Some time ago, the title of “America’s Oldest Teenager” was bestowed upon Dick Clark. Whoever did it was wrong. Everyone knows America’s Oldest Teenager is really Janet Waldo.
Janet was a real teenager when she went into the movies. She starred as a teenager—“15 going on 16,” as the announcer put it—on the radio show Meet Corliss Archer. She appeared on camera as a teenager in a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. She, of course, is teenaged Judy Jetson. And, if you listen to any recent interviews with Janet, she still has that teenaged-girl quality in her voice. She’s like that cartoon senior citizen who defied the aging process, Precious Pupp’s owner Granny Sweet, who, not coincidentally perhaps, is voiced by one Janet Waldo.
I’m probably like many of you. Janet’s voice has been a part of my life for so long, she seems like an old friend, even more so considering she lived down Highway 99 maybe 100 miles or so from where I grew up in a place I’ve been through countless times.
Internet sources don’t agree about Janet’s year of birth—personally, I’ll take the word of the U.S. Government Census—but they do agree that she was born on this particular day in the pippin paradise of Grandview, Washington, near Yakima. Her dad was Benjamin Franklin Waldo, a native Vermonter who was the agent for the Northern Pacific Railway at Granger. She was the fourth child and had an older brother Franklin Allen and older sisters Virginia and Elizabeth. Janet is a distant relative of the fabled Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Soon, the family moved to Everett, north of Seattle. She attended the University of Washington and appeared in its Little Theatre presentations. She was on the radio, too; her first job was reading two lines in a commercial while still in high school. At that time, Bing Crosby and his studio, Paramount, were on a talent quest in his native State and Janet was induced to enter. She and a Spokane girl named Ruth Rogers were winners, and off they went to Hollywood.
The Los Angeles Times of February 3, 1938 has this Hollywood squib:
The initiation of Janet Waldo, 18 years of age, of Seattle into the film world was nothing short of ostentatious yesterday. She was kissed fifteen times by Richard Denning, a stock player for Paramount, during the shooting of scenes for a trailer for “Romance in the Dark.” Retakes accounted for all of the activity, and Miss Waldo admitted she was a trifle embarrassed at first. She is one of the girls signed to a contract in the Bing Crosby beauty hunt conducted recently in the Northwest.”
Paramount shoved her in a bunch of pictures in the late ‘30s and played her up in publicity material as an ingénue. Complete with glamour shots. Check this NEA wire service picture from April 6, 1939 from a story about young stars who added fitness to glamour. Perhaps that was her cinematic undoing. The Oakland Tribune’s Sunday magazine of January 29, 1939 featured a picture of Janet in a feature story entitled ‘Does It Pay to Be Beautiful in Hollywood?’ Part of the text reads:
When Hollywood's directors and producers were polled to name the 10 most beautiful girls to gain screen recognition during 1938 the winners were:
Janet Waldo, Mary (Punkins) Parker, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ellen Drew, Rosella Towne, Judith Barrett, Nancy Kelly, Sheila Darcy, Pauline Moore and Ruth Hussey....
[Here’s] what happened when Paramount’s eastern business chiefs started reorganizing the west coast studio. ... lopped off the contract list included Dorothy Howe, Joan Bennett, Franciska Gaal, Ann Todd and Frances Dee and next in line were Nora Gale, Harriet Haddon and Janet Waldo.
So two—Janet Waldo and “Punkins” Parker — of Paramount’s five winners in the Hollywood “10 best” beauty contest (conducted by Paramount) couldn’t be saved by their beauty.
Ah, but poor “Punkins” didn’t have the Old Groaner watching out for them. Janet did. She kept getting parts in Bing Crosby movies.
The original home of many cartoon actors, network radio, became Janet’s best-known residence. She doubled on Lux Radio Theatre, starting around early 1941, and then, as the Milwaukee Journal reported on July 16, 1944:
Starring in the role of Kathy [on the serial Those We Love] is Janet Waldo, who stepped into the part when Nan Grey retired temporarily [in May 1943] to give birth to her second daughter. (Coincidence: Kathy also has just become a mother in the script.) Janet entered radio as the winner of a talent contest at the University of Washington, and she considers “Those We Love” her lucky program since it was through that show that she got her first real radio break. That was several years ago, after Janet had made several auditions along Hollywood’s radio row but had received very little encouragement. Then, when Nan Grey was detained in San Francisco and was unable to get to rehearsal, a hurryup check of audition files revealed that Janet Waldo was available. She read the star’s part at rehearsal, and although Nan returned in time for the actual broadcast, Janet’s ability so impressed the producer that he called her for another show and before long she had her foothold in radio.
