Business People : Disney’s Man of a Thousand Voice-Overs : Jack Wagner Rules Over the Magic Kingdom’s Public Address System
The phone rings. Jack Wagner perks up and slips a piece of paper into his typewriter. The Voice of Disneyland is ready for action.
Wagner listens and carefully repeats back his assignment: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Lady Bird Johnson as she . . . does what? Proceeds through town square for a dedication? ... Oh, a wildflower planting. Gee, I never heard of that, so she’s going to plant a wildflower, is she? OK.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” says Wagner, taking another practice spin, this time shifting into a voice so infused with energy and enthusiasm that had he been reading the dictionary out loud on a street corner, people would have stopped just to listen, “please welcome Lady Bird Johnson as she proceeds through town square for a wildflower planting.”
It’s just one of the scores of announcements that Wagner records every week for Disneyland, Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. On one day this week, for instance, Wagner recorded more than 50 announcements for Disney theme parks.
Wagner, 62, has been working as Disneyland’s official narrator since 1970. He often spends most of his waking hours in the cool, dark sound studio where he churns out everything from the greeting that welcomes visitors at Disneyland’s entrance (he has to record a new one every time the ticket price goes up) to the friendly-yet-firm warning that cautions Matterhorn riders to keep their arms and legs tucked into their sleds until the vehicle comes to a complete stop. Besides taping messages in his own vocal style, Wagner has recorded the voices of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and a host of other Disney characters at the park and for special shows.
“I sometimes think of myself as the eighth dwarf,” said Wagner, popping out tapes and darting from side to side of his small, gadget-packed studio, located about 2 miles from the park.
But there is more to Wagner’s unusual occupation than discoursing for Disney. His voice has proven so distinctive that a growing number of corporations, police departments, airports and schools are paying to use it for their own purposes.
Wagner also is a versatile sound engineer with a knack for shortcuts and money-saving recording techniques that have made him popular among producers in the growing field of taped musical productions and video marketing presentations.
The same voice that tells the Tinkerbell story each night also hawks everything from weapons systems to pharmaceutical equipment.
For example, it was Wagner’s voice, recorded against a backdrop of James Bond music, that pitched to Pentagon officials a proposal to purchase dune buggies loaded with rocket launchers and machine guns for desert warfare. The armored vehicles are made by International Ordnance Systems, a Los Angeles defense contractor. Hardly the stuff of bedtime fairy-tales.
There are plenty of voices for hire in Southern California, but Jack Wagner is not your garden-variety golden throat.
“Jack is absolutely one of a kind,” said Dan Dorsey, creator of the hit recordings “Bachbusters” and “Beethoven or Bust.” “What makes him unusual is his wide range of audio skills,” said Dorsey, who spent two years apprenticing with Wagner in the 1970s.
And he combines those skills in an affordable package, said Dennis Despie, president of Select Productions in Tustin, which has hired Wagner to create voice and music tapes for everything from Super Bowl half times to an upcoming ground-breaking ceremony for AST Research’s new corporate headquarters in Irvine.
“There are a lot of announcers in the world,” Despie said. “What makes Jack unique is that he has the production facilities to do all the master tape work, the dubbing, the mixing and the narration. Normally you have to go out and separately hire a narrator, a recording studio and a sound engineer. What could cost $10,000 in a typical recording studio, Jack can do for about $500.”
Ray Angora, a technical director at CBS Television and a close friend of Wagner since the 1940s, agreed. “If you buy Jack’s services, you get a complete package,” Angora said. “He can do several voices, sound effects, even sing in meter. He’ll mix it and blend it. And he’ll get the job done fast, sometimes in the same day. I don’t think there are many people out there who can do that.”
Although Wagner said that about 80% of his time is spent on work for Disney and that his first priority is to complete Disney projects, his vocal chords do not belong to the company.
He narrated Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural fireworks show in Washington. He has provided sound effects for Rose Parade floats, and he narrates the Christmas tree lighting ceremony each year at New York City’s South Street Seaport. His tapes have been heard at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ice shows, at an extravaganza celebrating the Sultan of Oman’s 15th year in power, and at ceremonies in Boston and Philadelphia commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Constitution in 1987. At Orlando International Airport, every time a planeload of passengers climb into an automated shuttle train, Wagner’s voice is there to greet them and point them in the direction of their baggage.
“Jack has a very comfortable voice. It’s authoritative without being threatening,” said Carolyn Fennell, director of community relations for the Orlando airport. “One thing you have in an airport is a lot of anxiety. To get people to relax and follow instructions is very hard to do.”
While the public has become accustomed to his voice, it is not a free commodity. Wagner won’t disclose the terms of his contract with Disney, but he said his annual income is measured in six figures: “Something over $100,000 and under $700,000.”
In addition to the money he makes from his Disney contract, Wagner said he charges about $100 an hour for his outside work, with a minimum of $500 a project. According to the production company that hired Wagner to make the desert attack vehicle presentation, Wagner earned about $1,000 for three hours of work.
Wagner said that he is not wealthy but that he and his wife, Maryalice, live well and have been able to make some profitable real estate deals over the years. They currently own four houses scattered across Southern California in more-affluent areas than their Anaheim neighborhood.
Wagner used to make tape recordings free of charge for California fire and police departments. But so many departments started asking for talking police car and motorcycle programs, which are used to teach traffic safety to schoolchildren, that Wagner began charging half his normal fee for such projects. More than 30 police departments use the tapes.
By his own estimate, more than a billion people have heard Wagner’s velvet voice over the years. Wagner finds the thought amusing, since he rarely makes live announcements and goes for days without leaving the seclusion of his studio and ranch-style house in Anaheim. In fact, his 1979 Chevrolet Malibu has been driven only 27,000 miles. “We never go anywhere,” he said. “We are cocooning, which I understand is very fashionable these days.”
If Wagner comes off as a bit of a ham, it is not surprising. His show business career began at age 5, when he went to work dubbing American films for French audiences. Although he was born in the United States, both his parents were French and he grew up speaking French around the house. His mother was an actress, appearing as “the little old French lady in every movie you ever saw,” Wagner said.
Wagner also had many bit appearances as a child in movies like “Poor Little Rich Girl,” starring Shirley Temple, in 1933. In 1944, he had his biggest role in what he now calls a “dumb B” movie called “Jive Junction,” in which Wagner dukes it out with leading man Dickie Moore for a girl’s affections.
Wagner played the role of the malt shop owner in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” He was also a popular disc jockey at radio station KHJ and a newscaster for KHJ-TV. His wife also is a former child and radio actress. Wagner said his training in radio and television has helped him in his current line of work. “I have to maintain that Disney image, no matter what it is I am conveying. I try to get every announcement done in one take, but I’m very critical of myself and I’ll go back and do something over and over again.”
Wagner once spent days trying to re-create the sound of a surgeon’s knife cutting into a human cornea for a medical film. How did he do it? He’s not quite sure.
“I probably used a grapefruit,” he said. “I once did the roar of a tiger for a Pontiac commercial by growling into a cardboard tube. I changed the speed, did a little reverb, added some equalization and bingo, a tiger!”