Here is a question for you. Are you able to recognize the voices of the following cartoon characters: Sponge Bob Squarepants, Bart Simpson, Scooby Doo, Wilma Flinstone or Bugs Bunny? If you answered yes, then here is another question for you: would you believe that the reason that you are familiar with all these voices is because of a talking mouse?
In 1928, struggling cartoonist, Walter Disney, had a radical plan. He created a Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled Steamboat Willie, inspired from Buster Keaton’s comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr. That wasn’t radical; he had used this character before. The radical idea was creating a cartoon, with synchronized sound, that audiences could hear as well as see.
Since the turn of the Twentieth Century, moving pictures were a new form of medium that held the American public’s attention like a child with a new toy. It was a recreation that came alive through Thomas Edison’s invention, the nickelodeon, a projector which at the crank of a handle, would show a motion picture brought to life with a series of still photographs for the price of a nickel.
The first successful animated cartoon, Gertie the Dinosaur, creation of newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay debuted in 1908. Other cartoon characters emerged: KoKo the Clown, from the Out of the Inkwell series (created by Max Fleischer), Bobby Bumps (Earl Hurd in 1915), Felix the Cat (Otto Mesmer in 1919), Dinky Doodle (Walter Lantz, of Woody Woodpecker fame, in 1924) and Oswald the Rabbit (Walt Disney).
Shown in black and white, these “silents,” animated and real, became part of a new culture. In theaters, for the price of a nickel, you could watch cartoons and moving pictures whose plots involved adventure and romance. Dialogue, printed on cards and displayed on screen, was accompanied by an organ to provide mood music.
In 1927, moviegoers applauded The Jazz Singer. With this movie, Paramount Pictures not only established themselves as a major player in the movie business, but also ushered in a new era in motion picture history. This movie introduced the novelty of synchronized sound and impressed audiences. The “talkies” had arrived.
A few animators tried to add sound to their cartoons, but had failed to impress audiences when the sound failed to be in sync with the storyline. In May, 1924, Dave and Max Fleischer’s Inkwell Studios had earlier produced seven sound cartoons, the “Song Car-tunes,” but failed to keep the timing fully coordinated. In October, 1928, Paul Terry released Dinner Time also using a soundtrack—but failed to be a financial success.
Though conditions were right for Disney’s idea, he was taking huge gamble. Because of a salary dispute with his former employer, Walter Mintz, Disney lost the rights for his earlier creation—and best moneymaker, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mintz had ordered Disney to take a production cut to make the cartoons. Disney balked at this suggestion and quit.
Unfortunately, Mintz owned the rights to Oswald and Disney had to give up his creation. However, there was at least one factor in Disney’s favor. Ub Iwerks, his oldest friend and talented fellow animator whom he had started work with in 1919, would come up with another character, a mouse with big eyes.
Disney and Iwerks had used Mickey Mouse in the cartoons Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho. Each time the response was less than positive. Much work had to be done to make the mouse talk.
First, the silent version of Steamboat Willie was completed in August. With a limited budget, Disney and Iwerks worked out of Disney’s garage in secret. A projector, with the cartoon, was run through a window and shown on a sheet, so that the segments could be followed and the sound effects and music could be placed.
Disney’s crew handled the sound effects. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, Johnny Cannon provided sound effects that included slide whistles and spittoons for bells, Carl Edouardo conducted the music and Disney himself would voice the grunts, laughs, and squawks that were part of the dialogue.
Now, all Disney needed was a distributor. After visiting various engineers, he finally settled on Pat Powers, chief of Celebrity Pictures. Disney knew that Powers knew the motion picture business and had gone through a similar legal battle in which he emerged the winner against an employer who tried to take Powers’ idea. Now Disney could proceed—unfortunately, the timing for the first screening of Steamboat Willie emerged out of sync and. Disney had to sell his car to raise money for a second screening.
On November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse made his debut at the Colony Theater in New York. Steamboat Willie was such a hit that the theater held it over for another week. Yet, the mouse did not talk—at least not right away. Though Steamboat Willie had sound and music, it had no audible dialogue. This would not come until 1929 with The Karnival Kid. In it audiences, for the first time, hear Mickey Mouse speak as he shouts, “Hot Dogs, Hot Dogs.”
