It’s a long way from the oyster grounds of Chesapeake Bay to the sound stages of California’s film studios—but that’s the trip that Don Messick made.
Members of the Messick family had been harvesting oysters in that part of Maryland since the 19th century. Don’s grandfather John was a life-long oysterman, starting by age 11. But Don’s imagination took him to radio and that took him to Hollywood and that took him to microphone at Hanna-Barbera to voice some of the most enjoyable TV cartoon characters you’d ever want to meet. Daws Butler may have played the title roles in the Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw shows but Don was indispensable in the early days at Hanna-Barbera and eventually starred as one of the biggest characters in TV cartoon history (Scooby Doo).
Don was born in Buffalo, New York on September 7, 1926 to Binford Earl and Lena (Hughes) Messick. They were living in Manhattan in 1930 but soon relocated back to Maryland to be near all the relatives. In fact, Don and his parents lived with his grandfather for awhile. His father wasn’t in the oyster business; he was with the Washington and Electric Railroad when the U.S. got involved in World War One and was painting houses in 1940. His father never saw Don’s success. Earl Messick was accidentally killed with two other men on the morning of June 28, 1944 when a 35-foot metal pole being lowered for painting at the Nanticoke High School came out of a socket and hit a high-tension wire carrying 6,900 volts.
Don was doing cartoon voices before he was doing cartoons. He was a teenaged ventriloquist and was soon performing on the radio (it worked for Edgar Bergen, after all), though his occupation was listed as “clerk” when he enlisted for military service on January 11, 1945. After his discharge, he decided to head west. He met Daws Butler doing radio work and Daws, it seems, got him in to MGM to voice cartoons for Tex Avery. Along the way, he got married. It’s interesting to note his middle name was Earl but, unlike his father, he spelled it with an “e” on the end.
His family, including his younger brother Floyd Thomas Messick, stayed in Jesterville while Don made a career of voicing cartoon characters seen by millions. So Don had a reason to head back to Maryland. That’s what he did in 1975 and it was a big enough deal for the newspaper in Salisbury, the biggest nearby town, to interview old friends and do a profile of him. The Salisbury Sunday Times even dug up his picture from the High School Annual, but the copy I have is a scanned photocopy from the paper and not really viewable.
This story was published on April 6, 1975. Somehow, it omitted Don’s fine performances as Yowp.
Don Messick Knew What He Wanted
By DICK FLEMING
Of The Times Staff
Next weekend Don Messick will visit Salisbury where he is to be welcomed as a “local boy who made good.”
The 48-year-old freelance voice performer who has participated in countless cartoon and commercial productions, will be guest of honor for the area Chamber of Commerce annual banquet Saturday at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center.
A native of Buffalo, N. Y., Mr. Messick lived in Jesterville near here during his teenage years and got his first taste of performing in school productions and on a local live radio broadcast.
Mr. Messick set out from Salisbury for Baltimore where he studied drama and made appearances in various radio and treatre presentations. He also carried his ventriloquist act to local variety productions and vaudeville on the road to Hollywood.
He arrived there in 1950, and in 1957 became a freelance performer. Among his more well-known performances have been vocal work in Yogi Bear (“Boo Boo”, “Ranger Smith”), Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (“Scooby”), The Jetsons (“Astro” the family dog) and The Flintstones (“Bamm Bamm”).
Mr. Messick is a bonafide celebrity and will be welcomed here as such. In addition to being the Chamber’s guest, he will be presented with a certificate of honorary citizenship of Salisbury, and Mayor Elmer F. Ruark has proclaimed, Saturday, April 12, “Don Messick Day” in the city.
But perhaps the most fitting tribute to Mr. Messick is the fend memories of him held by the persons with whom he was acquainted before setting out on the road to stardom. He is the "ambitious little boy who knew what he wanted to do.”
