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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

July 10, 1989

It's time for another fun-filled look back through time with this week's installment of the Tuesday Timeline. It's the 10th of July, and there's quite a lot that has happened on this date.

So, let us not waste any time with this. We'll kick this edition of the Tuesday Timeline off with the events of July 10.

1212 – London is nearly burned to the ground following a series of devastating fires

1553 – Lady Jane Grey takes the throne of England

1584 – William I of Orange is assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in Holland

1778 – Louis XVI declares war on Britain

1821 – United States takes possession of newly bought territory of Florida from Spain

1850 – Millard Fillmore is inaugurated as the thirteenth President of the United States following the death of Zachary Taylor

1890 – Wyoming becomes the 44th U.S. State

1911 – Royal Australian Navy is established by HM King George V

1913 – The highest recorded temperature in the United States is recorded in Death Valley, California, at a sweltering 134 degrees Fahrenheit (that's nearly 57 Celsius for the metric system users)

1917 – Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert is born in Waconia, Minnesota

1921 – 16 are killed and 161 homes are destroyed during Belfast's “Bloody Sunday”

1925 - “Monkey Trial” begins which sees teacher John T. Scopes being accused of teaching evolution in violation of the Butler Act

1926 – Fred Gwynne, otherwise known as Herman Munster, is born

1938 – Howard Hughes completes marathon 91 hour flight around the world

1940 – Vichy government established in France

1962 – The world's first communications satellite, Telstar, is launched into orbit

1966 – The Chicago Freedom Movement; Martin Luther King Jr holds a rally in a Chicago Park, which attracts over 60,000 people

1973 – John Paul Getty III is kidnapped in Rome, Italy

1976 – Seveso disaster occurs in Italy

1978 – World News Tonight debuts on ABC

1985 – Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior is bombed, and sinks near New Zealand, killing Fernando Pereira

1991 – Following the end of Apartheid, the South African cricket team is readmitted into the International Cricket Council

1992 – Manuel Noriega, former Panamanian leader is sentenced to 40 years behind bars for drug and racketeering violations

1998 – Diocese of Dallas agrees to pay over $23 million to nine former altar boys who laid claim that former priest Rudolph Kos sexually abused them

2002 – Peter Paul Rubens' painting “The Massacre of the Innocents” is sold for $76.2 million to Lord Thomson at a Sotheby's auction

2005 – Hurricane Dennis strikes Florida panhandle, causing billions in damages

2011 – Russian cruise ship, Bulgaria, sinks, killing 122

My, oh my...was July 10th a busy day in recent history!

As it turns out, July 10th is also a date in which several celebrities were born. Celebrating a July 10 birthday are the following; Jake LaMotta, Alice Munro, Jerry Nelson, Ian Whitcomb, Ron Glass, Arlo Guthrie, Greg Kihn, Phyllis Smith, Cheryl Wheeler, Kim Mitchell, Rik Emmett (Triumph), Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys), Cindy Sheehan, Jeff Bergman, Urban Meyer, Ken Mellons, Princess Alexia of Greece and Denmark, Jonathan Gilbert, Gale Harold, Alexandra Hedison, Gary LeVox (Rascal Flatts), Jason Orange (Take That), Sofia Vergara, Andrew Firestone, Elijah Blue Allman, Adrien Grenier, Gwendoline Yeo, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jessica Simpson, Simenona Martinez, and Heather Hemmens.

And, I am exhausted!

Now, you might notice in the celebrity birthday list that I have put one name in italics. Jeff Bergman. Why have I done this? Well, he's sort of linked to the subject of this blog. He was born on July 10, 1960, making him 52 years old today. But twenty-three years ago, when Bergman turned 29, his birthday marked the end of a legendary performer.

Yes, we're taking a trip back in time to July 10, 1989.

And it was on this date that we said farewell to one of the most well-respected voice artists the world had ever seen.

Today, we're looking back on the life and times of Melvin Jerome Blank...but you may know him better by his professional name, Mel Blanc.

He was born on May 30, 1908 in San Francisco, California to Jewish parents Frederick and Eva Blank. While he was attending high school, he had a fondness for performing and manipulating his voice and experimenting with dialects. It was something that fascinated Mel since he was ten years of age. Mel once claimed that he changed his name from Blank to Blanc when he was sixteen after a teacher told him that he would amount to nothing, and live up to his “blank” name.

