Thursday, 23 June 2011

Don Messick, the Next Edgar Bergen

Comparisons involving cartoon voice actors invariably start with Mel Blanc. Mel was the greatest, and that isn’t being said because of some nostalgic whimsy based on his ubiquitous presence on TV during childhood. His comic acting range was amazing.

Don Messick reminds me very much of the Mel Blanc of network radio, with one difference. Mel starred on his own show which, frankly, was a waste of a top cast. But he really shone as an A-list, regular supporting player for Jack Benny, Judy Canova, Al Pearce, Al Jolson, Burns and Allen and so on. Don was the more-than-capable support of Daws Butler in the early Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and continued showing his versatility time and time again through the 1960s when Daws was relegated, mainly, to voicing his old characters in commercials and on records. The difference between Don and the radio Mel Blanc was Don played a starring character that became an all-time monster success (Scooby-Doo).

If you troll the internet, you can find parts of a great book published in 2004 called “The Magic Behind the Voices: A Who’s Who of Cartoon Voice Actors” by Tim Lawson and Alisa Persons. I don’t know whether it’s in print any more, but anyone interested in the life stories of some of cartoon-dom’s famous voices should get it. There’s a chapter on-line about Don Messick (and, with a little guessing of words, you can fill in the missing paragraphs). We’ve presented a post on Don M’s life-story before, but here’s something from Tim and Alisa revealing his pre-animation career.

