Saturday, 12 August 2017

Grace Stafford, Better Than Mel Blanc?

You’ve got to forgive Walter Lantz if he thought Mel Blanc wasn’t the best voice of Woody Woodpecker. For one thing, Blanc sued him. But, more importantly, one of the people who played Woody was Lantz’s wife. I suspect he was a little biased.

Lantz, if nothing else, loved to travel. Trade magazines over the years are full of stories about Lantz taking trips across North America and around the world to plug his cartoons. And it would appear one such junket happened toward the end of 1963 and the start of 1964 when Lantz had once again sold his cartoons for a syndicated half-hour. His wife Grace went along and some papers took the “hey-look-who-voices-Woody” angle.

I have to laugh a bit at the piece in Newsday of December 12, 1963, where Lantz claims that Blanc “wasn’t quite right for Woody” and Blanc’s laugh was “too harsh and malicious.” Really? Blanc was the guy who invented the voice and laugh. In fact, the laugh was still being used in cartoons for about 10 years after Blanc was forced to leave the Lantz studio because he signed an exclusive cartoon contract with Warner Bros. Some people dislike Grace’s version—I don’t mind it, to be honest—but Blanc clearly was a better actor than Grace Stafford. And I suspect Blanc would have cringed if he had read Gracie talking about not copyrighting the Woody laugh. A judge insisted Woody’s voice couldn’t be Blanc’s property because a laugh couldn’t be copyrighted. And it certainly wasn’t Grace’s to begin with.

Here’s the story.
She Does the Talking for Woody Woodpecker
By Alan Patureau

If you really want to create some excitement in Sardi’s during a jampacked lunchtime, just fill your lungs, rock back from the table and blast out, “He-he-he-HOE-hoo!” in the manager [sic] of Woody Woodpecker, the cartoon character. Bugle this three times, rapid-fire, then machinegun it down with a long, leer-pitched, “Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh!”
That’s what the nice grandmotherly lady in our party did the other day, and, my, what a reaction, Jackson. Forks dropped with a united clink, and in the silence that followed, gasps of surprise reported in front the plush-red Netherlands of the joint. Critical seconds later, as it became evident the lady wouldn’t require a straightjacket, everyone laughed.
“Amazing! I get the same delayed reaction when I do Woody’s laugh at a sponsor’s board meeting,” said the plump matron with the twinkly eyes. Sober, too. “They’re not as quick as the youngsters. But they never fail to pick up our option.”
NO doubt the members of the board are as shocked as the average cartoon fan is when he finds out that a 60-year-old actress, Grace Lantz, does the raucous, infectiously gleeful laugh and voice of Woody Woodpecker. She also happens to be the wife of Walter Lantz, the easygoing cartoonist who created Woody 22 years ago and has made a mint since—but that’s not why she got the job.
“Mel Blanc was the first Woody,” Lantz explained. “He makes a terrific Bugs Bunny, but I’m afraid he wasn’t quite right as Woody—made the laugh too harsh and malicious. We had tryouts and, unknown to me, Gracie made an audition recording. My staff narrowed the choice to four—Gracie’s and three male actors’. When I heard hers, I blurted, “Who’s that? Sign him up! I almost fainted when I learned it was my wife.”
Lantz says that Gracie puts just the right blend of fun, irreverence and coyness into Woody’s voice. The dialogue is tape-recorded, then speeded up by 20 per cent to achieve the right effect, Lantz says, but that famous Woody cackle is the undoctored real thing. “You need good breath control to get through the whole cycle,” Gracie volunteered. “I don’t have a copyright on the laugh, but I don’t go out of my way to teach it to people, either. How did a radio actress like me develop such a talent? Oh, I’ve always had a streak of fun. When Walter created Woody, I practiced on the sly.”
Woody Woodpecker burst onto the movie scene in 1941, and Lantz has turned out an average of 10 six-minute cartoons a year since. Woody came to television in 1957 with a weekly half-hour series on ABC. After three years, all the movie cartoons from the 1940s were used up. Recently Lantz signed a seven-year contract with a syndicate to get a new batch of Woodys from the 1950s on TV. In New York, they will be seen Tuesdays at 6:30 PM on Channel 11 starting Jan. 6.
“For years we kept the identity of Woody’s voice a dark secret,” Gracie said. “I was afraid the children might be disappointed if they found out a woman my age was actually Woody. But now we’re to that point in life where we want people to know.” They smiled at each other. “I’m developing some change-of-pace laughs for Woody now. An I’ve-been-sick laugh and an irritated laugh. Shall I demonstrate? No?...”
Grace had a chance to chat with the Baltimore Sun during a whistle stop on the press tour. It’s interesting to read she and her husband apparently sat around thinking up ideas for Woody. Isn’t that what the studio paid Homer Brightman and Cal Howard to do?
The Voice Of Woody