Oh, if he could have seen into the future at his times, he would have eaten his words.

Mel dropped out of school when he was in the ninth grade, and immediately jumped into the world of show business, splitting his time between performing vaudeville shtick, and leading an orchestra.

TRIVIA: When Mel Blanc was conducting, he was, at the time, the youngest conductor in the country, being just seventeen.

In 1927, Blanc began a career in radio, starring on the program “The Hoot Owls” as a voice artist. Blanc's ability to speak in several dialects in various tones helped put his name out there. Five years later, he met his future wife, Estelle, and married her in 1933. That same year, he moved to Portland, and produced and co-hosted the radio show “Cobweb and Nuts” on KEX. The show ran for two years. Upon the conclusion of the show, and with encouragement from his wife, the Blancs relocated to Los Angeles, California and joined KFWB, a radio station owned by Warner Brothers in 1935. From there, he ended up becoming a regular on the NBC Red Network show “The Jack Benny Program” playing a huge variety of roles from Professor LeBlanc to Polly Parrot. Perhaps one of his most famous voices that he did from his earliest days in radio was that of Sy, the Little Mexican, who was known for only speaking one word at a time. In fact, when Sy's signature line of “Si...Sy...Sew...Sue” was performed, it was so effective that it always made everyone laugh, largely in part to Mel's comedic timing with Jack Benny.

Later, when the radio show transitioned into television, viewers finally got a taste of the wonderful partnership between Mel and Jack, and they keenly noted that whenever the two got together, Jack Benny found it damned near impossible to keep a straight face. Occasionally, Benny's writers would often make an attempt to stump Blanc by suggesting vocal effects that seemed almost impossible to achieve, such as “English horse whinny”, and “goldfish”. But clever Mel would find a way to make it work. For the latter, he just walked up to the microphone in the studio and pursed his lips a bunch of times, silently.

By the mid-1940s, Blanc had been credited to 15 radio shows, albeit in supporting or cameo roles. But on September 3, 1946, he ended up getting his own show on CBS Radio, The Mel Blanc Show. On the program, he played the part of a hapless fix-it shop owner, as well as the voice of his young cousin Zookie. The show also employed other actors, which included Mary Jane Croft, Jim Backus, Alan Reed, and Bea Benaderet. Actually, I want you to remember those last two names. They would end up working with Blanc again in a few years time. The show was well received, but it didn't even last a year, ending its run in the summer of 1947.

Of course, his radio work only served to pale in comparison to the parts that he would play on the television screen.

Back in 1937, Blanc joined Leon Schlesinger Productions. The company made animated cartoons that were distributed by Warner Brothers. But when Blanc wanted to perform voice work for the cartoons the company were making, the music director at the time (Norman Spencer), who was also in charge of cartoon voices, had told Blanc that they didn't need him. He had already cast all the voices that they needed. Mel Blanc was persistent though, and he visited Spencer every two weeks over a two year period!

When Spencer passed away, Carl Stalling took over as music director, and Treg Brown took over the role of cartoon voice casting. Brown met with Blanc and immediately introduced him to such animators as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Frank Tashlin. All four men loved Mel's voices, and Blanc was immediately brought onto the team. His first cartoon was Picador Porky, where he did the voice of a drunken bull.

Soon after that, Joe Dougherty, the original voice of a character known as Porky Pig, was replaced by Blanc, who also voiced a new creation, Daffy Duck.

And as Blanc did more and more work with Looney Tunes cartoons, he would voice more characters along the way. Tweety Bird, Elmer Fudd, Pepe LePew, and Sylvester the Cat.

TRIVIA: If you ever wondered what Mel's real voice sounded like, just picture Sylvester without the lisp. That was the voice that was closest to Mel's speaking voice.

Of course, everyone knows that his most famous voice was that of Bugs Bunny, the flagship character for Looney Tunes (and to a lesser extent, Warner Brothers itself). With his intelligence, his quick wit, and his signature “What's Up, Doc?” tagline, Mel Blanc took Bugs Bunny and made him all his own. But did you know that carrots ended up making Mel's job in voicing Bugs much harder than people thought?

In order to add authenticity to the character of Bugs Bunny, Mel Blanc would often chomp on a carrot. After all, Bugs ate carrots in almost every single cartoon short he appeared in. But Mel soon discovered that chewing carrots compromised the flow of the dialogue. After trying other vegetables, such as celery, Blanc came up with a solution. He'd bite on the carrot, chew it for a few seconds, spit it out, and continue with the lines.