With these two Mickey Mouse cartoons, sound in animation became part of the culture. During the next decade, advances were made:
• In 1929, Disney launched Silly Symphonies which had mostly music, little dialogue, and no reoccurring characters. One such feature was the Skeleton Dance, the first successful synchronization set to music.
• In 1930 Sid Fleischer introduced Betty Boop voiced by Margie Hines. She went on to voice Olive Oyl from 1938-1943. Though Hines did the voice for Boop’s debut, Mae Questel was Betty Boop’s voice from 1931-1938 and Olive Oyl’s from 1933-38 until Fleischer took his studio from New York to Florida–and Questel refused to move with it. Hines voiced the roles of Betty and Olive during the years in Miami, until Paramont took over Fleisher’s studio moving it back to New York, where Questel voiced both roles in 1944. She also voiced Betty Boop, during her cameo appearance, in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
• In 1931 Warner Brothers introduced Merry Melodies. Walt Disney Productions introduced Goofy voiced by Pinto Colvig. Colvig had made his debut when he voiced Mickey Mouse’s dog, Pluto, and voiced Practical Pig in Disney’s cartoon, Three Little Pigs, in 1933.
• In 1934, Disney studios introduced Donald Duck, who was voiced by Clarence Nash until his death in 1983. In 1986, Tony Anselmo, Nash’s protégé, became Donald’s voice.
• In 1936, Paramont Pictures produced a cartoon in Technicolor, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor with the cast of Jack Mercer(Popeye), Mae Questel(Olive Oyl) and Gus Wickie(Sinbad). Sinbad was presumed a clone for Bluto who would later be voiced by William Pennell and Jackson Beck.
• In 1937, Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which cast Adriana Caselotti(Snow White), Lucille La Verne(Wicked Queen), Harry Stockwell(Prince), Pinto Colveg(Grumpy, Sleepy), Roy Atwell(Doc), Otis Harlan(Happy), Scotty Mattraw(Bashful), Billy Gilbert(Sneezy), Eddie Collins(Dopey), Moroni Olsen(Magic Mirror), and Stuart Buchanan(Huntsman).
From 1941-1945, animation played a part in America’s war effort. One example is the Donald Duck cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s Face. In it Donald experiences the nightmare of working in a German munitions factory only to wake to the beacon of the Statue of Liberty, kisses it and proclaims how “glad her is to be an American.” This won the 1942 Academy Award.
Superman, voiced by Bud Collyer, emerged from the comics and onto the screen, in the early 1940s, through Fleisher Studios where he is seen vandalizing Japanese war ships and saving Lois Lane(voiced by Joan Alexander).
In 1947, Hanna-Barbera started their company introducing classic characters such as Yogi Bear, Snagglepus, Quick Draw McGraw, Baba Looey, Dixie Mouse, Mr. Jinks, Auggie Doggie, Snooper and Blabber voiced by Daws Butler.
Television emerged in 1950 and so did the concept of Saturday morning cartoons. Jay Ward produced Crusader Rabbit, defender of Galahad Glen, voiced by Lucille Bliss, who in the early 1980s, also voiced Smurfette(Smurfs).
During the beginning of the 1960s radio faded and the television culture emerged, especially in voice animation. Most voice actors got their start on radio. A classic example of this is how The Jack Benny Show became a springboard for several of its cast:
• Bea Benadaret, who played Gertrude the switchboard operator, voiced Betty Rubble (The Flintstones).
• Benny’s singer, Dennis Day, who had his own radio show, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, would voice Disney’s animated Johnny Appleseed while Verna Felton, who played his mother, would voice the Queen of Hearts in Disney’s animated Alice In Wonderland.
• Band leader, Phil Harris, who directed the orchestra for Benny’s radio show went on to voice various Disney characters such as Baloo(Jungle Book), Little John(Robin Hood), O’Malley the Alley Cat(Aristocats), and Patou(Rock-A-Doodle).
• Thurl Ravencroft, best known for voicing “Tony the Tiger” of Kellogg’s Cornflakes commercials and sang “Mr.Grinch” on Seuss’s holiday special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” started as the baritone of the Sportman’s Quartet who sang the songs for Benny’s sponsors.