Her most famous role was, once again, one she took over. In mid-July, 1943, she replaced former Little Rascal Priscilla Lyon as the title character on Meet Corliss Archer. You’d never know anyone else had played Corliss the way the papers talked. Here’s a syndicated column; this is the version that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal on September 5, 1943:
Scatterbrain is Anything But That
Janet Waldo offers proof that it takes brains to play the part of a charming young scatterbrain. Witness her title role portrayal in Columbia network’s “Corliss Archer” program. Janet does it so well some listeners must think she is in private life as effervescent, moonstruck and unpredictable as the character she creates.
On the contrary, Janet is a serious young artist whose day, beginning at 5 a.m., is a planned schedule of piano lessons, French lessons, rehearsals, study of radio dramatic technique and “boning up” on the vagaries of a girl’s mind.
Janet has been a serious minded young lady since the day she played a lead role in a student production of “Showboat” at Washington university, St. Louis [sic]. Inspired by the applause, she decided then and there to devote her life to a Thespian career, and engaged a dramatic coach.
Three years ago she went to Hollywood and got her first big break on Cecil B. De Mille’s “[Lux] Radio Theater,” playing with George Brent and Merle Oberon. She later landed parts in movies, but renounced motion pictures to concentrate solely on radio. She has had parts on “Big Town” with Edward G. Robinson, who also coached her; on “Dr. Christian” with Jean Hersholt, “Mayor of the Town” with Lionel Barrymore, and “Silver Theater,” opposite Bing Crosby and Kay Kyser.
Janet believes there is but one formula for success in her chosen profession, and that’s hard work and appreciation of intelligence. In the mornings she doesn’t pause for a breakfast cigarette, because she doesn’t smoke. In the afternoon she’s not found in fashionable cocktail bars, because she doesn’t drink. And in the evening she flits very little in café society—this despite the fact that she is young and beautiful. She has dates, of course, but not many. Dates, cigarets and cocktails take up too much time, she feels.
“I’ve made up my mind to be a really good actress,” she explains.
When Janet find time she rides horseback, swims, plays tennis or writes light verse. But work or play, she always finds some way of doing things to please her mother, who is a concert singer, and her father, a retired railroad man.
Janet would rather talk about her sister, Elizabeth Waldo, than herself. Elizabeth, a concert violinist, was a member of Leopold Stokowski’s All-American Youth orchestra which toured South America, and is now a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra.
“We’re just two girls who know our own minds,” says Janet. “Elizabeth will never leave her music and I’ll never leave radio.”
And that’s the kind of gal who stars as a madcap.
Yes, Janet was starring in two shows. She was in a third, actually, appearing in 1944 as Irene, Cliff’s wife, in the venerable One Man’s Family. Okay, a fourth, as the same year, she was signed for a lead role in Lady of the Press, airing out of KNX Los Angeles. Multiple shows for radio actors, even ones with starring roles, weren’t unheard of.
More roles followed. She was Emmy Lou on Ozzie and Harriet; Ozzie Nelson called her character “a composite of about four or five teenagers who frequented the Los Angeles Tennis Club’s swimming pool during vacation time.” She regularly played one of Eddie Bracken’s girl-friends on his show. She even got another starring role in 1949 with Jimmy Lydon on the comedy Young Love. But Corliss carried on through network changes, sponsor troubles and the decline of the Golden Age of Radio, finally going off the air in 1956. Oh, and it provided Janet with a husband. She married radio writer/producer Bob Lee in March 1948; he had written for Archer and penned her show with Lydon before heading to bigger things (Janet once joked she kept working to put her husband through Broadway). The only thing Corliss didn’t do was put her on television—Lugene Sanders was hired to go before the camera at the time Janet was pregnant with Jonathan.
So how did Janet end up becoming Judy Jetson? She had been voicing commercials at the time, and her agent Jack Wormser called. On The Jetsons DVD, she explains:
I was working in an on-camera series called ‘Valentine’s Day’ and they sent me to do this audition for The Jetsons, and I had never done a cartoon before....
When I came to the first session, Joe Barbera directed it and he had the whole storyboard there and would go through the entire script, playing all of the parts. That was great because we didn’t have to wonder what he wanted us to do.
But Penny [Singleton] and I loved each other. I don’t believe we had ever met before The Jetsons. Most of the other people in the series I had worked with in radio. George O’Hanlon. Wonderful actor. Wonderful guy. I loved working with these people because they were all so good. They were totally professional. Some of them had come from the theatre and they were just wonderful actors. They weren’t just voice people.
You know, Penny and I had voices that were in the same register, and I was always trying to get her to go lower. But she’d say “Well, no, because we’re mother and daughter it’s okay we sound alike.” But then I went higher and the higher I went, the higher she went. But Joe Barbera never questioned us about that, he never picked on us about that, our voices being too close.
