Thurl Ravenscroft’s rich voice dipped low and deep as he began to utter what has become the trademark of his 50-year show business career.
“They’re g-r-r-r-eat!!!” Ravenscroft boomed as he recreated the role of Tony the Tiger, a role that the 73-year-old has performed in scores of television commercials for a cereal company for 36 years.
“The Tony the Tiger commercial has been done for every English-speaking (country) in the world. . . . I’ve even done it in Spanish,” Ravenscroft said, relaxing in his home in the Lawrence Welk Village here.
Ravenscroft, a self-proclaimed ham, never imagined that the character he virtually created while fooling around in a Chicago recording studio would stay as popular as it has over the years.
But then Ravenscroft’s entire career, from Tony the Tiger to singing background vocals for Elvis Presley, has been sort of an accident, he said.
A native Nebraskan, the 6-foot, 5-inch Ravenscroft said he had the show business drive already in him when he moved to Los Angeles in 1933 to attend art school and pursue a career in commercial advertising.
“Hollywood (in the 1930s and ‘40s) had class,” Ravenscroft said.
It was that class that led him away from art school and into show business.
He formed a singing group called the Sportsmen Quartet after someone told him at a party that he had a “flair for show business.”
“We (the quartet) began to get many calls to perform, and I had to decide whether to stay in school or take all that easy money. . . . I never went back to school,” Ravenscroft said.
Calls from such stars as Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen, Eddie Cantor and Rudy Vallee kept Ravenscroft’s group busy doing backup vocals in the early days of radio during the late 1930s.
“Jack Benny was a very warm person and a very appreciative person. . . . And there was nobody nicer than Bing (Crosby),” Ravenscroft said.
During World War II, Ravenscroft flew special missions over Europe and North Africa for the Air Transport Command.
But show business was never very far away.
“We were flying Bob Hope and his troupe (to a military base) and we invited him up to the cockpit. . . . When he saw me he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” Ravenscroft said, recalling that he used to work next to Hope in a radio broadcasting studio.
“We had a ball.”
Returning from the war, Ravenscroft resumed his singing career and began a longtime association with Walt Disney.
Ravenscroft’s flair for projection and his deep vocal range landed him voice parts in such Disney films as “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “101 Dalmatians” “Mary Poppins” and “Jungle Book.”
Disney also used recordings of Ravenscroft’s voice on some of the more famous rides at Disneyland.
Ravenscroft’s voice can be heard bellowing, ‘Yo-ho-ho,’ from some of the drunken pirates on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. His voice is also heard at the Haunted Mansion and Bear Country Jamboree.
But commercials and backup singing have been Ravenscroft’s bread and butter.
“I did the commercials for Gillette during the World Series and at one point I had 27 different beer contracts,” Ravenscroft said.
As a singer, Ravenscroft has seen the music business change completely. Much of the change has not been to his liking, he said.
Not a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, Ravenscroft has nonetheless sung with the King.
“Elvis Presley needed backup singers for (the film “Blue Hawaii”) and his people called (Ravenscroft’s quartet),” Ravenscroft said.
After being told by one of Presley’s “cronies” not to talk to Presley in the recording studio, Ravenscroft and his crew passed an audition by improvising with Elvis while he sang at a piano.
“Elvis’ music was gospel enough for us to appreciate it, but it really wasn’t our cup of tea,” Ravenscroft said.
Tony the Tiger, however, is his cup of tea.
“Tony is just a good, wholesome character,” Ravenscroft said, trying to explain the success of his interpretation of the cartoon character.
Today, Ravenscroft travels to San Diego five times a year to do new Tony the Tiger commercials, something he said he will never give up.
Years after his early days in business, Ravenscroft still carries himself with the class he said he picked up during the Golden Age of Hollywood. With his perfectly groomed white hair, Ravenscroft still considers himself a performer.
“It’s just been a joy to be able to do something that I’ve loved,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky.”