for various years list a variety of spellings for her first name. The U.S. Death Index proclaimed her name was really “Berneice Hansell” as does the 1939 Los Angeles Phone Directory (1760 1/2 Ivar Avenue, GR-4373). So I entered the two words in a newspaper search engine.

Lo and behold.

MICKEY MOUSE’S ‘VOICE’ IN COURT
“Giggles” Hansell, Who Does Cartoon Squeaking, Says Man Beat Her
(Copyright, 1934, United Press)
HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 13 (U.P.)—You probably don’t know Berneice (Giggles) Hansell but you know her squeak. She’s Mickey Mouse’s voice.
Superior Judge Isaac Pacht became acquainted with her today when she appeared to prosecute a $5,000 assault and battery damage suit against Charles Miller. She accused him of striking her in a dispute over a dressmaking bill.
Berneice is a dressmaker when not “dubbing” Mickey’s voice in his film comedies.
“I had made a dress for his wife for $10,” the baby-talk expert testified. “When I delivered it his wife said she would only pay $8.50.
“Mr. Miller made out a check for that amount and I left. Then he ran after me and tried to grab the check away from me. He banged me against the wall, tore my coat and bruised me.”
Miller denied he ever struck a lady.
“After I paid for the dress,” he said, “she took the belt with her because she thought she wasn’t being paid enough. I tried to get it away from her, but I didn’t strike her.”

Berneice Edna Hansell was born in Los Angeles on July 11, 1897 to Edward and T. Belle (Carey) Hansell. Her father was born in England and came to the U.S. in 1877. He was a jeweller but switched careers in the late ‘20s and became an optician. We find him during the Depression an elevator operator and a widower.

Hansell found work in cartoons into the ‘40s and then was never heard again. It could be that her kind of high-pitched squeal wasn’t in vogue. Maybe studios preferred to use professionals who could play more than one role. Perhaps she just got tired of it. Or maybe war work intervened. Whatever the case, Hansell’s animation career came to an end. She never married and died in Los Angeles on April 16, 1981, age 83.

Sorry, animation historians. Better change all those incorrect references that say “Bernice Hansen.” Next time, we should all listen to Tex. After we teach him to spell.

15 comments:

  1. Wonderful research—though the United Press article obviously can't be right about Hansell voicing Mickey Mouse, whom I've never heard exhibit the slightest tendency toward Hansell's distinctive sound. Do we know any Hansell-sounding voices prior to Little Kitty?

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  2. Those news items were sometimes confusingly worded - he may have meant she was heard in a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Although the one reference on her at Disney Archives is for MICKEY'S CIRCUS, along with three other squeaky ladies, and it appears that scene was recorded then not used in the final cartoon. I hear her voice as one of a crowd of mouse kids in ORPHAN'S PICNIC but she probably recorded more that was unused. Incidentally Yowp, Graham Webb got the name Hansel from that Disney Archives mention, not Avery - I only learned about Avery's mention of the name Hansel in the last couple of years.

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  3. Glad to finally fuind out the details about who she WAS, and her birthdate..

    That took a lifetime..100 toi be exact..:)Steve

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  4. Kind of puts a new spin on the "Hansel? Hansel?" gag from "Bewitched Bunny", doesn't it?

    Bernice actually may never have claimed to have been Micky Mouse's voice, only that she did a voice in a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and the United Press writer took it from there that Hansell did the mouse's voice (Walt voicing Mickey would have been fairly well-known among the entertainment reporters, but this may have just been a U.P. court reporter/stringer in Los Angeles who wanted to liven up what was a basic assault story.

    Either way, it's a good job on internet sleuthafying on matching the story with the 30s female voice most people remember.

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  5. David, I'd haven't checked the time line, but Hansell was squeaking as Cookie in some of the later Buddy cartoons. And the Lantz elf cartoon came out in 1934.
    My take on the U.P. story was while Disney himself did the Mickey voice, maybe he couldn't get his voice high enough to emit a proper squeak when needed and she did it.
    The Los Angeles Times article of the above story spells her first name differently than U.P. But as the L.A City Directories and the death index have her at "Berneice", that's what I'll go with.
    None of this answers the question about why she got out of cartoons but at least we have her name. This has bugged me for years.

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  6. She may even have done Minnie on early LA radio;I know at one time that Shirley Reid, the voice of Petunia Pig, claimed this too. With all the stuff that's been lost or un-preserved we'll never know for sure. Obviously she knew she had an earner in her voice box...she worked for Lantz, MGM, Disney and Schlesinger. Never Columbia interstingly enough. Ising recalled starring her as Little Cheeser in his two or three MGM cartoons featuring that character. Incidentally, while Clampett and Ising mis-remembered her surname, Clampett's memory was characteristically spot on. In a letter to Hames Ware he described Berneice as a "middle-aged bleached blonde with this pure chi;ld's voice." The article you discovered confirmed her as middle-aged, an age-difference which a young twenty-something like Clampett would have vividly remembered.

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  7. I was thinking what J.Lee was, anout "Bewitched Bunny"'s "Hansel? Hansel? gag before J.Lee posted that..I wonder why Columbia didn;'t use Bernice...maybe they were even cheaper back in the depression than they're rememebred for! Of course, Fleischer and Terry were in New York. Also regardless of where Van Buren was, and as for the other studio, Calif.'s Ub Iwerks, I doubt she ever worked there or for the advertising Jam Handy either.Excellent net sleuthig,,Yowp.Steve C.

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  8. Keith, I've heard for years about a book concerning classic cartoons voice actors to be published and be written by you. Any update? I'd love to see such a release!

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  9. Anon.,I know that Keith has been writing about that, too. I'd love to see the release,too, but he's still researching.Steve C.

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  10. Here's my own blogspot:
    [I gave you credit and liked both ehre and to THad K.'s blog, since it had the link as well, and to my Facebook page.]
    http://toonsnoot.blogspot.com/2012/04/hansel-hansell.html

    Steve

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  11. Excellent history detective work, gentlemen!

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  12. The things I never thought to ask before.

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  13. Just found this website this evening while trying to find some information about Bernice Hansen. Was looking for that name as I had found it in Leonard Maltin's book "Of Mice and Magic". Have now bookmarked the URL as I expect there is much more to be learned from a deeper reading of the site's topics.

    Don't want to start anything but now that I know Ms. Hansen is really Ms. Hansell I'm going to think of Bernice Hansen as her "professional name". While this is something usually associated with performers, even some animators did this. One that springs to mind, and who worked on the Buddy cartoons, was Tom Palmer.

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