Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Underrated Don Messick

If Daws Butler lived in the very large shadow of Mel Blanc, then Don Messick lived in the very large shadow of Daws.

A few different generations know who Mel is, not only because he voiced some of the most famous and funny animated characters of the 20th century, but due to his memory. He remembered an old vaudeville adage—billing is everything. He made sure his name showed up before the action even began in Warner Bros. cartoons and no other actor’s did (on The Bugs Bunny Show on TV, he got his own, exclusive title card with a spotlight around the lettering). Mel appeared on camera on some memorable Jack Benny shows. And Mel was a pretty aggressive self-promoter, too, and thus you can find old TV clips of him and a book talking about his career. His version of it anyway.

Daws’ name isn’t as well-known to the general public—he really seems to have shunned the spotlight—but his talent for mimicry and enthusiastic acting style has rightfully won him legions of lovers among the clamourous cartoon cogniscenti.

And that brings us to Don. When Hanna-Barbera got into the TV cartoon business in 1957, Don and Daws were their entire cast. And so it remained, with a rare exception, when Huckleberry Hound debuted a year later. But Daws got the fun starring-roles while Don’s main roles were secondary: straight-sounding characters—narrators, Ranger Smith and Boo-Boo mainly. His only titular character was Pixie but, even then, Daws as Mr. Jinks was the real star of those cartoons. On top of that, cartoon writer-producer Mark Evanier revealed that Daws got a certain fee. Everyone else (Don) got scale.

Even in work for other studios, Daws came out better than Don. Daws provided some funny, very familiar voices for the beloved Jay Ward cartoon shows and on commercials, while Don was the only highlight of the wretched and forgotten and wretched Spunky and Tadpole series. Oh, did I mention it was wretched?

But Don was not underrated to Joe Barbera and he consistently proved his value to Hanna-Barbera year in and year out. He played both meek husband and battle-axe wife in a great Yogi Bear cartoon called Be My Guest, Pest. His vaudevillean tête-à-têtes as Major Minor with Snagglepuss really added to the silliness of that series. In 1962, he provided comic relief fun in his best part to date as Astro on The Jetsons; for a change, he got the over-the-top character while Daws got the more down-to-earth role as Elroy. Starring roles in minor cartoons like Ricochet Rabbit and Precious Pupp (as a snickering dog) followed, and so did a prize prime-time gig as Jonny Quest’s father, a character someone like Daws Butler would never have been asked to try, though he was thoroughly capable of doing straight voices.

Soon Don got what might be two of his best-known roles. His snicker was put in a new dog and Muttley basically stole the show on Wacky Races (1968). Then a pinch of Astro’s voice was used as Don was handed the starring role in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969), for some reason one of the most popular characters ever to come out of the Hanna-Barbera studios. Daws, meanwhile, was over at Walter Lantz trying overcome circumstances beyond his control to make Chilly Willy even remotely watchable.

Fortunately, the ’80s brought a flood of interest in anything to do with animation that had been popular on TV a generation earlier. Thus, several profiles of Don made their way into the popular press. Associated Press writer Jerry Buck (as opposed to Jerry Beck) put this one together which was printed in papers starting February 27, 1985.


