The original giggling falsetto voice of Mickey Mouse was done by Walt Disney himself, and the mouse survived on the strength of Walt’s imagination and pen, not his vocal cords.
But most of the great and indelible cartoon characters of movies and television have had voices that matched the drawn personalities so exactly it’s hard to believe that men and women at microphones had done their work before the paint ever hit the cels.
Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Stan Freberg, Paul Frees, Bill Scott, Gracie Lantz (who provided Woody Woodpecker with his lilting cackle) and many another vocalizer gave the nearest thing to flesh and blood to a whole Noah’s ark of critters.
Over the weekend, the Hollywood branch of the International Animation Society (ASIFA) honored the premier woman among cartoon voices, June Foray, and held the fund-raising cel and memorabilia sale she launched in her back yard years ago.
Foray made her heard-but-not-seen debut as the voice of Lucifer the cat in Disney’s “Cinderella” in 1950. Then, she said the other day, “I was two mermaids and an Indian squaw in ‘Peter Pan.’ ”
But she is probably best known and most admired as the voices of both Rocky and the nicely wicked Natasha Fatale on “Rocky and His Friends.” (“Natasha was supposed to sound vaguely Middle Eastern,” Foray says. “I tried, but TASS still attacked the show.”) Foray was also the resident all-purpose Fairy Godmother, Princess and Witch on the “Fractured Fairy Tales” segment of the show, not to mention Nell, the beloved of Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties in that show within the show.
“Rocky and His Friends” was on ABC from 1959-61 and NBC from 1961-64, not long as series go, but it has had an extraordinary afterlife. It is still seen in syndication, and Disney, of all firms, has released a dozen cassette compilations of the shows. Reportedly not included is an episode of “Fractured Fairy Tales” in which the Prince, thought to be bear some sly resemblance to Walt, elects not to kiss the Sleeping Princess but to build a theme park around her.
“I ran into Steven Spielberg at the nominees luncheon before the Oscars,” Foray says, “and before I could congratulate him on ‘Schindler’s List,’ he had to tell me his sons watch ‘Rocky’ every day and adore it.”
Foray was 15 when she started in radio on WBZA in Springfield, Mass., the same station that a few years earlier had launched Norman Corwin on his significant career in the medium.
As a child she had thought of being a dancer, because an idol, Eleanor Powell, had studied at McKernan’s dancing school in Springfield, but a siege of pneumonia derailed that idea, and a finger broken playing baseball in the back yard put a crimp in the piano lessons. She took acting lessons instead, was appearing on radio at 12 and joined the WBZA Players at 15.
When she was 17, her family moved to California and Foray precociously began writing for radio as well as appearing on it. She wrote playlets for the Office of Civilian Defense (and discovered years later that Ray Bradbury was too). At 19, she invented a program she called “Lady Make Believe” and for three years wrote children’s stories that were piped into Los Angeles classrooms by the Board of Education.
Not long ago, tidying her garage after the earthquake, which gave a severe shaking to Foray and her house in the San Fernando Valley, she found stacks of her “Lady Make Believe” scripts. Turner Publishing has now optioned them all and will initially have her record six audiocassettes of her stories.
Hardly out of her teens, she was appearing on two or three radio programs daily, including “Lux Radio Theater,” the Danny Thomas and Phil Harris shows, the Sherlock Holmes series and Steve Allen’s earliest incarnations on local radio.
She edged into cartoons via a series of Paramount live-action shorts called “Speaking of Animals,” in which the mouths of the animals were animated as they said deucedly clever things. She met both Stan Freberg and Daws Butler doing the shorts, and the shorts led to a series of Capitol records, in which those three were joined by Mel Blanc and Pinto Colvig, the original voice of Goofy.
She worked as well with Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng on something like 70 Warner Bros. shorts, and with Ross Bagdasarian on the first “Alvin the Chipmunk” series.
Then one day an amiable Harvard Law School graduate and entrepreneur named Jay Ward, who had broken into cartoon production with “Crusader Rabbit,” took her to lunch and invited her to be on a demo of what became “Rocky and His Friends,” with Paul Frees and Bill Scott as the other voices.
“I didn’t hear anything for a year ,” Foray says. “Then my agent called and said, ‘Remember the demo you did about that squirrel? It’s a go, on ABC.’ ” So it was, with Scott, who was also the show’s gifted head writer, as the basso defuncto voice of Bullwinkle Moose and Bill Conrad as the narrator. Edward Everett Horton told the “Fractured Fairy Tales.”
The show’s pun-enriched titles, grown-up allusions and gently satirical slants made it uniquely appealing to adults as well as the small fry, as it continues to be.
Foray was also Ursula on another Ward-Scott series, “George of the Jungle,” and, not quite least among her roles, she is the voice of the Chatty Cathy doll and of Granny Goodwitch in a cereal commercial. She has looped the voices of various actresses in motion pictures, and a quick ear might hear her in Arthur Hiller’s “Hospital.”
The ASIFA for Foray is not simply for her unmatched line of wicked stepmothers and dippy princesses but for her work in the cause of animation. “June is the fairy godmother of animation,” the veteran animator Bill Littlejohn said recently.
When the local chapter of ASIFA was newly launched and broke, Foray proposed a sale of cartoon cels, staged it around her swimming pool and sold donated cels for as little as $25, a sum now ludicrous as cels have become highly prized collectibles. She raised $5,000 for ASIFA that first day. “The studios don’t donate them anymore,” she says. “They sell them themselves.”
Foray also urged the first ASIFA banquet and awards, now annual events. These days the animators continue to donate cels and the annual cel sale takes place at the Beverly Garland Hotel in the Valley, having long since outgrown Foray’s back yard.
She is also a three-term member of the Motion Picture Academy’s board of governors, where she led the fight against the board’s vote a year ago to drop short films from the Oscars. After protests from such short film alumni as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese as well as critics’ groups and other interested parties, the original vote was overturned decisively.
But a new push within the board to tighten the qualifications for entering short films in the Academy Awards has Foray and other staunch admirers of the form on guard. (“Some of the other academy board members duck when they see June coming,” says Littlejohn, who is himself a board member.)
“Some filmmakers have to pay theaters to show their short films,” Foray says. “I think it’s too bad, but I can’t object to it. Times have changed. They’re not making Pete Smith or Robert Benchley shorts anymore, and theaters don’t regularly show shorts anymore. But that doesn’t mean that good shorts, live-action and animation, aren’t being made. Some of them are being made for other formats and other venues, like Showscan and Imax. The academy has to move with the times.”
For herself, Foray now occasionally endures the unkindest compliment of all--she will hear that a producer is looking for a June Foray-type voice.
“Hey, I’m here,” Foray says.