Wednesday 30 May 2018

A Postman, A Pig and 998 More

He was hired on March 23, 1931 to head an 11-member band at the RKO Orpheum in Portland, Oregon. Little did he know that within a decade, he would be famous as the world’s number-one cartoon voice.

He’s Mel Blanc. And he would have turned 110 today.

Blanc had been the musical director at KGW radio. For a time, he hosted a variety show that was heard up and down the West Coast that brought him to the attention of radio people in California. Blanc made his name in network radio before he was hired at the Leon Schlesinger studio to become part of what amounted to a stock company of cartoon voice actors. His versatility and acting abilities quickly put him at the top. The canny Schlesinger realised what he had and sewed up Blanc in an exclusive contract.

The deal didn’t involve anything to do with radio, so Blanc continued to add more big network comedy shows onto his resumé. The great publication Radio Life profiled him in its issue of January 2, 1944. Unfortunately, a copy isn’t available on-line. However, the magazine wrote another article about his career in its March 11, 1945 edition. There’s nothing about Al Pearce, which was probably his first big network show. “Sad Sack” was simply Blanc’s Porky voice. Columnist Carroll Van Court apparently hung the man-of-a-thousand-voices moniker on Blanc, but the writer here chooses to play on the Heinz 57 varieties slogan.
57 Variety Blanc
By Betty Mills

BECAUSE Mel Blanc is fifty-seven other people most of the time, nobody believes it's he when he portrays—Mel Blanc.
On a recent Jack Benny show, "the man from Esquire" made his air debut. "It was me all the time," grinned Blanc, "talking in my natural voice. The payoff came when I was asked a million times who did the part—and when I told 'em, they wouldn't believe me. They still don't."
But it doesn't surprise Mel that his natural voice isn't recognized on the air. It pleases him. For a man who specializes in at least fifty-seven voices, dialects, and intricate sound effects, he's surprised that he, himself, can remember what it sounds like.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, busy Mr. Blanc again showed rare ingenuity. Not only did he sandwich a chat with Radio Life into his hectic schedule, but he located the only quiet spot, in the form of Dinah Shore's empty dressing room, at NBC. You might sum Mel Blanc up by saying that he's probably your favorite radio character. Remember "Moony" of the old "Point Sublime"—and of course, you're familiar with Burns and Allen's "Happy Postman," and Judy Canova's "Pedro"—and then there's that wonderful fellow, "Sad Sack," whom you civilians haven't had a chance to meet. But "Sad Sack" is the new favorite of all G.I.'s and is featured on the transcribed "G.I. Journal."
There are the voices of lovable little Chinamen, and hated Japs, sputtering engines, and even hysterical women. Blanc can do 'em all—and does.
Its Cartoon Character
His versatility doesn't stop with his ether performances. When he isn't "making like" somebody else on the airlanes, he's busy putting saucy words into the mouth of Warner's "Bugs Bunny"—or sputtering for "Porky Pig "—or whooping it up for "Daffy Duck." Tuesday—his usual day off in radio—is ofttimes devoted to bringing the above renowned cartoon characters to life.
If you've ever watched the fabulous Mr. Blanc at work, you're probably struck with one thought—what would happen if he got his characterizations mixed up? He switches from one dialect to another, from a character to a sound effect with rapid-fire succession—and never misses.
"Um, once I almost read a big, bad wolf's lines with 'Porky Pig's' voice, but I caught myself just in the nick of time," he said. He may fluff a line but he never misinterprets a character.
He has no formula for developing a new type of voice. From a picture of the character in mind, he experiments until he finds a voice to fit. He likes to outline his various parts in a script with different colored pencils—"That's how I keep from getting confused." And he's superstitious about signing his own name to his script.
"Woops," exclaimed Mel pulling out the gorgeous pocket watch with which his wife had gifted him last Christmas. "I'm late for rehearsal. Come on in and I'll tell you about my watch."
"Santa was good to me," he laughed, pulling out his round, solid-gold time-piece, an antique Pedek-Philippe. "All I have to do is press this button and it chimes the hour and minutes. Like to have people ask me the time of day because I don't have to look but can just listen. They think I'm wonderful."
Even Wears Carrots
People asking the time of day aren't the only ones who think Mel is wonderful. In tribute to his voice portrayal of that number-one cartoon character, "Bugs Bunny," his admirers have sent him real carrots to be autographed. In his coat lapel he now sports a plastic carrot, a gift from a fan—"Guess I'll never have to worry about starving."
Mel thinks one of the nicest tributes paid to his radio work concerns "Sad Sack." It seems that the most-played portion of the "G.I. Journal" record the world over is that one spot featuring the Army's favorite character. In some instances the records have been so badly worn that from across the globe will come a request for another. Mel was genuinely touched that "Sad Sack" contributed so much pleasure to the boys in service.
Blanc’s ability led Colgate-Palmolive to take a chance in 1946 and put him in his own sitcom called The Mel Blanc Show. It lasted only one season. The show had a problem from the start. All Mel could do was voices. How could he, as Mel Blanc, be fit into the plot? The answer was to surround him with radio clichés; Mel was turned into an earnest, somewhat bumbling guy that you could find in all kinds of sitcoms. The clichés didn’t work and Mel, as Mel, was dull and predictable. And the producers felt obligated to tell the radio audience at the start of each show all the famous voices Mel did, just in case they had no clue who he was.

