Saturday, 3 October 2020

The Dean and the Birthday Bird

Do the big studios celebrate their cartoon characters’ birthdays any more?

They did once upon a time. When Walter Lantz turned 90 in 1990, Universal Studios Florida threw a bash, along with one for Woody Woodpecker, who reached 50 that year.

And whether there was a formal celebration of Woody’s 40th birthday, I don’t know, but Lantz used the occasion to talk to the press and generate a bit of publicity. By that point of his life, he was the elder statesman of animation, pretty much retired except for giving PR to Universal, the studio he connected with going back to the late ‘20s when he was put in charge of making Oswald the Rabbit cartoons and Charles Mintz was tossed out of the picture. Of course, Lantz went back further than that in animation.

This syndicated column appeared in papers starting around February 28, 1981. I’m sorry I can’t reproduce the excellent drawing that appeared with it of Woody with a large birthday cake.
Woody Woodpecker celebrates 40 years
United Feature Syndicate
No internationally recognized actor can look into the mirror and truthfully say, "I haven't changed a bit in 40 years." There is, however, one exception. Woody Woodpecker can say that. And that's exactly how old he is. The lovable bird has been a favorite of several generations of children and adults.
He's not just a local favorite, even though there's no doubt he's a Yankee Doodle boy. He appears today on 85 television stations and in thousands of theaters in the United States—he is also seen in 72 other countries around the world and he is a TV star in 60 foreign nations.
Woody's "father" is Walter Lantz, known as the dean of American animators. He is a fatherly, gracious gentleman of 80 years, who keeps extremely active and who shares with his wife, Gracie, the same outgoing, uninhibited, wacky personality.
In 1979, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences opened their annual Oscar telecast by presenting Walter Lantz a special Academy Award for his 60 years of outstanding service to the motion picture industry.
Woody has been the only "offspring" of the Lantz duo. And they, in turn, have become grandparents to millions of people around the world who have adopted Woody as a member of the family.
Sharing identification with Woody equally is Mrs. Walter Lantz. Gracie has been the voice of Woody for all but the first few years of his existence. Woody Woodpecker wasn't born a star he first made his appearance as a supporting actor in an Andy Pandy cartoon titled "Knock Knock" in 1940. Within one month after the cartoon was released, Woody Woodpecker was getting more fan mail than any other star at Universal Studio.
"I guess it was Woody's ornery laugh that got them," said Walter Lantz.
The laugh was so popular that a song was written and Kay Kayser's [sic] popular band of that era recorded it. It's still heard today on many jukeboxes. From then on, Woody received star billing.
The laugh is the only sound in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon that is not dubbed in various foreign languages. According to Gracie, she can laugh in 65 different languages.
The idea for a woodpecker to become a cartoon character came about when the Lantzes were on their honeymoon in the mountains in California. Every morning at daybreak, they were awakened by a persistent woodpecker who insisted on pecking on the shingles of the cabin to find the hidden acorns he had pushed under the shingles during the summer. Lantz claims that if California law hadn't protected the redheaded woodpecker, he "certainly would have borrowed a shotgun and done him in."
A few months later when Walter was looking for a heavy to annoy lovable Andy Panda, Gracie suggested it be a woodpecker.
With the rising cost of production, no company can afford to make the kind of cartoons that once were made for theaters. Lantz has steadfastly refused to revert to "limited animation" which is seen in all new television cartoons today. Thus, he continues to reissue the 375 cartoons he has made since 1940, and, fortunately, he finds a new generation of audiences with each reissue.
The Lantzes made a stop in Indiana the same year and the South Bend Tribune provided this pleasant write-up in its July 12, 1981 edition. They did a lot of charitable work after the Lantz studio closed. Lantz talks about one of his ventures to help others.
If you hear a nutty laugh... its Woody Woodpecker
Tribune Staff Writer
