Saturday 29 December 2018

Dean Elliott

Reader Steve Bailey commented on a post several weeks ago:
You mentioned Dean Elliott. I wish you'd do a piece on him, because I'm curious as to how he ever landed a career as a cartoon music composer.
One of the reasons there have been profiles of some of the comparatively obscure cartoon music writers on this blog is simply because no one has bothered to research them. A big gun like Carl Stalling garnered attention of music and animation writers because of the ubiquity of the Warner Bros. cartoons on TV for decades. Scott Bradley at MGM got some notice, too. The lesser composers, not so much. Therefore, I’ve taken up Steve’s challenge.

Research can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Little biographical facts pop up but you have to piece them together. The big part of the Dean Elliott puzzle comes from the January 30, 1949 edition of the Des Moines Register:
The marriage of Miss Lee Fisher, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Fisher of Hollywood, Cal., to Dean Elliott of Hollywood, son of Mr. and Mrs. George L. Bunt, 1048 Sixty-fifth st., will take place at 9 a. m. today at Unity Temple of Truth.
Mr. Elliott, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, has produced and directed several radio shows on the west coast. He now is writing and arranging the music for the Jack Carson show and conducting the orchestra for the broadcasts.
Why is someone named Dean Elliott the son of someone named George L. Bunt? Census records of the Bunt household answer that one, as does the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index at Dean Elliott was originally named William Lorenzo Bunt and, in fact, composed under both surnames. Why he changed his professional moniker is still a mystery.

Elliott/Bunt was born in Sioux City, Iowa on May 11, 1917 (Why, look! Wikipedia is wrong again!). His father eventually worked in Des Moines for Davidson Co. demonstrating pianos. While attending university, Bill Bunt started his own 11-piece orchestra. In 1940, he was arranging the Edgewater Beach hotel’s dining room orchestra in Chicago, and had written the theme for a CBS show called “Something Old, Something New.”1 He also had a singing quartet on WBBM2 and moved to WGN within a year.

The war came along and Private Bunt was shipped to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center where he apparently found time to compose “I’m Going Around in a Circle” and “Pedestrian Panic”; at least, they were performed on a radio show broadcast on the Texas State Network.3 By 1945, he was in Hollywood, conducting a 24-piece orchestra for a syndicated radio show called Something in the Family starring Georgie Jessel.4

When do we first see the name “Dean Elliott”? It’s hard to say, but he was using that moniker by the end of 1946 as his orchestra shows up at Capitol Records, backing Martha Tilton’s version of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” Besides his contract with Capitol, gossip columnists were chirping about how he was squiring singer Marilyn Maxwell.5 He also got into the radio programme business, putting together a summer show on NBC in 1948 featuring Mel Torme and eventual cartoon actors John Brown and Janet Waldo.6

Without going into a huge list of obscure credits, I will only add Elliott was musical director for a show on KLAC-TV in 1949 that was billed as “Cinemascope television.” He landed a summer TV show in the Big Apple in 1952; All Star Summer Revue starred Dave Garroway and magician Carl Ballantine.7 His musical “Herald Square” appeared on stage in New York at the same time.

As for cartoons, you have UPA to thank. Unlike every other cartoon studio, UPA didn’t have a musical director. It brought in people on a freelance basis to score its cartoons. Elliott was one of them. His first cartoon was the Oscar-winning Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956). He worked on some more Magoos, scored a couple of features, then came out with a Capitol LP in late 1962 called “Zounds! What Sounds!” The album cover called it “A sonic spectacular presenting music with...cement mixer, air compressor, punching bag, hand saw, celery stalks...”

Perhaps the odd effects and UPA pedigree appealed to Chuck Jones. In 1965, he was making Tom and Jerry cartoons at MGM and had been using Eugene Poddany as his composer; the two had worked together at Warner Bros. Elliott first shows up for Jones supplying the music for Duel Personality (released January 1966). Evidently Jones was quite happy with Elliott’s work. Elliott composed the score for Jones’ animated feature The Phantom Tollbooth (released 1970), as well as the Curiosity Shop Preview (1971), a TV series that Jones shepherded through ABC when he was a vice-president of children’s programming, and Jones’ TV special A Very Merry Cricket (1973).

