It seems odd that there was a time when people had to be told who Mel Blanc was. It was a time before there were adults who had watched Warner Bros. cartoons daily on TV, over and over again. It was a time before Blanc almost died in a car crash (an event which brought him his first front-page publicity).
September 4, 1960 fell during that time. And that’s the date when the New York Herald Tribune profiled him in an unbylined article in its weekend entertainment magazine. Cartoons were for kids, so the feature story only touched briefly on animation. In fact, the pictures of Blanc accompanying the article hearken back to an earlier time—when Blanc played the Train Conductor (Jack Benny), Pedro the Mexican (Judy Canova) and the Happy Postman (Burns and Allen) on radio.
It’s interesting Mel would tell the writer he wasn’t interested in starring in a sitcom. Blanc had already done that—in radio—and the show was a failure. And despite his claims he had more work than he could handle, it didn’t stop him from accepting a regular role on The Flintstones, which hadn’t debuted when this article was written (though the show was already on ABC’s schedule and Blanc had cut soundtracks for it).
By the way, the “sound of a giraffe” was no sound at all. The January 9, 1955 Benny script, after some silence, had Blanc pipe up and declare that giraffes don’t make any noise.
“Man Of Many Voices”
THE name of Mel Blanc means little to readers of television news, and his face, seen only on the Jack Benny program in minor comedy roles (see photos opposite page), has just a vague and passing familiarity.
But while there is little likelihood that Blanc would stop any traffic on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, chances are that you can’t turn on your radio or TV set a single day without hearing his voice.
For Mel Blanc is one of those rare, gifted, behind-the-scenes specialists whose forte is unusual voices and sound effects. He’s the screech of brakes, the bark of a dog, the crunch of celery, along with dozens of assorted, anonymous voices. It is a talent possessed by few and is the result of a keen “photographic” ear, an exceptional knack for mimicry and a versatile acting talent.
His Job is Headache-proof
As to how busy Blanc is, well, he’s the voices of 97% of all the Warner Brothers cartoons including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker. He is called on to do as many as 500 radio and TV commercials a year and he’ll work on approximately half the Benny shows on CBS-TV this season, playing a variety of insulting characters. In addition, he’ll be the voice behind the new Bugs Bunny ABC-TV series which comes on in the fall.
It is Blanc’s unmatched ability to imitate animals sounds that keeps him particularly busy. Producers have found that regardless of how well an animal is trained, it is almost impossible to get them to make noises at the right time. Instead of taking weeks to train a horse to whinny on cue, they found it simpler and cheaper to employ Blanc.
Where there are many pressures, there is also a lighter side. In particular, Blanc delights in telling of the running challenge that has been going on for years between the Jack Benny writers on one hand, and himself.
“In the rehearsal scripts,” says Blanc, “they usually write in cue lines like Mel does the sound of a giraffe or Mel whinnies like an English horse, and then it’s up to me to come up with something. It’s given us a lot of laughs over the years.
On another occasion during a rehearsal, the sound record of Jack Benny’s famed old Maxwell breaking down, broke down and Blanc stepped in with such a realistic vocal sound effect that Benny insisted it be kept in the show.
“To this day,” he said, “whenever you hear the Maxwell sputtering and coughing, it’s always me. When it runs smoothly, that’s a record.”
Blanc never started out to be a sound effect or behind-the-scenes voice. He was a musician who eventually gravitated to radio where his unusual talent was discovered.
When Blanc isn’t busy being everything and everyone else, he’s a mild-mannered fifty-two-year-old man who lives quietly in Pacific Palisades, California with his wife and twenty-one-year-old son, Noel, a senior at U.C.L.A. For what it’s worth, he’s honorary mayor of the two as well as one called Big Bear Lake.
Whatever time can be taken away from his unusual profession is spent with a business he’s developed where he prepares ideas for commercials on radio and TV, and his hobby of collecting antique watches. He has more than two hundred and fifty which are insured for $50,000.
And while Blanc’s profession may not make him the best known personality outside of the industry, there’s nothing bashful or anonymous about his income. He admitted that he earns over $100,000 a year.
Would he care to say how much over?
“Well, I’m superstitious about pinning it to an exact figure,” he laughed. “Let’s just leave it at that.”