Saturday 17 June 2023

A Wolf, a Pincushion and a Keystone Kop

One of the great voices of animated cartoons started his career on film in the silent era.

He’s Billy Bletcher.

Bletcher was one of the first professional actors to be hired to perform dialogue in cartoons in the 1930s as they evolved from using studio staff to speak whatever words were heard underneath synchronised music and effects. But not too many years earlier, he was one of the famous Keystone Kops. In later life, he was one of the last of them and toured around the U.S., meeting silent film fans.

Animation fans reading here will likely know he was the Big Bad Wolf in Disney’s The Three Little Pigs (1933). He soon seems to have started popping up at other cartoon studios, especially Warner Bros. He voiced evil villains (lawyer Goodwill in The Case of the Stuttering Pig, 1937), comic villains (Colonel Shuffle in Mississippi Hare, 1949), not-quite villains (Owl Jolson’s father in I Love to Singa (1936) as well as the frustrated Papa in Chuck Jones’ Three Bears cartoons.

Keith Scott’s wonderful two-volume set on cartoon voice actors reveals Bletcher was interviewed about his cartoon career, and recalled Tex Avery was “a great booster for me. He’d say, ‘What are you fooling around for? Get Bletcher.’” But the book also quotes Avery as admitting he stopped using that type of voice in his cartoons. It also quotes Bletcher about losing roles to Mel Blanc because Blanc was under contract at Leon Schlesinger’s studio and using him saved money. Bletcher worked at other studios, including a memorable role as the Pincushion Man in Ub Iwerks’ Balloon Land (1935) and even showed up in the John Sutherland short Make Mine Freedom (1948). There were many, many more.

But let’s talk about his silent career. His hometown papers wrote of him a number of times. This story was unbylined in the Lancaster (Pa.) New Era of August 5, 1916. It tells of long-forgotten films and non-remembered actors.

Billy Bletcher, By Hard, Persistent Work, Has Won a Name For Himself—In Big Demand Also As Vaudeville Artist and Singer
One of the “livest” of the fraternity of players in the motion picture world and the son of the Red Rose city who has best made his mark in that greatest of public theaters to-day is "Billy” Bletcher. Through an unshaken belief in himself despite any discouragement encountered and a determination to “make good" in the attainment of his ideals, Billy has faithfully "followed his star," and today occupies an enviable position in the “movies” where he has appeared with some of the best, has made a good impression among fellow-actors and, what is more important, has through his gameness, independence and undeniable talent won the respect and admiration of the managers of the various big companies upon whose films he has appeared in the past, and is appearing more prominently than ever to-day. His role is mostly that of the fun-maker and at this he is an adept. Audiences from coast to coast of the continent have been convulsed with merriment through the presentation of his acting.
Has Won Place In Front Rank.
By hard work, with few advantages in the way of preparation, and with no pull or drag as some people call it, Billy Bletcher has won a place in the front rank of entertainers. A fair field and no favors has been his motto. His every effort has been an artistic success and his future is assured.
Alone and unaided, his career began before he was seventeen, and he has been less than five years before the public. With ability and versatility, he has that irrepressible energy commonly called nerve. In Demand as a Juvenile.
At the tender age of nine he began to show great aptitude as a mimic and was in demand for juvenile entertainment. One of his favorite stunts was to ring the bell at a down-town Lancaster auction sale. His pay for this service was collected nightly and spent the same night to get into one of the theaters. He became so busy ringing that bell that he did not get to choir rehearsals and finally the musical director said: “Billy, you're fired.”
Was Cabaret Singer.
But he was undaunted. It was as a cabaret singer that he made his debut in the amusement world. In addition to regular engagements in cabarets he sang on a contract with Jos. W. Stern & Co., introducing their latest song hits. After a tour through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England he had a reputation as “the little fellow with the big voice” and came back to Broadway to find vaudeville and minstrel engagements waiting for a performer of about his calibre. In fact, wherever he has been his services have been in demand as a vaudeville entertainer, from Boston to Jacksonville, Fla. In the latter place he played a number of vaudeville and concert engagements in addition to picture work with the Vim Film Corporation.
Played By Ralph Ince.
His first venture in the movies was with the old Reliance Film Company, where he was seen in good parts with Rosemary Theby. After this company went to the wall because of financial difficulties through lawsuits he returned to vaudeville; but not for long, as he had “the bug” and wandered into a vitagraph to take a chance again at the bottom of the ladder. Ralph Ince, the comedy director, soon noticed him and had him play all kinds of parts in farce comedy. In “He Danced Himself” Bletcher played four different parts, in only one of which he looked like himself. In the other three his identity was hidden completely, especially as the corpse brought to life by the “lively” waltz and a slight accident.
Starred in Jarr Family.
Director Davenport, of the Vitagraph Comedy Co., started a serial entitled “The Jarr Family.” In it Rose Tapley, Billy Bletcher, and some of the very best farceurs of that company had Lancastrians going every week to see Jarr, his troubles and joys. It was with the Vitagraph that Bletcher scored some of his best hits. Among these were: "Tomboy and Freckles” and "The Methods of Margaret,” in both of which he supported Lillian Walker; and “Whose Husband?” in which as the old sea captain he played the best of four good parts with: Flora Finch, Kate Price and Jay Dwiggins. With this company he played other good part too numerous to mention; but he could be seen every week and oftener on the screen at the leading Lancaster photo-play houses. Not to be passed without note, however, are the Sidney Drew comedies in which he always had especially good parts.
Mrs. Billy Bletcher.
It was during his engagement with the Vitagraph people that he met Miss Arline H. Roberts, of Brooklyn, who was to become the future Mrs. Bletcher, then playing parts in motion pictures with the same company. Mrs. Bletcher is a rising young artist, who has made good in ingenue parts, and will be heard from in the near future.
It was while he was with the Wizard Film Company, a branch concern of the World Film Corporation, that he played prominent action parts in “Marrying Money,” "Over Night,” etc.
Working In Jacksonville.
Last December 15 the young Lancastrian and his wife started to work for the Vim Comedy Co. at Jacksonville, Fla. Some of the pictures produced there, in which they appeared, were shown at two Lancaster theaters and seemed to please many people. These films were of the wild, rollicking, “slap-stick” variety.
At the present time Billy Bletcher is in New York City, and its environs, where he is working every day with that determination and enthusiasm which have marked his whole career and insure him a great future.