Here’s Radio Life again, from November 17, 1946. I’m still a little sceptical about this whole “fix-it store in real life” business. What well-paid radio actor opens a hardware store as a hobby? And in a town where he doesn’t live? It just doesn’t sound right. If you don’t know, Scotty Brown was one of his characters on Abbott and Costello. You’ve probably heard Blanc use his Scottish voice in cartoons at Warners and Lantz.
Radio Draws a Blanc
By Jean Meredith

THAT old axiom about "Be yourself!" is wise advice. But if Mel Blanc ever took it seriously, he'd probably starve to death!
Because even when he's being Mel Blanc (on the CBS "Mel Blanc Show" every Tuesday evening), he's being somebody else, too. That is ... we mean ...
Oh, you know about Mel Blanc if you've ever listened to a radio. You know about his Bugs Bunny voice, his Porky Pig voice, his Happy Postman voice, his train-caller voice, his Private Snafu voice, his Pedro voice, his Scottie Brown voice and all the rest. You know that he does some ninety per cent of the cartoon character vocalizing out at Warner Brothers, too.
But Radio Life has an exclusive on the Mel Blanc voice. Yep, we caught him being Mel Blanc between rehearsals for his new Columbia Network comedy show ... and that's not easy!
"The first time I heard an announcer introduce me as Mel Blanc," says this modest, likable comic, "I almost missed my cue. I was that surprised!"
But the "Mel Blanc Show" is more than just a pleasant surprise to its star ... it's a career-long dream come true. There is nothing unusual about a supporting actor hankering for his own show, but there's something distinctly unusual about his getting it. Probably no other new star had the complete and heartfelt support of his fellow radio actors that Mel had when he began his own show. Somehow, every supporting player in town felt that Mel's success was his own success—and the invisible applauders in each "Mel Blanc Show" audience include literally every actor in the business. And that, dear listener, is the beginning of real success.
Pride of Venice
When the discussion arose to decide a locale for the comedy- drama, Mel suggested a natural in the form of a "fixit shop"—natural because Mel, on his own time, is the owner and proprietor of a hardware store in Venice, California. "You'd be surprised how many suggestions for scripts we get from just the everyday happenings around the store," Mel says. "And the folks out there are wonderful! You'd think they were part of the show, they're so willing and anxious to offer suggestions and encouragement." Mel says his customers are turning the hardware store into a ticket agency, with most of the population of Venice wanting to be in the studio audience on Tuesday nights when their home-town boy takes to the mikes.
In addition to the fixit shop atmosphere, Mel also included in the new show a couple of voices that are favorites of his... Zooky and Doctor Crabbe, for instance. Zooky is the stuttering, stumbling vocalist who is Mel's "helper" in the shop (on the air, that is), and Doctor Crabbe is the dog doctor (consulting veterinarian, if you don't mind) with a slight Dobermann- Pinscher in his throat.
Where does he dream up all these voices? That's a question Mel is called upon to answer a hundred times a week. The answer is imagination, plus vocal gymnastics. Mel creates a character in his own imagination, and then experiments until he finds a voice that fits it.
"My main difficulty is finding a place to rehearse," he says. "After all, a guy can't bark and stutter and giggle and burble in public without causing some slight disturbance!" The answer to that dilemma is his car. Mel just gets in his automobile, drives to some deserted spot, rolls up the windows ...and lets go with the voice tricks.
