For more than 60 years, Mel Blanc from Portland, Ore., was “the man of a thousand voices” that included Bugs Bunny — “What’s up Doc?” — and “Tweety Bird” with a speech impediment saying, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!…I did! I did taw a puddy tat!”
Hollywood studio staff thought Mel was allergic to carrots because he spat them out after making sounds of Bugs Bunny crunching on a carrot. No, he said he wasn’t allergic to anything. He did it because with a carrot in his mouth, he couldn’t say the follow-up “What’s up Doc?”
Mel got the laid-back carrot-chomping idea after seeing Clark Gable snacking on carrots while leaning on a fence in the movie “It Happened One Night.”
Bugs Bunny became so ingrained in people’s minds that when respondents in psychological studies were shown fake photos of Bugs at Disneyland, they often claimed they remembered meeting him there. The Warner Bros. character was never at Disney World.
In a Seinfeld episode, Jerry is singing the theme song from “The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Hour,” when he’s chided by Elaine who tells him, “All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
The first thing Mel did in his long career as voice actor, actor, radio comedian and recording artist was change his name from Blank to Blanc when he was 16 because his school teacher predicted he’d amount to nothing and end up a “blank” — just like his name.
Melvin Jerome Blank was born 1908 in San Francisco of Russian-Jewish parents, the younger of two children, but grew up in Portland where he attended Lincoln High School. He joined the Masonic-affiliated Order of DeMolay, a fraternal organization for young men between the ages of 12 to 21 of good character who acknowledge a Supreme Being.
Even as a 10-year old, he loved mimicking voices and dialects. He’d regale teachers and classmates with a piercing laugh that years later would be used by Woody Woodpecker.
In 1923 when Mel was 15, KGW Radio (620 AM, now KPOJ) in Portland gave him his first gig on “Stories by Aunt Nell.”
“For the entertainment of the children, this afternoon Melvin Blank, a boy with a good voice, will sing a number of solos, accompanied on the piano by his brother, William Blank.
“Aunt Nell will read additional chapters from Allen Chaffee’s story of ‘Sitka, The Snow Baby.’ Children love the story of the little polar cub and his adventures and messages come in daily asking for another story about him.”
He left Lincoln High early to do comedy routines on vaudeville in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
He was also an accomplished bassist, violinist and sousaphone player and played in the NBC Radio Orchestra and became the youngest orchestra conductor in the country at age 19 — conducting the 11-member pit orchestra at the Orpheum Theatre in Portland.
At the same age, he became a regular with KGW, where he used his talents voicing multiple characters in the “The Hoot Owls” variety show.
Mel learned mimicking while growing up in the diverse ethnic community of South Portland where he listened carefully to conversations between people of different nationalities.
In 1928 or ’29, Mel took a new radio job at KFWI in San Francisco and then for the next seven years, bounced back and forth between Portland, San Francisco and L.A.
He married Estelle Rosenbaum in 1933 in Portland and the couple worked together in radio shows before Mel hit the big-time in Hollywood.
“Big-time” was being signed by Leon Schlesinger, who produced cartoon shorts for the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.
“SSSSSssufferin’ SSSSSuccotash!” said “Sylvester the Cat” who appeared in 103 episodes of cartoon shorts during the Golden Age of cartoons from 1928 to 1967.
One of Mel’s favorite characters, Sylvester relentlessly chased his hoped-for meals without success — and could never catch Tweety or Speedy Gonzales. Tweety was too smart, Speedy too fast, and sometimes Granny and Hector the bulldog would save them.
In 1946, “Tweetie Pie” featuring both Sylvester and Tweety Bird won an Oscar for Best Short Subject (Cartoons).
Mel said Sylvester sounded the most like his own voice.
Porky Pig, famous for his signature line at the end of each cartoon short, “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” first appeared in 1935 and is the oldest continuing Looney Tunes character.
Daffy Duck was described by one source as “a lunatic vigilante in one short, but a greedy glory-hound in another.” With a lisp, he’d disparagingly tell his antagonist, “You’re dethpicable!”
Scheming Wile E. Coyote could never catch the speedy Road Runner bird who always outsmarted him — racing away in a cloud of dust yelling “Beep, beep!”
In the 1960s, Mel Blanc made a TV commercial as the voice of the “Frito Bandito” for Fritos Corn Chips that fell victim to political correctness. Later however, Latinos lobbied to bring him back because he was a positive role model for children — but not until they spruced up his appearance.
In 1961, Mel was in a head-on car collision on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard called Dead Man’s Curve and suffered a triple skull fracture, broken legs and a broken pelvis. He was in a coma at UCLA Medical Center for three weeks.
