Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27: "We kept hearing this knock, knock, knock on the roof..."

Do you know who this is?
-He built a multi-million dollar cartoon empire.
-He was a chauffer for Universal president Carl Laemmle when he was made head of a cartoon studio for Universal Studios.
-He found the inspiration for his most famous cartoon character during his honeymoon at a lakeside cottage.

He was given a special Academy Award "for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world." Some of his creations include Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Chilly Willy, Andy Panda, and Wally Walrus. His most famous character was Woody Woodpecker.

Walter Lantz was born to immigrant parents from Italy, Francesco Paolo and Maria Gervasi Lantz, in New Rochelle, New York, on April 27, 1899. Originally the family name had been Lanza, but it was changed to Lantz by an immigration official at Ellis Island when Walter’s father arrived in the United States.

Young Walter had a natural inclination in art, and completed a mail order drawing class when he was twelve-years-old. He was in his teens when he saw his first cartoon short in 1914, Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (here shown on YouTube). This introduction to filmed animation would develop into a life-long love and career.

Walter had his first break in the art world while working as an auto mechanic while in his mid-teens. He would post his drawings on the garage’s bulletin board. One of the customers – Fred Kafka – liked Walter’s drawings, and financed his studies at New York City’s Art Students League. Kafka also helped Walter get a job as a copy boy for seven dollars a week at William Randolph Hearst’s New York American while he attended art school. Walter worked at the American by day, and attended art classes at night. While working at the American Walter was able to meet with a number of famous cartoonists who were working for Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. Men like Frederick Burr Opper, who produced Happy Hooligan; Winsor McCay, who worked on Little Nemo in Slumberland; and George McManus of Bringing Up Father fame, were able to teach Walter the practical side of cartooning while his art school taught him the technical side.

By the time he was sixteen Walter was behind the camera, working first under the supervision of Gregory La Cava, then later working at the John R. Bray Studios in New York City where he worked extensively on the Jerry On The Job series. In 1924, at the age of twenty-five, he had directed animations, worked in drawing and filming animations, and had created his first original cartoon series, Dinky Doodle and Weakheart.

Bray Studios went bankrupt in 1927, and Hollywood beckoned. 1927 found Walter moving to the fabled Tinsletown, where he started his life there by working briefly for director Frank Capra, and then as a gag writer for Mack Sennett comedies. He soon wound up as a director for Charles B. Mintz for a new cartoon series starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (shown here on YouTube). By 1929 Universal Studios decided to remove Mintz and move the production of Oswald directly onto the studio lot under new management.

Walter received his big break while working as a part-time chauffer for Universal president Carl Laemmle, who had decided to fire the entire staff of the Oswald series and start anew. When thinking about a choice of a leader for the new studio, his part-time chauffer – who knew every job in animation – was the one who got the job.

The relationship with Universal Studios that began when Walter was twenty-eight years old was a relationship that spanned four decades, with the exception of one year spent with United Artists. When he was thirty-six, in 1935, he went against industry trends for the era and negotiated himself into the position of an independent producer supplying cartoons to Universal. In 1940 he negotiated successfully for the ownership of the characters he had been working with. Later that year his most famous character – Woody Woodpecker – would be ‘born’.

The idea for Woody Woodpecker came during Walter’s honeymoon with actress Grace Stafford, whom he married in 1940. He related the birth of Woody Woodpecker to the LA Times in 1992. While honeymooning at a lakeside cottage,
"We kept hearing this knock, knock, knock on the roof, and I said to Gracie, 'What the hell is that?' So I went out and looked, and here's this woodpecker drilling holes in the shingles. And we had asbestos shingles, not wood. So, to show you how smart these woodpeckers are, they'd peck a hole in the asbestos shingles and put in an acorn. A worm would develop in the acorn, and a week later the woodpecker would come back, get the acorn and fly away, letting out this noisy scream as he flew away."
Grace suggested using the bird as a cartoon character, although Walter was skeptical about it’s potential. Yet Woody Woodpecker would be the lucrative center of the studio for the next three decades. Mel Blanc provided the voice for Woody Woodpecker during the first three cartoons. After he signed an exclusive contract with another studio, he was replaced – eventually by Walter’s wife, Grace.

In 1950, Walter needed a new voice for Woody, and Grace was turned down for the job because Woody was a boy. Grace taped her own audition and secretly added it to the other recordings.

"When we had the listening session, I didn't want to see the actors who were doing the voices. So they ran some recordings and I picked one--No. 7, I remember--and I said, 'Who's that?' And it was Gracie. She sneaked it in on me. I thought, 'Oh, God, no! What are people going to think if they find out the producer's wife is doing Woody's voice?' "
At first she did Woody without screen credit, but in the late 1950s she was acknowledged to be the voice of Woody Woodpecker. Click to take the Woody Woodpecker Quiz.

Walter would keep making new cartoons until 1972, when his studio became the last of the classic-era cartoon studios to close. It had reached the point where it took ten years for a cartoon to make back it’s cost, and 72-year-old Walter wasn’t willing to work for rewards that far in the future.
After he retired, Walter would manage his studio’s properties, painted, worked with the Little League, and was active until the end of his life at age 94. He died on March 22, 1994. He left behind a memorable collection of characters that live on in the world of reruns and DVD’s , still bringing joy to children of all ages.


There are no biographies of Walter Lantz in our local libraries.


Los Angeles Times
Walter Lantz Cartoon Encyclopedia


01. Walter Lantz, Animation Archive
02. Cartoon opening screen, Wikipedia
03. Walter Lantz, Wikipedia

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