AS A youth, Mr. Messick apparently led a dual rose as entertainer and serious-minded young man, and kept the two people separate. Most of his old acquaintances remember him as a "quiet, shy boy." It was when he assumed the character of "the voice" that he became outgoing and noticeable.
That point is illustrated by Mrs. Nellie Collins, who grew up down the road from the Messick family.
“I knew who he was and we knew his family,” she recalled. “But I can’t remember a lot about what he was like back then.”
“He was a couple of years below me in school and the older ones never paid that much attention to the younger children.”
She did remember, however, the sight of the young boy and his everpresent dummy. A budding ventriloquist already, he was seldom seen without it, most recall.
But he was considered by his friends as one of the group and even when he was performing on WBOC radio with his own show at age 14, he wasn't really thought of by them as a celebrity.
Mrs. Collins explained, "We didn't really have the luxury in those days of sitting around and listening to the radio. We lived on a farm and there was a lot of work to be done. Once that was finished, then maybe we could hear the radio.”
Most of his schoolmates at the old Nanticoke High School were treated to at least one of Mr. Messick’s early performances, however. The school assembled in the auditorium on one occasion to watch his one-man show.
ONE OF Mr. Messick's acquaintances from Nanticoke High who remembers him well is Sheldon Dawson, now Wicomico County assistant superintendent of schools. Mr. Dawson served as English teacher and critic for the young ventriloquist.
Mr. Dawson remembered the boy as being "shy and reserved, studious, a good writer.” And outgoing when he picked up his dummy under his arm. He hadn’t changed much on his last visit to Salisbury, Mr. Dawson said.
“He was still his same old self, very reserved, until it was time to entertain the kids with some of his voices.”
Mr Messick was serious about school work, the former teacher said, but he did on occasion manage to work his act into the classroom routine, sometimes helping to make a point in an English class through the use of the dummy.
Often, those persons with an inclination toward entertainment crave the attention of friends and companions, and in school, such people are apt to assume a role such as the "class clown." Not so, however, with Mr. Messick, Mr. Dawson said. Mr. Messick’s normal speaking voice, Mr. Dawson recalled, was not particularly distinctive except perhaps for his diction. He said though that by being acquainted with the man as well as "the voice," he can hear traces of young Don Messick in the characters for which he vocalizes.
When Mr. Messick began performing a weekly program on WBOC radio in the early 1940s, he wrote his own scripts and worked by himself. He often tried out his skits on Mr. Dawson for a preview reaction to the material.
MR. MESSICK got his start on the radio show in a talent search and impressed the staff of the station. Among them, now general manager Sam Carey took an interest in the young man. Mrs. Carey drove to Jesterville every Sunday to pick the boy up at his home and carry him to the station.
According to Mr. Carey, the station put out a call on the air for local talent to come in and be auditioned.
"He came in," Mr. Carey recalled, "and at that point he had the dummy under his arm and his routines memorized.
“He came in self assured and went right at it, giving us a five or six minute skit," Mr. Carey said. "He had everybody there captured.”
Either the young man approached the 'station or vice versa, Mr. Carey isn't sure which, and Don Messick had his own 15 minute radio show every Sunday afternoon.
Jack Ward, vice president of operations, recalled that Mr. Messick “worked by himself, did everything himself.
“He would come in and practice the script for an hour or so and rehearse the voices. He knew what he was looking for.”
A 1941 yearbook from the old Nanticoke school recognizes the young man as vice president and historian for the sophomore class.
Ironically, he wrote in the class history in that yearbook:
"While we are one of the smallest classes we have made ourselves known with, for instance, more than the average participation in extra-curricular activities.
“Finally, with a group more or less compact in size, ideas and ideals, we look forward to continued and increasing success.”
For at least one member of the Class of ’43, the prophecy has come true.
Don passed away in Monterey, California on October 25, 1997. We’ve linked to a fine remembrance of Don on Mark Evanier’s web site before but let’s do it again. Click here. Even if you’ve seen it before, read it again. It’s a touching tribute to a fine actor.