WALTER LANTZ is one husband who never gets tired of hearing his wife talk.
No wonder. She’s the voice of his brain child, Woody Woodpecker, the animated cartoon.
And Woody is lucky, too. He has a pair of delightful lovebirds to worry about his upbringing.
Woody has been around for a quarter of a century feathering the nest of his inventor and cheering children on screen and in books in 72 countries. Yet Lantz was pioneering animated cartoons long before Woody. He began in 1916 with Gregory La Cava, a year after animated techniques were begun.
Woody Came To Call
The inspiration for Woody came to Lantz when an annoying woodpecker actually pecked his roof into disrepair to the tune of $200. “The best investment I ever made,” he says.
Woody is almost real to Lantz and his wife, Grace.
“I guess you might say we begin talking about Woody at breakfast, and sometimes our imaginations get so wound up, we start laughing like a couple of fools. Then in the evening before dinner, we sit around and throw out all the ideas we had in the morning,” Gracie explains, laughing.
“Woody is like having a good child you’re proud of. We never give him anything to do we wouldn’t like our own child to do, if we had one,” says Lantz. “That’s not to say we don’t let Woody get into mischief,” he adds, “but it is the kinds of naughtiness that’s natural.”
Children write asking what Woody eats, what time he goes to bed, whether he goes to school. The couple answers all the letters.
Now She Growls
Born in Brooklyn, reared in Worcester, Mass., Gracie was in vaudeville with her father, Ed Boyle, before marrying Lantz in 1941. She dubs all the voices on a tape which is speeded up by 15 per cent to attain the metallic effect.
“Walter was not anxious to have me do it in the beginning,” Gracie explains. But she inveigled the studio directors to let her submit a take in the auditions “to see if the old man recognizes my voice.”
Whether he did or did not, she doesn’t say. But she got a lifetime hob of speaking for her husband’s lively sketches.
Gracie has learned how to growl for a new series, the Beary family, the story of mama, papa, teen-age and a 9-year-old bear.
“But Woody is still our baby, and just as popular as ever. He’s starting a brand new television show on 160 stations from coast to coast. Imagine at his age,” says Gracie, proudly.
Brown’s assessment of “delightful lovebirds” was on the mark, as far as I’m concerned. Walter and Grace Lantz strike me as a couple who enjoyed each other, enjoyed life and enjoyed cartoons. Their interviews together were always light-hearted and talked about funny things. Lantz was liked by his employees and philanthropic in retirement. Grace died in 1992. Walter joined her two years later. She may not have been as good an actor as Mel Blanc but she comes across in news stories as a nice person with a sense of humour, and there’s nothing wrong with that in the slightest.


  1. Ben hardaway took over after Blanc got that contract with Warners. It's interesting that Blanc was replaced with the man who created the Bugs prototype.

  2. I've seen a couple of movies Grace made at Warners - "Doctor Socrates" (starring Paul Muni) and "Flight Angels," and she wasn't bad. But I agree that she couldn't touch Mel's portrayal of Woody.

    1. Warners? That's a double irony there! Mel replaced by Ben Hardaway who created the Bugs prototype, and in fact, Ben did the Groucho quote in "Porky's Hare Hunt", the "Of course,you know, this means war" near the end, and Grace, the eventual permnaent voice until her death of Woody, appeared in a WB film..:)SC

  3. Wasn't the sequence of Woody voices like so: Mel Blanc, Danny Webb, Ben Hardaway and Grace Stafford? Usually Danny Webb is left out, it's his voice in cartoons such as "The Loan Stranger" and "The Screwball". Ben took over in 1945, I believe his first picture was "Woody Dines Out". Since Woody is a sped voice, nearly every actor that did it sounds pretty similar. I like Ben's performances as Woody, because his casual wackiness comes through better than Gracie's somewhat forced cuteness. Ben could act with the voice; I especially like Woody's attitude in "Woody The Giant Killer" as he mournfully decries the lack of housing at the start of the story, emerging from an ash can with a battered newspaper. Maybe the reason Lantz "almost fainted" when he found out that Gracie did the audition tape, is that all the try-out voices sounded about the same! Walter couldn't pick out Gracie's voice from the other submissions when sped up by a third.

    1. I had read Jack Mather was another voice. I remember the giant killer one for Woody intterupting the standard "Fee Fi Fo Fum I Smell"..routine with "You SURE DO!"

  4. You're missing Kent Rogers. He was the voice before Hardaway; the trades mentioned Hardaway was taking over because Rogers had enlisted.
    I think even Hardaway realised he couldn't act. There's not a lot of dialogue in a Woody cartoon after he took over.
    I'd love to hear Blanc's Woody from the Mutual network series in the '50s.