But that's the top-of-the-ladder Mel Blanc. There was another ... a very subdued character actor who tried to talk Hollywood into appreciating his talents a number of years ago, without results. Aside from the fact that he began entertaining his grammar school pals with vaudeville shows at the age of seven, learned to play the concert violin and the tuba when he was still in his teens and became the youngest pit orchestra conductor in the country when he led a theater band at the age of twenty-two ... still Hollywood was unimpressed. So Mel went back to Portland, Oregon. where he wrote, produced and starred in his own radio shows after making his original mike debut in San Francisco. After a few seasons as literally a one-man show, he came back to Hollywood and auditioned for a host of comedy-show producers. "Why," was their unanimous lament, "haven't you been around before?" Well, of course, the only answer to that one, if you're a guy like Mel, is a Mona Lisa smile and a slight, a very slight, grinding of the teeth!
Mel's first network radio appearance was with the Al Pearce gang, and since that time he's gained undisputed title to the reputation of being the busiest funnyman in town.
And possibly for the first time in history, radio is mighty glad it drew a Blanc!
The article above briefly mentions Blanc’s “train caller voice.” That’s one of the things he did on the Jack Benny show. As the late ‘40s wore on, Blanc was getting more and more work with Benny, with more and more new characters to do. For the last several years before the show left radio in 1955, Blanc was on almost every week, though he was never credited as part of the regular cast.

Blanc appeared occasionally with Benny on TV. Jack wasn’t close to his cast but he was with Blanc. When Mel got into the accident that almost killed him in 1961, Benny visited him every day for weeks.

Mel Blanc’s been dead for almost 30 years and his old Warners cartoons aren’t seen as much on TV these days despite almost uncountable numbers of channels. But the best way to celebrate his birthday is to hunt around on-line and watch Bugs and Daffy argue about rabbit season, or listen to Jack Benny’s frustration as he vainly tries to fire up his old sputtering, coughing Maxwell car. Blanc was a unique talent and the very best at what he did in many ways.


  1. The radio star-owns-a-fix-it shop story does sound farfetched, but according to this blog, Blanc claimed in his autobiography to have actually bought the hardware store in Venice to promote the show. Eventually, since he really was as clueless about hardware as his character, he turned the store over to his father-in-law, he wrote. Of course, Blanc kept up the fiction that he was allergic to carrots for most of his life, so it's possible, though unlikely, that the hardware-store gig was a publicist's fever dream, too.

  2. I still keep my " Speechless " poster framed, and on a wall in one of our rooms. Actually was able to get a copy of it before it was available on the market. Will always be grateful to the kind woman at Warner Brothers who secretly sent it all those years ago.

  3. I think my favorite Blanc characterization is his frustrated department store sales clerk from the Benny Christmas shopping episodes, as he gradually becomes more and more unhinged from Jack's repeated changing of his gift for Don, whether it's shoelaces, cufflinks, dates, watercolor paints or gopher traps!

  4. The problem Blanc's radio series had is that Blanc himself wasn't particularly funny, and there were only so many stories they could do that called on Mel to do funny voices and vocal effects.