“They say that while I was unconscious, the doctor would come into my room each day and ask me how I was and — nothing. I wouldn’t answer him,” he said. “So one day he comes into my room, he gets an idea, and he says, ‘Hey, Bugs Bunny! How are you?’ And they say I answered back in Bugs’ voice, ‘Ehh, just fine, Doc. How are you?’
The doctor then said, “‘And Porky Pig! How are you feeling?’ and I said, ‘J-j-j-just fine, th-th-th-thanks.’”
Some 15,000 get-well cards poured in — including some addressed simply to “Bugs Bunny, Hollywood, USA.”
While recuperating at home, he’d record his dialogue while lying in bed in a full-body cast with a microphone hanging over his head.
Mel Blanc didn’t own rights to his characters and was never paid more than $20,000 in a year from Warner Bros., so he had to find additional work elsewhere.
He appeared on the Jack Benny Show both on radio and early TV. One of his most memorable performances was deadpanning as Benny’s gardener “Sy” who answered a series of Jack’s questions with “si, Sue and sew” that brought laughs no matter how many times the routine was used.
Benny said, “There are only five real people in Hollywood — everybody else is Mel Blanc.”
Mel’s boss Leon Schlesinger refused to give him a salary raise, but compromised with an on-screen credit — a first for a voice actor.
When his contract expired, Mel worked on other shows, including ABC’s “Bugs Bunny Show” and with Hanna-Barbera where he became the voices of “Barney Rubble” and his pet dinosaur “Dino” on “The Flintstones.”
His last voice performance was as Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweety and Sylvester in the feature movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988.
Mel rarely appeared on the Big Screen. In a supporting role in the 1949 movie “Neptune’s Daughter” starring Red Skelton and Esther Williams, he spoke with a Mexican accent. He would reprise that accent four years later for Warner Bros. as Speedy Gonzales.
“What we tried to do was amuse ourselves,” he told the New York Times. “We didn’t make pictures for children. We didn’t make pictures for adults. We made them for ourselves.”
Nevertheless, they entertained the whole world.
Mel continued on TV shows, lectured and made commercials. Retirement was not his shtick. “You know, my wife talks to me a lot about retiring,” he said. “I say to her, ‘What the hell for?’ I never want to stop. When I kick off — well, I kick off!”
Mel Blanc started smoking at age 9 and didn’t quit until 1985 when he was 77 — but it was too late. His pack-a-day habit resulted in emphysema and coronary artery disease. Four years later he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles at age 81.
“SSSSSssufferin’ SSSSSuccotash!” The world had lost a thousand voices.
While his legacy of cartoon reruns may last forever, his story appropriately ends with the same words that he asked to be carved onto his tombstone:
“That’s All Folks.”
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •
Over the years, awards cascaded on the “Man of a Thousand Voices” — among them, the United Jewish Welfare Fund Man of the Year, and the Show Business Shrine Club’s first Life Achievement Award. In 1984, Blanc was also honored by the Smithsonian Institution.
The Shrine Hospital Children’s Burn Center was one of his favorite charities.
Mel’s voice goes to war…
During World War II, the War Department made educational black-and-white cartoons for the GIs featuring “Private Snafu” meaning “Situation Normal — All Fouled Up,” using Mel Blanc’s voice.
The training cartoons were made in secret with the animation artists fingerprinted and cleared by the FBI, with each artist doing only a small part at a time and never allowed to see the final film.
The troops were taught such things as proper sanitation, the scourge of venereal disease, booby traps, and not leaking military secrets:
I just learned a secret —
It’s a honey, it’s a pip! —
But the enemy is listening,
So I’ll never let it slip.
‘Cause when I learn a secret,
Boy, I zipper up my lip!
See all the uncensored Private Snafu episodes online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRAbIobkKO8
Working for peanuts…
In 1933, Mel Blanc’s weekly salary as director/writer/producer/performer on “Cobweb & Nuts,” a daily one hour Portland radio show on KEX was $15. He and his wife Estelle budgeted only $1 a day for their food.
Mel Blanc quote…
“I have been a member of DeMolay for 63 years. I thank God and DeMolay for helping me become kind and thoughtful to my parents and all my friends. I had many opportunities to do the wrong things, and I might have done them if it were not for DeMolay. God bless them.”
— Mel Blanc
Mel Blanc kept busy during his later years with his favorite hobby — collecting antique watches. His voluminous collection, insured for $150,000 in 1972 (big money then) included time pieces dating as far back as 1510.