• Mel Blanc, “the man of a thousand voices,” who voiced Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and other Warner Brothers cartoon characters, contributed to Benny’s show by providing the sound effects including Benny’s antique car, his pet parrot Polly, and polar bear Carmichael.
Prominent voice-over actress, June Foray, got her start on radio thrillers such as The Whistler and Lux Mystery Theater, voiced Rocket J. Squirrel, Natasha, and Nell Fenwick(Rocky and Bullwinkle Show). Throughout her career, she voiced characters from Warner Brothers Granny(Sylvester & Tweety) and Witch Hazel(Bugs Bunny’s witchy foe), Talking Tina( Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll”) to evil sorceress, Magica Dispell(Disney’s DuckTales).
Early on, voice acting at Hanna-Barbera studios seemed to be an “all boys club.” For the first 10 years, over 90% of speaking parts were male. Daws Butler was heavily relied upon to provide many of the voices for the cartoon characters. Usually he worked with Don Messick if there was a need to voice other characters. Sometimes another voice actor, usually Hal Smith, was brought in for a session. If there was a female character they would be voiced by either Messick or Howard Morris.
Fortunately, the “club” let in a few girls. Beside June Foray, there was Jean Vander Pyl(Wilma Flinstone, Rosie the Robot, Mrs. Spacely) and Janet Waldo(Judy Jetson, Penelope Pitstop, Cindy Bear).
Saturday morning cartoons from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s were made of actors who had appeared in movies and television. Baritone voice actor, Mike Road, whose background involved sitcoms such as Bewtiched and I Dream of Jeanni , voiced Zandor(Herculoids), Race Bannon (Johnny Quest), John Butler(Valley of the Dinosaurs), and Reed Richards(Fantastic Four).
Saturday morning programs changed – especially during the early 1970’s. Sid and Marty Krofft presented costumed characters in front of the camera and had voice actors, such as Walker Edmiston and Lennie Weinrib, provide the dialogue.
Edmiston, who did cameo appearances on TV shows throughout the 1960s and voiced Ernie the Keebler Elf, voiced Sparky the Firefly (The Bugaboos), Big Daddy Ooze(Sigmund and the Sea Monsters), and Dr. Blinky/Orson the Vulture(H. R. Puffnstuf).
Weinrib, who voiced King Lion(Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and Captain Crook(McDonald’s Commercials), to voice H.R. Pufnstuff, characters in Lidsville, Inch High, Private Eye, Scrappy Doo(Scooby and Scrappy Doo), and Bigmouth(Smurfs).
Other advances, during the 1970’s in children’s television, would be Sesame Street and the Muppet Show which would provide marionette puppets (muppets), voiced by Jim Henson(Ernie), Frank Oz(Bert), and Carroll Spinney(Big Bird), Laurie O’Brien(Miss Piggy), Greg Berg(Fozzie Bear),
Another change brought African-American characters seen in Saturday morning television. Val from Josie & the Pussycats, would be voiced by African-American actress, Barbera Pariot. Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids would become the first all African-American cartoon characters, voiced by Cosby himself. Chuck Clayton from U.S. of Archie, would appear but would be voiced by Caucasian actor, Dal McKennon, who voiced other Archie characters.
Outside of The Flinstones(1960-66) and Wait Until Your Father Gets Home(1972-74) primetime cartoons were almost non-existent. The 1990s introduced a series of cartoons for adults whose humor is targeted, sometimes provocatively, for adults instead of children. These television programs are examples of animation for adults:
• The Simpsons–Dan Castellaneta(Homer), Julie Kavner(Selma) Nancy Cartwright(Bart),
• Beavis and Butt-head—Both voiced by Mike Judge
• Family Guy—Seth McFarlane(Peter, Stewie), Alex Borstein(Lois),Seth Green(Chris Griffin), Mila Kunis(Meg)
• American Dad—Seth McFarlane(Seth), Wendy Schaal(Francine), Scott Grimes(Steve),
Animation and voice acting would be taken to another level in the 1985 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A mystery story set in a world where humans interact with live cartoon characters (toons). These toons live like humans, earning paychecks, getting married–even committing murder. Throughout the movie private eye, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), interacts with a variety of toons trying to help toon bunny Roger Rabbit(Charles Fleischer) and his wife Jessica(Kathleen Turner).