Ventriloquist, soldier, “Scooby-Doo” — Don Messick’s long climb up the career ladder culminated in the voice of the world’s most famous animated dog. Although it’s been over thirty-five years since it was originally produced, Scooby-Doo is more popular than ever, airing twenty-three times a week in the United States and broadcast in forty-five other countries, and with two live-action feature adaptations. Messick, who became a cartoon icon doing characters like The Jetsons dog Astro, Boo Boo and Ranger Smith on Yogi Bear, Pixie of Pixie & Dixie, Dr. Quest on Jonny Quest, and Papa Smurf on The Smurfs, is considered almost as much a cornerstone of Hanna-Barbera as its famous founders.
In the 1930s, the twelve-year-old “country hick kid back in Maryland” discovered that his first love was radio, which he listened to during the summertime for seventeen or eighteen hours per day. Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen were his favorites, so, naturally, he couldn’t resist the ad in Popular Science whose copy screamed, “Boys, throw your voice!” “When my voice changed, I discovered its flexibility, so it seemed to me that the most logical thing was to learn ventriloquism. I still remember the ad, which showed a picture of a man with a trunk on his back and a voice coming out of the trunk and a kid off on the side snickering because he’s throwing his voice into the trunk. I knew I had to try it.” After spending a quarter on the ventriloquism kit, Messick found that he couldn’t make the mouthpiece work, but the instruction book was instrumental in developing his ventriloquist act. “I was a rather shy, introverted kind of kid, smaller than most for my age, and was picked on and teased a lot by my peers, so it was a surprise when all of a sudden I turned to doing my own radio show when I was fifteen.”
“I had appeared on a [radio] talent show in Salisbury and I won first prize on that broadcast. And that led to my being called upon by the station, which acted as a talent agency. When an organization like the Lions or the Elks would be seeking entertainment, they would call the radio station, which had a roster of singers and various kinds of comedic talents. So, I started appearing and making five dollars here and seven dollars there all around the area, and that led to my first weekly radio program-a fifteen-minute thing on Monday nights on WBOC in Salisbury. I played the harmonica. I did about two harmonica duets with an organ and interspersed that with dialogue that I wrote for my characters.”
Over the two-year period that Messick did the program, he gradually dropped the harmonica and went to strictly writing and performing a one-man situation comedy show. For those wondering what style his comedy was in those days, the answer is an emphatic “CORNY! I bought a lot of joke books and thumbed through them, and depending on the little situation that I was writing, I would incorporate some of those. I also studied books on radio and production, so I was self-taught in that respect.” Messick also gained valuable experience by learning from his mistakes.
Coming into WBOC early one evening with his ventriloquist dummy Kentworth DeForrest, Messick wanted to practice his routine that was to air at 7:30 that night. “I was sitting at the piano, and I was just playing MMM bump bump. . . MMM bump bump, and Kentworth was singing ‘Shortnin’ Bread.’ There was a network newscast, by Fulton Lewis Jr., that was being fed out of Washington, D.C., on the Mutual Radio Network. This was before the pre-taped commercial days, so they had to break away from Washington for a local commercial. There was a woman announcer, which in those days was rare, but, because all the male announcers had been drafted, they were down to using women. So, she was waiting at the broadcast desk for the red light to come on and the engineer to give her the cue to read a commercial for the Wyconico Garage. I was sitting there banging on the piano, when all of a sudden I had this strange feeling come over me. I looked across at the control booth and the engineer was staring back at me with a strange look on his face, and the lady announcer had her head down on the desk in front of the microphone, doubled over in hysterics. I realized what the listeners at home must have heard was Fulton Lewis Jr. saying, ‘And now, here’s your announcer.; Then the next thing they heard was a high-pitched voice singing, ‘Three little children lying in bed, one of them sick and the other most dead.’ The lady announcer tried to gain control of herself and she choked her way through the commercial. I was terribly embarrassed. I thought I would certainly be thrown out of the place bodily, but that didn’t happen. I don’t think we ever did get back to Fulton Lewis Jr. for his goodnight from Washington.”
After high school, Messick put the mortification of the experience behind him and moved to Baltimore to study acting. “I think I had pretty good timing right from the time I started performing, because of listening to the radio [performances of] Jack Benny and Jim Jorden, Fibber McGee and Molly, people like that. You can’t listen to hours and hours of that sort of thing without some of it rubbing off. But I entered a small dramatic school, no longer in existence, run by one man. He had been a Broadway actor and a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. His name was William Ramsey Streett. We were known as the ‘Streett Players.’ Going to that school further developed my timing and delivery and helped me get rid of my down-home Eastern Shore accent.”
“One of the productions I starred in was Night Must Fall, which is a murder mystery. I played the lead—Danny, a psychopathic, homicidal maniac. That was one of my favorites. I also appeared in Arsenic and Old Lace, in which I played Dr. Einstein with a Peter Lorre-type voice. At the time I didn’t know a movie was going to be made, and Peter Lorre was going to be doing the part of Dr. Einstein in the movie! We did George Washington Slept Here and The Man Who Came to Dinner. I preferred playing character roles.”
Unfortunately, World War II disrupted many plans, among them, Messick’s burgeoning acting career. “I was drafted in January of 1945. I was put into basic training in a special division of the infantry, the message center. When I had written that I did radio work, they, in their infinite wisdom, assumed that it was technical radio. So they figured I could learn Morse code and operate the ‘Tick-Tick’ thing. Well, needless to say, I wasn’t very good at that, but it was better than being a basic rifleman trainee.”
If the army did nothing else for Messick, it brought him to the West Coast. “They put me on a troop train again and shipped me to California—Fort Ord. That’s the first time I saw California. I was then eighteen years old, and I fell in love with it. By then I was with Special Services, which was the entertainment branch of the infantry, and I took my ventriloquist dummy that I had renamed ‘Woody’ DeForrest with me. My mother had made him a uniform and we started entertaining almost right from day one. Woody got me out of a lot of dirty detail while in the service.”
It was during one of these shows that Messick was faced with a performer’s worst nightmare. Inexplicably, his entire audience suddenly stood up and walked out leaving a bewildered Messick staring at an empty hall. “In the middle of the act, I started hearing a shuffling of chairs and the guys started getting up. I finished my act as hastily as I could and dashed offstage into the wings. I asked the MC what was happening and he says, ‘Well, can't you smell it?’ I had a serious sinus problem at that time so I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Skunk.’ The ventilation ducts were open to the outside and a skunk had crawled into the shaft and let loose. The stench was filling the entire auditorium in the middle of my act.”
After about a year and a half in the military, Messick received his discharge in 1946 and decided to take his chances in Hollywood. “I got into a thing that was sponsored by the radio actors’ union, which was then known as AFRA, the American Federation of Radio Artists, not AFTRA [changed in 1952 to include television actors]. It was a workshop kind of thing which met a couple of times a week, and we recorded half-hour radio dramas. The man who headed up the workshop was named Robert Light, who was the head of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. Robert Light was friendly with Paula Stone, a well-known actress at the time. She and her husband were connected with the workshop and developed a fifteen-minute radio show for RCA Victor called The Raggedy Ann Show, based on the dolls. I was Raggedy Andy. That was my first continuing radio series, and it ran for thirty-nine weeks.”
When the show was ended by a musician’s strike, there seemed to be no work in Los Angeles to be found. “I went on the road for a while in the Midwest, playing theaters and doing my ventriloquist act. I then dumped myself in New York, where I had a few starving months, and made the rounds of producers’ offices. I performed over the weekends either up in the Catskills or over in New Jersey in second-rate supper clubs.”

Read part two HERE.

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