TRIVIA: Contrary to what some sources have said, Mel Blanc was never allergic to carrots, and in a 2004 interview with one of Blanc's confidants confirmed that Blanc spit out the carrots as a time-saving measure, not because of allergy concerns or general dislike of carrots.

Another voice that often gave Blanc a lot of trouble was that of the Looney Tunes baddie Yosemite Sam. Because Sam was loud and brash, and spoke with a raspy tone, Blanc often strained his vocal cords to the limit whenever he had to voice him. Foghorn Leghorn provided similar strain, but not nearly to the limit that Yosemite Sam did. By the late 1980s, Blanc turned over the voice work of Yosemite Sam to voice actor Joe Alaskey, as Blanc was unable to do the voice by then.

One thing that Mel Blanc fought for was the right to be credited for the work that he did as a voice artist. By 1944, his contract stipulated a credit that read “Voice Characterization by Mel Blanc”, crediting him for each voice that he performed on the show. Eventually, actress June Foray would also be given a credit for her work as Granny and Witch Hazel, which can be seen during the closing credits of “The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show”.

Yes, Mel's time with Warner Brothers was very rewarding, and he left his lasting mark with that company. However, he also did work for other cartoon companies. He was the original voice behind the laugh of Woody Woodpecker years ago. Amd in 1960, Blanc began working with Hanna-Barbera studios, which had been working on a new animated prime time series.

That series was “The Flintstones”, which until “The Simpsons” came along in 1989 was the longest running animated sitcom to air. Mel Blanc voiced the character of Barney Rubble, and the gig reunited him with a couple of stars that he worked with on his short-lived radio program – Alan Reed, who voiced Fred Flintstone, and Bea Benaderet, who voiced Betty Rubble. Blanc would also voice the character of Mr. Spacely on “The Jetsons”.

On January 24, 1961, it almost came to an end when Blanc was involved in a serious car accident, which left him comatose. Would you believe that when word of the accident came out that over fifteen thousand fans wrote get well cards for him? Mind you, some of them were addressed to Bugs Bunny, but the thought was there, and it was nice. In fact, Blanc actually credited Bugs with saving his life. When Blanc was still in a coma, his doctor tried to interact with him by calling him by the name of his most famous voice. When the doctor asked how Bugs Bunny was today, he responded in his Bugs voice! What a neat story.

With Blanc recovering, veteran voice actor Daws Butler substituted for him on a few episodes of “The Flintstones”, while Warner Brothers briefly considered having Stan Freberg take over as the voice of Bugs Bunny while Blanc got better. Freberg refused out of respect for Blanc. Luckily, Blanc made a full recovery.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Blanc's voice work slowed down a bit, but he kept active. He ended up voicing the comic strip cat Heathcliff in a 1980s cartoon show, and one of his last voice projects was in the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, which was one of the last times that he would voice Bugs Bunny.

In 1989, Mel Blanc filmed a commercial in celebration of Bugs' 50th anniversary with his son, Noel. But after filming wrapped up, Mel had developed a serious cough, and it alarmed Noel, who insisted that he go to the doctor. After a check-up, the doctor offered Mel two choices. He could either bring an inhaler home, or stay in a hospital overnight. Mel decided on the hospital stay. But little did he know that the decision he made would be fatal. Because a staff member failed to put rails on his hospital bed, Mel Blanc took a serious fall, breaking his femur, and releasing fat emboli into his brain. He suffered a serious stroke as a result, and 48 hours later, on July 10, 1989, he was dead.

Mel Blanc was 81 years old.

However, 23 years since his death, Mel continues to leave a lasting impression. He was the honorary mayor of Big Bear Lake, California for 33 years following the release of a song he recorded entitled “Big Bear Lake”, and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to radio.

And here's one final point to make. You know how I made sure to focus on Jeff Bergman, who happens to celebrate a birthday today? Well, when Mel Blanc died in 1989, someone had to take over the role. Jeff Bergman was that someone, winning the role in 1989...the same year that Blanc died.

It seems almost poignant in a way for the new voice of Bugs Bunny to have a birthday that fell on the same day that Mel Blanc died. More than poignant...almost kismet in a way.

That's what happened on July 10, 1989.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post Matthew! I love Mel Blanc, but I didn't really know anything about his history. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you :)