Saturday, 21 August 2021

Before Chopper

Voices! We need voices!

That was the cry at the newly-founded H-B Enterprises in 1957. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera went out and found two men who could create just about any voice that was needed in their cartoons—Daws Butler and Don Messick. Eventually, the studio had a number of actors who could fill all kinds of roles; Hal Smith, Mel Blanc, Paul Frees and John Stephenson come to mind.

It’s odd, then, that the studio would hire a man who really only did one voice. We don’t mean Jimmy Weldon, as his Yakky Doodle was a specialty voice. We mean the man who played Yakky’s cohort, Vance Colvig, Jr.

With rare exception, the son of Pinto Colvig voiced the growly Chopper. Odder still was that Vance Colvig was capable of doing all kinds of voices. I don’t know why Joe Barbera didn’t bring him in more often. Perhaps he was just too busy. By 1961, when Yakky first appeared on TV, Vance was on KTLA daily as Bozo the Clown.

He worked on one cartoon at Hanna-Barbera before the Yakky series got underway. The Quick Draw McGraw Show was coming on the air in 1959 and Barbera was on the hunt for new voices. Colvig played Tombstone Jones and narrated “Bad Guys Disguise,” the second Quick Draw cartoon that aired.

Here’s a profile (and photo via ABC) of him from the May 18, 1947 issue of Radio Life, a truly wonderful publication which published feature stories on all kinds of people working in radio in Los Angeles. It gives you an idea of the talent he had, and Hanna-Barbera could have used.

What Makes a Gag Man
By Betty Hammer
THE first time we met Vance Colvig, he blew into a restaurant where we were lunching, grabbed a waitress, waltzed the her down narrow aisle between the tables, barked like a dog, told her he was burning with mad desire for her, sat down and ordered a cup of coffee. A friend introduced us. Vance leered like Dracula, grabbed our arm, twisted it around his neck and shouted, "Leave me alone, I tell you," and, turning to the other diners, "She's crazy about me—won't leave me alone!"
By the time his coffee arrived and the waitress had nimbly eluded his clutches, we learned that, naturally, Vance was a gag man and radio actor, that his father was Pinto Colvig, gag man and radio actor; and that he always entered restaurants that way. Then, taking a spoon, he dipped it in and out of his coffee, holding the handle with both hands in the manner of a man rowing a boat and bassoed, "Ai yoock neeyem, Ai yoock neeyem," in a pretty good rendition of the "Volga Boatman." He borrowed a cigarette from us with the words, "No, thank you—never touch 'em," pretended to pound it into his forehead, pulled it out of his ear, stuck it under his lower lip, struck a match and made as if to light his nose. "Been smoking all my life and they never hurt me a bit," he exclaimed as he banged his knee reflex, rose in the air about two feet and emitted a cloud of smoke and a wheeze that sounded like a ship tearing away from its moorings. We learned that he always relaxed with coffee and a cigarette that way.
Calmed Down?
Since that first meeting, we've gotten to know Vance rather well and he no longer goes through quite such an elaborate routine. Now he merely bites us on the neck, tells us we have "dan-n-n-ncing eyes" and begs us to fly with him to San Luis Obispo.
Is Vance Colvig like this because he is a gag writer—or is he a gag writer because he's like this? We're inclined to think the latter. Many a gag man is a pretty Gloomy Gus who saves his humor for a paying job. Vance throws away many a hilarious routine on a group of strangers waiting at a bus stop, merely because he feels like entertaining anyone and everyone—occasionally even when they don't want to be entertained, but that's one of the hazards of the profession.
Or maybe it's inherited. His pop, Pinto, is a well-known cartoonist, gag man and the voice behind many a weird radio and cartoon effect. When producers call Colvig senior for a part he is unable to take because of a previous commitment, he usually refers them to Colvig junior and keeps the work in the family. Recently, the two worked together on the Frank Morgan show as the voice of "Baldy" the sheep dog (Pinto) and 'Filbert" the gopher (Vance)—and in the Capitol record album, "Bozo and His Rocket Ship."
Vance has done the gags for Tom Breneman's "Breakfast in Hollywood" program for the past four years and has contributed laugh lines to the Jack Kirkwood show, Mel Blanc program, Kay Kyser's "College," and "Bride and Groom," in addition to his free-lance work. He has barked for Asta, the dog in the "Thin Man" pictures, done voices for George Pal Puppetoons, played a pig on "Gildersleeve," a dog on the Dinah Shore show, a rooster on the Sinatra show and Japanese villains on "Pacific Story," among many other strange roles.
"I got my first part when I was six months old," he told us when we asked about his career. "It was a movie for Herbert Hoover's relief mission to Belgium during the last war and it showed a poor little starving Belgian baby as contrasted with a laughing, fat, healthy American baby. I was the laughing, fat, healthy American baby." Kid roles in movies followed and Vance supplied juvenile laughs in "Mickey McGuire" and "Buster Brown" comedies.
Can't Tell How Come
How do you get to be a gag man? "I only wish I knew," is Vance's answer. Every time Breneman mentions Vance's name on the air, he receives letters from people who want to become gag men too. It makes him unhappy, because he'd like to be able to say the magic words that lead to radio, but he just doesn't know what they are.
If you who are reading this are incipient gag men, you'll say, "All right then, how did he get started?" And the not-very-glamorous answer is—working in the parking lot at NBC. He started button-holing passing comedians and selling them gags as the poor fellows rushed to rehearsals. It was Kay Kyser who finally decided that the little guy who kept the boys in the parking lot and the big time comedians laughing with his gags and antics might do the same for a nationwide audience. That's how one gag man latched on to radio and that's the only way Vance knows about.
Of course Los Angeles City College helped. Our hero took radio and dramatics courses and graced the casts of "Merry Wives of Windsor," "Romeo and Juliet" and Gilbert and Sullivan's "Gondoliers" ("I played the title role—along with eleven other guys"). He also appeared in a collegiate musical, "Zis Boom Bah!" which was so professional it was booked into the Orpheum Theater and did a bit of touring. Movie star Jeanne Crain was an obscure cast member. Glamorous threesome on the campus in those days was Vance, Donna Reed and Alexis Smith! Vance further informed us that prior to his college days, radio prof Jerry Blunt had turned out such radio talent as writer True Boardman, Elliott Lewis, and Mary Shipp, who is more widely known on the air as "Lady Esther"!
Gives Parties
Vance lives in a fascinating little house perched dangerously high up in the Hollywood hills. His front room contains shelves of books and records and a collection of original ceramics made by a prominent local artist. From the hillside he has gathered bamboo stalks and fashioned them into shades for his windows and porch. He enjoys doing his own cooking and he'll make you a wonderful cup of coffee by grinding the beans in an old- fashioned coffee grinder. He holds an almost permanent open house and is always happy to welcome a friend (or ten) to sit and trade gags for an evening. He has a party almost every Saturday night and the phone rings constantly with calls which usually say, "Vance, I'm coming up tonight but I'm with five other people, and ..." "Swell! Bring 'em up," is the usual answer. Ill-assorted or congenial, he sets them all to playing "Indications," a particularly noisy game with intellectual overtones. Everyone becomes loud and friendly. Once Vance found Fred Beck in one of his Saturday night groups, but can't remember how he got there.
He likes screwball comedy the best and particularly enjoys writing for comedians of that type. His love of music and literature encompasses all types of the two expressions. He is a superb pantomimist and enjoys that particular talent in others. He has boundless enthusiasm and is tremendously encouraging to any expression of talent. His constant companion is a slightly insane red cocker spaniel called O'Malley in honor of the fairy godfather in the "Barnaby" comic strip. O'Malley, according to Vance, loves to chase and retrieve sticks, though he plays on a hillside abounding in rabbits. "If I throw a stick into the bush, O'Malley goes after it, out jumps a rabbit, and O'Malley happily reappears with his stick. Should I try throwing rabbits?" queries Colvig.