His cartoon career was briefly mentioned in several articles in the ‘30s, with the exception of this story from 1937; it appeared in papers over the course of months whenever an editor needed entertainment filler. The writer was at one time with the Associated Press; I believe he was freelancing for a syndicate at this point.

Hollywood News And Gossip
Hollywood— The man with a thousand voices has just signed away one of them.
For 15 years—in vaudeville, on the air, in pictures—Billy Bletcher has been in show business. His weird ability to mimic anybody or anything practically stole away his own identity. He found himself becoming a “voice” — or many voices.
Once, on the air, he substituted for a famous comedian and 1isteners never knew the difference. When Hollywood’s animated cartoons began to talk. Billy spoke for all of them. Vocally, he has been pig, frog, dog, rabbit, mouse, horse, cat, practically all the creatures of the animated screen. In spare time he has played parts in feature pictures, sung on the air. His tenor is trained for music, too.
Metro was launching a new series of talking cartoons, “The Captain and the Kids.” For it, Bletcher was signed to a contract. He will speak for the Captain—and he cannot use that voice for any other purpose.
But he is still free to use the other 999 voices in his repertory. He calls it the ideal contract.

Bletcher continued to appear on camera after sound came in. He made shorts with Billy Gilbert. One of his roles was in the Jack Benny feature Buck Benny Rides Again (1940). Jerry Lewis cast him, too. His last hurrah may have been a 1971 turn as Pappy Yokum in an ABC-TV special, filmed on a lot where he had made motion pictures more than a half-century earlier. He died in 1979 at the age of 84.


  1. Very good..Bletcher's talent IMO was never fully "exploited", given he had to be typecast as more or less the same, with same voice and speech, yet everything he did seemed to turn out well.:) (Also appeared, as many know,natch,in Art Davis's only official Bugs, 1949's BOWERY BUGS as a long suffering Steve Brodie, based (sort of!) on a true story.

  2. One of Bletcher's film appearances includes being the punchline to a sight gag in the OUR GANG two-reeler "The First Round-Up" (1934).

  3. It is not Bletcher as Tom's laughter in "Jerry and the Lion"?