How good an actress was Jean Vander Pyl? Well, she fooled me. During all the time I grew up and many years thereafter, I thought she was using her real voice when she played Wilma Flintstone. It wasn’t until listening to the end of an old radio comedy somewhat recently and hearing the words “Also appearing were Jean Vander Pyl...” that I learned that wasn’t really her voice at all. She had a fairly gentle, quiet sound.
It was an honest mistake. You couldn’t really compare her voice to much else because, unlike the rest of The Flintstones cast members, Jean didn’t really do anything than Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Mel Blanc, of course, was ubiquitous. Bea Benaderet was the star of Petticoat Junction, and you could see her on reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. Alan Reed turned up in character roles on all kinds of sitcoms. But I’d never seen Jean on TV (I realise she did Leave It to Beaver, known in the Yowp doghouse-hold as Leave It on a Different Channel).
But she carved out a nice career at Hanna-Barbera. She was the first woman hired on a regular basis at the studio. She told the SPERDVAC meeting of February 1989 her first role was in the Snooper and Blabber cartoon Big Diaper Caper (1959), where she evoked Tallulah Bankhead in playing Mrs. Evil Scientist. She showed her versatility on The Quick Draw McGraw Show, portraying Snooper’s secretary Hazel as a breathy southern belle, Quick Draw’s mom as a drawling hillbilly (she used the voice later as Ma Rugg in The Hillbilly Bears) and instilling a New Yorkish sound in several incidental characters. When it came time to cast The Flintstones, it would appear Vander Pyl was the only one who had a lock on a role. June Foray and Daws Butler appeared with her in a Flintstones demo reel. They were replaced. Then Bill Thompson and Hal Smith won the principal male roles. They were replaced. Jean stayed the whole time. Vander Pyl was the first original voice actor on the show and the last at the time of her death.
And, of course, she went on to other roles for the studio—the Shirley Booth-evoking Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons was the best of them. I needn’t name them all. Surely you don’t want to be reminded of the eye-rollingly bad Where’s Huddles? Instead, let’s dig up a couple of contemporary articles about Jean Vander Pyl and link to a couple of others to give her the attention she deserves.
Before that, a couple of biographical notes:
Jean Thelma Vander Pyl was born on October 11, 1919 in Philadelphia. Her father John Howard Vander Pyl had married a Tennessee woman, Kathleen Hale Holtsinger. He was a salesman who moved the family to Illinois and then to Long Beach, California by the ‘30s. She went to Beverly Hills High School where she won a Shakespeare contest playing Juliet “opposite a Romeo whose name she no longer recalls,” as a newspaper squib put it.
Her first radio job was on a show called “Calling All Cars,” in 1934 in some interviews and 1937 in others. The show aired in Los Angeles from 1934 to 1941, first on KHJ then KNX. KHJ writer and producer Carroll O’Meara hired her to do a show called The Phantom Pilot with Howard Duff, then later married her. He died in February 1952 and she re-married.
Her biggest radio role was as the third Margaret Anderson opposite Robert Young on the radio version of the insipid Father Knows Best. June Whitney originated the character then Dorothy Lovett took over in 1951. But Lovett couldn’t appear one evening and Vander Pyl got a half-hour’s notice to show up at the studio and fill in. She eventually took over the part and continued in it until the show left radio in 1954. When it jumped to TV that year, for reasons unknown to yours truly, the much better-known Jane Wyatt was hired for the role.
After some odds and ends, she was hired by Joe Barbera and the rest is, well, you know.
Our first stop is a piece by Carroll Lachnit in The Orange County Register of February 4, 1987.
Voice, not face, is what gives Wilma Flintstone away
Jean Vander Pyl is famous. And yet for 17 years, she has lived in San Clemente in pleasant privacy that she doesn’t have to protect with wigs, masks, bodyguards or lawsuits.
But if she wants to be noticed, all she has to say is one word, delivered in three sliding tones in a high, flat, nasal voice that springs from somewhere around the prehistoric Bronx:
As in Flintstone.
In 1960, Vander Pyl breathed life and spunk and down-to-earth loving common sense into the cartoon character of the Stone Age suburban housewife, Wilma Flintstone. Wilma needed all those qualities to keep her caveman mate, Fred, in line.
To the wonder of all connected with “The Flintstones,” it became a hit. It aired for six years in prime time, becoming the longest-running animated series in prime-time history.
It also aired in 52 countries in English and in many other countries where the voices were produced in the local language.
Vander Pyl said she didn’t think she had achieved fame until, during the 25th anniversary celebration of “The Flintstones” two years ago, a radio interviewer noted the number of countries in which the show had aired.
He ventured that Vander Pyl probably has the most famous female voice in the world.
“It really shook me up,” she said. “To think I’m world famous and I have none of the problems.”
Vander Pyl, 67, said that Wilma is “an exaggerated me.”
“The character is very close to me,” she said. “If I’m excited or mad, I go into it, not because it’s Wilma, but because it’s a facet of my personality.”