If nothing, Elliott was busy. Besides the Tom and Jerrys, Elliott was employed along with Les Baxter, Frank De Vol and Perry Botkin, Jr. in a company that supplied music for commercials.8 It was run by Charles Stern, who had an agency that also supplied voice-over talent including June Foray and Paul Frees. Elliott also arranged music for stage shows in Las Vegas and Reno. One was a 1970 effort at the Desert Inn called “The Daily Dirt.” Variety didn’t mince words. The blunt reviewer said “Production by Dean Elliott plumbs the nadir in taste, originality and amusement. Frankly, the show doesn’t entertain. Elliott also cleffed the purile score.”9


Elliott doesn’t seem to have the ear of many animation fans, the aforementioned Mr. Bailey included. Poddany’s work on Jones’ Tom and Jerrys has a bit of grace to it. Elliott’s comes across sometimes as not very melodic with snatches of little musical effects. Mind you, the series under Jones had other problems and perhaps Elliott just didn’t have enough to work with. As you can see, he certainly had a decent career as a musician/arranger/composer.

Elliott eventually retired to Palm Desert, California. He died on December 31, 1999 in Incline Village, Nevada.

This post isn’t meant to be an all-encompassing biography (yes, I left out a lot of his credits), and I’ll leave further comments on Elliott’s work to those with a better grasp of music composition. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an interview with him to re-post. This is merely a collection of random items because, even if you’re not a fan of Elliott’s cartoon scores, he and his colleagues deserve a bit of attention.

1 Wisconsin State Journal, February 16, 1940, pg. 3
2 Wisconsin State Journal, March 2, 1940, pg. 5
3 Billboard, Dec. 16, 1942, pg. 30
4 Broadcasting, May 6, 1946, pg. 56
5 Walter Winchell’s column, Nov. 24, 1947
6 Billboard, July 24, 1948, pg. 12
7 Variety, July 2, 1952. pg. 29
8 Back Stage, Dec. 1, 1967, pg. 85
9 Daily Variety, June 22, 1970, pg. 6


  1. Building on Steve, I always questioned why Carl Brandt was chosen as well. His work felt more akin to the quirky sitcoms he composed than a chase cartoon (though he did excellent work on Rock 'n' Rodent, Doug Goodwin's Ant and the Aardvark comes to mind while viewing that).

  2. I always loved his jazzy score. So while not "melodic", it's more "harmonic" (which is the stronger element of jazz).
    His Magoo score, however, actually resembles John Seely a bit!

  3. Nice research here, but , yeah, I just never warmed up to Elliott's work, either. He ranks with Ed Bogas and Walter Greene as my least-favorite cartoon composers.

  4. Some of Dean Elliott's "Zounds! What Sounds!" tracks, such as "Lonesome Road", showed up on one of those "bachelor's den" lounge music compilations in the 90's. Not bad stuff, if you go for that sort of thing.

  5. DePatie-Freleng/WB employed him, and ALSO Ruby-Spears...

  6. Thanks very much for this! I had no idea that Elliott had such a varied career. Very interesting.

  7. ZOUNDS! WHAT SOUNDS! is a gimmicky classic. I love that LP! And I'm afraid, at least as far as the Jones Tom & Jerrys go, I greatly prefer Elliott's work over Poddany. Elliott turned out some very clever, quirky stuff in that series.

    Thanks for the great research... wonderful post!

  8. I always enjoyed Elliott's scores; somewhat in the same Kentonesque west-coast big-band vein as Hoyt Curtin, but with a slightly more discordant sound and a distinctively "dark" texture to his string arrangements. Elliott also worked for Hanna-Barbera, apparently on one project only; "A Time For Decision," an excellent 15-minute educational film for the American Cancer Society. (Wish someone would post it to YouTube...)

  9. What stage shows did Elliot score for in the 70's

  10. Lila (Lee) Fisher is my husband's Aunt. his Uncle Dean was devastated with the accident she had.

    1. The one picture says wife Lynn. Did Lila go by Lynn?

  11. There is a slight mistake. ROBERT FISHER was Lila Lee Fishers brother, Royal J Fisher was her father.

  12. Where does Lynn Elliott come into play? Was she Dean's 2nd wife? Or is she one and the same, Lila Lee Fisher?