Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

Mel Blanc (1908 - 1989)
By Lola Milholland, 1997


    Mel Blanc was the man of 1000 voices. Mel Blanc was the voice of Looney Tunes. Mel Blanc was the voice man of the century.

     Did you know he grew up in Portland? Did you know he helped Happy Rabbit become Bugs Bunny? Did you know he married his wife twice but never divorced her? Did you know he got an Oscar for a Tweety and Sylvester movie? Well that's just the tip of the iceberg. Tha-tha-tha-tha-that's not all folks.

    Mel Blanc was born in SanFrancisco but moved to Portland at a very young age. From very young he tried to imitate the different ethnic voices all around him. His very first effort was imitating the Japanese grocery clerk around the corner. He tried accents from as many different countries as he could. From the start Mel knew he wanted to do voice work.

    At Lincoln High School in the 1920s he was the class clown. He was smart, but not really interested. As a youngster his name was Blank with a K, not Blanc with a C. But once one of his teachers told him he was Blank just like his name, so he legally changed it.

    Once when he was skipping class, he found that the halls of Lincoln High School had the perfect echo. He started doing really cackles to see how they echoed. While he was doing this he ran right into the principal. Later that same cackle would be used for Woody Woodpecker.

Mel Blanc (far left), Tom McCall (second from right) and others at KGW-AM's 50th Anniversary, March 15, 1972.    

    He skipped school to see vaudeville shows. In a vaudeville show something like a TV show is performed right on stage. Most of the early radio and movie stars got their start in Vaudeville including- Mae West, Jack Benny Burns and Allens and many others. Vaudeville died because of radio and movies. The very last vaudeville show ever performed was done on a Friday the 13th in 1932.

    He also skipped school to go swimming with his friends in the Willamette River. Once he and two friends dared each other to see who could jump closest to a paddleboat. Well one of his friends and he came up but the other boy got too close and died. He was grounded all summer.

    Mel Blanc looked like a young man ready for failure but this wild and crazy childhood led him right into his career.

 

Hollywood in the Depression

    Very soon after high school, Mel Blanc drove down to Hollywood with two vaudeville friends. There he ran into an old friend and they decided to room together. Both wanted to be in radio but neither were doing very well. One fine night the two decided to go to a dance at the beach together. They both checked to see if they each had 5 cents and hopped in his car. While Mel was cruising around at the dance, he saw a beautiful blond. He didn't want to cut in because she looked like she was having a wonderful time with someone else. This someone else happened to be her brother, who she was trying to teach to dance. Mel danced with another girl but she saw how obvious it was that he wanted to dance with her friend so she set them up.

    This girl's name was Estelle and soon they got into quite a chat. She gave him her number. When he didn't write it down, she was quite shocked. He later told her, "If it's the right girl, you remember her number."

    They were both Jewish and soon they fell in love. They decided to have a secret wedding, but since it wasn't Jewish, they couldn't tell anyone. Later they decided to have another wedding, a Jewish one, with the whole family.

    Now this was the heart of the depression and Mel's career was going nowhere, so when he was offered his own radio show up in Portland he automatically took it. He just hadn't made it in Hollywood.

 

Going "Nuts" in Portland

    He was back in Portland with his own radio show called "Cobwebs & Nuts" on KGW. His wife and he hosted it live. It was a great show and he got lots of sponsors but he was barely making a living.

    Once Estelle and he drove up to Vancouver for a 5 cent box of candy corn. When they got there they realized they didn't even have 5 cents between them. That quite disheartened them. Even when he had eleven sponsors, his weekly salary was only $5. That was not enough to keep them going.

    One of his friends, knowing that Mel & Estelle were barely making it, offered Mel the chance to sell insurance door to door for $50 a week. Mel really considered it; after all KGW was only giving him $5 a week. He asked Estelle if he should sell insurance, but she told him he would never be happy doing that and told him not to. She knew him well. Right there she looked him in the eye and told him if they were going to be broke, let them be broke somewhere sunny. They moved back to Hollywood.

 
Mel in the Looney Bin

    It took quite a few years to get anywhere in Hollywood, but he did find work with Disney for a short period of time. He did the entire voice of the cat in the movie Pinocchio. Right before the movie came out, Disney cut all his work, leaving only a hiccup. Though he was paid $800, his voice was not in the movie at all. While he wanted to work for Disney because they were the best, he wanted to work for Warner Brothers because they were the worst.

