Saturday, 26 October 2019

Frank Marsales

Fess up. You wouldn’t know “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Freddie the Freshman” and “We’re in the Money” if it weren’t for old cartoons, would you? The man who first put them into a Warner Bros. cartoon was Frank Marsales.

It’s a shame so little is known about Marsales because his work had an influence on Hollywood animation. When Carl Stalling arrived to work on Warner-released cartoons in 1936, he started out doing the same as Marsales at the studio in 1930: he cobbled together a score using some original music, public domain tunes and—especially—tunes under the possession of any of the Warner Bros.-owned music publishers. Stalling soon finessed the concept far beyond what Marsales did, but Marsales laid the ground-work.

Friz Freleng wasn’t impressed with Marsales’ work. Daniel Goldmark’s Tunes For ‘Toons (2005) quotes Friz as saying Marsales’ music “was like something you’d find in the street. It was absolutely lacking in anything you needed to make a picture good; he didn’t synchronise. . . . Before Carl, the music was only used to set the tempo, which was usually impossibly slow, unless we picked it up for something he’d understand, like a chase.”

To be honest, I don’t think Friz is being fair. A composer doesn’t write scores in a vacuum; a cartoon’s director would have to consult with him regarding tempo and, certainly the case in the early ’30s, which Warners’ song to highlight. His work compares favourably with what Stalling was doing at the Iwerks studio, Joe De Nat at Columbia/Mintz and Jimmy Dietrich at Universal/Lantz. For the audience, it may have been better as they got a taste of current popular tunes; the Harman-Ising shorts for Warners’ were like animated music videos and audiences seemed to like them. Critic Abel Green wrote of Freddie the Freshman (1932): “it has the same skillful Frank Marsales’ musical orchestration. Very entertaining.”1

Franklin Alfred Marsales was older than the young animators who populated the Harman-Ising operation from 1930 to 1933. He was born on August 31, 1886 in Yarker, a little town in eastern Ontario, to Robert Lambert and Lena Burns Marsales. The family made its way to the U.S. the following year and had settled in Los Angeles in 18922 after living in San Francisco.3 His father was employed as a machinist for a good period of time, but he was also known as “Professor R.L. Marsales” who gave lessons for violin and cornet.4 Marsales learned music early and the Los Angeles Times reported on him performing with his parents at a wedding anniversary in 1903.5

Marsales put together his first band in 1913. The Times claimed he had “ten years experience in Los Angeles and at the beaches”6 at the time he created the Ocean Park City Band; he was 27 at the time. He was active in the Elks Club and also directed for Los Angeles Lodge No. 99.7 Interestingly, his 1917 draft card states his occupation was “Oil Well Leaseman”; his father’s death certificate in 1945 mentions ownership of an oil well. The draft card also reveals he only had three fingers on his left hand. In 1920, he was employed by Goodyear Tire and Rubber and directed the company band.8

Marsales got his name in the news in an unusual situation. The Times reported on December 2, 1922: “Frank Marsales was arrested on a charge of grand larceny and at his preliminary hearing his case was dismissed. He sued George W. Dewey, the man who caused his arrest, for $10,000 damages. Yesterday a jury in Judge Monroe's court denied him any financial balm. They held that he was arrested with probable cause.” What the case was is unknown; Dewey had had problems with Marsales’ father some years before, accusing him of stealing a stove.

Back to music—in 1924, Marsales jumped up to San Francisco to organise an orchestra for the Rialto Theatre.9 Then Paul Whiteman hired Marsales as an arranger. In 1927, he formed an orchestra at the Royal Palms Beach and Country Club in Palos Verdes.10

Talking films gave Marsales a boost in his career. Films needed music, music, music. And that’s what Marsales wrote, wrote, wrote. Variety of July 17, 1929 reported: “Frank Marsales suffering from writer’s cramp. Turned out 25 15-part orchestrations for Universal’s music department in two days.” Is it any wonder he took a job at the new Harman-Ising operation the following year? According to Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, he only scored four cartoons in 1930. And he got his name in various trade ads as a bonus.