Don Messick: man with many voices
LOS ANGELES (AP) — You may not know Don Messick’s face, but it's unlikely you've missed his many voices.
In the world of voices, Messick is a superstar. He’s done hundreds of commercials (he’s the voice of Snap for Rice Krispies) and he’s created the voices in more than 3,000 television cartoon episodes.
He’s the voice of Papa Smurf on The Smurfs. He's the voice of “Scooby Doo,” Bamm-Bamm on The Flintstones, Astro the Dog in The Jetsons, Crunch in The Mighty Orbots and Pupooch in Pawpaws.
“When my voice changed when I was 13, I discovered its flexibility,” said Messick. “I became a ventriloquist. That was during the era of Charlie McCarthy. I started entertaining at rural affairs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I grew up.
“When I was 15 I got my own weekly radio show on the station in Salisbury. I wrote and played all the parts. After high school, I moved to Baltimore and lived with my grandmother while I went to acting school. I learned how bad I was and how much technique I needed to learn.”
Messick worked at the time with a dummy named Woody DeForest, which he got for $15 from a mail order house in St. Joseph, Mo.
In 1945, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the Army and sent to the West Coast. Woody went along, complete with uniform made by Messick’s mother.
“When I got out of the Army I headed for Hollywood,” he said. “I was in a workshop for veterans, run by Bob Light, and through him I got my first job as the voice of Raggedy Andy on The Raggedy Ann Show.”
Messick worked through the days of live television as the voice on various puppet shows. Oddly enough, it was the release of the movie studios’ backlog of animated cartoons that put him out of a job. And it was the voice of new cartoon shows that he found his fortune.
He met William Hanna and Joseph Barbera just as they were leaving MGM to set up their own cartoon studio. “I'm still on a day player contract, but I’ve worked every year for them for the past 26 years,” Messick said.
Messick now lives in Santa Barbara, where he has a studio in his home and frequently records there. He sometimes walks his dog on Butterfly Beach, where he occasionally runs into another famous resident, Robert Mitchum. “We talk about dogs,” he said. “He has no idea who I am.”
Messick’s face has appeared recently on television, but it was typecasting. He was Wally Wooster, the man who did the cartoon voices, on NBC’s The Duck Factory.
“They wanted someone who kind of fit the description of the character and could do voices,” he said.
Wally’s most memorable moment came in the first show when he gave the eulogy for an animator and kept slipping into the voice of cartoon character Dippy Duck, “Wally was never quite sure whether he was Wally or Dippy Duck,” Messick said.
Messick commutes to work in Los Angeles. His wife, Helen, operates an herb shop in Northern California. They see each other on weekends. “We've lived apart since 1967. It works,” he said. “She's happy doing her thing and she prefers Northern California.”
He has been doing the voice of “Scooby Doo” for 16 years on ABC Saturday mornings. The Jetsons, an ABC prime-time cartoon in 1962-63, is still seen in reruns and is coming back for more original shows.
Another cartoon that's being brought back for more original shows is Yogi Bear and all the gang at Jellystone National Park. Messick is the voice of Boo-Boo. In the new episodes, Yogi and his friends will leave the park.
Messick also is the voice of various insects on Raid commercials and does voices for Quaker Oats, Hasbro Toys, Jeno’s Frozen Pizza, Green Giant and Coleco Toys. He also did the cartoon voices for dream sequences on 9 to 5 and “grunting” for the movie Outland.

The Raggedy Ann Show was a standard-fare kids radio show, meaning it ran 15 minutes and was broadcast in the late afternoon (three times a week). Its flagship station was KHJ Los Angeles. Billboard of November 29, 1947 had a story about the show and it was really quite ingenious. RCA Victor was the sponsor and used it to sell children’s records. Paula Stone played Paula, the owner of a record shop. Raggedy Ann and Andy stepped out of the pages of a book (where’s Bob Clampett to take credit?!) and started talking with Paula, who would then spin a kid’s fairy tale record for them—a record which just happened to be made by RCA Victor. Of course, only part of the record was heard, with the announcer urging kids to hear the rest by buying it at their local record store. Gee Gee Pearson was Ann and Don was Andy “playing supporting roles in high-pitched voices, adding a novel effect.” Billboard reviewed the show because the idea was to syndicate it nationally via platters.

Don may be gone, but his voice is still with us in some great old cartoons (and some that aren’t so great; don’t blame Don). Don’s dummy Woody is still with us, too. Read about him here.

A smaller version of the photo at the top of this post can be found on Mark Evanier’s POV Online site. No finer and more poignant personal remembrance of Don can come than that from Mark’s keyboard here.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks Yowp. Don was the greatest. No matter the quality of the Hanna-Barbera production, he added his own great characterizations, and the man was IN EVERYTHING. From " Ruff N Reddy " to practically the very end of his life, you can pick out his voice in tons of animated productions. You're right..it wasn't just Boo Boo or Scooby. It was the forgotten things like " The Three Musketeers " feature in the " Banana Splits ". In 1984, he played voice-man Wally Wooster in the very short lived " Duck Factory " with the then unknown Jim Carey, was a P.A. announcer in " I'm gonna get you, sucka ", remember the 1970 summer primetime cartoon " Where's Huddles ?". He was " Fumble " opposite Mel Blanc and Alan Reed. One of the " Rice Krispies ".I'll date myself by saying I remember them all. To me, he is right up there with Mel, Daws, Paul Frees, June Foray, and a list I don't have time to mention.