At this point you might ask: “What skills does it take to be a voice actor?”
Ask Mark Evanier, the author of POV an online magazine, he mentions several terms that a voice actor should know if they want to be in the business:
Session–The time in which one’s cartoon voice is recorded. An actor is usually paid one
fee—usually union scale plus 10% for his agent—for each session which that performs. If he does four cartoons in one afternoon, five sessions, means the actor receives the current fee times five.
One-voicer—An actor who is hired for one, usually a spectacular one. Most one-voicers cannot play multiple parts, meaning they can play only one role. Such examples are Lorenzo Music(Garfield), Sterling Holloway(Winnie the Pooh), Gary Owens (Dynomutt’s Blue Falcon). Though one-voicers could provide only one unique voice, they could also do multiple roles in an episode of a cartoon. In Challenge of the Super Friends one-voicers, such as Ted Cassidy(Brainiac) and Casey Kasem (Robin/Dick Grayson), did multiple speaking parts within an episode.
Multi-voicer—An actor who can sound like dozens of different people and who can fill multiple roles. Examples are Mel Blanc(Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam ) Don Messick (Boo Boo, Ranger Smith of Yogi Bear), Frank Welker (Slimer, Ray Stance of Real Ghostbusters,) Multi-voicers, who could provide as many as twenty different voices.
Incidental—A non-recurring character. Every show has a certain number of regular characters and then one-shot characters and bit parts are referred to as incidentals. If the actors cast to play the regulars are able to do multiple voices, they will generally do as many of the incidentals.
Cheap—Determined to spend as little as possible on actors.
Ask voice directors Maria Estrada (All Dogs Go to Heaven: the series), Kathy Kalmenson (audition’s voices for Visa, Ford, Buick), Andrea Romano(Avatar, Justice League), and Kris Zimmerman (The Grim, Adventures of Bill & Mandy, Ben 10) and, they’ll probably tell you “acting ability or background in acting.” They’ll also tell you “preparation,” “commitment,” “[positive] attitude,” and “being able to respond to direction.”
Voice acting has not only grown into a profession, but into an industry. It has even
given birth to cultural icons of voices the public recognizes:
• The Enterprise’s verbal computer on Star Trek(Majel Barret)
• The recorded instructions on Mission Impossible’s that self-destructed(Bob Johnson),
• Charlie Townsend(John Forsythe), the boss of Charlie’s Angels, who converses by telephone—but is never seen.
• Wonder Bread’s “Milton the Toaster,” voiced by William Schallert
• Green Giant’s “Ho Ho Ho,” and Starkist’s Charlie the Tuna, both voiced by Herschel Bernardi.
It has also contributed to the spirit of the holidays with animated Yule icons such as:
• Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Mr. Magoo(Jim Backus)
• Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Burl Ives(Snowman), Billie Mae Richards, (Rudolph)
Paul Soles (Hermey the Misfit Elf)
• Frosty the Snowman, Jimmy Durante(narrator) and Jackie Vernon(Frosty)
• How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Boris Karloff(Grinch), June Foray(Cindy Lou Who)
• Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Fred Astaire(narrator) and Mickey Rooney (Santa)
• A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown (Eleven year old, in 1965, Paul Robbins)
There are also voices given to characters in video games.
Michael Bell whose acting background has included appearances on Dallas,
M*A*S*H and Star Trek: The Next Generation, provided voices on Super Friends, Smurfs, and Rugrats, also voiced video games such as Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and Lost Odyssey.
An example of voice acting, without cartoon animation can be seen in storytelling.
Audiobooks, texts recorded on cassette tapes/compact discs, are narrated by a storyteller who must emphasize the required emotions, male or female characters, young or old, through the expression of their voice. Any veteran voice actor could probably tell you that it may sound easy, but hard to do.
Voice acting has a long and established history. In Did You Grow Up With Me Too? June Foray’s autobiography; there is a photograph of Ms. Foray with Daws Butler, Frank Welker, Walter Lantz, and Joe Barbera. Each has a career in cartoons and a prominent history in it. Without them, the cartoon characters people grew up wouldn’t have existed.
And to think it all started with a talking mouse.