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T. Ravenscroft, 91; Gave Voice to Tony the Tiger, Disney Movies

Times Staff Writer

Thurl Ravenscroft, the booming voice of Tony the Tiger, whose hearty interpretation of a catchphrase used to sell cereal -- “They’re g-r-r-r-e-a-t!” -- became an enduring slice of Americana, has died. He was 91.

Ravenscroft, a longtime resident of Fullerton, died Sunday of prostate cancer, said Diane Challis Davy, director of Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, which he narrated for 20 years.

The voice that could remind generations of their Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes also could make baby boomers nostalgic for other pop culture landmarks of their childhoods.

Many remember his evil rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” in the television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” which has aired annually since 1966.

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For more than half a century, he has been linked with Disney.

At Disneyland, Ravenscroft’s voice can still be heard “yo-ho-ho-ing” in Pirates of the Caribbean, and his likeness can be seen singing -- he’s the bust broken off the base -- in the Haunted Mansion.

He was a singing mouse in the Disney film “Cinderella” (1950) and a crooning dog in 1955’s “Lady & the Tramp.” He sang and voiced roles in about two dozen Disney movies starting in 1941.

“Thurl’s voice is so unmistakably Disney, and so distinct, and there were only a few voices that were pure Disney,” said Kevin Rafferty, a senior show writer and director at Walt Disney Imagineering who updated the sound on several attractions that featured Ravenscroft’s voice.

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Before he gave voice to Fritz, the German parrot in Disneyland’s Tiki Room, Ravenscroft gave enthusiastic life to Tony the Tiger in 1952.

His Mellomen quartet was already singing jingles for other Kellogg cereals when he created the stretched-out growl, enhanced with reverberation, that pronounced Frosted Flakes great.

“I often say that I’ve made a career out of one word,” Ravenscroft said with a chuckle in a Times interview in 1983.

Ravenscroft’s last Tony the Tiger commercial was taped last fall.

It was a 53-year performance the Kellogg Co. considered “priceless,” Celeste Clark, a senior vice president, told The Times on Tuesday.

“No one would think about Kellogg without thinking of Tony, and we would not think of Tony without thinking about Thurl,” Clark added.

The company said it was “premature” to address who would take over the role.

For 20 years, Ravenscroft also was known as the voice of the Pageant of the Masters, which uses actors to portray works of art.

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Pageant officials were flattered that he considered his role as narrator, which began in 1974, “the job he adored most in show business,” Davy said.

Thurl Arthur Ravenscroft was born Feb. 6, 1914, in Norfolk, Neb., and moved to Los Angeles in 1933 to attend the Otis College of Art and Design and pursue a career in advertising.

After an actor told him he had “a flair for show business,” he auditioned at Paramount, became a studio singer and dropped out of school.

“I either had to take this easy money or go on in art school,” he told The Times. He went with the studio work, which he remembered as being hard but fun.

In 1937, he formed a singing group called the Sportsmen Quartet, performing backup vocals for such stars as Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee on the radio.

They also could be heard on Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros.

During World War II, he became a navigator for the Air Transport Command, flying 150 Atlantic crossings.

On one mission, his crew flew Winston Churchill to Algiers for a conference with Allied military leaders.

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“It was,” he told The Times, “quite a thrill.”

After the war, Ravenscroft was in charge of ground training for Trans World Airlines’ new international division, where he met his future wife, a flight attendant for TWA, in 1946.

They married three weeks later.

In 1947, he returned to Hollywood and formed another quartet, called the Mellomen, which performed with Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Elvis Presley.

They were featured on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio show and did work for Walt Disney Studios. Because of their versatility, “Walt just loved us,” Ravenscroft said.

A religious man, Ravenscroft recorded the Book of Psalms for the blind, and in 1981 he began narrating annual presentations of “The Glory of Christmas” at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

Those who worked with him often called him “unpretentious.” When people asked how he made a living, he would say, “Well, today I sang like a mouse, I was a horse out in the barn, I was the voice of a coyote.”

Ravenscroft’s wife, June, died in 1999 at age 80.

He is survived by a son, Ron; a daughter, Nancy; and four grandchildren.


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