Daws Butler...He was a dear, dear man. And helped me so much at this first audition because, as you can imagine, I was very nervous.
George O’Hanlon didn’t like to be called a voice person. He said “I do one voice, and it’s me.” And Penny just did one voice always in the sessions. I noticed with this first session that Jean Vander Pyl and Daws and Don Messick did lots and lots of voices so I became totally enamoured of doing more than one voice. So later on, I coaxed Joe Barbera to let me try some other voices and I did lots of them in The Jetsons.
[The first show] was a little more straight-laced than some of the other shows. I mean, nobody went really, really far out except maybe Howie Morris...but as the show progressed, you can not believe some of the wild voices that everybody did.
Joe Barbera, in looking at the storyboard, it was such fun to hear him do all of the different voices. Joe was a very good actor, actually, and, in fact, one time I was working with Paul Lynde on a series called The Perils of Penelope Pitstop and he said to Paul Lynde “You don’t sound like Paul Lynde, Paul,” so Joe Barbera did a Paul Lynde for Paul Lynde. You couldn’t fool Joe. His ear is absolutely perfect. He knows when he gets it and he knows when it’s wrong.
I hate to correct Janet’s first statement, but Valentine’s Day didn’t debut until fall 1964. As you know, The Jetsons first aired September 23, 1962.
More from Janet about the recording sessions:
The animators... use to come to the rehearsal and they would sit in a little separate booth and they would watch us performing, or doing our recording, I’m sure you all know that the recording was made first and then the animation. And they would take mannerisms that we used and put them into our characters...
If you can believe this, the early recording sessions, there were only 24 that were made, and they lasted for six hours. That’s because Joe Barbera was so particular and he wanted to get exactly the right sound and the right quality. And, then, later on when we made new Jetsons, which was years later, we did them in an hour or an hour and a half. But I loved those six-hour sessions. They were great fun.
Janet has much more to say; listen to the DVD bonus tracks for yourself. She didn’t say how much she was paid for each episode but Jean Vander Pyl told a reporter in 1995 she (Jean) got $250 per show for The Flintstones.
I suppose I have to make mention of The Tiffany Affair. For those of you who don’t recall, Hanna-Barbera brought back all of The Jetsons voice actors—including a couple who were in failing health—to record a voice track in 1989 for a movie version. Someone at Universal had the idea to pander to young people by replacing Janet’s voice track with pop singer Tiffany. I was outraged. Tiffany was not Judy Jetson. Janet Waldo was. End of discussion. In fact, Tiffany pretty well epitomised what was wrong with the music industry in that era; the every-hook-is-calculated, homogenised, soulless material polluting the song charts. Even more, I couldn’t picture why anyone would go to see a movie just because Tiffany was singing in it; the whole concept was such an obvious marketing ploy involving someone who was maybe a B-lister at best. I was pleased to see the pander was panned by fans, the media—the L.A. Times declared “The Judy I heard was an imposter”—and Janet, who was classy in interviews at the time. Janet didn’t buy a ticket to the movie. Neither did I.
Into the 21st Century, there were few places on the radio, besides commercials, for long-time voice artists, but Janet found one of them—the Christian radio play series Adventures in Odyssey. If you listen to this podcast and skip past the contrived opening to the 1:25 mark, you can hear her talk about her career and her work on that show with Hanna-Barbera’s Hal Smith where she finally stopped playing a teenager.
If you haven’t read enough, Mark Evanier’s blog has this great tale of Janet and Howie Morris.
Finally, some little known Janet Waldo facts:
• She almost appeared on television—in 1945! Plans for a fashion show on Don Lee’s W6XAO fell through. Scheduled to appear with Janet on the catwalk were radio actresses and noted H-B cartoon voices Bea Benaderet and Cathy Lewis (Billboard, Jan. 27, 1945).
• Servicemen overseas during the war requested pin-up pictures of her—specifying they wanted shots with all her clothes on (Milwaukee Journal, May 13, 1945).
• Janet is afraid to fly though her husband Bob was a licensed pilot (Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1951).
• She won a free trip for two to Paris in Dodge’s monthly ‘Buyer is King’ letter-writing contest but turned it down because of radio commitments (L.A. Times, Sept. 20, Oct. 23, 1951).
• A fortune teller told her that her marriage wouldn’t last three years. She and Bob finally parted upon his death in 1994, 46 years later (Pittsburgh Press, May 13, 1951).
• The Lees won a tax refund case in 1967 that apparently set a legal precedent.
This post went a lot longer than I expected and I’ve cut out a lot of stuff. There’s enough for a whole book. Suffice it to say, Janet Waldo’s had a fine career and has made audiences smile and laugh since she was a teenager. A real one. It’s her birthday today, but we all know it can’t be. Janet Waldo is still 15 going on 16. And she always will be.