And Vander Pyl does indeed go into it, punctuating her recollections of the “The Flintstones” or “The Jetsons” with quick drops into her character voices, which have been honed by years of playing everything from ingénues to hags in more than a dozen radio drama and comedy series.
For the first three years of “The Flintstones,” she and Bea Benaderet, who gave voice to Betty Rubble, did all the female voices on the show.
Vander Pyl was both Wilma and her goo-gooing, cooing baby girl, Pebbles. In “The Jetsons,” Vander Pyl did the voice of Rosie, the Jetson family’s robotic maid, and eight other characters.
Vander Pyl recalls her work in “The Flintstones” as a glorious hoot.
Radio was her favorite medium, but it died with the advent of television, she said. Acting in live television was fine, but “The Flintstones” was more fun.
She knew the rest of the cast from the 20 years they had spent in radio. In “The Flintstones,” they reviewed the story board, rehearsed the script and recorded the show just as if they were back in radio. Animators later matched the animation to their dialogue loop.
Vander Pyl did not invent Wilma’s voice. “The Flintstones” was a cartoon takeoff of “The Honeymooners.” Originally, Wilma’s voice was based on that of Audrey Meadows, who played Alice Kramden, the long-suffering wife of the bus driver-Everyman, Ralph Kramden.
But with time, she softened Wilma’s voice a little, making it less a mimic of Meadows, Vander Pyl said.
Vander Pyl still is Wilma. She worked this past week on voices for a two-hour animated feature, in which the Flintstones meet the Jetsons. She also recently completed recording 42 new episodes of “The Jetsons.”
She marvels at the Flintstones-and-Jetsons cult that flourishes; among college students and the adults who grew up watching the characters’ antics.
And she wishes Bedrock were back in prime time.
“I would even watch ‘The Flintstones’—even me—on Friday night right now,” she said
“There’s not a damn — pardon me — thing to watch.”
Now, we’ll move forward to part of a column by David Martindale, which appeared in the San Antonio Express News of August 3, 1998.
Speaking up gets Vander Pyl noticed
When it comes to superstars of American pop culture, Jean Vander Pyl may be among the best-loved “no-names” in the business.
“I was not a star,” she says modestly. “Believe me.”
But we beg to differ. Her face rarely sparks instant recognition because she specialized in doing radio and cartoon voices. And her voice doesn’t ring a bell unless she steps into character.
But do you know somebody who even knows somebody who can’t place the voice of Wilma Flintstone. From “The Flintstones” (1960-66) TV’s first prime-time cartoon series chronicling the lives of a modern stone-age family, Vander Pyl achieved pop-culture immortality. She was also the voice of Rosey the Robot on “The Jetsons” (1962-63) and did many other Hanna Barbera cartoons. The result—a unique combination of anonymity and worldwide fame.
“The neat thing about having been Wilma is the people who come up to me now she says
‘It’s so nice. I grew up with you. I just loved Wilma.’ And I still get fan mail,” Vander Pyl says. “The Flintstones” is still popular, first and foremost, because of the cleverly written comedy. But the performances of Alan Reed as Fred Flintstone, Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc (Barney Rubble) and Bea Benaderet (Betty Rubble) can’t be dismissed. Limited to only their voices to make the characters come alive they called upon skills that were honed while working in radio.
“We were all radio actors,” Vander Pyl says. “When television came along everybody said, ‘Oh the radio actors will be out of work.’ Well, excuse me, I was radio for 20 years since ‘37 from the day I graduated from high school. I was the mother on “Father Knows Best.” I was in “Amos and Andy.” I was Andy’s girlfriend for two years. And when radio ended we all went on to do television. The only difference we used to say was that we were actors with an additional talent which was the ability to use our voices to convey whatever we wanted to convey. For example when Pebbles was born, when we did that scene, both Alan and I teared up. Now you can believe that or not. But we were acting the part that subtle a thing and we really became emotionally affected.
Vander Pyl is the only surviving cast member from the series. She did a cameo in “The Flintstones” movie in 1994 and while on the set gave Elizabeth Perkins (the movie Wilma) and Rosie O’Donnell (Betty) valuable pointers.
“They had me do the voice for them,” she recalls. “I told Elizabeth, ‘You must remember that Fred is a two-syllable word: ‘Fre-ed.’ And I told them ‘It's always a closed-mouth giggle.”
There was a deliberate reason both Vander Pyl and Benaderet used a closed-mouth giggle. Her son Michael revealed to author Tim Lawson it was because they both smoked and they coughed if they laughed out loud. Vander Pyl succumbed to lung cancer on April 11, 1999. Benaderet died from the same thing in 1968.
Here are two more fine pieces on Jean. The Los Angeles Times of October 29, 1989 wrote a feature article on her. And you can read a portion of her SPERDVAC interview about her radio career.
Jean Vander Pyl is certainly remembered fondly by cartoon fans and it’s only appropriate we remember her as we approach the 50th anniversary of the debut of The Flintstones this month.