Only one tell-tale sign gives the diminutive couple away as celebrities. Once the ear-piercing, rib-tickling laugh is heard, their identity is known—the creator and voice of Woody Woodpecker, Walter and Gracie Lantz.
The Lantzes are in town showing off Walter’s newest creation at the seventh International Plate Collectors' Convention. Yes, it is a Woody Woodpecker plate. Walter reproduced one of his original oil paintings of Woody doing his self-portrait on the first of a series of plates. v The first edition of the plate, numbering 10,000 copies, was sold out at the convention by the manufacturer, Armstrong’s. Walter said he was told that is unusual for a first plate. “I don’t know that much about plate collecting,” he said. “I didn’t know so many artists do plates and that so many people are interested.”
More than 75 exhibits of plates and porcelains adorned Century Center for the convention, which ends today. Almost 8,000 people came to see the exhibits at what is billed as the world’s largest trade show.
“It is so wonderful to see people enjoy Woody,” Walter said after he and Gracie spent almost two hours Saturday signing Woody buttons, dolls, plates and brochures for people who do just that.
Walter and Gracie still enjoy Woody, who is celebrating his 40th birthday. Walter said he doesn’t get tired of Woody (“I cant, he’s my meal ticket”) but he likes to do different things with him. About five years ago, be began doing paintings with Woody in them. Some of those oil paintings—one which Walter calls “Mona Woody” with the head of Woody Woodpecker on Mona Lisa’s body, another painting with Woody’s face adorning Mt. Rushmore in between Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s, and another of Woody in a Don Quixote pose, will turn into four to six more plates.
He has been painting for almost 45 years and exhibits his work in Honolulu. He and Gracie go to Hawaii from their home in Beverly Hills about three times a year. He began his work in oils with still life, but started doing paintings of Woody at the suggestion of a fellow artist.
“And the paintings of Woody sold well,” Walter said. “The paintings sell for between $10,000 and $25,000 each.” He said he was surprised the paintings sell for that much (the “Mona Woody” painting sold for $20,000 more than Leonardo Da Vinci got for the original) but the money is not the point—he gives it to charity. Walter and Gracie talked enthusiastically about their life with Woody, a character which was basically Gracie’s idea. She suggested the bird as a cartoon character after having to listen to a woodpecker peck outside of her window early every morning. Walter flew with the idea and developed a character that is known all over the world.
What most people do not know about Woody is that Gracie has been the voice and the laugh of Woody for 30 years. Mel Blanc started out as the voice of Woody, but had to stop when he signed a contract with another studio. Gracie, an actress, was one of many voice artists who tried out for the part unbeknown to Walter. She was the seventh of seven finalists in the tryouts and got the part. Walter’s surprised reaction was something she could not say in public, she said with her own laugh.
It is obvious she enjoys doing the famous laugh, as she burst out at an autograph seeker’s request. She said she has been asked to do the laugh in many countries, and on a visit to Tokyo, was asked to do it in Japanese. “So I did the laugh and ended it with ‘Ahhh So’,” she said.
Walter gives his wife much credit for her voice ability, and for sticking with Woody for 40 years. “She has become a nutty woodpecker,” he said.
The Lantzes said they enjoyed their first convention and trip to South Bend. They are staying an extra day to tour the University of Notre Dame campus and the city. So, if you hear a loud, recognizable laugh, do not think you have gone wacky—it will only be Gracie and her nuty [sic] woodpecker.
Woody Woodpecker turns 80 this year. His old studio is gone, Universal is merged with who-knows-what these days, but you can still celebrate his birthday by watching some old cartoons. I’m sure Walter and Gracie would have wanted it that way.


  1. Boy, what a lot of lies and legends the Lantzs told on Woody's 40th birthday. Ben Hardaway not even mentioned in Woody's creation story? What preverication!

    1. Mark, in all of the Lantz interviews I've posted here, I don't think Hardaway was mentioned once. It always the woodpecker-cabin-roof story which morphed into the honeymoon-woodpecker-cabin-roof story.
      It seems like a few too many people in animation back then played with the facts when the occasion called for it.