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  2. thanks for these great posts yowp keep up the good werk, i,m interested in knowing where i can find the hi q production albums filled with all these amazing cartoon jazz tracks any information would be a huge help. i also would like to kno if there are any compilations out there that have the so rare and hard to find background music to the 1967 fantastic four cartoon or the 66 space ghost , herculoids , galaxy trio etc... any leads would be highly appreciated , oh and thnx again for putting together such a kick ass cartoon blog these masterpieces will live on forever

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  3. Errol, probably the best comment on Don's talent is he wasn't put out to pasture when the mid-60s dramatic cartoons (Herculoids, Space Ghost, et al) replaced comedy, like Daws Butler was. You know too well doing characters and straight reads are almost two different talents (ask Bill Conrad!) but Don was more than capable of both.

    I read something years ago where Don described how he made that wavy tongue-in-the-throat noise on The Herculoids and even before that in late 50s when he did aliens. He explained where in the throat the voice came from and he had been doing it since he was young.

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  4. MoMiz, the closest you're going to get is the Rhino Records 'Pic-a-nic' basket set. It has nine of the Phil Green underscores from Capitol; the rest are themes and underscores written by Hoyt Curtin, whose incidental music replaced Capitol's stuff starting in 1961. Not all his work is there, nor are all HB shows represented (like a number of the dramatic shows of the mid-60s) but it's a good and lovingly-prepared sampling.

    Hi-Q is almost like two different production libraries. There's the stuff Bill Loose and his boss John Seely licensed or wrote. Loose left Capitol in 1964 and was replaced by Ole Georg who, mainly with Ib Glindemann, wrote a bunch of additional material. Their cues are still available through Ole Georg Music but were never used in cartoons. The pre-Georg stuff is no longer Capitol's; the rights have gone back to the heirs or estates of the original composers, making a compilation disc almost impossible to assemble. The cost of using this music is part of the reason a Quick Draw McGraw DVD has never been released.

    On top of that, the HB cartoons used at least one other library, Langlois Filmusic, which is where all the Jack Shaindlin music came from (Capitol distributed the library). The rights to most, if not all, of those songs are now vested in Cinemusic, which started releasing production music in 1965. I'd like to hear privately from anyone who has access to the original set of LPs Cinemusic put out that year.

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  5. Erroll, here's my comment, while Don Messick was unqiue and was use din many cartoons I don't think the performances would have been worth it to hear thse [On Where Huddles, at least one very prominent cartoon producer with own very popular blog used Where's Huddles as an example of how bad the cartoons had gone], and the shows got worse, but Messick was still pretty good, een as [hestistaiton sets here], as Scooby, but Astro wored better with it.

    Anyway, he was great at both dramatic and comedy roles.

    MoMiz & Yowp, Capitol was more like four or five different produciton libraries, and apparently still partly controls tyhe pre-1960 music, and apparerently as ASCAP and BMI showed some of their music was used by Art Clokey in his clay-animated producitons, but Ywop you'e dead and spot [Dog-spot?] on, there isn't any of the Ole Georg music to be heard in cartoons generally. I've heard Ole Georg sitll is a watchdog, as an anonymous fellow told me, for those cues.

    By the way True story. Ole Georg's firm is these days since the 1970s called Media Music. Well, in 2005, when I got that 1990s Pic-a-nic Basket set in the mail, guess what company's LISTED? On the parcel, that is. Oh, Media Music, even though around the time [mid 1990s] they'd stoped releasing that music, due to the lega issues [and it is why Ren and Stimpy, the last major series to regularly use it, was pulled, as well as Nickelodeon's other problems with that show]. So I wonder how Ole's company's name is listed as having sent something that they didn't own since it was releassed..

    Now, as for the libraries, Capitol started out as the record company's library distributor or something with a HUGE association with MuTel [that's Music For Television to the long-form inclined here.Animation historian and producer Ray Pointer's referred to a Music for Films Inc. which seems to be the same thing and there may have been a Music for Radio as well]. Structural Music, controlled by "My Little Margie" theme composer [the theme itself being an old cue] Alexander Laszlo, and who wrote all its material, was another early library, and ASCAP [or BMI, I forget which's].com's got Mr.Laszlo listed for contributing his material to the HB cartoons as well.Also Sam Fox and Valentino, two of the OLDEST going back to the early film industry era!!