 

    At the time, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies had none of the characters it has today, except Porky Pig. Mel tried for one year to get a tryout for Warner Brothers before he got the chance. When he did he was immediatly a favorite. His very first voice for Looney Tunes was the "Drunken Bull," a Porky Pig character. Very soon after that, he replaced the man doing the voice of Porky Pig who stuttered in real life. When Porky Pig became suddenly popular, he needed a rival. So they created Daffy Duck who quickly became so much more popular than Porky that he to needed his own apponent.

    They then created Happy Rabbit who was very dorky. Too dorky. Mel thought that Happy Rabbit needed a new name. He suggested they name him after his animator Ben Hardaway, or Bugs. "Bugs Rabbit" they exclaimed, "that's even worst that Happy Rabbit." "Not Bugs Rabbit, Bugs Bunny" Mel said, and so it was. Now with the new name, Mel also had to give him a new voice. Automatically a Brooklyn accent came into mind. And so Bugs Bunny as we know and love was created.


    Bugs Bunny's famous line-"What's up Doc?," was not complete without the sound of him nibbling on a carrot. Well this became a problem, because Mel wasn't a carrot fan, at least not raw. He found it nearly impossible to chew the carrot, swallow it, and then say his next line. Therefore he would chew on the carrot, they would stop recording, he would spit it out and they would start again. Many mothers of that time, to convince their kids to eat carrots, would say "Bugs Bunny does." If only they had known.

    Soon it became obvious that neither Daffy Duck nor Porky Pig was any match for Bugs Bunny, so they created Elmer Fudd. Elmer Fudd was originally played by Arthur Q. Bryan, but when he died Mel added the role to his growing repetoire.

    Even Elmer Fudd was not clever enough to surpass Bugs, so they created Yosemite Sam, just the right character for Bugs.

 

Those Terrible Twosomes
 
    In all this time Mel's characters had not had love affairs, and one of the directors read his mind. He created Pepe Le Pew, who came as a twosome with a cat that he loved. they joined lots of other couples such as Tweety and Sylvester, Foghorn Leghorn and Henery Hawk, Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and many more. These twosomes were Mel's favorites.

    Looney Tunes had been getting Oscars for their cartoons, (five in total) and the producer of Warner Brothers had them all. This man, Eddie Selzer became incredibly ill and told Mel that he could have any Oscar he wanted. Mel's favorite Looney Tunes cartoon had been an Oscar winning Tweety and Sylvester cartoon called "Birds Anonymous." Mel asked for that one, but the man recovered. Mel didn't receive the Oscar until the man did finally die. His wife gave Mel the Oscar. Eddie Selzer had remembered his promise.

 

The Accident

    Mel himself almost died at age 52. He was driving along Sunset Boulevard when someone swerved around a corner right into him. Though the other driver was barely harmed, nearly every bone in Mel's body was broken; and he was in a full body cast. In a coma for three weeks and the newspapers declared Mel dead.


                                                                                                                                                             Rusty Nails and Mel Blanc

    His family and friends had all come trying to arouse him with no luck. One day a young doctor had a bright idea. He said, "How are you feeling today Bugs Bunny?" Mel's response was faint but unmistakably Bugs, "Eh just fine Doc, how are you?" Then he inquired "and Porky Pig, how are you feeling?" "J-uh-j--uh-just f-fine th-th-thanks," he replied. Mel slowly came back to life through his voices. I find this remarkable.

    Those Looney Tune years were some of Mel's happiest, but that's not where his life ends. All through those Looney Tune years Mel was also on the best radio shows of the time. They include, The Jack Benny Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Abbot and Costello Show and many many others. He even had his own show on NBC for a while, but I'm not going to get into all of that.

    I think Mel Blanc was an amazing man, but I'm far from the only one. Labeled the man of 1000 voices, some people claim that the cartoon medium was made for him. Whenever Kids (or adults for that matter,) see Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, or the Tazmanian Devil strut their stuff, they're honoring the legend and voice of Mel Blanc. Tha-tha-tha-tha-that's all Folks.