Friday, March 15, 2013

Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices

“Mel Blanc is without question the greatest voice-man of all time. I’m not talking about impersonations, I’m talking about voice.”
        --- Rich Little

The new Mel Blanc book.
Mel Blanc was internationally famous as the hardest-working voice in show business history. He was as prolific in old-time radio as he was in advertising, and he will never be forgotten for creating the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester & Tweety, and most of Warner Brothers’ classic cartoon characters.

After ten years of research, Ben Ohmart recently completed a 700 page book documenting the career of Mel Blanc in a way that has never been done before. With first hand materials and Noel Blanc’s partial biography on his father, Ohmart was able to create one of the two best biographies published in the past year. Not only was it an enjoyable read but I really wish most people took a page from tomes like this one and apply the same format for their own projects.

If I can offer a bit of criticism: a rash of biographies have been published recently that don’t really qualify as biographies. After reading two chapters I discover that the author did nothing more than compile 200 to 400 magazine and newspaper articles, stack them in chronological order, and type the information into book form. Masquerading as a biography, these books could easily have started every paragraph with “On such and such date, the actor appeared on the stage in such and such drama…” and “On such and such date, the actor then moved on to such and such movie…” All it took was a bit of time to maneuver the words to avoid repetition. I consider these works more of a timeline than a biography and while there is always a need for those books, I really wish people would not use the word “biography” on the cover of the book.

Mel Blanc
Thankfully, Ben Ohmart did what most biographies should do. Memories, recollections and stories about Mel Blanc are told through the words of Vincent Price, Gary Owens, Noel Blanc, Stephen Cox and many others who worked with Blanc during his professional career and those close enough to call him their friend.

This book is not an animation book. As Ohmart explained in the introduction, “There are plenty of books on the history of cartoons, especially Warner Bros. animation, so I’m not going to waste space here replicating cartoon information readily available elsewhere. Read Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck and Mark Evanier for the full story on animation history.” For that reason, this book is about Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc’s earliest documented role as a radio announcer at KGW in 1927, his childhood life at school, his parents… all documented in the first chapter alone.

The book documents the true origin of Foghorn Legghorn, including Kenny Delmar’s Senator Claghorn character from The Fred Allen Show, clearing up misconceptions that have been reported incorrectly in reference guides. The famed Woody Woodpecker lawsuit is also documented. And Mel’s preference voicing cartoons, “Because I can actually see what happens later, as I watch the cartoon, and it’s a great satisfaction to me to be able to see these things that I do and then wonder when the heck did I do ‘em, you know.”

One of Mel Blanc’s favorite voice people, and the one he felt closest to in radio, was Bea Benaderet (the original Betty Rubble on The Flintstones). He called Verna Felton, with whom he worked on The Judy Canova Show, “one of the most versatile of all radio actresses.” His least favorite radio actor was the prolific Gale Gordon. Al Jolson came in a close second.

There’s an entire chapter devoted to The Mel Blanc Show, a radio program that lasted one season and provided the voice actor the spotlight to prove how talented he was. I recall the episode when Mel broke Mr. Colby’s radio and in desperation hid in the radio and played various roles as Mr. Colby continued to flip channels. Hilarious and worthy of seeking out.

I always loved this poster since it came out in 1989.
All quotes in the book came from Mel Blanc’s own mouth unless otherwise noted, generously supplied by Noel Blanc. Some of Mel’s words also came from Walt Mitchell’s extensive interviews, which were generous donated to this book. Thanks to Mary Lou Wallace, Walt’s partner-in-Blanc, the discography in the back of the book is truly extensive.

Full disclosure: I supplied a appendix for this book, but this is not the reason why I am writing this book review or praising the book. Six months ago I bought a copy of Michael Hayde and Chuck Harter’s Harry Langdon book, which I also praise as an excellent biography. Like I said, I read two superb biographies this year. Both a model of success.

Mel Blanc’s personal life is also documented from near-fatal illness to charitable contributions. Noel Blanc, who I have chatted with a few times and has a strong heart for preserving the legacy of his father, contributed much for this book and helps ensure a personal touch that you do not see in most biographies written today. Rather than a month-by-month account of Mel Blanc’s career, we get an entertaining story of a man who voiced the characters we love and if Mel Blanc was alive today… he would probably be pleased. If Mel Blanc wrote another autobiography, this might be that book -- word for word.

The first 230 pages is the biography. The remainder of the book is a massive catalog of Mel Blanc’s radio career, his LP discography, television, feature films, commercials and cartoon voice work. But when I buy a book about Mel Blanc, hoping to read a true biography, such reference lists are also welcome with open arms. Together with Blanc's autobiography, you have everything you need to know about the man of a thousand voices. Thankfully I bought the hardcover edition (available only from CoverOut.com -- paperback version is available everywhere else). The hardcover will last a lot longer because this is the kind of book I will be turning to repeatedly over the years.

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