    It's difficult to exactly determine the number of libaries used in television in gneeral.

    Your Pony Pal, Pokey, Too

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  6. Messick was great but you didn't mention what was probably his best known role after Scooby. He was Papa Smurf. I also loved him as Uniblab on Jetsons.

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  7. Major, didn't you shoot me in the Mato Grosso? Or was it in the left clavicle? Oh, wait, that was Snagglepuss.

    I love Don as the drunk Uniblab. They'd never let you make a cartoon like that today because some do-gooder would screech about making fun of alcoholism. Or
    "teaching" kids about gambling because of the game of Planet Poker. Sheesh.

    I've never seen The Smurfs; once I got into high school I pretty well stopped watching Saturday cartoons, so I left it to the newspaper story to make the reference.

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  8. Yowp, Was it " Ace Of Space " where the aliens go to Jellystone, take pictures of Yogi and think all " Earthlings " act and look like that? I love the voice he did as the head alien talked to his troops on infiltrating the earth while the great William Loose cue plays in the background, " Get lost in the crowwddd, get all the informatiiioonnnn..youuu cannnn ". That was the tongue in the back of his mouth, doing the " jaw flap ". I think he recycled that voice as " Rudy " in " The Jetsons " later on. And the drunk Uniblab?...Priceless.

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  9. There may be no better example (at least from 1958) of Don carrying a film than "Baffled Bear." This cheap but otherwise atypical Yogi episode is worth talking about in several ways as an early H-B answer to America's highway-happy(?) culture ... presented as a child's storybook on film, it relies heavily on its narrator and wins thanks in large part to Don's voice.

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  10. Errol, it was Space Bear. There are a couple of different cues in there. The portion where he's showing Yogi on the screen sounds more like Phil Green (flutes), but when the alien Yogi (holding the head) wanders in, that's TC-22 Sublime Ghost by Loose and Seely.

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  11. Tony, I was actually going to do that cartoon this weekend because I love the ersatz late-50s car designs. But of the two spot-gag/narration Yogis that come to mind, The Stout Trout has better gags.
    Personally, I think it's a great format, but it was abandoned quickly for a more standard narrative. And Foster tightened things further when he tossed Ranger Smith in every cartoon as opposed to the generic rangers Charlie Shows used. That almost dictated the general nature of the series for eternity.

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  12. Yowp. You are right. " Sublime Ghost " was the main cue, and Carlin has re-named Phillip Green's flute flutter cue, " Excited Tension ". That particular cue was played over and over again in " Lassie's Great Adventure ".

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  13. Messick's 'wavering alien' voice Errol refers to was also used for the leader of the ten Fred Flintstone clones ("Yobba-Dobba-Doo!") in that well-remembered episode.

    One need only view a typical episode of 1969's DASTARDLY & MUTTLEY to recognize Messick's tremendous versatility. As one of only two voice actors in the show- Paul Winchell being the other- he created distinctively different voices for Muttley (venerable snicker along with mangled "Sanna-frassa-rassin'" cussing), Zilly, and Klunk.

    The latter's random gutteral sounds- could it have been Tourette's?- was a real tour de force. Messick would often insert the appropriate sound effect into Klunk's dialogue: if the pigeon was mentioned, it was punctuated by cooing; "Here comes the tar" was punctuated by a 'glub-glub'. Occasionally Messick would slip a Ricochet Rabbit "Ping-ping-pinnng" or Hopperoo "Hawmp!" into the mix. But his creativity shone through.

    And don't forget that during the 1969-70 production season Messick also did voices for several members of the Anthill Mob; Hoppy and Smirky in the "Around The World in 79 Days" segments of CATTANOOGA CATS and incidentals in the other CATS segments. Oh yes, and some Great Dane who shared Astro's gift for 'Doglish'.

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  14. Howard, I was watching Be My Guest, Pest again this morning. Don uses a generic voice for the cop/ranger, his Wimple voice for Newton, but spends most of the cartoon doing Lulubelle in falsetto. He's doing a scream in a couple of spots. If anyone thinks that's easy, they should try to duplicate it, especially at the pace he's going.

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  15. I love Don Messick! I was lucky enough to met him back in the mid 90s at the Cartoon Network.

    His Boo Boo and Ranger were full of great nuances and irony. A real top-tier cartoon actor.

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