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The Voice

Before he was the famous voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Woody Woodpecker, Mel Blanc was a Jewish kid in Portland, Ore., doing impressions of his immigrant neighbors

Katie Schneider
July 14, 2011
Mel Blanc at the KGW Studio in Portland, Oregon, circa 1948.(Courtesy Noel Blanc)
Mel Blanc at the KGW Studio in Portland, Oregon, circa 1948.(Courtesy Noel Blanc)

Museum exhibits are often about visuals, but the first thing you notice when you walk into the Oregon Jewish Museum’s current show celebrating Mel Blanc’s life and career is his voice. That manic patter is familiar and unmistakable: It’s the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird, Barney Rubble and Dino and so many other beloved cartoon characters. Blanc, in fact, voiced so many different characters—over 400—that Jack Benny once remarked, “There’s only five real people in Hollywood. Everyone else is Mel Blanc.” And all of Blanc’s characters, as the new exhibit deftly reveals, owe a part of their existence to his upbringing as a young Jewish boy in Portland, Ore., performing in the city’s vaudeville houses and mixing with its various ethnic populations.

Born in San Francisco in 1909 as Melvin Jerome Blank, he moved north with his family at the age of 6. His father owned several apparel businesses, and young Melvin spent his days running around south Portland, observing its residents, many of them Jews. Among the first people he befriended were the elderly Jewish couple who ran the local grocery; they spoke Yiddish, and the boy became fascinated with the strange dialect and its intonations. He learned to imitate it. It was, by his own admission, the first voice he ever performed.

There were plenty of other patois for young Melvin to pick up. The neighborhood offered a lot to a kid with a good ear: Russian Jews lived alongside Italians, Germans, Mexicans, and Japanese. All of these dialects would one day come in handy. But words weren’t enough to satisfy his appetite for art: He studied the violin and the banjo, the ukulele and the sousaphone, and spent as much time as he could in theaters or at silent movies. “On a weekday afternoon, words were superfluous, put in the actors’ mouths by the other wise-cracking truants scattered through the house,” he wrote of skipping school for the movies in his autobiography That’s Not All Folks: My Life in the Golden Age of Cartoons and Radio.

He would know—he was one of those wisecracking truants. He soon began telling jokes at school assemblies, telling stories in different voices. “I remember receiving cheers for the first time,” he wrote. “As I bowed deeply from the waist, flushed with pride, I thought, this is definitely for me.” A poor student, he used the high-school hallways as an echo chamber for a shrill, cackling laugh. A teacher once scolded him, he recalled. “’You’ll never amount to anything,’ she said. ‘You’re just like your last name: Blank.’ ” He changed the spelling of his name soon afterward. And that laugh? It ended up belonging to a bird named Woody Woodpecker.

First chance he got, Blanc began performing. Some of his earliest gigs were with the South Parkway Minstrels, an amateur vaudeville club in Portland. The Minstrels were part of Neighborhood House, founded by the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women to help South Portland’s immigrants. Blanc never forgot Neighborhood House, visiting it often throughout the years and serving as the Master of Ceremonies at its 50th-anniversary gala in 1955.

By age 16, though, Blanc had already outgrown the confines of his neighborhood. In a recent lecture on Blanc’s Jewish roots, Judith Margles, director of the Oregon Jewish Museum, noted that Blanc’s life “mirrored the life of the Jewish community Portland at the time, spanning tradition and assimilation. He was like his friends. They wanted to get out. They wanted to be part of the larger world.”

For Blanc, this meant dropping out of high school and becoming a regular on a local ensemble radio show. Eventually, like any ambitious entertainer, Blanc decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. He didn’t find a job, but he did fall in love: He married Estelle Rosenbaum in a secret civil ceremony before finally having a Jewish wedding on Lag B’Omer. The newlyweds returned to Portland, where they worked together for a daily radio show called Cobweb and Nuts. Blanc voiced all of the male roles, and Estelle voiced the women.

In 1936, Blanc’s career finally gained traction. After minor success voicing a drunken bull for Warner Bros., he was summoned for a more important audition. Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s head of animation, asked him to try and find a voice for a one of the studio’s newest animated stars, a bow-tie wearing pig named Porky.

“You want me to be the voice of a pig?” Blanc replied. “That’s some job for a nice Jewish boy.”

Blanc was joking; Schlesinger wasn’t. As soon as he heard Blanc’s rendition, he was sold: While the actor who had originally played Porky, Joe Dougherty, had a severe stuttering problem, Blanc kept the stutter but made it sharper, using the expert sense of timing he had picked up as a radio comic. He was hired on the spot and paid $200 a week.

As Schlesinger was soon delighted to discover, Blanc had a rare ability to voice multiple characters, from an amorous skunk to a Mexican mouse, and his work soon earned him great acclaim. He appeared alongside nearly every major radio star in the ’40s and ’50s, from Abbott and Costello to Jack Benny to Red Skelton. And he helped Warner Bros. shape its most admired animated character, Bugs Bunny.

When Blanc came on board, the famous hare was named “Happy Rabbit.” That, Blanc believed, was too bland. The bunny needed personality, and that personality, in Blanc’s mind, took the shape of a fast-talking tough Jew from Flatbush Avenue. Bugs would become Blanc’s biggest hit, the character with whom he most closely identified.

In 1961, Blanc was nearly killed in a car accident. For weeks, he lay in the hospital in a coma. He wouldn’t respond when his wife and his son spoke to him. Then his surgeon came into his room one day. Instead of addressing Blanc directly, he stood over the patient and said, “How are you feeling, Bugs Bunny?” Feebly, Blanc replied: “Eh, just fine, Doc. How’re you?”

The accident left Blanc bedridden for months, and the studio that relied on him set up the necessary recording equipment in his house. He recorded more than 40 “Flintstones” episodes from his bedroom, with Alan Reed, who voiced Fred, Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma), and Bea Benaderet (Betty) gathering round.

Blanc died in 1989. His gravestone at the Hollywood Forever cemetery reads simply, “That’s All, Folks.” But that’s not all: Later this fall, Blanc’s voice—remastered and sampled from archived recordings—will once again emerge to give voice to his signature characters in three new cartoons, scheduled for screenings before the Warner Bros. feature Happy Feet 2.

In the meantime, those who want to hear Blanc’s voice can head to the Portland museum. There, alongside a copy of Blanc’s ketubah and a page from a short story he titled “Jooish,” one can immerse oneself in the cartoons that made Blanc famous and listen to his voices, the voices that shaped so much of American popular culture.

“That’s All Folks! The Mel Blanc Story” will be on display in Portland’s Oregon Jewish Museum until September 11.

Katie Schneider is a freelance writer, teacher and mother of two living in Portland, Ore. Her current novel-in-progress is about the Siege of Budapest during World War II. She was raised on a steady diet of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Katie Schneider is a freelance writer, teacher and mother of two living in Portland, Ore. Her current novel-in-progress is about the Siege of Budapest during World War II. She was raised on a steady diet of Warner Bros. cartoons.