Evidently Marsales had the ear of columnist Ralph Wilk at Film Daily as Wilk wrote a few squibs about him.
Frank Marsales, who is scoring music for “Looney Tunes,” the animated cartoons being produced by the Harman-Ising studios, was formerly musical arranger for Paul Whiteman and Paul Ash. He also made a world’s tour with the “Ingenues,” who were featured in the Ziegfeld “Follies.” (Oct. 16, 1930)

Frank Marsales feeding his four pet chipmunks. (Dec. 21, 1930)

Frank Marsales, musical director for the producers [Harman, Ising and Leon Schlesinger], agrees with Sherman that "war is hell," as "Bosco" is the noisiest subject he has handled. [he had scored Bosko the Doughboy]. (Sept. 16, 1931)

When Frank Marsales, musical director for Harman-Ising Studios, which produces “Looney Tunes” and “Merry Melodies,” declared he was too busy to go to football games and did all his playing in his studio, Robert Edmunds, the cartoonist, was an interested listener. “However, Frank does a lot of scoring in a day,” [Edmunds] commented. (Oct. 26, 1931)

Frank Marsales, musical director of the Harman-Ising Studios, producers of "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies," has enlarged his "menagerie" by the addition of a flying squirrel. The squirrel is now a neighbor of Frank's four chipmunks. (Dec. 27, 1931)

Frank Marsales, musical director of the Harman-Ising Studios, which produces "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies," in association with Leon Schlesinger, is a wrestling enthusiast. He is hoping the proposed “Strangler” Lewis-Jimmy Londos match will be staged in Los Angeles. (Apr. 17, 1932)
There was friction between Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising and Leon Schlesinger, the middle-man between them and Warner Bros. Hugh and Rudy went looking for work in 1933. Some employees jumped to Schlesinger’s new studio, Marsales stayed behind. Composer Scott Bradley remembered to authors Mike Barrier and Milt Gray about Paramount hiring the studio for an animated sequence that “Marsales was working for Rudy and Hugh, but his hand was injured. . . . I was at home and not working at the time, and they called me. I had never met them nor they met me.” Thus Marsales’ career ended with Harman and Ising.

Radio was growing and Marsales found work as the musical director of Famar Recording Studios11, which had gone into the transcription business, likely supplying musical programmes for stations looking to fill non-network air time. In the meantime, he added some raccoons to his assortment of pets. Marsales was lured back into cartoons in 1937 as the “arranger and technician” under conductor Nat Shilkret and composer Frank Churchill at the Walter Lantz studio.12 He was soon promoted to the studio musical director’s post and his first credit was on Man Hunt (released on Feb. 7, 1938). His last credit was on the Woody Woodpecker debut short Knock Knock (released on Nov. 25, 1940).

Bands took up Marsales’ attention. When he left Lantz he led the Musicians Union Band, then the Long Beach Municipal Band, then the Los Angeles Military Band. He composed several marches and at least two three-act operettas for children, “Safety First” and “Mr. Stork.” He retired in Long Beach where he died on August 15, 1975.

My thanks to Charlie Judkins for finding the picture of Marsales from 1940 that you see above.

1 Variety, March 8, 1932, pg. 14
2 Robert Lambert Marsales death certificate,
3 Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 1892, pg. 7
4 Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 24, 1897, pg. 4
5 Times, March 1, 1903, pg. 34
6 Times, Dec. 13, 1913, pg. 12
7 Times, July 16, 1916, pg. 23
8 Times, July 8, 1920, pg. 27
9 San Francisco Examiner, March 24, 1924, pg. 12
10 Times, June 26, 1927 pg. 81
11 Broadcasting, Nov. 1, 1933, pg. 36
12 Variety, Dec. 6, 1937, pg. 9


  1. Wow!!" Freddie The Freshman ". You couldn't see any cartoon character dribble a ball without that tune playing. That song and " Shuffle Off to Buffalo " I attribute to watching cartoons at a very early age. I learned " We're in the Money " from " Gold Diggers of 1933 " on local television.