Colvig moved on after Hanna-Barbera to appear on camera in movies and TV shows. He played a number of characters at Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California. He died March 4, 1991, losing a battle with cancer (as did too many other cartoon actors). He rated a six-paragraph obituary on the Associated Press wire. It mentioned his father’s most famous cartoon character. It didn’t mention his.


  1. he's the one who played characters ubn Knott's Berry Farm...glad to know who did those things (Knotts Beary Tales).

  2. Amuses me how both father and son were noted for voicing cartoon dogs.

  3. Didn't Alan Reed do just one voice though? I assume that's why he only played one character - Fred Flintstone. Or did he do others that I just don't know about?

    1. Reed did incidental voices. I think there was only one Yakky cartoon where Colvig was someone other than Chopper.

    2. Was it his 'Fred' voice he used, or could he change it slightly so that it wasn't immediately recognisable as him?

    3. Reed did lots of different voices (listen to his radio shows, e.g. LIFE WITH LUIGI), and lots of accents. but his most prominent non-FLINTSTONES H-B role was Dum-Dum in the TOUCHE TURTLE cartoons. One of his least-known roles was as Fillmore in the pilot episode of THE ADVENTURES OF HOPPITY HOOPER; I can't recall why they had to recast with Bill Scott.

  4. Reed could do flawless French, Russian and Italian accents. He could also do the professor type Falstaff Openshaw voice (from ''Allen's Alley'' and ''Lady and the Tramp''). He was also doing the "stupid" character from the ''Touche Turtle'' program.

    1. In the case of the Italian such, he portrayed Pasquale, the cheapskate pasta-parlour owner as sponsored Luigi Basco (J. Carroll Naish), a naive Italian immigrant into Chicago soon after World War II, on the radio treatment of Life With Luigi.

  5. Wasn't he brought back to reprise Chopper in 1985 in the ''Yogi's Treasure Hunt'' series?

    1. If you mean Reed, I doubt it, as he died in 1977.

    2. I mean Vance. Reed never played Chopper.

    3. That explains it then. I thought your second comment was a follow-up to your first.

  6. I of course knew of Colvig Jr, just had no idea of all the voices he did. Sounds like he was a fun guy. I'm sure those who stopped by his always " Open House " for a cup from fresh ground coffee and gags had a good time.

  7. Colvig also appears in one late Huckleberry Hound cartoon, "Bars and Stripes", as convict Fats Dynamo. His voice is unmistakable, with the same intonations as Chopper. "Awww, you're not gonna kick ME out into the cold, cruel world."

  8. Re; your comment about too many cartoon actors dying of cancer. There's a photo I've seen of a "Flintstones" recording session, and I swear it looks like everybody in the photo, whether in front of the mike or behind it, has either a cigarette or a cigar in his or her hand.